I wrote this story for the Boston Globe in 2006. While I wouldn’t say that Salida is a household word, its secret is out. So, now, I can tell the world!
SALIDA, Colo. The threats came in before I even arrived in Denver.
“Tell her to bury that story,” advised a colleague of the friend I was planning to visit in the Mile High City and take along on a weekend getaway 145 miles to the southwest. When I met said colleague, the first words out of his mouth, only half-jokingly, were, “I’m part of that group asking you not to write about Salida.” Wow, I hadn’t known there was an entire posse trying to keep a lid on things. Perhaps they’d missed Outside magazine’s declaration two years ago that Salida is an “American Dream Town.” So let it be known that I am not the spoiler, or at least not the only one.
It is true, though, that there are still a good number of people who have never heard of Salida (pronounced suh-LIE-duh). Even many Coloradans pass by without stopping, though the town is only a short detour from the highway. They don’t know what they’re missing.
The whitewater folks, however, are in the know. In the summer, when the Arkansas River is racing, more than a dozen rafting and kayaking operators spring to life in Chaffee County. And every June, about 10,000 visitors triple Salida’s population for the Blue Paddle FIBArk Whitewater Festival (“FIBArk” stands for First in Boating on the Arkansas River). Arguably the country’s top whitewater event, the fest draws the sport’s stars, who come to race and trick out on the rushing waters. Depending on when you visit, you can experience rapids from a nothing Class I to a menacing Class V. Salida is but one of the stops along the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, a 148-mile linear park of riverbanks and river.
Whitewater is center stage in the city-run kayakers’ “play park,” officially the Arkansas River Whitewater Park and Greenway, where from bleachers set up for spectators you can watch those maniacs play in the rapids, roll upside-down over and over, and get water up their noses. (You can’t tell me those plugs really work.)
Luckily one doesn’t have to be a paddler to enjoy Salida’s riches. My friend and I, who get white-knuckled even thinking about whitewater, merrily eliminated going down the stream. Instead, we cycled, strolled, shopped, dined, and generally made ourselves at home in this incredibly congenial town. We discovered that the abundance of friendly folks wasn’t a show for the sake of commerce. Even the locals talk about how friendly the locals are, and many compare unpretentious Salida with snootier Colorado towns.
“In Aspen and Vail people want you to know they know everyone and have been everywhere. Here, you just know they have, but they don’t need to tell you,” said Jeff Schweitzer, who with his chef wife, Margie Sohl, owns Laughing Ladies Restaurant, arguably the best dining in town. The night we ate in the small, cheery establishment, Schweitzer toured the room several times, chatting with diners he knew, which seemed to be half the room, while passersby would wave from the sidewalk to friends inside.
Modern-day Salida plays up its appeal to tourists and relocating retirees, but back in the 1880s, the city boomed for being top post on the main line of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. The railroad left in 1950, but mining kept things going until the bust in the 1980s. Despite the recent influx of tourists and new residents, ranching and agriculture remain a mainstay. Signs of both worlds are charmingly evident on downtown streets, as old pickup trucks with ranch mutts barking from the back pass by SUVs sporting shiny bicycles and brightly colored kayaks on their roof racks.
The compact downtown is wonderfully down to earth, not yet having fallen victim to chain stores and developers. Virtually every building in the historic section is more than 100 years old and made of red brick, thanks to a town code that was enacted after fires in the late 1880s destroyed much of the city. We looked out for Victorian homes along side streets, and looked up inside every building we entered. Yep, we’d nod, another gorgeous tin ceiling.
Salida is building a reputation for its artwork as much as for its outdoor play. Monthly receptions (second Saturdays) have brought the dozen galleries together, and a large three-day art festival among the shops has been held in June for the past 14 years. We were particularly fond of Culture Clash for its mix of works from regional artisans, The Bungled Jungle for its menagerie of crazy creatures, and Brodeur Art Gallery for its amazing mix of media all from one font of creativity, Paulette Brodeur. She had a great show up called “Adventures in Salida,” or, as she put it, “what makes Salida Salida,” with contemporary impressionist paintings of cyclists, kayakers, mountains, and more. Brodeur also decorates lampshades, makes jewelry, and paints funky pet portraits. She even turned her father’s old bomber jacket and her mother’s dilapidated fringe coat into sculptures.
“When I moved here 12 years ago Salida was a ghost town,” said Brodeur, who lives a ways east in rural Cotopaxi. “There wasn’t even a coffee shop. The growth has been gradual. I think this is going to be the year. I love being here and meeting all the people. But when it tips to what I don’t like, I’m outta here.”
If this isn’t “the year” for Salida, it could be 2009, the projected time for environmental artists Christo and Jeanne Claude’s next installation. The pair have a project in the works to hang dancing fabric over eight segments of the Arkansas River, for a total of 7 miles between Canon City and Salida. It’s still in the approval process, but, if it happens, the two-week exhibit is estimated to attract some 250,000 visitors.
But, as that posse from Denver would say, don’t tell anyone.