By the skin of their teeth
Tales of survival in Durango

Not just for breakfast anymore: A fresh can of Spam is cracked somewhere in Durango every day by hungry, OK starving, locals looking for cheap ways to make ends meet. The can of Spam used in this photo was later consumed by a struggling, underpaid photographer on a budget. He said, surprisingly, it wasn’t half bad./Photo by David Halterman

by Renee Johns

You are often told that life is a series of trade-offs, sacrifices and compromises. As a child, you learn that before you could run off to join the throngs of neighborhood kids, those lima beans on your plate had to disappear – and if Fido wasn’t going to be your partner in crime you were on your own. You discovered that procrastinating on a term paper to partake in bar hopping left your forehead beaded in sweat while attempting to piece something together the night before and still sound as if serious research had been conducted. After having eaten all of the unwanted meals, done all of the endless assignments and completed mountains of chores, you know that everything revolves around the decision of what you are willing to sacrifice in order to get the desired end result.

And living in Durango is no different. Many find themselves heeding the “call to the wild” and negotiating just how much they are willing to compromise in order to live, work and survive in the recreational heaven we call home. Outside of its beautiful vistas and infinite outdoor activities, Durango, unfortunately, also is known for its lean wages and high-priced housing. However, no matter what sort of job (or jobs), no matter where you have to live (a tent, a lean-to, a place with five roommates and one bedroom), those who travel here have deemed the trade-off well worth being able to wake up in Durango each morning.

Debby Hayward* and her husband moved to Durango in 1991 from Chicago, where Hayward worked in sales. The two had vacationed in Durango on several occasions and desired a break from the smog, sirens and crime that accompany the big city lifestyle.

“After extensive rental searches, we ended up in a campground in Vallecito with a 113-pound golden retriever in tow and $800 to our name,” recalls Hayward. “We remained there for 38 days because finding something in town in our price range was not happening.”

The search for employment proved only slightly better, but Hayward was steadfast in keeping with the promise she had made to herself: to trade the cement jungle for the mountains, even if that meant sacrificing certain luxuries, like running water.

“My degree became scratch paper in this town, and I will never forget explaining to the folks at Econo Lodge that, yes, I actually do know how to run a vacuum cleaner, I swear,” Hayward smirks.

After a short stint in housekeeping, she decided to take her vacuuming skills elsewhere, eventually ending up at the now-defunct Durango Press. Her husband, meanwhile, landed a job with 4 the city. To make ends meet, Hayward doubled up on the job front and also took a position at the Red Lion as a waitress. Now gainfully employed and then some, the couple was able to make the move from their cramped quarters at the campground to a trailer park in town. “It wasn’t entirely ideal,” Hayward recalled. “You could see through the slats in the siding. But we wanted to buy a place and were determined to save up as much money as we could.”

Hayward’s new “digs” also came with some unexpected hurdles. “Our neighbor on one side was apparently dealing marijuana, but I guess it was pretty bad because his ‘customers’ would come back screaming at all hours of the night demanding their money back,” Hayward laughs. “On the other side, were some kids who ‘moonlighted’ as a gang, which consisted of 12 to 15 year olds who committed petty vandalism.”

Hayward told her husband to make fast friends with the so-called “gang” in order to keep the peace, and the two rapidly became the “people who always had the cigarettes.” They came out of the experience, car stereo mercilessly unscathed.

Despite the high cost of living, it is unarguable that one of the biggest draws to this area is, and always has been, the seemingly endless amount of activity offered for the outdoor enthusiast. Shawna Berry is one such enthusiast.

The start to many a promising local beginnings: the want ads./Photo by David Halterman

“I moved to Durango in 1986 after coming for a ski trip, which ended up being extended longer then originally planned,” reminisced Berry. “I wasn’t yet ready to commit to a rental because I wasn’t positive how long I would stay, so I bought a cheap tent and set up camp off of Lime Creek Road.”

Berry lived there for four uninterrupted months, outside of having to “relocate” every two weeks when the Forest Service came around and required her to move at least 50 feet away.

“During that time, my only ‘neighbors’ were a couple of smelly parole violators who were hiding in the woods so they wouldn’t get caught,” Berry recounts. “One of the guys had a case of Spam we would all dine on, and we became friends until I sort of took a good look at my situation and decided that I needed to move to town ASAP.”

Berry soon afterwards took a job being an Outward Bound instructor and admitted that quite possibly one of the biggest perks was getting to live rent-free. She stored all of her belongings at a friend’s house and set off to live the life of a mountaineering nomad.

“At one point, I remember living in a vacant, solar-powered office up by Hillcrest before Sky Ridge was built. It had no kitchen and the solar heater didn’t work, but my rent was only $40 per month,” she said.

After several months of waking up daily to her dog’s frozen water bowl inside, Berry began to look at her options to own. Turns out a little sweat equity went a long way. “I finally was able to own a home with the help of Colorado Housing,” says Berry. “I received a self-help loan and worked 30 hours per week for 10 months to build my house, I couldn’t have afforded it any other way.”

Hayward also was eventually able to achieve her long-standing dream of owning a home. “We lived well below our means for years with the end goal of no longer renting in sight; $7,000 later, after shopping around and finding a bank that would give us a loan, we did it,” Hayward smiles. “When all was said and done, we only had $50 left to our names.”

Hayward admits that in the beginning, with the addition of house payments, making a go of it was no easy feat. The couple spent their first two years as homeowners hiking uphill with groceries for 3 miles because their front-wheel drive vehicles couldn’t make it in the snow and there wasn’t enough money to get a 4x4.

In the end however, both Hayward and Berry agree they wouldn’t change a thing about deciding to move to Durango and paying the price to remain. Sharing close quarters with convicts and gang members, dining nightly on Spam, breaking ice off dog bowls, walking uphill in a blizzard with groceries for miles (thankfully with shoes) and living paycheck to paycheck seems like a minimal price to pay when you get to call this your back yard. •

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent form potential retaliation.

Renee Johns is a writer who lives in Durango, where she happily juggles mortgage payments and three jobs.



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