Basalt of the Earth

The Roaring Fork Valley of Western Colorado is home to a world-class ski resort and some of the best flyfishing in the state. It’s also home to a number of people who are struggling to make ends meet.

“We have people here who don’t have food, and folks who are living three families to a trailer,” says Rev. Marie Gasau of the Basalt Community United Methodist Church, located just 16.8 miles from glamorous Aspen, Colo. “You have people who are just shocked…when we talk about what’s actually happening.”

When I first heard Rev. Gasau share about the state of her community last fall, I was intrigued. I’d recently completed The Sweep Report about Broomfield, Colo., so hearing her describe her community sounded like a tape recording of me describing mine. Although I had grown up associating the Aspen area with affluence, movie stars and expensive meals, the story she told during a conference call in which we both participated did not surprise me much. (I’ve visited the Valley twice in my life: once as a kid to fish the Frying Pan River below Ruedi Reservoir with my dad, and once 10 or so years ago during a staff retreat when we stayed in a nearby town.)

Fast-forward to this month. Peter Lively, a filmmaker friend of mine and I spoke with Rev. Gasau for about an hour via a three-way phone call. We suspect there is a larger story here that needs to be told, and Peter hopes to be able to fund a documentary about it. (Hopefully, I’ll have more news to share on that front in a future post.)

According to Rev. Gasau, the small towns dotting Highway 82 northwest of Aspen have become the Valley’s version of suburbs. “The worker bees in Aspen used to live here [in Basalt], but now they’re moving farther and farther away and driving two to three hours a day to work and back.”

Besides a sluggish economy that has recently forced the children of long-time Valley families to move away and led to the planned closure of the one grocery store in Basalt, Rev. Gasau points to the need for wages that match the cost of living in the valley and dignified treatment for workers who provide goods and services.

What’s encouraging are the multitude of connections Rev. Gasau has made in the Valley through her work advocating for her neighbors in need. During her 18 years in Basalt, she’s worked with local foundations, public schools, local business owners, ecumenical faith communities, and city and county officials from one corner of the Roaring Fork Valley to the other. In 2011, Rev. Gasau banded with four middle school students to encourage the City of Basalt to join the “Compassionate City” campaign. Her church also hosts twelve 12-step groups every week.

Rev. Gasau says Basalt is similar to her last parish, in Kansas City, Kan., which despite its proximity to wealthy Johnson County, Kan., struggled with the same issues: lack of affordable housing and a lack of a livable wage for entry-level workers. “We keep calling this a rural area, and yet we’ve got the issues of the inner city,” she says. “Don’t get me started on substance abuse. You can find any drug on any street corner at any time of day or night, up and down this Valley.”

Although she lives with lymphedema, a debilitating and often misdiagnosed disorder, Rev. Gasau, 61, exudes energy and passion, “I really believe in what we’re doing here, and believe it could be replicated in other places.”

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