BE­COME A LO­CAL

PASS/FAIL

Backpacker - - Contents -

One moun­tain town new­comer takes on a cliff-jump­ing chal­lenge in an at­tempt to fit in.

Whether you’re vis­it­ing a moun­tain town or mov­ing in, it’s only nat­u­ral to want the na­tives to ac­cept you. But how far out of your com­fort zone are you will­ing to go to get there? By Alex Gulsby

IF THE PEO­PLE OF DU­RANGO, COLORADO, could re­write their wel­come sign, it would read: “Go home. We’re full.” But af­ter years of vis­it­ing the peak-rimmed town as a ski pass-tot­ing tourist, I wanted in any­way and moved from my fam­ily’s cat­tle farm out­side Hous­ton to Du­rango in 2017. Still, ev­ery time I drove down Main Av­enue, my Texas li­cense plate felt like a scar­let let­ter.

So I ditched my camo and denim and drove a lit­tle faster over the moun­tain passes. Soon, I fell in with a rowdy group of reg­u­lars at the lo­cal cof­fee bar, who—de­spite teas­ing me for my “y’alls” and “howdys”—seemed to gen­uinely ac­cept me. The only trou­ble: They never could see past my Texas ori­gins. I knew the rib­bing was all in good fun, but I wanted to prove that I be­longed in Du­rango just as much as a lifer.

When the only thing get­ting roasted at our bi­monthly potluck was me—some­one even threat­ened to peel off my “I Du­rango” bumper sticker—I made my move. “I’m go­ing to do the ABCs,” I blurted. The ABC chal­lenge is a se­ries of cliff jumps I’d been hear­ing about for years, even as a vis­i­tor. For kids who grow up here, leap­ing off 50-foot Adren­a­line Falls, 40-foot Bak­ers Bridge, and the 12-foot wa­ter­fall along the Cas­cade Creek slot canyon is a rite of pas­sage.

“If I do the ABCs,” I con­tin­ued, “you have to call me a lo­cal.” Nearly ev­ery­one present had done the chal­lenge as a teenager, and while the jumps are gen­er­ally safe, they aren’t for ev­ery­one. Af­ter an ex­change of glances, my friends smiled. “All right, Alex. You’re on.”

A week later, four of us ar­rived at Bak­ers Bridge un­der sum­mer-blue skies. While leap­ing off the bridge is tech­ni­cally pro­hib­ited, the land­ing is wide and deep, mak­ing the plunge the eas­i­est of the three.

The place was filled with jumpers, mu­sic, and—worst of all—spec­ta­tors. My stom­ach curled as I watched a group of teens launch back flips off the bridge into the An­i­mas River.

Mi­nor prob­lem: I had never jumped off any­thing much higher than a pool div­ing board. I walked to the edge and found my­self frozen stiff, hav­ing con­ve­niently for­got­ten about my “healthy” fear of heights un­til now. Cheers faded into hushed ques­tions: “Uhhh, is she OK?” In that mo­ment, I felt ev­ery bit the Texas tourist.

Then John Den­ver’s “Rocky Moun­tain High” started play­ing, and a chuckle rip­pled through the crowd—and me.

I inched for­ward and plunged un­grace­fully to­ward the river. My arms wind­milled, my legs kicked. I for­got to tuck my chin. As I landed, feet first, my neck reeled back­ward and I sank into the icy wa­ter.

A week later (once my whiplash had faded), I was ready for the next chal­lenge, and sur­prised when my friends apolo­get­i­cally said I’d have to find Adren­a­line Falls on my own.

The lo­ca­tion of the cas­cade is a lo­cals’ se­cret—I was go­ing to have to work for this one. I re­cruited a new friend, a fel­low Texas trans­plant named Mariah, to help.

For­tu­nately, I’d at least learned the trail­head was on Lime Creek Road. Af­ter sev­eral hours of search­ing (we didn’t try

to Google it, which felt like cheat­ing) and an­other hour of hik­ing, the as­pens opened up to re­veal a per­fect pool of Rocky Moun­tain snowmelt. We were the only ones there. If we got into trou­ble, it’d be a while be­fore any­one knew.

Af­ter some smaller test jumps, I climbed to the top of the cliff. At the 50-foot mark, bile crept into my throat. I scooted back down to the 40-, then the 30-foot mark: “This is my limit, I’m not go­ing back up,” I shouted. Mariah shrugged, and I leaped from there.

When I told the story that night, my friends laughed. “Don’t worry,” one bor­nand-raised Du­ran­goan said. “I don’t even go from 50 feet. It counts.” Two down.

But Cas­cade Creek was the fi­nale for a rea­son. It’s a slot canyon, so once you en­ter, you’re in it for the long run, swim­ming through freezing pools for nearly 30 min­utes un­til the last 12-foot jump at its mouth. Thanks to higher-thannor­mal wa­ter lev­els and strong cur­rents, the pre­vi­ous sum­mer had seen a half dozen res­cues and one drown­ing.

But a few days be­fore game time, Hur­ri­cane Har­vey swept my home­town un­der­wa­ter. I rec­og­nized life­long friends on the news, res­cu­ing an­i­mals and kayak­ing door to door de­liv­er­ing food. I winced at the mem­ory of try­ing to hide my Texas ori­gins.

If I went home to help with the re­lief ef­fort, I’d miss the three-week win­dow when I was sure Cas­cade’s flow would be slow enough for safety and still deep enough to jump. But af­ter watch­ing the floods on TV, I found I’d lost my taste for wa­tery recre­ation.

My friends sup­ported me, but I won­dered if bail­ing on the chal­lenge meant I’d of­fi­cially for­feited my bur­geon­ing lo­cal sta­tus—and my bumper sticker.

But when I got back to Du­rango, I woke up to a new sticker on my car. The il­lus­tra­tion of two friends tent camp­ing was easy to rec­og­nize—it was the work of a Colorado artist and com­mon in lo­cal shops. Turns out the sticker has a name: “Home is where you pitch it.”

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