Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why Fort Collins?

Ever since we announced our decision to leave St. Louis, a lot of people have been asking us… why Colorado?  Why Fort Collins?

Good question.

Strangely enough, the answer begins around a year ago, when we went back to Nicaragua for Fuego y Agua.  Some big name runners were there, including a guy who Rob told me lived and trained in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Fort Collins?  It sounded horrible.  Like the kind of place where the air is too thin to breathe and everyone walks around wearing coon-skin caps, with rifles slung over their shoulders.  

“No, it actually seems pretty cool,” Rob told me.  He mentioned something about mountains and bicycling.  Whatever.  I wasn’t interested.  I didn’t think about it again until some 5 months later, in July, when somebody I follow on Twitter posted a link to this LA Times article:


Happiest Place On Earth

Fort Collins?  Happiest place on earth?

I was intrigued, because life in St. Louis was pretty freaking bleak at the time. My job was what was keeping us here, and Rob reminded me that he could work from just about anywhere the world (including rural Nicaragua, where we lived for a year while I was doing my dissertation research).  If we were really that unhappy in St. Louis, we could stop complaining about it and actually make a change.

I started doing a little research, and I found out that Fort Collins was no stranger to Major Awards.  It was ranked the 11th bike-friendliest city in the US, with some 300 miles of bike paths connecting the entire city and bike lanes on most roadways. In 2006, it was voted the Best Place to Live in the US, and it has remained at least in the top 10 since then. The indicators used to make this assessment include weather, commute times, access to park space, and incidence of stress-related diseases. Fort Collins, or Fort Fun, as some call it, was on the good side of all of these.  And, AND, in 2013, it was voted the safest driving city in the US— moving up from third place in 2012.


Fort Collins has on average, 300 days of sunshine per year, and it is the largest producer of beer in the state of Colorado-- home to at least 10 different breweries, according to my calculations.

OH AND DID I MENTION?  It is only about an hour away from Rocky Mountain National Park.

Things were looking pretty good for Fort Collins.  We had been thinking we’d try to go to the Grand Canyon for our summer vacation, but we quickly changed course and headed for the Rockies instead, with a list of things to check out in Fort Collins on the way.

The Rockies certainly did not disappoint:

Rocky Mountain National Park


But Fort Collins… was kind of… meh.

Where's my grilled cheese?

It was like Champaign-Urbana (a place we happen to love, but can never call home again), except bigger/hotter/drier, and every once in a while you could see some very brown, desolate looking mountains to the west.  

But true to expectation, everybody was on a bike.  I actually started sobbing when I saw kids riding their bikes home from school, because it is the kind of thing I want for Will so badly.  This would never happen in St. Louis.  Ever.  First of all, nobody goes to their local public school—everybody sends their kid(s) to a $20,000 per year, private, Catholic, college-prep school that you have to take 3 interstates to get to, in your SUV.  And second of all, the traffic in St. Louis is just too damn bad for anyone to ride their bike (safely, at least).  Fort Collins doesn’t have these problems.  Rob and I realized, as we were driving through the city, that people were actually following basic traffic rules.  Such as:  stopping at red lights, and going at green ones.  It really took all the terror and mystery out of driving.  And it was a beautiful thing, to be able to get from Point A to Point B without being sideswiped or run off the road, or suddenly encountering a vehicle driving towards you in your lane.

So there were a lot of things Fort Collins had going for it, but my assessment was, it wasn’t really as spectacular as the articles on the internet made it sound, and it certainly wasn’t the kind of place I was going to quit my job and move to.

Shit.  Back to square one.

After we got returned from our vacation, my work situation declined so completely that the only way I could deal with it was to make a spreadsheet entitled “Escape Plan,” where I compiled a list attributes important to us (Climate, Cost of Living, Schools, Running, Cycling, Public Transport, Airport Accessibility, Traffic, Politics, Altitude/Mountains) and ranked various relocation possibilities accordingly.

Eugene, OR: The public schools seemed okay and the cycling and politics were good, but it was too rainy, too far from the mountains, and would be hell of expensive for us to get back to the midwest to see our parents.

Ashland, OR: Closer to mountains but a surprisingly high cost of living and ditto on the difficulty of flying back to our families.

