Weirdness prevents sprawl

Essay by Paul Tolme

Growth – August 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

AS COMMUNITIES across the West ponder strategies for avoiding sprawl, they might look to Ward, Colo., for inspiration. This tiny mountain town in booming Boulder County has cooked up a cheap and easy recipe for reining in growth: Be strange, and the gentrifiers will stay away.

Derik Leif Stevens, blacksmith and self-proclaimed “mountain man extraordinaire,” is one of the town’s strangest. For six years, he’s offered a hand-forged hatchet to anyone who can punch his lights out in an outdoor boxing match known as the “Ward Rumble.”

A flyer designed by Stevens proclaims: “This year, I’d especially like to invite all you junkies, thieves, cokeheads, child molesters, rapists, or any man who likes to hit the ladies to come on up and try your luck against ME.”

The flyer promises that proceeds from a ringside bake sale will be spent on the youth of Ward, pop. 169. Bake sales and boxing matches? A blacksmith challenging child molesters to a fight in the town center? While this might raise eyebrows in some towns, in Ward, eccentricity is almost a requirement.

In the 1970s, Ward residents put boulders in the main road to discourage through-traffic. Today, abandoned cars with their windows smashed and hoods torn off line the streets. Mutts roam town searching for scraps. “Do Not Enter” signs have been placed at both ends of some streets.

Tourists are sometimes too scared to get out of their cars for a look-see. “I’ve seen people lock their doors and speed up,” said Blair Wilson, co-owner of the Utica Street Market, one of only two stores downtown. So while other Boulder County towns boomed in the 1990s, Ward’s population grew by a meager 10 residents.

In contrast to Ward is Nederland, another mountain town 13 miles away. Property values there are zooming and a real estate feeding frenzy holds sway. A 750-square-foot shack two streets over from my 360-square-foot shack recently went on the market for $255,000.

Stevens’ flier convinced me I had to attend the rumble to see what Ward residents are doing right. On the day of the event, I arrived early and took a spot near a makeshift ring of rope and bamboo sticks.

Stevens — tattooed, barefoot and wearing nothing but a kilt — was throwing hatchets into a log, while some children watched. A group of women laid out baked goods near a tee-pee that had been erected for shade.

With no challengers yet in sight, I wandered up to the Glacier Gateway Market. The proprietor, who introduced himself as Nigel, sat on the sagging stoop playing an electric guitar. Wearing a decrepit top hat, missing both front teeth and smiling widely, Nigel suggested a cup of coffee. I paid him $1 and got a free refill. It wasn’t espresso and there was no cappuccino — just coffee. You can hardly get that in a city these days.

I chatted with another resident, Dan, who was proud of Ward’s ability to hold back the sea of roofs that has flowed across the Front Range. “The people up here are too quirky and cantankerous,” he explained. “Plus there are √¶sthetic designs that keep people away.” I thought of those junked cars, rusting in the sun.

DOWN AT RINGSIDE, Stevens faced his first opponent. The blacksmith blew a long sonorous note through an animal horn and laced up his boxing gloves as he explained the rules. Touching the ground with a knee or hand would end the fight, “as would significant blood,” he said. If neither fighter was knocked out after two minutes, the crowd would vote for a winner.

Stevens’ challenger, a young man, bounced around the ring and flailed wildly. Stevens took aim and split his opponent’s lip with a blow to the face. “Blood!” Stevens shouted, stopping the match at just over a minute. The fighters hugged and the crowd of 20 clapped.

While waiting for more challengers, Stevens and his brother Damian, 26, who was also wearing a kilt, dueled with foils. The brothers have spent most of their lives in Ward, although Damian left for five years to tour the country and work at medieval fairs.

“Ward is the only free town left in America,” Damian said, when I asked why he had returned. “It’s a real community.”

The same week as the Ward Rumble, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens adjourned a special session of the Legislature in frustration: Democrats and Republicans could not somehow agree on a way to control the state’s rampant growth. Officials might have looked at Ward for tips — or maybe not. What Ward practices is tough to codify; it’s nothing less than a celebration of the idiosyncratic and cantankerous. And that’s what makes it beautiful.

Paul Tolme is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (www.hcn.org). He is a freelance writer and former reporter for Associated Press.