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Backstory: Rocky mountain sigh as slow-lane life speeds up

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 2006



LAKE CITY, COLO.

By 7:45 a.m. in the Mocha Moose Coffee House, Lake City is already oozing its small-town coziness. Owner Chris Gentry is serving a pecan-crusted waffle and hot chocolate. Mayor Joe Marshall is chatting with a patron. A high school English class - of three - is studying Steinbeck. Outside, a gauze of snow softens the streets.

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Yet the scene here in the summer is much different. Swarms of SUVs hunt for parking spots. Just getting a table at the Mocha Moose can be difficult. Delivery trucks rumble through town as construction crews build aspen-wood homes for retiring baby boomers and young professionals in the surrounding foothills.

The twin views highlight a conflict facing many idyllic mountain communities across the American West - few more than Lake City.

As more outsiders discover this haven, ringed by mountain peaks that would intimidate a Sherpa, the town's population is growing rapidly. While new growth is welcome, particularly in the winter when Lake City seems enclosed in a snow globe, the influx is raising fresh concern that the community could lose its charm.

For Lake City and many other high-altitude hideaways, the question is one of balance: how to bring in enough growth to prosper year round - without becoming part of boutique America.

"We have no plans to become an Aspen," says Linda Matthews, a county commissioner who runs the Back Country Navigator store.

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Just getting to a town this isolated can take fortitude. Out of Denver, ride the asphalt roller coaster over the Front Range. Drive southwest past South Park's tundra. Follow the icy Arkansas River to Poncha Springs, climb the Monarch Pass, and coast into Gunnison. Then trek south into the San Juan Mountains for an hour, arriving finally in Lake City - with worn brake pads.

The town is quaint but not tiny: three gas stations and enough snowmobiles, jeeps, and cabins to handle the tourists. Its main street is quintessentially Western. All that's missing is a saloon and a tumbleweed.

In one sense, Lake City is fortunate to even have to worry about growth. Hinsdale County, which envelopes Lake City, is one of 812 "frontier" counties in the nation. Many are losing population.

But Lake City's allure lies in its Alpine vistas. Between 1990 and 2000, the county grew from 467 to 790 full-time residents - a 69 percent jump - and much of that growth is centered in Lake City. One of the only checks on growth remains the punishing winter. "You've got to love winters to move here," says Jeff Worthen, who owns Hall Realty.

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A recent town council meeting shows how the demands of the outside world play out in the pragmatism of local politics. The crowded forum feels like a Western version of the Vermont town meeting. Jeans and flannel? Check. Liberal sentiments? Nope. This is conservative country, where flinty libertarianism trumps environmentalism for a roughly 8 to 1 Republican registration advantage.

Inside, the issue is simple: Can Lake City afford to make its teen center comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act? Adults trade philosophical arguments and nuts-and-bolts concerns, but a few teenagers make the most impassioned pleas.

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