Just Visiting: Former editor returns to town, relishes time in county

Jeff Burkhead, Guest Editor

Jeff Burkhead, Guest Editor
Jeff Burkhead, Guest Editor
Whoever it was who said you can’t go home again, I beg to differ.
I spent the past six days in Rio Blanco County, and I felt right at home.
It has been five years since I was the editor of the Herald Times, and a lot has happened during that time, a lot has changed. But one thing hasn’t. The people.

This was my third visit since leaving at the end of 2010. Each time I visit it reminds me of why it was so hard to leave in the first place.
Because Rio Blanco County feels like home.
I have to thank my friend and former boss, Mitch Bettis, for giving me the opportunity for the second year in a row to serve as guest editor at the newspaper. I’ve told Mitch many times that this was the best job I ever had, and he was the best boss I ever worked for. I knew I would never find a gig like this again.
Until last year, that is, when Mitch gave me the opportunity to come back and be guest editor for a week. I was thrilled to be a fill-in again this year. If it became an annual occurrence, there would be no one happier than me.
I have to apologize to my Rangely friends. With the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials going on, I only made it over to the west end of the county once this year. Last year I made it over a couple of times. When I was the editor here, I worked hard to cover both ends of the county. I didn’t do a very good job of that this week, I’m afraid.
I also apologize in advance for any mistakes or shortcomings with this week’s paper; I’m out of practice. Things will return to normal next week.
While I’m sorry I wasn’t around for Rangely’s Septemberfest, which was the weekend before I arrived, it was fun to be around for the sheepdog trials. The trials were one of my favorite events to cover when I was the editor here. And what a great event to photograph. There are photo ops everywhere you turn.
I almost wondered whether I would make it back this year. The night before I left to fly out here, I tweaked my back something terrible. I woke up at 3:45 the next morning and could hardly get out of bed. I was supposed to leave for the airport in three hours. I wasn’t even sure I could get dressed. But popping Ibuprofen like candy, I managed to get on the plane and make it to Rio Blanco County. Thank goodness I also had some muscle relaxers and Vicodin leftover from 2010 when I was living here and had a problem with a sciatic nerve.
Since I’m an outsider now, whenever I’m back in this area I frequently get asked if it seems like things have changed. Of course, they have changed. Businesses have come and gone. There are new buildings. There are empty buildings. There have been marriages, divorces and babies born. And there are loved ones who are no longer with us. That’s the hardest part.
In some ways, though, things seem the same, which is comforting. I want things to be the way I remember them. The one constant I can count on is the friendliness of the people in Rangely and Meeker.
Thanks to Facebook, I am able to keep up with many of the going-ons and happenings from Rio Blanco County. I love following so many of you through your photos and postings online.
Many of the “kids” I was covering when I was the editor here are now grown up. They have graduated from college. Some have married. Some have started families. It makes me feel old.
There were many highlights of my recent visit to Rio Blanco County, most notably seeing so many familiar faces. Here are a few others that stand out.
Receiving a hug from Mandi Etheridge. Mandi gives the best hugs. Ever.
Being called Mitch on more than one occasion. I always take it as a compliment. For me, it is definitely an upgrade to be mentioned in the same company as my friend, who is one of the finest people I know. Maybe it’s that us skinny newspaper guys all look alike.
Running into Teri Striegel Wilczek at the Rangely High School football game. She’s such a sharp lady.
Buying another piece of Andy Goettel pottery to add to my collection.
Seeing Dessa and Brett Watson and their two beautiful children on the courthouse lawn Saturday night at the Lions Club barbecue and concert. One of my favorite memories when I lived here was the time I just happened to stop in at the historic Meeker Hotel on Dessa and Brett’s wedding day during a snowstorm and taking photos.
Being invited to dinner at the home of Gus and Christine Halandras. They are two of the most hospitable people I know. And, boy, can Christine cook.
When I was in Rangely, seeing Jimmie Mergelman, Paul Fortunato and Mark Skelton, who were three of my favorite coaches to deal with when I was editor at the Herald Times.
Rubbing shoulders with Dale Hallebach, Michelle Cox and the other amazing photographers who capture so many beautiful images from the sheepdog trials.
Seeing all of the wonderful Masons and Lions Club members and volunteers who help make the trials such a great event.
Trying out the various food vendors at the trials, and there were some good ones. I think I may have a pastry addiction now.
Hanging out with Michele Morgan, who is my unofficial host whenever I return to Rio Blanco County.
Having the pleasure of meeting and interacting with some of the handlers at the sheepdog trials. Just real salt-of-the-earth folks.
And thanks to Bobby and Wendy Gutierrez and Doc and Debbie Watson, who always make me feel so welcome whenever I return to Rio Blanco County.
When I moved to Rio Blanco County in 2008, it was a turning point in my life. While I was here, I wrote about my past professional and personal midlife free-fall. Coming to Rio Blanco County gave me a chance to start my life over. In a way, it saved me.
So, when Dessa Watson asked me, “How does it feel to be back home?” I had only one answer.
It feels great.