The Yee-Haw Factor

It happened again just last week. No sooner had I lifted the receiver to my ear than I heard the dreaded, "Howdy, partner!"

No, this was not a telemarketer for Wrangler Jeans. It was a call from one of my long-lost college buddies, the latest in a series of cowboy pokes. Many of my old friends, particularly those who have never ventured west of the Mississippi, routinely greet me with a mix of "buckaroos," "yee-haws" and "saddle ups." As they suffer commutes in places like Washington, D.C., and Orlando, Fla., somehow they imagine me saddling up and riding my mare down a dusty cityscape. They should know better, but this is the image of Durango, Colo., that they've constructed. And I suspect that for many people who've never visited, Durango appears to be a wild west, howdyville.

In my own circle, I've spent years explaining that La Plata County is not a cowboy-based theme park. But I've failed to break through and still get the rawhide comments. My old college pals still envision my hometown as a place where newspaper editors wear chaps and spurs, and whiskey is sold next to player pianos in jugs.

It's really not that surprising. In Durango, the cowboy mystique still sells. The old west is why many people visit and many of our storefronts, hotels and festivals are tailored toward keeping the cowboy dream alive. And I suspect that Durango's old-timey flavor draws more tourists and tourist dollars than any combination of bike trails and whitewater. Many dream vacations are likely passed with visitors imagining Indian attacks or making deliveries to prospector camps as they ride the narrow gauge north through the valley. Old-time photos from our local studio probably adorn refrigerators the world over. Dodge named its SUV "Durango" for a reason.

However, the question is whether the cowboy mystique is selling well enough. Complaints continue to circulate downtown about the lack of dollars and tourist traffic; business owners continue to discuss the fickle nature of our local economy; and with more empty storefronts showing up all the time, we're definitely getting closer to that dusty western townscape flavor.

On a personal note, I often wonder why my college-drinking-buddies-turned-urban-professionals are choosing not to visit. I'm particularly insulted that the airline pilot who gets huge vacation time and free airfare hasn't stopped in for a cocktail next to the player piano. Apparently, they've gotten their dose of marketing but choose to catch glimpses of Southwest Colorado as they fly over en route to Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, I continue to enjoy the mixed blessing of selecting Durango as a home. I consistently find myself nearly alone on road rides. The world-class network of singletrack that Durango is embedded within is regularly next to empty. Pristine trout streams surround my home and even the most obvious stretches are usually free for the taking. In the fall, there are a handful of exceptional, lonely desert bike rides a short drive away. La Plata County remains one of the only places on the planet where people of modest means can experience that dark sin known as golf. Nearly half a dozen ski areas are short drives from Durango. Two top-notch Nordic skiing areas mere minutes from my front door. And the list goes on.

I do selfishly enjoy having these escapes to myself, and I have never minded indulging in them as the train toots past or a group of sightseers in a Winnebago chugs on the quest for fall colors. But I selfishly would also like to operate a healthy business and do my part to end the local wage crisis. This in mind, I don't mind sharing Durango's strong suits with visitors. At the very least, I wouldn't mind dropping "Howdy" from my vocabulary. Maybe as our image grows beyond the realm of theme park, we'll all have an opportunity to do so.

- Will Sands




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