Reminiscing on a first anniversary …

Recently, I covered two events for the paper that brought back memories of this same time a year ago.
phjeffburkheadIt was April 2008 when I visited Rio Blanco County for the first time. I drove out from Denver with Mitch Bettis, owner/publisher of the Herald Times and longtime friend and colleague.
During that weekend visit, we drove to Rangely to attend the Colorado Northwestern Community College Foundation dinner and auction. We sat at the same table as Kai and Liz Turner. I was introduced as a newspaper friend of Mitch’s, though I think Kai and Liz suspected I was here to check things out.
I remember Kai talking about starting a campaign to run for county commissioner. Of course, he was later elected and now serves on the Rio Blanco County Board of Commissioners.
Also at that CNCC dinner, I remember being introduced to, among others, Ann Brady, the mayor of Rangely; Peggy Rector, of the CNCC Foundation Board of Directors; and Reed Kelley, local rancher and political activist.
The other event Mitch and I attended during that weekend last April was the 9Health Fair in Meeker. There, I remember meeting for the first time Dr. Albert Krueger and Drew Varland, chief nursing officer at Pioneers Medical Center.
Last weekend, as I took photos at the health fair, talked to people while we waited in line to have blood drawn, and then over breakfast shared a table with Harry Watt, Melinda Parker, Dee Weiss, Shawn Luce and Henry and Kris Arcolesse, I couldn’t help but think back to a year ago when I was here for the first time, and I didn’t know a soul. Interestingly, a year later, Dee was actually my “date” for the recent CNCC Foundation dinner, as we drove over together from Meeker.
I had no idea what to expect on my initial visit to Rio Blanco County. I had never been to this part of Colorado.
On the drive out here, Mitch and I ran into a snowstorm and the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels were closed. We waited, like other motorists, stuck in a long line of traffic, hoping the tunnels would be opened. Eventually, we grew tired of waiting. So we decided to try another route. We ended up taking the Rabbit Ears Pass. What should have been a four-hour drive, turned into a six- or seven-hour trip, if I remember right.
But, eventually, we made it.
When we finally drove into Meeker, it was late at night. So, of course, it was dark, and none of the stores was open. I had to wait until morning to get my first look at the town.
When I peeked out of the window the next morning, the sun was shining. And for the rest of the weekend, the weather was beautiful.
That weekend, Mitch and I shared an apartment in the back of a church. Little did I know I would end up renting a house directly across the alley from the church.
After I made the move to Rio Blanco County in late May, I found out we could still get some cold weather in Colorado. I remember thinking it strange I had to turn up the furnace first thing in the morning to take the chill off, and it was June. That doesn’t happen in Kansas, where I used to live.
But it wasn’t long before I took the flannel sheets off the bed and I started wearing shorts to work, as temperatures began a steady climb upward. I would experience many perfect-weather days during my first summer in northwest Colorado. The summer months seemed like day after day of blue skies and 80- or 90-degree temperatures, and it cooled off at night, which is also something it doesn’t do back in Kansas. I never missed not having an air conditioner in my house, again something that would be unheard of in Kansas. As one of my neighbors said of the summers, “This is why we live out here.”
I remember, too, my first snow of the season. It was Election Day. I had put in a long day at the office, waiting for election results and then doing phone interviews with school district officials from both Meeker and Rangely, since both towns had bond issues on the ballot. I finally went home around 11 that night. I stood in front of my house, smoking a cigar, unwinding after a long day, and talking to a friend on the phone, when big snowflakes started falling from the dark sky. It was the perfect ending to the day.
My first year in northwest Colorado has been nothing if not eventful. My first day on the job, there was a fatal house fire. A few weeks later, I was covering a county commission meeting when 40 or 50 people suddenly showed up, filling the meeting room and spilling out into the hallway. At the time, I had no idea why they were there. I soon found out they were residents of Love’s RV Park and they had showed up to voice their concerns to commissioners about the closing of the park. Ginny Love told me later, “You should have seen the look on your face when all those people started walking in.” I was just glad I had my camera with me. I learned early on to take it with me everywhere I go.
If I’ve learned one other thing during my time here it’s that everybody is related. I continue to be amazed at how people in a small town are connected. As someone told me, “You’d better be careful what you say about somebody, because chances are they’re related to the person you’re talking to.”
There have been so many events and meetings and happenings and interesting people to write about during the past year. Whoever thinks nothing happens in a small town is seriously mistaken. There’s no shortage of news. Sadly, there has been tragedy, too, like the double homicide last September in Rangely, and then last week’s news of an 18-year-old former Rangely High School student, who died of an overdose.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out there’s a certain amount of animosity, or at least rivalry, between the two ends of the county. My first or second week on the job I received an e-mail from someone complaining there was no Rangely news in the paper. Then last week, I had someone tell me there was too much Rangely news in the paper. Sometimes I think we can’t win, or perhaps it’s an indication of how far we’ve come.
