Most of the tables Sophia Schneider, 18, waits at the Dog Bar in Cuchara, the quaint village 10 miles north of La Veta in Huerfano County, are from out of state.
“The tourism here is very generational,” she said.
Heather Curtis, another server at the Dog Bar, pointed out a table of 10 or so on the front patio.
“The grandparents first came here,” she said. “Now the kids come and their kids, too. They hang out all summer. A lot of people are like that.”
It’s common for these families to be wealthy ranchers from Texas, Oklahoma or Kansas, locals say. La Veta and Cuchara is the closest summer getaway for the visitors. Many have second homes or cabins because of the cooler summer weather. Plus, vacationing in the area is somewhat of a family tradition.
But why Huerfano County?
It’s among the poorest counties in Colorado. In 2012, the Kids Count Data Center reported 24 percent of the county’s population was living in poverty. Compare that to Douglas County where only 4 percent were living in poverty.
Unemployment is high. In 2013, the rate was 12.4 percent, and while it has gone down – 7.7 percent in May and 8.5 percent in June – it remains well above the state average of 4.4 percent. College graduates make up 28 percent of the population and the median income is around $33,000.
“A lot of people have to travel for work,” Schneider said. Her father is a professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo. The average commute for work is about 23 minutes, according to the Census Bureau for 2009-2013. Many travel to Walsenburg.
Out of 3,135 counties, the New York Times listed it as 2,104 in its Hardest Places to Live map last summer.
But that is hardly apparent walking down La Veta’s Main Street or through Cuchara. Real estate offices are prominent. Tucked away log homes easily go for half a million dollars. $900,000 can buy a ranch, though some range as high as $4.5 million.
There’s also a budding art community, a successful community art school and music events each weekend not including the four different festivals that call Huerfano County home each year.
Coloradans see the county for its statistics, but out-of-state visitors see La Veta and Cuchara for its amenities. It’s true Colorado with hiking, fishing, log homes and flairs of Southwest art and shops and galleries that seem fit for Boulder or Telluride. It’s hard to tell if the tourists from neighboring states even realize that the local economy is struggling and relies on three months of tourism for the entire year.
“Our economy definitely relies on those out-of-state tourists.” – Heather Curtis
“It’s hard to say,” said Nancy Christofferson, about the reason why a southern drawl is so common in the area. “I’ve heard of people just taking a wrong turn. My mom (who was from Kansas) was looking for her friend.”
Christofferson, a full-time resident, was raised in Ohio, but has lived in La Veta for more than 40 years. She currently works at the Francisco Fort Museum. She’s written books on the area’s history, but it’s not quite clear why so many families from those states ended up in the area.
In the 1970s Cuchara was a hot ski destination, but the infrastructure was lacking and after several Texan owners–who weren’t big into skiing–lost money on their investment the slopes closed. In 2010 there was talk about reviving the resort through bond sales, but nothing ever came of it.
Mike Moore, owner of River’s Edge Bed and Breakfast, worked for the Cuchara slopes after working at big ski areas such as Vail and Aspen. He’s always been around the business. There weren’t enough hotel rooms, he said. During the season they’d recommend hotels as far as Pueblo to guests and it wasn’t a sustainable model. People couldn’t ski out of their rooms and cabins like at other ski areas and eventually the resort was closed.
During the summer Cuchara balloons to a population of around 800. When winter hits there are only around 100 people living near near the village–a picture much different than was envisioned at the pinnacle of the ski resort. The Dog Bar closes for the colder months, as does most of the dozen shops on the boardwalk. Tourism falls off and the area is quiet.
But for the summer and early fall months, the neighboring towns are buzzing with events and the restaurants are full.
“Our economy definitely relies on those out-of-state tourists,” Curtis said before whisking off to another table with beer in hand.