So long Rio Blanco County … the pleasure’s been all mine

Every week for the past two and a half years, I have written a column for the newspaper.
This will be my last one.
As a story on the front page of today’s Herald Times announced, Bobby Gutierrez will return as editor of the paper. I am leaving to take a newspaper job in Missouri.
I have mixed emotions about leaving.
On the one hand, I am excited about moving closer to my kids — at least to the two of them who live in Kansas — and having the chance to continue working with Mitch Bettis, who owns the Herald Times and brought me here to become editor in June 2008. Mitch is the general manager for a newspaper company in the Lake of the Ozarks area of Missouri, and we will be working together again. Another colleague from my Kansas newspaper days is the publisher there, so I will be working with people I have a long history with.
On the other hand, however, I leave with a heavy heart. I loved my time here. I always wanted to work somewhere I wanted live, and I found such a place in Rio Blanco County. Throughout my newspaper career, the opposite had usually been the case — I moved to a place because of a job opportunity, not because I necessarily wanted to live there.
When I came here, I thought this could end up being the last newspaper job I would ever have. From the beginning, I felt at home here and my attitude was I would be here for the long haul. I know this, I could have made Rio Blanco County my permanent home.
But situations change. People change. And one thing can change everything.
So, the time has come to move on.
One thing I won’t miss about Colorado are the winters. The summers, however, are the best. They just don’t last long enough.
I fell in love here.
I fell in love with this area, and I fell in love with its people. Mostly, I fell in love with the people. After all, it’s the people who give a place its personality. It’s the people who make a place feel like home.
I met so many wonderful, interesting and fascinating people during my time here, it would be impossible to name all of them. I wish I could publicly thank all of the people who made me feel welcome in a new place, who opened their home to me, who became a friend, but I’m sure I would leave someone out.
I had a chance to tell the stories of so many fascinating people, people like Bud Striegel, Cecil Lollar, Frances Green and Paul Conrad of Rangely, and Frank Cooley, Orval LaBorde, Ed Coryell and James Ritchie of Meeker. And courageous people, like Celena Miner, Clete and Kim Long, Rhonda Tucker, Jerry LeBleu Sr. and Carl and Peggy Rector of Rangely, and Clem Clark, Kacey Pozorski, Toni Simmons, Ann Marie Scritchfield, Denise Pearce, Ethel Owens and Charles Devereaux of Meeker. For me, those were just a few of the brave and inspiring people I had the pleasure to write about.
I also had so many wonderful — and oftentimes entertaining — experiences during my time in Colorado. Some of the more memorable experiences included rock crawling in Rangely, snowmobiling upriver, witnessing the release of moose transplanted to the White River National Forest, horseback riding at Sable Mountain, hiking at Hanging Lake and Trappers Lake, touring Campbell Creek Ranch with Bud Striegel, going an all-night ride-along with Undersheriff Mike Joos, spending a day at Lost Park with Joe Collins, being the only person to ever get “injured” while covering the Range Call fireworks, photographing cattle drives through the middle of town, witnessing the invasion of orange and camouflage with the arrival of hunting season, and two of the best rock ’n’ roll concerts I’ve ever seen I saw during my time in Colorado.
Covering both ends of the county is a never-ending balancing act — and I quickly realized you can never please everybody — but I genuinely enjoyed reporting about both towns. And I loved the drive between Meeker and Rangely. Over the past two and a half years, I drove that road at least once or twice a week, sometimes three or four times. It alway amazed me how it could be snowing when I left Meeker, and when I got to Rangely, invariably, the sun was shining.
Being editor of a small-town weekly newspaper is a pretty all-consuming job. There’s always some event to cover, or some story to follow up on. So I never had trouble keeping busy. If anything, I had trouble keeping up.
For two small towns, both Meeker and Rangely have more than their share of community events. I loved covering activities on both ends of the county, events such as homecoming, rock crawling, Crab Crack, Range Call, the county fair, Septemberfest, Fall Festival, Holidayfest (now called Christmasfest), the Smoking River Pow Wow and the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials. I will miss not covering the Meeker Classic’s 25th event next year. I will miss not being around for the next powwow — here’s hoping there will be another one, and many more.
I spent much of my time covering the schools and school-related activities. That was one of my favorite parts of the job. I enjoyed getting to know the teachers, the students, the coaches, the players, and writing about their accomplishments and awards and successes. The younger kids may not have known my name, but they would wave when they saw me and call out, “Hi, paper guy” or “Hey, camera guy, take my picture.”
