Upon arriving at the parking lot of a PetSmart near the city’s Mesa Mall, we each put on masks, in accord with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Back in May, the CDC had announced that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer needed to don face coverings when at public indoor spots. But with the rise of the more transmissible and dangerous Delta variant, the agency had just reversed this advice and was urging individuals to mask up in areas with substantial or high disease spread whether they’ve been immunized or not. And Mesa County, which has by far the most confirmed Delta variant cases in Colorado, as well as a distressingly low vaccination rate, certainly qualified.
We were definitely in the minority when it came to mouth-and-nose exposure at PetSmart. Aside from us, only a single employee was masked, and we clearly stood out from other patrons. Seconds after our arrival, a tall, sixty-something biker dude with long gray hair and a wife-beater shirt that afforded an unencumbered view of his heavily tattooed arms walked past and dramatically scoffed at us. His “ugh” was meant to be overheard: The rush of air he emitted sounded like a backfire from his chopper.
I was the opposite of surprised by this reaction. After all, Grand Junction is my hometown. I lived there until I was in my early twenties, remaining until I graduated from Mesa College, now rebranded as Colorado Mesa University. And throughout the decades that followed, I’ve come back often to visit family and friends — as was to be expected, given a rural legend known to generations of Junctionites.
According to the “Grand Valley dirt curse,” the area was hexed by members of the Ute tribe when they were forced to relocate to a Utah reservation. As a result, anyone born in the area is supposedly fated to return unless they take some sand to their new destination — and I didn’t.
When I was a kid, Grand Junction had around a third of its current population, estimated in 2019 at more than 62,000.
But despite the many changes that have taken place since then in the city, and in Mesa County (now the home of more than 150,000 people), there’s plenty that remains the same, for good or ill. And as has been the case my entire life, the basic character of the place is widely misunderstood by folks in places like Denver — whom plenty of GJ residents take pride in despising.
This time last year, Mesa County had some of the lowest COVID-19 totals for cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the state. Indeed, Grand Junction once seemed like the city the virus forgot. The deterioration of the situation since then prompts a simple question: “What the hell happened?”
The answers may puzzle outsiders. But to those of us from Grand Junction, they make perfect sense.
My dad was the principal at multiple Mesa County elementary schools, while my mom was a staffer at Grand Junction’s Chamber of Commerce on and off from the late 1950s until the 1980s. I used to refer to her as Grand Junction’s cheerleader, and she was certainly qualified for the gig, since she jumped into the job straight from Grand Junction High School, where she’d been on the pom-pom squad.
I was born in 1961, a year before Grand Junction’s redesign of Main Street downtown into a pedestrian-friendly shopping park earned it the National Civic League’s All-America City designation, and growing up there during that period fit the contours of the prototypical small-town experience. As a kindergartner, I walked the half a mile or so to school and back by myself — the kind of thing that might prompt a call to social services today — and when I was a bit older, I tossed copies of the Daily Sentinel newspaper onto neighborhood porches. Our house, which I shared with my parents and sister, Trudy, was so close to Mesa College that the institution eventually bought the property as part of an expansion project. Two giant buildings presently flank the plot; my boyhood home was pulverized to make room for a drainage grate.
As this last turn of events suggests, there could be a disconnect between Grand Junction’s fantasy and reality. The Grand Valley is flat-out gorgeous given its proximity to the Colorado National Monument, the geological feature dubbed the Bookcliffs and the peach orchards of nearby Palisade. But there was a notable lack of diversity across the county. With rare exceptions, the handful of Black residents were athletic recruits to the college who got out as soon as they could, and many Latinos found opportunities to be few and far between. It didn’t take much for the conservatism that dominated the political landscape to tip into narrow-mindedness or worse.
Author and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the most famous person from the area (he was born in Montrose but came of age in GJ), cast a jaundiced eye on the community in 1935’s Eclipse, a novel whose main characters were based on real-life movers and shakers in town. The book’s implicit criticism of Grand Junction (presciently called “Shale City”) and Trumbo’s politics — he was later a member of the Hollywood Ten, who were blacklisted for their alleged Communist sympathies — prevented him from being celebrated as a favorite son until 2007, when a statue duplicating a famous photo of him writing in a bathtub was unveiled.
It didn’t take much for the conservatism that dominated the political landscape to tip into narrow-mindedness or worse.