Tough economic times can bring people together, which is what seems to be happening in Rio Blanco County. With the recent talk between the Meeker and Rangely Chambers of Commerce about exploring the idea of forming a countywide chamber, it’s an indication there’s a willingness on both ends of the county to work cooperatively, to join forces. It makes sense. After all, we’re all in this together.
Approaching my one-year anniversary in Rio Blanco County has caused me to look back. A lot has happened in the past 12 months.
Of course, there have been mess-ups, which, unfortunately, are inevitable in this business, like last week when I initially understood that Howard Robinson was killed in a rollover accident when, actually, he was only injured. The correct version of the story was what was published in the paper. However, the wrong version somehow made it on to the Web site. My sincere apologies to the Robinson family.
At least I don’t get lost trying to locate my office, like I did those first few days on the job, when I had trouble finding my way around the Hugus Building. And I don’t get called “The New Guy” — a name Wendy Gutierrez gave me — as much as I used to, though I’ll probably always be considered an outsider.
I had somebody come up to me last weekend at the health fair and introduce himself. He asked if I was the newspaper guy. I said, yes. Then he introduced me to his wife, adding, “You know, we read his column. He’s trying to find a girlfriend.”
When I told a friend back in Kansas about the man’s comment, he said, “What are you doing out there, writing a lonely hearts column?”
I suppose I have gained a bit of a reputation. I recently received a thank-you note after covering an event, which, by the way, included lunch, and the person who wrote the note, said, “Now at least I know … all it takes is a little food to lure Jeff.”
As a friend in Meeker told me after reading one of my “single guy” columns, “I’m on to you.”
So, it seems the mystery of being the new guy is over, but it’s nice to feel a sense of belonging. Thank you to everyone who has made me feel welcome in Rio Blanco County.
In some ways, the past year has flown by. In other ways, it feels like I have been here much longer than a year.
One thing for sure, it feels like home.
* * *
A fund has been set up for Toni Simmons at First National Bank of the Rockies and Mountain Valley Bank in Meeker. Simmons, the former Toni Carroll, recently found out she has a rare form of cancer.
“She has a rather big tumor on her hip and another one right by it, just smaller,” said Robin Purkey. “So she will have to go through surgery to remove the tumor and then chemotherapy and radiation to get anything left behind. The cancer is called Ewing’s sarcoma. It’s rare, but rarely fatal, and the percentage of recovery is high. The only problem is that she and Brandon (Simmons’ husband) don’t have insurance. That’s why we’re doing this.”
Toni, 21, and Brandon have a daughter, Jaicee, 9 months.
* * *
Congratulations to Lisa Belmonte of Meeker, who competed April 20 in the Boston Marathon. She accomplished her goal of running in the Boston Marathon before her 40th birthday in May. She finished the course in 3:19:17, which was her second best time.
“I was expecting a slower time based on how congested it was, particularly early in the race,” Belmonte said. “I was running at a very comfortable pace — training here and running at sea level obviously paid off — and had the attitude that I had earned my spot in Boston, so just run easy and have a good time. All in all, it was a great experience — far better than I even imagined. I definitely will run it again.”
* * *
Bill Mitchem of Rangely missed the opening weekend of BedRock Depot in Dinosaur because he was in the hospital. Most recently, Mitchem has been rehabbing at a facility in Palisade.
“He had a tear in the spinal cord, which put Bill flat on his back for a few days,” said Leona Hemmerich, Mitchem’s business partner at the BedRock Depot. “He hopes to be home by the first of May.”
Mitchem’s wife, too, has been in the hospital with a serious infection.
“She was quarantined for a few days,” Hemmerich said. “They wouldn’t even let Bill in to see her.”
Here’s wishing both Bill and his wife a speedy recovery.
* * *
Beverly Gibbs, grant and foundation director for Colorado Northwestern Community College, said between $9,000 and $9,500 was raised during the foundation’s annual dinner and auction April 18.
* * *
Rangely’s post office will collect food items May 9 for the Stamp Out Hunger one-day food drive. “Tubs will be set up around town, where mail units are located, and the carriers will collect food after they complete their rounds,” said Dusty Moreno. “We do ask that the food be nonperishable, canned goods, things like that.”
* * *
With Ran Cochran recovering from an accidental gunshot wound, Nancy Richardson, the deputy coroner, is handling coroner duties for the county.
Cochran, who was hospitalized a few weeks ago because of a post-surgery infection, encountered another setback last week when he returned to the hospital in Grand Junction because he was having trouble keeping food down.
Get better, Ran.

Jeff Burkhead is editor of the Herald Times. You may e-mail him at jeff@theheraldtimes.com.