Not everything about this job has been pleasant. My first day on the job I covered a fatal house fire. Over the next two and a half years, there were other tragic stories. There was a murder-suicide in Rangely. There was a homicide in Rangely. There was the overdose death of Austin Stoner. There was the one-vehicle accident just outside of Meeker where 9-year-old Stone Martin was killed. And just recently there was the fatal helicopter crash up Wilson Creek.
There were controversial stories about court cases, about coaches not being rehired, about people’s lives who were tragically interrupted by a bad decision, a poor choice, a wrong turn, an unfortunate turn of events.
While not every story has a happy ending, I’ve found it gratifying that some of the people I’ve written about, people whose lives were turned upside down by some unfortunate event that was then reported on in the newspaper, that I had a chance to restore my relationship with that person. Most notably, for me, was Paul Martin.
Over the past few months, Paul and I had a chance to spend time together. To clear the air. To encourage each other. To move forward. In what may come as a surprise to many people, Paul and I became good friends.
There are others, I know, who will cheer my leaving. That is an inevitable result of doing this job — some people will cuss you because of something that ran in the newspaper, or didn’t run in the newspaper.
I had someone recently tell me that being the editor of a small-town newspaper must be like always trying to balance on the edge of a knife. That’s pretty accurate.
For the past two and a half years, I’ve simply been the caretaker of the newspaper.
It was a role I took seriously.
The newspaper is bigger than any one person. But for better or worse, I was the point person, or the face, of the paper. It goes with the title.
The job of editor, by its very nature, is a demanding one. I made it all-consuming, to my own detriment. I let the job become my life, and as a result I allowed it to crowd out other things — and people — that were more important. I’ve got to figure out how to do a better job of balancing work and having a life.
But as one of my rock ’n’ roll heroes, John Mellencamp, titled one of his albums, “The Best I Could Do,” that’s how I feel about my time here as editor of the newspaper. I did the best I could do.
If I offended anyone along the way, I’m sorry. That was never my intention. I always tried to be fair. Did I always make the right decision? Of course not. I made plenty of mistakes along the way.
Still, I couldn’t be prouder of the work we did during my time here. It was a team effort. For me, professionally, I’ve never been prouder of anything I’ve done. Maybe that’s because it gave me some measure of redemption, given the fact I had all but flushed my career down the toilet before coming here.
I felt accepted here from the start, but no more so than after I wrote what people referred to as “the column,” where I talked about past mistakes I made, which is how I ended up here in the first place.
Rio Blanco County is where I started my life — and my career — over. In Kansas, they still think of me and treat me like a criminal. Not here. Even though I may have been the only editor in Colorado who was a convicted felon, I felt like people accepted me here.
I will always grateful to my boss Mitch Bettis for giving me a second chance. Mitch was much more than my boss. He was my friend.
One of the main reasons I am making this move is because it will allow me to continue working with and for Mitch. I can’t imagine working for anyone else.
Another longtime friend, Kurt Gaston, played an important role in the paper and what it was during my time here. None of you know Kurt. He’s like the man behind the curtain. He designed the paper every week from his home in Missouri. You wouldn’t know Kurt if you saw him on the street, but you saw his handiwork every time you looked at the paper. Kurt and I have worked off and on together for 30 years. We have a rhythm and a trust and confidence in each other that only comes from having worked together for so long.
Finally, I’d like to thank the staff of the Herald Times. They are the ones who are in the trenches, doing all of those tasks that have to get done in order to put out a newspaper every week. Without them, none of this would be possible. To Deb Pettijohn, Tonya Morris, Niki Turner and Caitlin Walker, you have my sincere thanks. And to Joe Gutierrez, Steve Harman and Debbie Watson, who every Thursday morning joined me “down in the hole,” as we affectionately call the basement of the Hugus Building where we insert the paper each week, I’ll think of you next time my alarm goes off at 3 in the morning.
They say you don’t realize how much you love a place, or someone, until you leave, or they’re gone.
As I prepare to leave Rio Blanco County, it’s beginning to sink in how much I will miss this place, and especially the relationships I’ve made during my time here.
It’s been an honor and privilege, these past two and a half years, to work with such great people, to have played a small part in the proud history of one of Colorado’s oldest newspapers, to have called Rio Blanco County home.
So, goodbye Meeker. Goodbye, Rangely.
I’ll never forget you.

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