My gripes about Grand Junction during my transition from junior high to high school were much less hifalutin than Trumbo’s. Even though GJ no doubt seemed like the big city to my peers in places such as Delta and close-by Fruita, there were precious few entertainment options during the 51 weeks a year when the annual Junior College World Series wasn’t happening. Local radio was terrible for anyone who didn’t think Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” was a work of genius, good bands never came to town (my first concert was — eeesh — Pablo Cruise), and you had to be eighteen to get into Suds N Sounds, a nightclub that served awful 3.2 beer. Moreover, Fun Junction, a small, family-owned amusement venue, seemed rinky-dink compared to theme parks like Elitch Gardens, though it did afford a view of the screen at the nearby Chief Drive-In, which sometimes showed risqué fare; I have particularly strong memories of glimpsing part of Chatterbox, about a talking vagina, from the miniature golf course.
Mainly, young people went to the movies, boozed or went shooting. Binge drinking was practically a vocation for many, and pickup owners without a gun rack across the rear window were viewed with suspicion.
Getting into Mesa College wasn’t exactly a challenge; in those days, every Grand Junction High School graduate was sent an acceptance letter whether they applied or not. Being too terrified to venture to godless Boulder to attend the University of Colorado, I enrolled at Mesa, and it was a great decision. I discovered that there actually was a good radio station in town (KMSA, the campus FM signal, where I deejayed for four wonderful years), not to mention a theater program so fine that my dreadful acting couldn’t bring it down, a first-rate student newspaper (the Criterion) and a multimedia department that led to an internship at local KREX-TV, where I was put on the air my second day.
The pay at the station wasn’t great: Because the anchor at the time had to moonlight at a local restaurant, The Winery, to make ends meet, viewers could hear him read off the daily specials right after he delivered the headlines on the late-afternoon newscast. But that was part of Grand Junction’s charm. Those who judged the town on a surface level overlooked its many layers — and while some of them were terrible, many others were marvelous.
“We start by talking about the quality of life,” she says. “There are incredible opportunities for outdoor recreation, as well as a strong family culture. If you’re a business, being able to attract and keep employees is becoming increasingly important, and living in an environment like ours makes that easier. And we’ve also seen a considerable number of remote workers coming into the area. If you’ve determined that you can fly back and forth to your Silicon Valley office once or twice a month, why not live where you can look out your window and see the Bookcliffs?”
In the 1950s, Grand Junction’s economy was built on uranium, and so was much of the town. Radioactive mill tailings were used for home foundations, the city’s main golf course and plenty of other sites; it had to be removed at great expense long after the period when tourists would happily stay at the Uranium Motel, whose fluorescent sign proudly featured a groovy atomic symbol. But the biggest financial cataclysm of the past half-century was “Black Sunday.” On May 2, 1982, Exxon essentially killed the local oil-shale business by laying off 2,200 employees in one fell swoop.
The shadow of that day lingers in the memory of Grand Junction boosters such as Schwenke, and has influenced policy ever since. “The one big lesson we learned from Black Sunday is, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,’” she stresses. “Since the 1980s, we’ve been diversifying our economic base. We have legacy industries, like agriculture and mineral extraction, but we also have an emerging tech sector and growing tourism.”
And then there’s health care. The presence of St. Mary’s Hospital, whose main location is the tallest building in the city, and a desert climate that compares to Arizona’s are big reasons that Grand Junction promotes itself as a retirement destination, and the campaign has been enormously successful.
These observations are echoed by Chuck McDaniel, mayor of Grand Junction. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve done better than we thought we would from the perspective of city government,” he notes. “We really prepared hard to weather the economic downtown from the pandemic, and we saw some substantial changes in our sales tax revenues in March, April and May of 2020. But they started to rebound, and we finished the year not far off from what we thought they were going to be before everything happened. And our real estate market is quite hot.”
McDaniel knows that Denver sophisticates tend to view residents of Grand Junction and the Western Slope as “kind of provincial, sort of even backward, and super-conservative — and there’s certainly a large element of very conservative people,” he says. “There’s been some pushback of people who think the governor and the state government are dictating some of their personal freedoms — like masks, for instance. Nobody’s ever mandated vaccinations, but people will talk about how ‘They can’t make me do this.’”
Enstrom didn’t immediately move into a leadership role with the company. In the 1980s, he purchased AirTime Records and Video, where I worked for several years (and became good friends with him as a result). Along with LPs and VHS tapes, we sold a number of what were then euphemized as “lifestyle products” — like pipes in which you could smoke whatever you pleased (really!) and baby laxative that may or may not have ever been used to regulate the digestive system of constipated toddlers. He received a summons for this sideline in 1985 that was dismissed after he promised to stop peddling the items. But the issue arose again in 2012, when supporters of his opponent in the state representative race for House District 23 put out ads portraying the “Candy Man” as a pimp for cocaine and drug paraphernalia.
