A Tale of Two Freebox Towns

by Charles Clayton on August 15, 2011

Our corner of the world was parched. The normally reliable monsoon was late. Carson National Forest was flat out closed to all activities due to stage-3 fire restrictions. Just upwind, the largest wildfire in state history was burning uncontrollably in the Jemez Mountains — 300-foot flames were dangerously close to the nation’s largest nuclear laboratory and its 30,000 barrels of “low and medium level” nuclear waste — and we were wondering about what may or may not be floating around in the thick gray smoke we were inhaling. Plus, the weekend happened to be my 39th birthday, my daughter’s 4th and America’s 235th, reasons enough for an impromptu trip. We packed up the family wagon and headed for Colorado in search of cooler weather, fresher air and a taste of the good life in the town of Telluride.

My family and I reside in Taos, New Mexico, right at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost spur of the Rocky Mountains proper. There’s a ski area and lots of tourists. Telluride is nestled at the head of a glacial valley in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, a few miles up valley from where the Rockies give way to the mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau. It also has a ski area and tourists. Both towns have municipal bus systems named after historic regional train lines — the Chile Line and the Galloping Goose. Both have a rich and iconic history emblematic of the great and ever-unfolding tale of the American West, as revealed by their architecture and stellar local museums. Both are epic locales where one can spend a few years working menial jobs and indulging in all the rafting, climbing, skiing, mountain biking and backpacking you might care to partake in. Finally, both towns have a FREEBOX.

In case you haven’t had the pleasure of digging through one, a Freebox is just that: a box full of donated items free for the taking, primarily clothing but other things as well, running the gamut from books and kitchenware to couches and sporting goods. America’s first official Freebox opened for non-business in Berkeley, California in 1969, at the very height of flower power, and the fact that both Taos and Telluride have one epitomizes the way each has been influenced by the hopes of that time: sharing, recycling, generosity and a host of similar hippy-dippy ideals.

Common ground to be sure, but the Freeboxes themselves are very different, and each Freebox is a symbolic microcosm of the town itself — perfect reflections of the unique towns in which they exist.

SPATIAL CONSIDERATIONS

Due to geographical restraints — mountains, mine tailings and designated open space — Telluride is hemmed in on all sides. There is no room for sprawl, so the buildings are tall and packed fairly tightly together in an orderly way, and the streets themselves are smoothly paved and platted out on the classic American grid system. Land is always at a premium — an empty lot might sell for a couple million bucks — so the tiny million-dollar homes are in tiptop shape and all the yards are well tended.

The Freebox reflects this reality perfectly: it sits right downtown, was handcrafted with care, and takes up little space. It’s within walking distance of everywhere else in town, which allows for a spur-of-the-moment perusal, and the organization and lack of clutter makes for easy browsing. If you’re looking for books, check the bookshelf. If you want men’s clothes, look in the men’s box. If you want shoes, then browse the shoe rack. Everything is in its proper place, and dedicated volunteers run it well.

Taos has plenty of room to grow, and was busily doing so right up until the current recession took hold, spreading rapidly outward and across the rolling sagebrush llano. The historic downtown area is fairly dense, but plenty of empty lots are available, and beyond the edge of town, there are acres upon acres of jackrabbit habitat just begging to be bulldozed into another “green” subdivision or slumlord trailer park. The streets are full of potholes and vaguely follow the contours of high ground and rivers; there is certainly no grid or naming pattern to speak of.

So it goes with the Freebox: out in the warehouse district far from downtown, disorganized, and fairly large. In all actuality, there is no “box,” for, like some of the local digs, the Taos Freebox is more akin to an old shack on the back of a dirt lot, and both the shack and the lot are littered with piles of clothes, appliances and furniture sprawling willy-nilly onto the sidewalk and parking area.

SETTING

Telluride has an abundance of postcard scenery. Nab a 20-dollar spot in the town campground. After setting up shop, grab a coffee at a local beanery, sit on the patio and take in the view: waterfalls, aspen groves, cliffs and towering jagged mountains on three sides, all close enough to touch it seems. Indeed, order a burrito to go and start hiking up one of the many well-marked and well-maintained trails at the edge of town. By the time you reach some stellar alpine tundra, that burrito will still be warm. Notice the families riding bicycles down Main Street, and even young kids riding all by themselves. There will also be purebred dogs — poodles and Labs (the official ski-town dog) — being walked by beautiful folks who spend a lot of time outdoors.

When you’re done with your coffee or your hike, stroll around the corner to the Freebox (right across from a real estate office) for some easy pickings: a brand-new pair of Carhartts, leather jackets, barely used hiking boots, brand-name dresses and sweaters, silk shirts. Like the scenery, the Freebox treasures are pretty and easy to see. Just drop by, skim the brand name cream right off the top and go on your merry way. And don’t worry about the weather, because everything is covered by an awning providing shade from the mountain sun and shelter from the rain and snow.

