Volcanoes, Mountain Towns, and People


Antigua, Guatemala — There are three things you don’t want to do in the mountains: you don’t want to be above tree line after noon in the summer, you don’t want to cut in the liftline and you don’t want to try to define a mountain town.

Let me take a stab at the latter.

Antigua is a tourist town like Santa Fe. “Not the real Guatemala,” as an NGO person told me. But, like Santa Fe, Antigua is also a mountain town, and the people who work here, they’re mountain people.


This morning I was sitting on a patio reading when the woman sharing my table said, “Have you heard that our volcano erupted?

“You’re kidding?” was my first original thought. My very next original thought was that Blue Eyes had invited me to this textile trade show as her Sherpa and now I was going to be up to my butt in ash and lava. Welcome to the third world.

I looked off in the distance and, sure as shit, billows of smoke and ash were pouring out the top of this volcano about six miles away.

Antiqua has a checkered past going back four hundred years or so periodically some natural disaster or another has leveled the town. The volcano to the south is called Agua (water to those of you who haven’t been in a Mexican restaurant recently) because a natural dam broke and the water in the volcano crater poured downhill and leveled the town. The volcano that just erupted is called Fuego (fire) because it periodically erupts and the third volcano is called Acatenango (an Indian name that no one here seems to be able to define).


I stood there looking at Fire and thinking, “Now this is a real mountain town. Name one town in Colorado where the local mountain blows up.”

Then I got to thinking about mountain towns and how we define them.

When some fool tries to define a mountain town in Colorado, it comes with a great deal of posturing and posing. It starts with the unfounded belief the only real mountain town is where he or she lives. The rest of the Colorado mountain towns are poser ski/mountain/resorts that are populated by rich aholes from other places that are mostly flat.

And God in her heaven knows that when those of us from Boulder refer to the People’ Republic of Bicycling as a mountain town, the locals in Leadville get hurt falling off their bar stools laughing. For the record, the barroom floors in Leadville are seriously scuffed from these sorts of falls.

These selfsame judges of mountain towns think only gnarly dudes who work half the night so they can ski all day and hardwomen who can climb, row, trail run and work ski patrol can live in mountain towns. However, these folks suffer under a good number of illusions, including the belief that their knees will be as good when they are 50 as their knees are now.


So let’s ignore these folks for a moment and define a mountain town as place where you can see a decent mountain from town. Now some Nazi will want a definition of “decent” so let’s just do some comparisons. Is Seattle a mountain town? Sure — you can see Rainier two or three days out of the year. Dallas, KC, DC, Chicago, NYC? Not so much. You get it. That’s the objective measure of a mountain town.

The subjective measures of what is a mountain town are people, place and mindset.

Here is what I see in the mountain people in Antigua. I think we see the same things in Frisco, Stowe and Ashville.

Mountain people are just tougher, happier and more together than people from other places.

The locals are here in Antigua because of birth or choice. Just like in Colorado, if you don’t like it here, you will move away. Mountains towns are tough to live in either because of Nature or the lack of well-paying jobs and the often-high cost of housing.

Nature in the mountains is amazing. I got to see my first volcanic eruption this morning. But have I talked about a really cold day in the High Country of Colorado, where you can wear everything you own and still shiver in your tracks up the hill? Entire essays have been written about mud season, and when God takes a fall vacation, she doesn’t come go to Vermont or Salzberg, she comes to 10,000 feet in Colorado for the aspen.


The people who live in Antigua look like they could survive anything and probably have. This country was ripped by an awful civil war some years ago; entire villages were wiped out — men, women and children just taken out an shot.

Colorado mountain people I know can chain-up in a blizzard, dance until they drop, grow vegetables at 8,000 feet, parent kids who can ski bumps at three and, on a cool fall evening, you’ll find them around a fire outside telling tales and laughing at one another. And while the civil war never really reached Colorado, there have been some really tough times in the High Country, and the mountain people mostly came away from those times stronger.

I’ve only been in Antigua three days, but every time I catch some local’s eyes and smile, I get a smile back. Yeah, I know, I’m large for down here and have a face that looks like its been pummeled by an ugly stick. So maybe they are just entertained by me, but more I think it is one mountain person acknowledging another. Yesterday I tripped on a curb and caught myself, as a cop made a move to catch me. After catching myself, I looked up and flashed him a thumbs up. He had a huge smile on his face and just moved on like any mountain person.


There is something about living in the mountains that fosters a sense of community. Sure there is community in the generic sense everywhere. But because it is difficult to live in the mountains, we must depend on one another and build strong communities.

Blue Eyes is here looking for sources for naturally dyed textiles that she will sell through her website www.ClothRoads.com. The Guatemalans (mostly women) have formed cooperatives in their villages to build their textile business. It is a community of necessity, but there seems something in the mountain air that helps form all sorts of community.

But what about mindset? You may not live in an objectively defined mountain town but your mindset about mountains can make all the difference.

So if you are reading this in some challenged environment, does that mean you aren’t a mountain person?


Being a mountain person is a state of mind. Remember John McCain talking about a building a cabin in his mind while incarcerated in the Hanoi Hilton? Being a mountain person is as simple as just thinking mountains. If you can stop whatever you are doing, close your eyes and see a mountain … smile, you’re one of us.