Red Cliff, CO
All words and music by Jackson Emmer. Photos by Olivia Emmer.
Project generously sponsored by Mallory Parks and the Green Bridge Inn.
The West Side of town, where the two roads head back towards the main highway.
In July of 2017, I spent three days in the small mountain town of Red Cliff, Colorado. I was their "Songwriter in Residence," interviewing locals and elders, and learning about the history of the town. While there, I wrote and recorded two songs based on what I'd learned (scroll down to listen). I spent hours reading Red Cliff lore and cross-referencing residents' stories against what I'd find in books or tales told to me by other locals. The truth was difficult to pin down.
I'd often ask people, "What is the heart of Red Cliff? What's it really all about?" Each had a different, rambling answer, but usually summed things up by saying "I don't know... This place is just magic." I couldn't agree more. The spirit of Red Cliff is as elusive and extraordinary as any canyon, tornado, or river bed, and, it's a place defined as much by its natural beauty, as it is by the people who inhabit it.
Red Cliff has wrestled with change since its inception. First a spartan mining camp in 1879, the population quickly climbed to 250 people. Colorado's silver, lead, and zinc mining craze had begun, and Red Cliff was nestled in the heart of it. By 1880 they had a post office, The Battle Mountain Smelter, and Burt & York's saw mill. In 1881, the Rio Grande railroad reached Red Cliff and opened for freight and passenger service, and by 1883 the town was declared the Eagle County Seat. Like many boomtowns, a bust was inenvitable, and in 1921 they lost the County Seat to the town of Eagle, whose population was growing more quickly.
The past 90 years haven't been documented well, but these days, Red Cliff serves as a bedroom community for nearby Vail Resort. Residents have mixed feelings about this, and a lot to say about it, as you'll read below.
This is the story of a frontier town, its growth, decay, and rebirth.
- Jackson Emmer -
WARNING: The interviews and stories below contain profanity.
Episode 1 - The Reno
Me, standing on the balcony of the Green Bridge Inn, looking over downtown Red Cliff.
"One year, 1979, I was the only white guy who could get into town."
(Another local chimes in) "He may not look white, but he’s white."
Who were the people in town?
Who are the people of color who aren’t letting white people into town?
You said you’re the only white person who could come into Red Cliff in 1979, so what were the other people?
"You mean who lived in Red Cliff?"
"Mexicans. And Summit County decided to hire a cop for Red Cliff and send him in. They bought him a new car. He showed up at the Reno- do you know where the Reno was?"
What’s the Reno?
"¡This guy’s supposed to write a song about Red Cliff and he doesn’t even know where the Reno is!"
I’m here to learn. Tell me.
"The Reno was a tough bar. Very rough. This used to be a very tough town. Anyway, the cop stops by the Reno, in his new car, just to introduce himself to everybody in town and tell them why he’s here. After he gets back in his car, a few guys drag him out, steal his gun, pants him, and tell him to stay the fuck out of town. We haven’t had police here since."
It was my first night in town, and the two guys at the bar tell me this story with little prompting. I don't have the heart to tell them we'd met two years ago, at the same bar, and they told me the same story.
Episode 2 - All I Did Was Ask
Above the once-red cliffs for which the town is named, there's a graveyard high on the hill. It's a nice place to walk, with views that overlook the town.
Early the next day, I meet a woman who complains that her neighbor called the cops on her for setting off fireworks last weekend. She says it's over between them. Her trust is broken.
Three minutes later, I discover a book in the lending library on the low shelves near the front windows of the general store. "All I Did Was Ask" by Terry Gross. The text becomes my guiding light as I interview people.