Taos has better coffee, if you can find it hidden in the jumbled mess of stucco and fast food outlets after scrounging for free camping out on BLM land, but the view from the patio is quite different: cement trucks grinding gears, battered low riders blasting hip hop and some burned-over hills in the distance. The burritos are better too, so be sure to get one, but don’t bother trying to hike from town: by the time you scramble up the rutted-out, unmarked (signs instantly knocked down or shotgunned into unreadability) ATV-mangled foothills trails to the first scenic ridgeline, your water bottles will be empty and you’ll have to turn around. You won’t see any kids cruising town on bikes due to the fact that some drunk driver (perhaps even a drunk cement truck driver) would run them down in broad daylight, and the only purebred dogs you’ll see will be pit bulls being walked by scary looking dudes with tattoos on their shaved heads.

Hitch a ride to the Freebox (next to the battered women’s shelter) and see what you find. It ain’t pretty: razor wire, chain-link fencing and garbage, plus entire families huddled in rusted cars and peering through cracked windshields, ready and waiting for that mythical pickup truck load of castoffs to arrive. Go through the gate and start exploring. If you want books, then start digging. If you want women’s clothes, then start digging. If you want shoes, then start digging. Expect to get sweaty and sunburned, and if a summer monsoon rain rolls in, then grab what you want and get out — soon the whole thing will be a giant mildewy mound of soggy polyester and forlorn broken toys.

CHILDREN

From a parent’s perspective, Telluride is like Disneyland: safe, clean and full of fun things for the family to do. For starters, there’s the aforementioned bicycling and hiking right from town, including a lush river trail perfect for strollers and chock full of wildflowers and birds. There’s also the free gondola that offers huge and easy views of this corner of the world, including a glimpse of Utah’s La Sal Mountains far to the west, and when we’re in town, our daughter asks (and gets) to ride it multiple times each day. The town park is well maintained and full of families swimming in the pool, tubing in the river, climbing upon an expansive wooden castle or fishing in the kiddy pond. Many of the adults are responsibly and legally drinking alcohol right in the park while playing riotous games of kickball, a fact that seems to cause no problems. Even the public library is an experience, and the children’s library is flat-out dreamy: a two-story clubhouse, rows of working computers with plenty of interactive reading games, a huge selection of books right at kiddo eye level, dozens of children’s magazines and an engaging story time every other day.

Telluride’s Freebox is as child friendly as the town. There’s a “children’s” section chock full of pint-sized Chacos, frilly French (as in made in France) dresses, designer sweaters and overalls, North Face kids’ gear and plenty of great story books — including, miraculously, two wildlife pop-up books that some parent had painstakingly patched up with scotch tape. There’s even a beautiful mosaic on the wall next to the Freebox, created by local students and funded by local businesses, which lends the place an aura of community and respectability.

Taos isn’t quite so family friendly. As I mentioned, bicycling can be deadly. Beer cans and liquor bottles litter every roadside, and there’s not a single stretch of public trail anywhere in town. There is a town park and it’s got some stately shady cottonwoods in it, but there’s gang graffiti scratched or “tagged” on every flat surface, and the stinky pit toilets are a bit too close to the playground, if you know what I’m saying. Plus, the town maintenance crews don’t seem to make the park a priority: some thoughtful soul spray-painted “EAT PUSSY” and “JESUS FUCKS” on a very visible wall right next to the kids’ baseball fields not long ago, and it took the town months to cover it up. And don’t even try to crack open a can of beer in the park — it’s illegal, and for good reason, since alcohol consumption at a little league game would likely lead to a stabbing or shooting. The public library? Well, let’s just say that the children’s library is tiny, the reading games nonexistent, the staff desultory and the weekly story hour boring due to the fact that some well-meaning but stuffy volunteer reads in the most monotone voice imaginable.

Likewise, the Taos Freebox is about as kid friendly as a dogfight. There are plenty of kid items to be sure, but they’re almost always broken or missing important pieces, and few needy mothers have the time or energy to dig through the clothing, especially when a town ordinance requires that kids be left in the car — seems a two-year-old darted out into the road last year and was promptly crushed and dragged (hit and run) beneath a muscle car driven by a coked up construction worker — hence the no-kids rule, as well as the impromptu shrine set up in the parking area. That heartbreaking shrine symbolizes our completely dysfunctional local society: a little girl gets run down by a drugged up high school dropout while a poverty-stricken single mother tries to score some free clothing for her family.

