Vistas, Valleys & Voters: A Campaign Staffer Reflects on the Trail with Phil
A Portrait of Southeastern Colorado

Two-lane Colorado 96 runs east for what seems like endless prairie, snaking its way through abandoned railroad towns and places that haven’t seen bust or boom since the coal mining days. An old sign points to a Fairground. A rusty, abandoned mill floats by us. A sign, flanked by iron horses, welcomes us to Ordway.

Conestoga Park has a playground that wouldn’t look out of place in suburban Denver, and a new skateboarding course. A sign outside Crowley County High School tells us it’s 102 degrees. The shade of scrubby elm trees doesn’t do much for the late July heat, but Joe Zemba, the chair of the local democratic party — there are only 432 registered democrats in Crowley County — greets us with cool drinks and a warm smile.

Over plates of coleslaw and burgers fresh off the grill, Joe tells us the story of Crowley County. Phil actually starts telling the story, as he visited Crowley County earlier — perhaps the only statewide candidate in memory to visit here twice during a campaign. It is a cautionary tale. In the 1970s, Crowley County sold its water rights and, unlike the neighboring counties, has no agriculture here. Now, prisons — one state, one private — are its main source of employment, and they loom out of the grasslands like isolated pockets of civilization on the road to Ordway.

John Stulp meets us at the end of the barbecue for a water tour of Crowley; he’s a wheat farmer, a former Prowers County Commissioner, and Governor Hickenlooper’s water advisor. He looks at ease in suspenders and a cowboy hat. I ride in the back of his pickup, Phil in the front seat, as he shows us places that used to be farms, now dry brown patches of dirt that haven’t hydrated since the late 70s when the county sold off its rights to the already-sparse irrigation ditches near the Arkansas River. Now, the county’s second-largest source of jobs — the local feedlots — has to import even the crops to feed its cattle, which are sent to Kansas for slaughter.

At Knapp’s farmstand, right on the edge of an irrigated area over the Otero county-line, the smell of melon fills the air along with country music and the excited chattering of customers. We buy cantaloupe and cans of diet coke and drink in the green before it’s back in the truck, and the country music fades away in a cloud of tractor dust on the road behind us.

While we’re on the road, Conservation Colorado endorses Phil, so we visit Lathrop State Park, just outside of Walsenburg, to say why. The sun is setting as we arrive. My writing teachers tell me “golden hour” is a cliche, but there’s no other way to describe it. Golden doesn’t just encapsulate the light, yellow and clean, streaming through storm clouds on the Eastern plains, but the feeling, too — that everything is possible, bathed in that late-day glow when everything feels like buzzing and laziness all at once. There’s a hovering moment between work and more work that Phil picks up a stone, and skips it across the lake, the reflection of the Spanish Peaks rippling as the stone jumps across the water. The campaign team stands on the shore and skips stones for a few minutes, watching those last bits of golden hour glint out over the horizon.

The next morning, after coffee in a cheerful storefront in La Veta, our new friends Sam and Deb take us to Uptop, Colorado. En route, victims of the Spring Fire — burnt aspen trees and ashe on the ground — roll across the hills for as far as we can see. Folks here call Uptop a ghost town, but this place feels alive. And it was just saved because a dedicated team of local firefighters committed themselves to saving it during the fire. Uptop remains a peaceful reminder of the American West’s fierce, independent spirit.

During a Meet & Greet at Milagro’s in Alamosa, we talk to Honey. Honey’s daughter has a rare and life-threatening condition that, at the time of her birth, was the only case in Colorado. After almost losing their house as they sought to care for their daughter, Honey’s family now relies on the protection for those with pre-existing conditions guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act, and lives in fear of what would happen if this protection–and her health insurance–was taken away.

That night, down the road in Canon City, a one-hour event dissolves into two with deceptive ease. We share stories over Italian food, and I’m struck once more by what it means for Phil to come here, and listen to the people who tell us their stories, asking for a public official that can help. “There are some of us in this community who see the barn burning and are not afraid to go and say ‘hey, the barn is burning.’ The kind of courage is rare, and I am seeing it more and more,” Jeri — her eyes alight with the promise of another fight, another election cycle — says. We need an Attorney General who will have their backs.

In Pueblo, we talk about opioids. That’s much of what we’ve talked about on the road this time, as studies show that opioid overdoses affect Southeastern Colorado significantly more than other areas of the state. At every interval on this trip — in coffee shops with Honey, on water tours with John, over hamburgers with Joe — I have learned something about the crucial role an AG can play to make the lives of all Coloradans better, but hardly has it been so obvious as during a roundtable on opioids here in Pueblo. We hear stories of overdoses and irresponsible drug companies; bureaucratic red tape and overcrowded prisons; pleas for empathy and the way this epidemic ravages families, communities, and the state at large. Phil listens, intently, and continues to do so at Meet & Greets and over lunch and at every campaign stop.

Rural Colorado is warm and friendly, brave and stunning. I think about Sam and Deb back in Uptop as we arrive home to the Front Range. “We’re beginning to understand just how much an Attorney General can do for the health of our little community here, for the environment of our little community, for the prospects of our little community,” they said. “The rural people can’t be forgotten: we love Colorado.”