It's 8am. I'm drinking coffee and writing in my hotel room. The innkeeper calls to say I should come back down to the store. Bob, local eighty-year-old piano virtuoso and nice guy, has brought in a watercolor he acquired from a Red Cliff artist a couple years ago. He's just stopped by to show it off. Bob's a retired school teacher and postal worker. Plays for churches and weddings every weekend. Later that day, after lunch, he performs a medley of ten songs for me on the battered upright piano at Mango's. I've never heard music that good, before or since. It was perfection, dripping with eighty years of soul. Two days later, before I pack the car to leave Red Cliff, he tells me over coffee:
"It was 1964, and I really wanted to buy the new Cadillac. I wanted it so bad. But, I needed a place to live too. This batch of land, and the houses on them, became available as part of an estate sale. I bought the land, the four houses, but never got the caddy. That was a beautiful car."
Seems like it's worked out ok.
"People often ask me about my estate. What I'm going to give to who when I go."
That's a bit rude, isn't it?
"It's unmannerly, yes. Not surprising though. That's how people are. The part I find most interesting is that they want something for free, the painting for example, but don't ask for it directly."
Hmm. So what do you tell them?
"I tell them we'll see...
First, they'll have to outlive me."
Episode 3 - Don't Put Me In Your Book
The old schoolhouse building, now home to the town offices, town museum, and a few artist studios.
"Don’t put me in your book” he told me as I walked away. I’d just been having a friendly conversation with this guy on the streets of Red Cliff, so figured I’d better turn around to make sure I heard him right.
“Did you say, DON’T, put you in?”
“Yeah. I’d prefer to remain anonymous. That’s how I like it.”
A paradoxical statement coming from a guy who lives in a town of only 300 people. Everybody knows each other. But almost no one in the outside world seems to have a clue where Red Cliff is. Nor do they care. As per his request, he’ll remain anonymous.
“Ok, I promise I won’t put you in, but I’d like to relay the stories you told me. Is that cool?”
He gave me a long look. Without a word, I knew he was thinking: “I just told you a lot of personal stuff, and you made me a promise, but I hardly know you, and I don’t really trust you, but I don’t have a choice at this point, so please keep your word, or I’ll have to fucking kill you.”
Ten minutes prior, I’d been walking down a street towards the Town Museum when he called me over to introduce himself. I told him I was in town for a few days, writing songs about Red Cliff and its history (not a book, as he misremembers). He told me he’s lived here since the 60’s, and says everyone who’s moved here in the past ten years doesn’t know shit. He says they have no respect, drive too fast, and toss spent beer bottles in his bins.
“Red Cliff is just above the confluence of two rivers. It’s an incredible town. This place rules. It used to get so cold here, we’d have to run our faucets all winter to keep them from freezing. When I run my water, where do you think it goes? Down to the sanitation plant, then right back in the river. The county charges us $125 a month for water. We’re at the source. Downvalley, 30 miles away, my buddy pays $25 a month. What do you think about that?”
“I don’t know yet. What do you think about that?”
“I think it’s bullshit!”
He tells me this town used to be all Hispanic and Latino, and they couldn’t hold their liquor. They used to have dances up in the old school house and fights broke out all the time. I asked him about a rumor I’d heard about a county deputy getting pants’d in 1979. He says, “See, that’s what I’m talking about. These new people here are telling lies. They don’t know what happened.”
He says it was probably '72 or '73, and a fight broke out at the dance, a really good, even, bloody fight. When the cop tried to break it up, the guys turned on him and broke his leg. He got back in his car and peeled away. That was the last time Red Cliff had a police force. He tells me the cop drove a 65’ Chevy, and he remembers that because it was specifically NOT a sparkling new car.
I figured it was about time for me to move along, so I said: "Thanks for talking with me, and for catching me up on Red Cliff's history a bit."
"Man, you don't know shit."
"That's true. Thanks for the stories, regardless."
"Don't put me in your book."
Episode 4 - You Wouldn't Last Here
Charming home, backyard shack, and lawn decorations.
"The yuppies are ruining Red Cliff. This is the last lawless town in America. We didn’t have no cops here in Red Cliff. If you wanted to be a tough guy in this town, you had to be a tough guy. If you weren’t tough, you’d have the get the fuck out. Like you, you wouldn’t last here, you’d get the shit beat out of you. Like all these privileged little kids. Fuck. Their parents paying for everything, buying them houses. Like you, did your dad pay for your house?"