No kids on bikes because it’s too dangerous. Gangs, drugs and drunk driving galore. Failing public schools. Grinding poverty. Corrupt local governance that brushes problems under the rug. High cost of living yet poor public services … Taos is a horrible place to raise children, and as much as we love it here, the facts of life in this town often lead to thoughts about packing up and fleeing to some sort of magical land where the streets are safe and a kid can still be a kid. Indeed, every time we visit Telluride (or Colorado in general), usually during the peak of summer wildflowers and tundra greenery, we decide that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We look into art galleries for my wife, teaching positions for myself, schooling for our daughter, and by the time we’re packing up to head back to Taos, it’s with every intention of returning to the Centennial State, this time for good.

But it never happens. We get back home, settle into our lives, and gradually remember what brought us here in the first place: elbow room, four easy seasons, conversation about things other than skiing and a unique mix of cultures and people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds. Unlike Telluride, where the early hippies won their culture war and pushed out the locals (only to be pushed out themselves a couple decades later), Taos hippies who stuck it out in the face of violent hostility were forced to become part of the existing community. The freaks didn’t stand a chance of winning in Taos, but they never left either, and their tenacity and ideals shape the place to this day. Artists visit the destitute trailer parks so immigrant children can work on a painting project. Rock climbers take at-risk youth out to the local crags. Organic farmers invite school kids out to the land to learn where their food comes from. Midwives keep the birthing process affordable and real. Nothing comes easy in Taos, but folks here rise to the occasion and do their humble bit to make the place just a little bit better, a little bit brighter.

Telluride is idyllic, but, like the local Indians, who were shipped off to Utah, the working class and social problems have been pushed down to Norwood, or all the way to Montrose. If you can afford to raise a family in Telluride, then you don’t have much to worry about, for like the town itself, you’re clean, white and at least moderately well off — certainly able to occasionally pass on some material wealth to the Freebox. Taos is dark, dirty and all mixed up, and most of its citizens struggle to make ends meet, but, like its Freebox, it offers plenty of hidden gems that reveal themselves to those willing to stick it out long enough to see beyond the proverbial dirty laundry. Hidden meadows along unnamed creeks. Cowboys that still herd cows. Chats at the trailhead with John Nichols. That first invitation to a feast on the Pueblo. A handmade fiesta dress as a gift for your daughter. Misfits living in yurts, teepees, school buses and caves — things you’d be hard pressed to find in a high-fallutin’ Colorado ski town.

All this, plus the sunsets. No matter where in Colorado we’re departing from, by the time we make the final turn east towards the Sangre De Cristo Range, the mountains are turning their namesake color, the sagebrush is glowing buttery gold, and I’ll be damned if there isn’t ALWAYS a rainbow or flashy lightning storm hovering right above our adopted home town. At that moment, life in the Land of Enchantment seems downright glorious, and my wife and I know we picked the right place to put down some roots.


Charles Clayton is a father, schoolteacher and slightly reformed vagabond whose writings appear in various regional publications. He is a frequent contributor to the Mountain Gazette and occasionally publishes a ’zine called GRANOLA SANDWICH. For more musings and commentary go to www.granolasandwich.com. He lives in Taos, New Mexico.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen August 15, 2011 at 9:05 pm

There is more in Telluride of what you claim only Taos has. Next trip here, you need to get out of the box canyon. Plenty of freaks, etc. Only recently did Telluride do away with the bus village on the north hillside. Plenty of teepees and yurts too- you gotta look a bit further than the canyon walls.
Good article on the freebox- it provides me with 75% of what I need. I love ‘shopping’ the freebox. I give back plenty too. And yes, with voluteer help it stays nice. Oh, and the freebox is NOT located across from a real estate office- it’s across from a bank, dentist, orthodontist and offices.

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Brendan August 25, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Charlie,

That was awesome. The kids and I also escaped to Telluride during the smoke. Mi hija raced her bike on the mountain. I drove right past the entrance to the ski area because I thought it was the entrance to country club. Pay to park? Once we got settled we had a blast. The place is perfect in so many ways. By Sunday I had a bellyache like a kid in a candy store. Driving into Taos, with all it’s flaws, always brings a sense of relief; home.

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Cheryl Cross November 4, 2011 at 3:27 pm

So beautifully written, Charlie. You definitely have a gift.

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Melissa Larson November 12, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Very funny. Every thing’s to be seen and everything exists. Even cooperation exists at the freebox. (As opposed to corporation, like the big-box superdollar they propose at the base of Taos Mountain.) We need to be careful what we care for. It is a social experiment, to see if people can support and take care of their best resources. Those who want to abuse it or spoil it for others, must be stood up to; not cower away in retreat. We all know there are social problems like greed and not cleaning up the mess. Some just want others to do it and won’t give anything to help. In the long run that wont’ work. If you want to save something , or keep it free- let’s get together to help SAVE the FREEbox. It’s about recycling and sustainability – for the people.

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