Enstrom lost that election, but he’s won others, including his bid for a spot on the Mesa County Commission in 1978, when he was just 24; he also served as state wildlife commissioner in the Bill Owens administration from 1999 to 2007. He remains a behind-the-scenes powerhouse in the Colorado Republican Party, acting as something of a consigliere for Lauren Boebert, who represents Grand Junction, Mesa County and the rest of Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. Some pundits thought Boebert’s flirtations with QAnon and other extremism would prove too toxic for even the 3rd’s decidedly right-wing electorate, but Enstrom was confident enough to bet any doubters a burrito that she’d emerge victorious. “I won a hell of a lot of burritos from the working press on that bet, 90 percent of which I have yet to collect,” he recalls with a laugh. “In Lauren Boebert’s first tweet after she was elected, she said she just wanted to see how many burritos Rick Enstrom was going to get.”
The wagers weren’t a risk from Enstrom’s perspective. He knew Boebert was going to win, because she had a unique appeal to people in burgs like Grand Junction: She’s bold, brassy, packs heat (the waitstaff at her Rifle diner, Shooters Grille, are armed with loaded pistols), and she doesn’t take shit from anyone. In this respect, he feels she has a lot in common with the hearty souls who founded Grand Junction back in 1882.
“That country was settled the hard way, and those values don’t go away slowly,” Enstrom contends. “If you wanted to settle in Grand Junction back then, you had to be committed. But we see that all across rural Colorado — and even though Grand Junction is a lot more urban than it used to be, it’s really rural at heart. And people in those kinds of pioneering communities do not like to get bossed around.”
That’s why Mesa County Public Health, the agency tasked with responding to COVID-19 in the area, has used soft-sell techniques to promote safety measures. As communications coordinator Stefany Busch says, “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to putting protocols in place.”
By way of an example, Busch offers the Five Star program, which was conceived and developed in Mesa County before being rolled out statewide last year. The idea was that restaurants and other businesses would pledge to enact strict, COVID-smart regulations regarding social distancing, sanitizing and more in order to earn a Five Star designation intended to reassure potential customers worried about the virus. “We didn’t force anything on anyone,” Busch stresses. “We didn’t say, ‘We’re closing this’ or ‘We’re closing that.’ We just said, ‘If people want further protocols, you can visit these businesses, and here’s a way of advertising to customers who you want to see and who want to see you.’”
The underlying theme of the Five Star program was “choice,” Busch points out. “We weren’t telling anyone what they had to do. They could choose to go to these businesses, but they didn’t have to. It was up to them.”
Employing the it’s-your-choice philosophy with vaccinations has been trickier, Busch acknowledges. MCPH is collecting community feedback for a new campaign that staffers hope will be more effective than previous tactics. But in the meantime, the county is having the most success it’s seen in months with the offer of $100 Walmart gift cards that Governor Jared Polis recently announced for those willing to be jabbed.
“We have one of the Colorado Comeback buses specifically for Mesa County, and previous to the gift cards, we might have had fifteen to thirty people a day get vaccinated,” Busch says. “But at the ones where the gift cards are being offered, we’re seeing seventy to ninety. So that’s been so exciting for us.”
Still, she adds, “We have a lot of independent folks who live here — a strong pulse of agriculture, farmers, people who don’t live around a lot of neighbors, people who value their freedom. So we want to provide other avenues for people who might feel differently.”
An extended tour of Main Street downtown — including a visit to the Enstrom’s retail outlet, a couple of blocks from the commemorative statue of co-founders Chet and Vernie Enstrom — was just as non-confrontational. A few people were even wearing masks outside, and everyone we encountered was in live-and-let-live mode. No anger. No vitriol.
This attitude was also on view at City Market, a King Soopers sister store. In the produce section, we observed a pair of St. Mary’s Hospital employees wearing name tags and masks. They went about their shopping rather than proselytizing, but they subtly served as a good example.
Public officials like Mesa County Public Health’s Busch, as well as the Chamber of Commerce’s Schwenke and Mayor McDaniel, all talk about how Grand Junction and the surrounding communities were hit by the Delta variant earlier than most of the state, catching folks off-guard — but the pace of cases is finally starting to decline. If that continues, there’s hope that the Grand Valley won’t be a COVID-19 pariah for much longer.
Until then, people who live elsewhere will keep wondering why longtime locals and seniors who moved from elsewhere to settle in Grand Junction partly because of its superior medical care appear to view immunizations against a disease to which they’re uniquely vulnerable as a personal affront. But if you have to ask, you’ll never know.