"No? Ok. Where do you live?"
Asheville, North Carolina.
"Oh. Ok. Do you have a girlfriend here, a boyfriend?"
"What are you doing here?"
I’m just here for a few days, writing songs.
"Oh right, I remember. Well these fucking privileged kids-"
What does this have to do with the police in Red Cliff?
"The police never came here, until the yuppie kids started moving in, and when they have trouble, their parents call the cops. Now, the police are here all the time. Every time the police come to Red Cliff, the town gets charged for the visit. We pay for it."
What do you think about that?
"I think it’s bullshit."
Final Episode - His Wife's Money
He says he’s a Feelings Teacher, a School Psych. He used to be a Teacher Teacher, taught in schools for ten years, but got tired of the politics and sees this as his way out. He’s an intern, studying, and bartending to make ends meet. He owns a Rottweiler, and most landlords don’t trust “Rotties,” so he could only find two apartments that would accept him in the area. One was in Eagle, the other, Red Cliff. Now he tends bar at Mango’s, the only place in town. Told me the business is owned by Tim, who uses Red Cliff as a home for his wife’s money.
He tells me that Tim told him that, just so I know it’s not gossip or bullshit. It’s definitely gossip. He tells me Tim’s wife is a CEO for some big company, and they're nuts about Red Cliff. They built the two main businesses in town, and have been here for over ten years. It’s amazing how quickly the bartender has his finger on the pulse- however muddy the details.
The bartender also went off about how some guy is trying to build a ski lift from Red Cliff over to Vail. Doing this would change the town. You wouldn’t need to drive a winding mountain road to get here, you’d just sit on a chairlift. You could ride over for dinner. This would change things, and make everyone’s investment in Red Cliff pay off.
It's a devil's bargain. Longtime locals enjoyed the town as it was. The Wild West. They're averse to new money coming in, but those who own land also have their fingers crossed for the moment they get to cash out. Most locals I spoke with don't want to accept any responsibility for having allowed a ski lift to be installed in town, but would prefer to fast forward to the part where they sell their double-wide for $500k and retire to New Mexico.
Only one person I interviewed told me they'd be sad to leave.
Decommissioned BNSF Railway hugs the mountainside on the way from the Eagle Valley towards downtown. The cliffs to the right above the rail (which you can't see in the photo) used to be red colored quartzite, for which the town was named. Before the rail was closed in the 1990's, years of rail service stained the red cliffs black. On certain days, in certain light, you can almost see the original iron hue.
The Battle of Red Cliff
by Su Tung-po
The Battle of Red Cliff
by Su Tung-po
The great river surges east.
Its waves have scoured away
since time began, all traces of heroic men.
The western side of the old fort was once
( so people say )
known as the Red Cliff of Zhou of the Three Kingdoms.
With piled-up rocks to stab the sky
and waves to shake them, thunderously.
Churning frothy mass to mounds of snow,
It's like a masterpiece in paint.
Those ages hide how many a hero-
Think back to those old days,
that first year when Zhou Yu had just married the Young Qiao...
Then, what a hero he became!
With waving fan and silken cap,
he talked and laughed at ease
while masts and oars were blotted out in smoke and flame.
My wits that stray to realms of old
deserve the scorn of all who endure.
Years pass, and hair grows white so soon.
Though a man's life is like a dream,
One toast continues still — the River and the Moon!
All words and music by Jackson Emmer. Good photos by Olivia Emmer.
Lousy, slideshow photos by Jackson Emmer.
Project generously sponsored by Mallory Parks and the Green Bridge Inn.
Copyright 2017. All rights reserved. Jackson A Emmer & Olivia G Siegel / Olivia Emmer
Poem "Battle of Red Cliff" written by Su Tung-po, translated by Anon and Jackson Emmer.
Thank you, Red Cliff. I love you.