Bend, OR: Mountains and a little bit of altitude, but ditto, again on the expense and distance from our families.

Portland, OR: While I love Portlandia, I can never live in a big city again.  Also: rain.

“I think what neither of us is really saying here,” Rob said, “Is that we belong in California."

True.  But I looked extensively and there is no place in California where we could afford to live that would be a place where we actually wanted to live.  Plus: the political climate of northern California (that’s where we would want to be) is scary, and that’s saying something, considering that I currently live in the state of Missour-ah.  California never even made the list.

Some of the other places that we considered included Asheville, NC and Boone, NC.  I am intrigued by both, but I just don’t see us heading east at this point in our lives. We also mulled over Flagstaff, AZ. The city is the right size for us (not too big), it is at a decent elevation, is mountainous and supposedly beautiful.  Another draw is that there is some interesting stuff going on with ultrarunning in the region, but I don’t know— there are a lot of things about Arizona that kind of terrifiy me, and I’m just not sure if it is the type of place Rob and I belong.

Rob included a few suggestions of his own for the list:  Vermont, Maine, and Alaska.

Cold. Colder. Coldest.  I vetoed all three.

Was there no place to go?

I cautiously added Fort Collins back to the Escape Plan.  After all, it is affordable, has great public schools, and has a very active running and biking (and really any kind of outdoor activity) community. It's at almost 5,000 ft elevation and in the mountains.  Granted, these are not the beautiful snow-capped mountains of the Pacific Northwest; the mountains of Colorado’s front range are desert-brown and make you think of heartache and loneliness and panning for gold.  But it’s close to Rocky Mountain National Park, and even though it’s about 1000 miles from our families, that’s not as far as Eugene or Bend.  You could drive an hour to the Denver airport and get on a semi-direct flight to the midwest.  Plus, Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University, where I’m deluding myself into thinking that I might someday be able to find a job, if ever I could fathom working in higher education again.


It snows 9 months of the year there.

Fort Collins Climate

And politically, it’s no Boulder (which we eliminated due to cost of living and an unexpected dislike for the vibe we experienced there during our brief visit); yet still, I couldn’t quite give up on Fort Collins.  If you line up all the variables on the spreadsheet I made, it is the perfect place for us.

By October, my job went from bad to worse to worst.  “I have to see it again,” I told Rob.  I wanted out of my job, out of St. Louis, but we had to have somewhere to go.  And it needed to be based on something a bit more concrete than a vague hunch that the bike paths and breweries in Fort Collins were the direction that our lives were supposed to be headed.

"Fort Collins is orthogonal to this situation,” Rob said.  “Quit your shitty job and let’s get out of this shitty city.” I couldn’t get past his usage of the word orthogonal, and I thought, Cara and Aimee, I wish you were here to drink a glass of wine with me right now.

So I bought a new, super-warm winter coat (it’s a game changer), and we went back to Fort Collins over Thanksgiving.  

IMG 2535

As soon as the mountains came into view, I felt like, my god, I am home.

IMG 2582

From the city, the mountains you see are the foothills: brown, raw, and heartbreaking.  It is more desert than montane, but then again, what makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well


Fort Collins


What I came to realize on our second trip to Fort Collins was that the starkness of these mountains is exactly what I need.

It is what we all need.


Horsetooth Summit

But actually making this happen would be far more difficult than just speculating about our imagined lives there.

I would have to quit my job and start all over.  I’d have to pull Will out of pre-school.  I’d have to move 1000 miles away from my parents just as my father was experiencing unexplained vision loss that turned out to be a brain tumor.  

It was all very overwhelming.  Could I really do this?  Was quitting my job the right thing?

Rob and I looked at some of the pictures from our recent trips.  He smiled softly, closed his eyes a little bit, and said, "Blue sky."

Horsetooth Reservoir



 I sent a letter of resignation to my boss, and just like that, I was free.

IMG 0014 2


As it turns out, once you make the announcement that you’re moving to Fort Collins, everybody has a Fort Collins story or connection.

