One thing you will never hear in Ignacio, Colorado, is someone complaining about rush hour traffic. With a population of not quite 700, the traffic flow is orderly and rarely do locals misjudge their arrival time because they ‘got tied up in traffic.’
The town is in southwest Colorado about 330 miles from Denver. The two closest population centers are Pagosa Springs to the east and Durango to the west on Colorado Highway 160. The former, approximately an hour’s drive, the latter about 30 minutes. Ignacio is the capital of the Southern Ute Reservation and is named for the legendary nineteenth-century chief, Ignacio.
“It is a beautiful location with a rich history,” said La Plata County Public Information Officer, Megan Graham. Ignacio is flanked by the picturesque San Juan Mountains. Its roots are farming and ranching, much of which continues to this day. For a time in the last century, Ignacio was one of the region’s leading sheep producing centers.
Alison DeKay grew up in the area. Her family raised sheep in and around Allison, one of the satellite communities surrounding Ignacio. The others are Arboles, Oxford and Tiffany. DeKay, who earned her degree at nearby Fort Lewis College, teaches at Ignacio’s elementary school and serves as Mayor Pro Tem on the town council. Her family’s roots, she said, are part of the reason she has remained in Ignacio. But another and more important reason for staying is simply enjoying the quality of life a small town provides.
“I think the biggest draw is family,” she said. “I can also literally walk out my door and in ten to fifteen minutes---on foot---and access all the things I’ve spoken about.” She was referring to crafting, pottery and the recreation center run by the Southern Ute. “We don’t have things like concerts,” she said, “but we have some pretty neat amenities.” If there was something she really wanted to see or do, she added, “we can go to Denver or Albuquerque.”
Staying close to home in La Plata County also offers other amenities, said Graham. “We have incredible access to the mountains,” she said. Skiers and snowboarders have their choice of Purgatory or Wolf Creek. The Animas River, which is dotted with rafters every summer, “also runs through the county.” Then, there is the desert. Moab is “just three hours away,” she said. Also, if you get the itch for fine dining or decide to do a little gambling, the casino is just minutes away.
But in towns like Ignacio where good paying jobs are not easy to find, keeping young people is a constant challenge. “I just want to get out of here,” DeKay said is a common refrain among high schoolers. Some do leave but, many times, others wander back, sometime for family, other times for work. While the casino is often a good bet for a job, there are also a few jobs sprouting up in oil and gas.
Someone else who never lost touch with home is former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. After completing his career which included serving Colorado at both the state and national levels, Campbell returned to Ignacio. When he’s spotted on the streets, he’s greeted by neighbors with a ‘hey, Ben!,’ or ‘Senator!’ It’s just the way friends greet friends in small town America.
Another person who did decide to leave Ignacio, is Michelle Lucero, who, after college, made Denver her home. Lucero is General Counsel and Chief Administrative Officer for Children’s Hospital. But despite her hometown in her rearview mirror, Ignacio remains a special place.
“It was perfect,” she said. “You knew everyone, the schools were small enough that you could be a jock, a nerd and a cheerleader all in the same day.” The town’s parades and celebrations also remain special memories. The Don Ignacio Parade and Bear Dance Celebration, she recalled, were things you marked as ‘musts’ on your calendar.
Lucero, who took classes at nearby Fort Lewis College while in high school, just had an itch to explore and left the town for Kansas City where she attended college. She admits to being homesick while away but in an odd way, grateful her family didn’t have the money that would have made returning an option. “I knew my mom was sacrificing a lot for me to go to college. She worked two jobs.” And while she loves her hometown, she has never regretted her decision.
“But it has changed,” she said of Ignacio---in a good way. The Southern Ute tribe has done a lot for Ignacio including investing a lot to make it a better place. “It now has two stoplights,” she joked. “I just hope it never gets a Walmart or a Home Depot.” It is, she said, just perfect the way it is.