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Thieves cross line with ‘Colorful Colorado’ heist

A new sign welcomes visitors to Colorado at the border on Highway 140. It was replaced earlier this month. (Courtesy of Colorado Department of Transportation)

Dear Action Line: I risked it all and drove down state Highway 140 to Farmington this weekend, and noticed that our “Colorful Colorado” sign at the border was missing. Only the post remained. Is there a border dispute with New Mexico? Are there very determined thieves out there stealing heavy wooden signs? I haven’t seen any for sale on eBay. Or is CDOT refurbishing it? – Derek Signing Off

Dear Derek: If you’ve lived in or around Colorado for a while, you take these very special signs for granted. Until they go missing, that is.

Who’s in charge of these signs? How much do they cost? How easily and quickly are they replaced? Who would pilfer one of these beauts?

Action Line has answers to all of these questions but the latter. The thief remains a mystery.

“On the morning of June 13, I was in my humble state office on North Main Avenue sipping an Americano from a local coffee shop when a private citizen alerted me of the mysterious missing welcome sign at the outskirts of La Plata County,” said Adair Christensen, communications specialist with the Colorado Department of Transportation office in Durango. “’Good heavens!’ I cried. Then, between taking reports of deer carcasses, potholes and malfunctioning crosswalk signals, I managed to quickly clip a Google Maps image that showed the sign had in fact been missing since May.”

At that point, the process began to replace the sign.

“We can’t just order these off Amazon Prime,” Christensen said. “Each sign is handmade by CDOT’s sign shop in Denver. Crews put extra care into these iconic figures by threading vertical metal rods into locally sourced boards and finishing them off with a dash of reflective dust.”

If you could travel a path around Colorado’s rectangular border (hmmm, has anyone actually done that?), you would find more than 40 of these handmade “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” signs at road crossings into the state. And, at any given time, you would find an estimated 200,000 tourists posing and posting at these signs, which were first crafted and displayed in the 1950s.

(That was Action Line’s perhaps slightly overstated estimate.)

This photo, with the missing sign, appeared on Google Maps. It was taken in May. (Courtesy of Google Maps)

CDOT’s sign makers use a routing machine to carve the letters. The sign is stained, and each letter is painted by hand, according to a story on CDOT’s webpage: https://tinyurl.com/33yjtnse.

Each sign costs approximately $3,700 including material and time, Christensen said, and lasts about a decade. CDOT crews in the field spruce them up occasionally.

This story has a happy ending. The “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign at the border – where New Mexico Highway 170 seamlessly becomes Colorado 140 – was replaced Aug. 2, just as Action Line started raising a fuss. It’s good to once again know what state you’re in.

Who took the sign? CDOT has its eyes open but must move on. Christensen said road sign theft is an all-too-popular pastime and chronic problem.

“As much as I would like to delve deeper into searching eBay listings and roadside curiosities, there are potholes to be filled and highways to be paved!” Christensen said.

Seeing signs from both sides

Action Line is in a sign rut. A column two weeks ago was also about signs. As a very young child, Action Line made a set of very rudimentary signs and posted them along the sidewalk. Exactly why Tiny Action Line made these signs is now a mystery, but it must have been fun. And no neighbor heeded the “Speed Limit 120” sign.

Anyway, after seeing last week’s item about a sign posted for a recent Farmington Gun Show, Allen Van Wey of Durango decided to respond. Whatever one’s moral or political stance on the proliferation of guns, the gun show’s sign appeared to be legal and proper.

An excerpt from Van Wey’s response:

“I live in Durango and am one of the promoters for the Farmington Gun Show. It’s unfortunate that so many people seem to be bothered by our gun show signs. Unlike many who rely on temporary signs like these to promote a business or event, we are meticulous about removing 100% of our signs immediately after each event. We even repurpose most of the signs by giving them to local artists to use for canvases, and recycle whatever we don’t give away.”

Van Wey said they “do our absolute best to comply with all laws. However, I can’t say the same for many of our neighbors. We see many of our signs being destroyed, pulled and tossed aside, and sometimes outright stolen. Under Colorado law, this could constitute second-degree criminal tampering, a Class 2 misdemeanor, with penalties of up to 12 months in jail and fines up to $1,000.”

Action Line’s final comment: The not-so-far-off 2024 election cycle will probably be smooth and uncontroversial, just like 2016 (ha!) and 2020 (right!!!), but let’s try to remain civilized and respect each other’s rights to place signs where appropriate.

Email questions and suggestions to actionline@durangoherald.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. OK, that’s it. No more sign questions for the next month.

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