Teensy, tiny and other small towns of the West

Eagle in 2007, when this photo was taken, was still a "tiny" place, if tiny is defined by something less than 10,000 people.

Eagle in 2007, when this photo was taken, was still a “tiny” place, if tiny is defined by something less than 10,000 people.

Teensy, tiny, and itty-bitty towns of Colorado and the West

by Allen Best

A recent story by The Denver Post’s Nancy Lofholm about turmoil in Montezuma, Colo., called it a “teensy town” That description strikes me as just right, even if I’m perplexed about what we mean when we call places teensy and tiny, or big and giant.

Montezuma is located at an elevation of 10,200 feet five miles from the Keystone ski area in Summit County. Unlike other old mining towns in Colorado that either rotted into the forest duff or, like Breckenridge, reinvented themselves as high-volume—and mostly paved—turnstiles of recreation and leisure, Montezuma piddles on. It has both election mud, as The Post reported, and a mud season.

I have puzzled over town descriptions since 2003. The basketball star Kobe Bryant had been arrested that summer after a sexual incident near Beaver Creek. The county judicial center being down-valley at Eagle, reporters went there immediately to paint their pictures. One early report in a now defunct metro newspaper described Eagle as “tiny.”

That description mystified me, because I knew Eagle, a place now of 6,500 people, reasonably well. I had played basketball in its gyms, even sort of lived there. Many descriptions came to my mind.

Eagle Ranch is a major subdivisions that has greatly expanded the size and population of Eagle since the 1990s.

Eagle Ranch is a major subdivisions that has greatly expanded the size and population of Eagle since the 1990s.

But tiny? Well, I suppose, but what does that mean?

Colorado does have an official “Tiny Town,” a roadside attraction in the foothills southwest of Denver, with miniature buildings over which a child can dwarf.

That isn’t what the newspaper meant. Later, it also used “small” to describe Casper, Wyo., a place of 55,000 people.

Everything is relative. In 1977, I was working in Kremmling for a newspaper, the Middle Park Times. It has disappeared, as has the bar, the Hoof ‘n’ Horn, where one evening I told a local rancher, Bill Thompson, that I was from the “small” eastern Colorado town of Fort Morgan.

“You call that small? It has stop lights,” he replied, pricking at my pretension. At the time, Fort Morgan had six stoplights. Kremmling had none.

Vail, when I arrived in 1985, lacked stoplights but was getting congested. Between Christmas and New Year’s, cars daily backed up two miles from the town’s four-way stop. Nobody was happy. Traffic lights were proposed but hissed into oblivion. Vail was not a city! Instead, Vail rolled the dice on a new variation of the old traffic circles. The roundabouts were immediately successful and were soon found everywhere from “tiny towns” to the metropolises of the West.

What does Denver’s 634,265 residents make it? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s the nation’s 23rd largest city, sandwiched by Seattle and Washington D.C. Add all the tiny, small and whatever-sized places along its edges and the metropolitan area population swells to 2.7 million.

However, Denver itself is best understood as an amalgamation of neighborhoods. Capitol Hill, which is Colorado’s most densely populated neighborhood, has 15,000 people, according to the Piton Foundation. Throwing in North Capitol Hill gets you to 21,000. That’s not even half the size of Casper. Does that make Capitol Hill a “small” or “tiny” neighborhood?

Besides being what some would call an itty-bitty place, the Wyoming town of Shoshone has an undeniably tattered downtown, its remnant buildings testifying to a time when traveling 30 or 100 miles to go shopping at Wal-Mart wasn't quite so easy.

Besides being what some would call an itty-bitty place, the Wyoming town of Shoshone has an undeniably tattered downtown, its remnant buildings testifying to a time when traveling 30 or 100 miles to go shopping at Wal-Mart wasn’t quite so easy.

Tiny is an imprecise description and, perhaps, condescending. From smaller towns comes a reverse bias, that larger cities as rude, unfeeling, and dangerous. The truth lies in nuance.

Several years ago, the New Yorker had a profile about a druggist in Nucla, a town of 695 located where mountains meld into red-rock canyons in southwest Colorado. More than a story of one individual, however, the piece was a meditation on small-town living.

My favorite part of that story came from a physician’s assistant, Ken Jenks, who said he liked to play chess, but moving to a small town, he found nobody who played chess. Instead, he was challenged to a game of checkers.

“I always thought it was kind of a simple game, but I accepted. And he beat me 9 or 10 games in a row,” Jenks said. “That’s sort of like living in a small town. It’s a simpler game, but it’s played to a higher level.”

No matter where you live, there’s some place smaller and perhaps simpler. Several years ago, on a trip to Rifle, population 9,267, my companion and I asked directions to a certain ranch.

A woman advised us to keep our eyes peeled for De Beque as we drove west on Interstate 70. It was, she added, “just a little itty-bitty place.”

De Beque has 504 residents, and there are less-populated places yet. But how can you get smaller than itty-bitty?

With this recent story about Montezuma, population 65, I now know: teensy.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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