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Welcome to the other side of paradise

The Other Side

I moved to Durango in 2018 to work at Fort Lewis College. For me, moving to La Plata County was a move home. Born in Telluride and raised in Norwood, I frequently visited Durango as a kid. But as the son of working-class parents, I knew that life in Durango, like San Miguel County, was defined by much more than majestic mountains and endless trails. I was reminded of this fact immediately.

My family and I drove into Durango in early August. We unpacked what we could and sat down on the front porch to take in the views. To the north, the jagged contours of the La Plata Mountains divided sky from earth. And to the west, the tips of ponderosa pines merged with crimson clouds that morphed like lava dancing upon Utah’s evening winds.

The 2018 fires were still raging, and that evening, the sun seemed to defy gravity as it hung upon the horizon and lit the evening sky ablaze. As I sipped a local IPA, I heard an elk bugle in the distance and spied a pair of coyotes moving aimlessly across a field of native grass and blue sage. If the world had ended that night, my last memory would have been one of sheer awe. As I leaned back in my chair, I sighed into the cool evening air. For the first time in years, I felt at home.

The next morning, I discovered a flat tire on my 4Runner. Somehow, I managed to puncture it with a stick, which was still jutting out of the sidewall. I’d misplaced my tire wrench in the move, so I called AAA. Within the hour, a gruff, middle-aged man with a wiry beard pulled up the driveway in a Jeep Grand Cherokee with rusty fenders.

“Mornin’,” I said as the man eyed my bright teal New Mexico plates.

“New to town?” He responded without looking up.

“New to Durango,” I said.

“Hum, hope you brought a way to make a living,” he grumbled as he inspected my lifeless tire.

My new acquaintance seemed a bit disheveled, so I brought him a cup of coffee and offered a hand. He accepted the gesture, and we settled into a conversation about addiction, colonialism and racism.

“Durango ain’t what it seems,” he said. “It’s one thing to visit on vacation. It’s another to live here.”

As he explained, Durango was the meeting point between Spanish and English colonies. And the Indigenous, his ancestors, were the unfortunate victims of the endless wars the settlers waged on his people and the natural environment.

“I’m a mix of everything,” he said in Spanish, to emphasize his point. As we eased my spare onto the axle, he told me about his life. He’d grown up in Hawaii, but moved back to the Four Corners as a young adult. His parents were both Indigenous, one from the Big Island, and one from the Navajo Nation, but he also had Spanish ancestors. And he’d fought it all: addiction, depression, loneliness and suicidal thoughts. But his greatest nemesis was poverty.

“My life is the other side of paradise,” he said, looking up. “And I ain’t alone around here.”

The Other Side, which will run once a month, is inspired by my conversation that morning, and draws on similar conversations I’ve had since. Through my guest column, I aim to shed light on stories that are seldom told in the fine restaurants and boutique shops that line Main Street. Rather, my goal is to give voice to the working-class people of our region. Through my writing, I hope to contribute to a more complete understanding of what it means to make ends meet amid the shadows of affluence, and in doing so, encourage our local representatives to leverage their resources in favor of our community’s least-privileged residents.

Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.