Impressions from a homecoming
Playing the 'used-to-be' game in one's old stomping grounds

Impressions from a homecoming

The Animas Valley enveloped in dust and wildfire smoke on a recent June day. With climate change, these days are increasingly common across the West. But it wasn't always that way./ Photo by Jonathan Thompson

Jonathan Thompson - 06/23/2022

Whenever I arrive at a new-to-me place, I become a sort of human sponge, taking everything in, gawking out the windows of the bus as it rolls into town from the airport, trying to read the signs on shops even if I don’t know the language, staring at people, drinking it all in.

I do the same, only with more intensity, when I come back to the oldest-to-me place of all: the southwestern Colorado town in which I was born and raised. From the moment the plane lifts off from Denver, I smash my forehead against the window, trying to match what I see on the landscape with the mental map I’ve drawn over the past half century, finding special landmarks and mumbling their names like a mantra: Black Canyon, Gunnison, Uncompahgre, Vallecito, Hogback, Los Piños, La Platas, Animas. 

This time we fly in at night, and as the plane tilts sharply for its sweeping right turn I marvel at the orange glow from all the coalbed methane wells and the sprinkling of lights along the Animas River. It is after 10 p.m. when we land and I step out of the plane. A warm, dry breeze washes over me.  

In the car, driving from the airport to town, I continue the ritual, only out loud, peppering the trio that volunteered to pick me up with questions about what has changed since my last visit and subjecting them to the used-to-be game: There used to be a restaurant there called the T-Bone; that used to be the sale barn, my grandpa would take me there; and there was a sawmill over there where those fancy condos are … and a drive-in theatre where those fancy condos are, and on and on. We cross the Florida River and I notice it is dry. That’s not unusual, I think, then remember it’s early June.

Used to be the snowmelt-swollen rivers would all be running over the banks about now … used to be, used to be. 

Sometimes the used-to-be game is an exercise in nostalgia, a genuine yearning for the way things used-to-be. Mostly it is just timekeeping, a reminder that things and places and people change, and not always for the worse. 

And oh, how they’ve changed. The semi-working class college town of my youth, rife with tangible reminders of its industrial past, has transformed into a green, traffic-choked, vibrant, gentrified place, for better and for worse. The uranium tailings pile no longer blows its dust all over town, a person can soon ride their bike or walk from one end of town to the other on a riverside path without ever crossing a street, and yes, I think it’s worth it to put in a multi-million dollar bridge to make that possible. The river’s cleaner than it used to be, the fish healthier. There are tons of restaurants and coffee joints and amenities galore. 

It’s an even better place to live than when I was a kid – if you can afford it. Most can’t. Thus the traffic: workers commuting in from slightly less unaffordable locales, only to have high gas prices offset the lower rent. And driving to qualify? It’s going obsolete. The median home price is climbing in Farmington ($317k), despite its economic woes, and Montezuma County is no longer the bastion of affordability it once was (median listing price: $532k). 

The local camp for the unhoused, crammed onto a flammable hillside above a hydrogen sulfide seep, appears to be gaining population.


In a futile attempt to beat back the jet lag, I take a morning run on one of the many trails around town. The trail-abundance is almost embarrassing here. The town is virtually surrounded by open space, each section sporting its own network of single track. I used to be so much faster and more nimble. The oak brush used to be greener and thicker.  

Ubiquitous moon dust – the ultra-fine powder is a quarter inch deep or more on every trail I tread. Each step sends up a little gray, smoke-like cloud and when I get back to my car my once-black shoes are the same hue as the dust. Penstemons – my favorite – are in bloom, and cactus, too, but it feels as if even they are struggling. From a high vantage point I look across the Animas Valley and see the red stripe across the gray shale face of Perins Peak: fire retardant from last month’s blaze.

I think back to a summer a few decades ago when I came home from college in Santa Fe to find the whole valley almost jungle-like. It was the exact same time of year, yet instead of smoke-filled skies and 90 degree heat, it was cloudy, misty, cool and lush. I drove up East Animas Road then, my windows down, and inhaled the moist air, savored the verdant aroma. The valley was like a lake then, the waters of the Animas having overflowed the sandy banks. The sloughs were all full, and the cattails sharp green. 

The river’s level seems high enough – for late July. The irrigated places in the valley are still green, some even are lush. But the earth turns khaki beige and brittle beyond where the ditches reach. 

Aside from the scratchy-eye, nostril-desiccating lack of humidity, the air quality is okay when I arrive, much to my delight. But a couple of days later the wind kicks up and brings smoke from northern Arizona fires and dust from northern Arizona deserts into the valley. At noon a light haze hangs before the mountains and hills like gauze; by late-afternoon the mountains have all disappeared behind a yellowish-gray curtain and the day’s last light takes on an ochre hue. 

Used to be if this sort of thing happened we’d think we wandered into the apocalypse. Now it’s normal, whatever that means. Clear summer days, when you can see the details on the face of Hermosa Mountain, seem like a miracle.


Used to be I was young, a floppy-haired kid floating sticks down the ditches with my cousins on eternally long summer evenings as the sun’s last light slid up the red slope of Missionary Ridge and the sky turned from blue to lilac and the aroma of water on dirt and alfalfa filled the air, and we’d run through the field blindly and carefree, and it felt like flying.  

My grandparents’ farm – with its rows of corn, raspberry bushes, alfalfa, dairy barn, hay barn and my grandmother’s famous gladiolus – sat between the “Old Highway” and the “New Highway.” We loved seeing the train go by every evening, the yellow cars juxtaposed against the emerald green shrubs and grass, black smoke billowing from the stack. When each car would pass on the New Highway, it made a distinct sound, a building hiss of rubber on asphalt that rose then fell in harmony with the red-winged black birds’ trill. Used to be. 

When in town, I stay at a friends’ house, which sits in the valley about halfway between the Durango house I grew up in and my grandparents’ farm where I spent much of my childhood. Half of their property is a slough in what used to be the flood plain; now the slough is nearly dry, the cattails mostly wilted and brown, the willows poking up from parched earth. The train hasn’t chugged up the valley over the past few days because of high fire danger. 

On the first evening after I arrive, I go out onto the patio and sit under the giant willow. I watch the last of the day’s light slide up the steep slope of Missionary Ridge and the bright blue sky turn lilac. I inhale the aroma of ditch water on dirt and listen to the rise and fall of each car as it passes by on what I will always call the New Highway, no matter how old it and I become, and notice that the sound is exactly as it was back then, only continuous. The trill of the red-winged blackbird cuts through it all, just as it used to be. 

The Land Desk is a newsletter from Jonathan P. Thompson, author of River of Lost Souls, Behind the Slickrock Curtain, and Sagebrush Empire. To subscribe, go to: