Carson's rift

An ill-fated campground rouses a place slow to change

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Carson, N.M. — Driving into this community of only a couple hundred people means taking a blind curve that swoops suddenly down the cliff of a deep wash stretching to the edge of the Rio Grande. There, in the heart of Carson, is the post office that's only open four hours a day, the metal hut that's a community center and food bank, a soon-to-be-open general store in a trailer and the volunteer fire department that has neither water nor well.

It's not a lot of amenities for a place that was opened to homesteaders in the first years of the 20th century, but most people who've lived there long enough are okay with that. In a community where plenty of people don't know their addresses or don't have a real one, change hasn't come quick.

It took about 70 years before the gnarly S-curve on the west end of Carson was straightened and flattened out when the road was finally paved in 1976, according to Gerald Boxberger. Boxberger is 79, calls himself "older than dirt" and has lived in Carson for all but one year of his life.

Around February, people caught wind of a private campground proposed by two young climbers from Colorado that would sit within spitting distance — literally — of the post office and community center.

The climbers, who arrived in 2016, have a passion for playing outside, a vision of the future of outdoor recreation and a desire to get in on the front end of an industry they see coming with tidal force. If the planning documents before Taos County were any indication, their campground could have hosted enough people to more than double size of Carson.

Some Carsonites got agitated over the plan.

The two young men withdrew their application for the campground, essentially killing the plan in that exact location. Yet their vision seems undimmed.

After a grueling public meeting in front of the Taos County Planning Commission that lasted until nearly 11:30 p.m., the two are looking to relocate their aspirations. But that new location might be just down the road, elsewhere in Carson.

Finding the Hidden Rift

Champman Grubb hails from Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. His business partner in the campground, Jeremy Wicker, grew up outside of Phoenix. Both got into climbing and then graduated from college in Boulder.

They have their fingers on the outdoor and recreational ethos of millennials. With some Vegas poker winnings in hand, Grubb took a year-and-a-half road trip and lived out of a Westfalia van, pulling up to premiere climbing locale after premiere climbing locale — a social media worthy #vanlife.

Though it was a solo endeavor, the climbing community is tightknit to the point that people will instantaneously entrust their lives to another person, someone to hold the rope as they scale the cliff. "You roll up on a crag and meet a new friend for the day," he said.

A quasi-developed campground for climbers in Kentucky planted the seed for a physical space for that community to come together, they said.

Grubb decided to give the idea a go. He and Wicker partnered up and started researching spots around the country with a dense concentration of climbing, cheap land and opportunity for growth.

They found Carson.

"It just felt right," Wicker told The Taos News. "This was definitely the place."

In the Taos area they saw an "outrageous amount of potential" for climbers, a place where people are constantly establishing new routes and where they could "facilitate access and education to our wilderness," Grubb said.

The Río Grande Gorge's Dead Cholla Wall, the envy of urban climbers, is a short drive away. Then there's the climbing around Questa, Tres Piedras and places west and south toward Santa Fe. Carson seemed to be the crossroads, the perfect meeting in the middle.

Grubb bought the 6-acre plot two lots south of the post office, and for much of last summer, they were hopping around to find a place to sleep and hung out on the land. They came up with the name, Hidden Rift Campground, while doing something that's typical in New Mexico for visitors and lifelong residents alike — sitting outside one evening, watching the sun and shadows set.

The landscape lent them a suggestion: a rift. In geology, it's where the plates of earth move apart. In the realm of sci-fi, it's a portal to another world, Wicker says, and Northern New Mexico has long been that for outsiders.

In January, Grubb submitted an application for a special use permit to the Taos County planning department for permission to build a 5-acre campground. The first phase called for space for primitive camping, 10 single-tent sites and one group site big enough for 30 people, according to their website. Once fully completed and assuming full capacity, the campground could host up to 240 people. There would be no well or structures, but a few port-a-potties.

They hoped to have it up and running by May, according to their website.

That's how the community association found out about the plans for Hidden Rift.

Off the map

No one in Carson likes being around people too much, it seems. A short drive down the dirt-packed South Carson Road is a gallery of "no trespassing" signs. The more colorful ones make overt reference to violators getting hurt. "Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again," one sign declared from behind two barbed wire fences.

As the Carson Community Association president Elizabeth Brownrigg said, there's the contingent of people who want to be connected, "but we all have acreage and don't want to be near people."

The community association, including Brownrigg and Boxberger, have for a number of years been organizing their neighbors: building a fire department and recruiting volunteers, setting up the community center, food bank and a few events each year to get neighbors together. Brownrigg has also had the unfortunate duty in the rural enclave of writing six obituaries in the past year, she said.

They say Carson has a rougher image than the eclectic community deserves. Some people are completely off the grid. Others have broadband. It's almost exclusively white (over 90 percent as of the last census) and generally older, though "we're getting more young people...in their 30s and 40s," Brownrigg said.

Some neighbors are dirt poor and others rich and famous. Some people who want to be in a community, and others don't want anything to do with anybody. Quiet is universally prized.

Things have changed even in the last nine years when the county paved the West Rim Road, turning a laborious trip to Taos into a breeze. For all its convenience, Boxberger thinks it's turned their road into a bypass to Santa Fe.

"There wasn't very many people here for a long time," he said. Now things are getting more popular.

Neighborly interactions

As far as Brownrigg can recall, the meeting of the Taos County Planning Commission last Wednesday (March 14) was the first time that many people from Carson (at least 50) got together in one place in the last decade.

After hearing of the plans, the community association met with Grubb and Wicker in late February, asking them to reconsider their endeavor. The young men wanted to do a meet and greet to present the idea to the community.

But the association advised them against it, remembering the mess over a decade ago when the community association split because of infighting, and then both groups became defunct because of it. Still, the public hearing went forward.

When they saw the letters and public notice go up about the hearing, "we knew we were on for a real fight," said association secretary Paul Green. Among the longtime residents, an impending sense settled in that the campground could actually happen.

Ahead of the meeting, the association submitted a six-page letter to the county urging the application be rejected because it would alter the rural, residential feel of Carson and has "zero demonstrable benefits to the community."

"No changes made to this application would be sufficient to gain the support of the community," it read.

Grubb said he and Wicker knew the likely outcome of the meeting and their campground application "walking into that room," but thought it was still the best venue for everyone to feel heard.

It was punishing.

The crowd of Carson residents had no qualms about making their points again and again. It was already 10:30 p.m. Because of the way public hearings work, they had the opportunity to voice their opinions yet again. And they did. About 20 people were sworn in as a group just to expedite the meeting that wouldn't wrap up for another hour.

Aside from the disruption of a bunch of noisy campers, which the residents were unconvinced a single, on-site employee would be able to keep under control, their objections centered around natural dangers such as fire and flooding.

The potential to have dozens if not hundreds of campfires in a bone-dry community was the biggest red flag, especially because the fire department is only now mapping who in Carson has a well or cistern in the event of a fire. High winds rip through the petaca, and a commitment in the special use permit application to "turn off" fires if winds are more than 10 miles an hour satisfied no one.

The campground would have been situated right next to the community center, and tent sites would have abutted neighbors' property.

"I don't think you're thinking about it properly because it's not going to work. It's just not going to work," one resident said.

But beyond the practical concerns of the campground's danger to the community, the whole situation — how they found out, the sheer scope of the proposal, having to mount a full-frontal response — rubbed people the wrong way.

"If you're not wanted, what possesses you to think you'll be accepted in this community?" another resident asked them.

Only one person, rock climber and Taos native Samantha Brown, who is also Grubb's girlfriend, spoke in favor of the project. And even her credentials in the community, a P.O. box or address, were called into question by someone from the crowd.

Like Grubb and Wicker, she sees change as inevitable. The climbers will come.

"It's not bringing in a big company, hotel or retreat center. We're trying to bring people to this area to show them how beautiful New Mexico is. I just think if the community is going to grow and change, it should be directed in a way that [is] positive," she said.

But Amy Bowman retorted that the campground, in addition to offering no jobs or significant revenue, only benefits the traveling outdoor enthusiasts who aren't residents and who want "to use Carson as their playground."

By the end of the meeting, Grubb and Wicker withdrew their application to a round of applause from the audience. If they want to get the permit again, they'll have to start the entire process again.

Trust

For folks in Carson, the community is already trying to improve itself at a pace that, though slow, fits most people's vision for a quiet, rural outpost where they don't have to see their neighbors except when they want to.

At the same time, Grubb and Wicker have a vision for a more mobile but nonetheless interconnected community that already exists and is only growing around Taos. Other climbers who are tired of the crowded walls in Colorado "see the same potential we do" in the Taos area, Grubb said. Climbing in Northern New Mexico — as a sport, industry and community — "is going to blow up no matter what we're doing," he said.

Yet the numbers are small at the moment. Their campground proposal might have had space for over 200 people, but when they got all their climbing friends together for a day in the gorge last summer, the party topped out at 10.

Still, Grubb and Wicker said they're ready to establish some roots and invest in a place. They hope to find a new location for their campground in the more remote areas around Carson that is still close enough to the gorge.

Grubb bought a house in Carson, and regardless of the campground, they don't want to leave. "We handled [the application] poorly considering where we were," Wicker said. But they think that, with some time and more forthcoming communication, they can rebuild trust.

The longtimers aren't so sure of their future.

"If they wanted to be halfway part of the community, the opportunity was there," said Boxberger.

Even days after the tensely emotional meeting, some said they will never take another proposal from Grubb and Wicker at face value. The Hidden Rift Campground, as cool of an idea as it is, they agreed, caused an actual rift in Carson.

But if they do want to be part of this community, "they'll have to lie low," Brownrigg said, "Then show up."

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Paul Green

This conflict was never about the importance of recreation, it was about the attempt to establish a commercial campground in a residential area. Carson residents recognize the social and economic importance of outdoor based recreation, and we love our proximity to the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. What we don't take to is outsiders thinking they know how to improve our community without consulting with us first. The developers did not speak to us during the 18 months during which they developed their plans for the campground. We think that their idea of developing a nexus for climbers and other outdoor recreations is interesting and has merit. However, planning a campground that could accommodate as many as the existing population of Carson on a five acre lot surrounded by residential properties is frankly absurd. Not only does it not fit into the existing, tradition, and historic uses of the land, but it also prevents neigbors from enjoying their properties, and such use is unlawful. And all those "No Trespassing" signs? Any rural dweller will tell you its the only way to keep woodcutters and hunters off your property.

Tuesday, March 27 | Report this