On the Hunt for a Retirement Spot: A Day Trip to Westcliffe

I’ve had a terrible case of spring fever this year, so instead of attending my last academic meeting before summer break,  I submitted personal leave on Friday so Mike and I could make a day trip to a beautiful Colorado location we haven’t seen before. We decided on Westcliffe, a town about 70 miles southwest of Colorado Springs. The purpose was twofold: enjoy an outing and scout out potential retirement locales.

You might argue that my retirement planning is premature. After all, I’m still 7 ½ years from being 60. Financially, I should probably work until I’m 65—or at least hold out until a respectable 62. On the other hand, Mike is 17 years older than I am and has been retired for several years (after 33 years with the DoD and the military). We’d like a few years to relax together before he faces the challenges associated with old age.

I also think it’s a good for educators to be aware of their expiration dates—or at least I should be. As I age, I’m finding the generation gap between most of my students and me is significant.  As much as I care about them, I’ve never been one of those professors whose egos and lives are caught up in my profession. I do my job to the best of my abilities, but it’s my family life that really sustains me. I know intuitively that by 60, after 36 years in the classroom, I’ll need to pass the baton to my younger colleagues and get out of the way.

Indeed, it may take us 7 ½ years to find a suitable place for retirement. We love Colorado Springs, but we wonder whether we’ll fit in as older people. I already detest the traffic and crazy drivers who tailgate me even when I’m doing ten miles an hour over the speed limit. I wonder how treacherous driving will become for me when my reflexes begin to diminish. Also, we live out east, twelve miles from Colorado Springs, where we could afford a really nice home and 35 acres. As older people, we would probably need to move in closer to town, but we cannot imagine living in most of the over-developed communities we see—comfortable homes in many cases, but with no yards and minimal privacy from neighbors.

One of my best friends keeps telling me I should consider moving to St. George, Utah, to the retirement community where her parents live. It’s one of those “active adult” places, where people are swimming laps and playing pickle-ball until they’re 105. The community is beautiful, but it might be too intense for Mike and me. If only someone would build a non-active, but not totally decrepit, adult retirement community for people like us. I mean, I like the concept of riding a golf cart to the grocery store the way they do at The Villages in Florida, but I don’t actually want to play golf or be rear-ended by some Type-A golf buggy speed demon who thinks my cart driving speed is too slow for the young-at-heart senior subdivision crowd. I think I’d rather just stay put and risk an automobile crash on Powers Boulevard.

I crave the slow-paced tranquility of small-town life and would like to retire to a little community like the one in Alabama where I grew up. I want an authentic small town, where a geezer brigade of old men drink coffee and talk politics at the local diner. I want to be the likeable old lady who attends football games, band concerts, and plays at the local high school. I want to go to Homecoming and Labor Day parades and see flat-bed trailer floats constructed with a lot of crepe paper, glitter, and chicken wire. Unfortunately, many of America’s small towns are dying, so it’s hard to find precisely what I’m looking for.

I’d move east if Mike were agreeable, either back to Alabama or some “uncool” place like Marysville, Kansas. However, now that Mike has achieved his dream of moving west, I don’t think I’ll ever get him to return. He loves the mountains of Colorado. He’ll be laid to rest someplace where he can spend eternity staring up at snowy peaks.

Other small Colorado towns like Salida and Buena Vista are lovely but a little too touristy and “active lifestyley” to suit our tastes. Again, I worry about crowds and being run over when I go to the market by all the kayakers, zip-liners, and canoers on their way to recreational nirvana. I want laid back, a place where I have a group of friends willing to sip (swill?) wine, form a book club, take a leisurely walk in the park, maybe plan an overseas holiday once every couple of years, but who leave us alone the rest of the time. (Nothing personal. We just want quiet, solitude, and a slower pace.)

That’s why Mike and I headed over to Westcliffe, thinking the town might be a good compromise between both our tastes. We were generally pleased with the overall atmosphere. In many respects, it’s what we’re looking for: one grocery store, one hardware store, and an authentic small-town feel. There is some development going on for retirees, but it’s not over developed–yet.

We ate lunch at the Mexican restaurant on Main Street. The food was . . . not good. The cook burned the rice, and the chicken and pork fajitas we ordered were horribly bland. However, the waitress was really nice and sensed our displeasure. “It’s terrible, isn’t it?” she said apologetically. “We had a meeting last night, and I told the cook he was going to have to do something to season the meat!” Apparently, the place has just re-opened under new management, so they still have some quality control issues. I can put up with bad cooking (mine isn’t much better) if the people are friendly.

The only concern we had is that Westcliffe is a bit of a jaunt to a decent-sized city like Pueblo if we need treatment for some serious medical condition. If people run over me on the highway now, what will happen once I’m older and trying to drive the curvy mountain roads between Westcliffe and Pueblo?

In and around Westcliffe, I just loved the look of all the ranchland with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. Also, the story of nearby Beckwith Ranch and Waverly House, pictured above, fascinated me. Beckwith Ranch was founded by two brothers, Elton and Edwin Beckwith, who made their fortunes in cattle ranching in the nineteenth century. The initial structure was begun in 1869, but once Elton married Elsie Davis, a local Westcliffe widow, the Victorian mansion started to take form. It was Elsie’s influence that led to the construction of the porte cochère, the unique covered porch on the front of the house, that a horse and buggy (or an early model Ford) could be driven under to protect passengers from the elements.

Elton and Elsie had one daughter named Velma, who temporarily disgraced her strict parents by marrying a man they considered beneath her. The parents disowned Velma, placing an announcement in a Denver newspaper stating they would only leave her $1 when they died. However, the prodigal daughter eventually reconciled with her parents when her marriage failed.  Despite the parents’ concerns over Velma’s behavior, her father’s conduct may have been more problematic. The Beckwith House website reports he fell or jumped from a second-story window of Waverly House and was subsequently committed to a sanitarium in Pueblo, where he died from his injuries.  Rumor has it he had gone mad after contracting syphilis, the direct result of patronizing “bawdy houses” common in Victorian-era mining and ranching towns.

Had I known this story when we stopped by, I certainly would have scoured the second-floor windows for signs of Elton’s ghost (a total missed opportunity for creeping myself out). No one was there when we visited, so we just walked around the house, looked in the windows, and marveled at the restoration (complete with elaborate Victorian era-styled wallpaper, lighting, and wainscoting). I stood on the back porch looking up at the mountains and just listened to the honking geese down at the nearby pond. It was really tranquil and lovely.

At one time, Beckwith Ranch contained about 6,000 acres. Currently, the entire property is estimated to be a little over 2,000 acres. It’s on the market for $4,800,000.00. The house has been restored in recent years, and people can rent it for special occasions like weddings and other events.

If any wealthy reader wishes to subsidize my writing so I can buy Beckwith Ranch and retire, I’d really appreciate it. I’d even have you over for a visit to talk to Elton’s ghost. Either that, or I need to win the lottery.  😊

Photo By: Mike Zimbleman