  • Fort Collins? Hey, that’s where I’m from!  It’s beautiful, you’ll love it.
  • My cousin played basketball at CSU!
  • Friends of ours just moved to Fort Collins from Seattle, they say it’s great.  
  • Oh hey, I’m moving to Boulder next month.  Let’s me know if you ever need anyone to babysit Will!
  • Fort Collins? I went there for a quiz bowl tournament once when I was in high school. It was pretty cool.
We also have a handful of friends and family scattered throughout the Front Range, many of whom have already helped us out during our visits, and all of whom have offered continued help and support as we move.  Let me just say: we’re going to take it.  We are going to take every little bit we can get.
Our house in St. Louis officially goes on the market February 22, and our realtor doesn’t think it will take long to sell.  I hope she's right.  I am ready for this, so ready.  My dad breezed through brain surgery with flying colors, and he’s going to be okay.  I’ve ordered my parents a guide to retirement and senior living in Fort Collins (surprise, mom and dad!), because they’re going to move out there with us, aren’t they?  I can’t really be 1000 miles away from them.
It’s going to be great, it has to be.  And I guess if for any reason it’s not, well then look out Eugene.  Or Bend, or Ashland.  Or Flagstaff.
Thanks for reading, and keep sending me stories about Fort Collins, or about how you once quit a shitty job and it turned out to be the best decision you ever made.  The thing that’s getting me through this is support and inspiration.


Anonymous said...

I shall be surprised!!!!! :)- May all the wonderful pluses of FT, CO, out weigh any negatives!!!! every place has good and bad issues!!!! Some just have MORE BAD. Like STL!!!! Still a direct flight back here , so, all will be fine!!!! Keep a positive attitude and all will be good!!!! A new adventure for the Ragfields on the journey of LIFE!! Looking forward to seeing the mountains again!!! Hang on as the road may have a few speed bumps , but as long as you are together as a family ,it will be fine!!! Luv ya, mama

Steve said...

(Jonathan Ashbrook's coworker here, formerly of Fort Collins, in case you're wondering who the creepy stranger is that keeps replying to your tweets and is now commenting on your blog.)

The first time I went to Colorado, for a job interview, it was an ugly cloudy November day. As I was driving up I-25 to Fort Collins, the clouds lifted up and I saw the mountains for the first time, all covered in snow. I just about cried. I maybe really did cry.

Here's the deal. Yeah, it's pretty brown, at least some of the time. You get used to it. Yeah, it doesn't rain much, but on the other hand, it doesn't rain much. The mountains, no, they're not like the Cascades, but they're still pretty great. If you think they're brown and dry, that just means you need to keep on hiking up. Get to a high enough elevation and things get pretty lush and snowy and beautiful. (and the air gets pretty thin, and watch out for storms, but still.)

It does *not* snow 9 months out of the year. At least, not normally. And the snow that falls melts quick. 300 days of sun.

I mean, it's a place. It's not going to knock your socks off, and it has its upsides and downsides, but it's a pretty nice place. Whatever sort of outdoor activity you want to do, someone's out there doing it, inspiring you to get out there.

I've been blessed by good jobs, so I don't have a quitting a shitty job story, but I have twice now quit a good job to take a leap of faith on one I hoped would be better, or in a better place. Both times it was scary as hell, both times it worked out great.

gutzville said...

1) Sometimes happiness finds you, sometimes you have to make your own. Hope you find yours in Ft Co.

2) I really feel like Golden should have the highest beer production in Co even though it only has 1 brewery.
"Adolph Coors Co. - Golden, Colorado This is the largest single brewery in the world, producing up to 22 million barrels of beer each year." wiki
Maybe they were not counting Coors light as beer, which is fair.

3) It's a fancy way to say perpendicular.

EA Quinn said...

I am so happy your Dad's surgery went so well! We have to do something next week - the weather won't be crap and we can actually vegan donut and run/walk.

Melissa said...

Steve: Thank you so much. This is going to be my new mantra-- if I think things are brown and dry, just keep hiking up. Love it.

Melissa said...

John, I know what orthogonal means: Cara, Aimee, and I need to look at each other, nod, and drink some wine.

Melissa said...

EA: I am injured and can't get off the couch much less run or walk. Not coping particularly well with it. But I do want to get together and have that vegan "done."