Why one Millennial gave up on the Roaring Fork Valley | PostIndependent.com

Why one Millennial gave up on the Roaring Fork Valley

Colleen O’Neil
Colleen O'Neil and Montana Miller pose with the Shark (and Montana's bike) on their wedding day.
George Hendrix |

I came to the Roaring Fork Valley a little more than two years ago, fresh out of college and stoked to leave southwestern Pennsylvania for the great West.

My boyfriend (now husband), Montana, and I packed everything we could fit into my tiny car and drove 27 hours from Pittsburgh to Glenwood Springs, stopping once or twice along the way to let the cat stretch its legs.

When we finally exited I-70 into Glenwood, it seemed brochure-perfect.

It was mid-October. The mountains were dusted with snow, but aspen leaves still burned gold up on the hills.

Glenwood Springs was different from my hometown in every way. There were no boarded-up storefronts, no derelict steel factories, no Olive Gardens and few Wal-Marts. Folks were wearing Patagonia sweaters with hiking boots. Nobody looked fat.

We moved into a three-bedroom house in Cardiff Glen with a couple of ski bums from Pennsylvania who decided to move out West with us.

I had an internship at Trail Runner Magazine. During my first week in Carbondale, I secured a part-time job at Independence Run & Hike, and Montana found work making sandwiches at Bonfire Coffee before being hired as a mechanic at Aloha Mountain Cyclery. We couldn’t believe how easy it was to get a job.

Turns out, having a job isn’t everything here.

Tired of living with our roommates, Montana and I moved out of the shared house and into the most affordable option we could find — a small cabin with a wood stove 10 miles from town.

We chopped a few aspens to keep our electricity costs low and shoveled my little car out of a few snowbanks over the winter.

It was worth it, though. For what we were paying, we would’ve had to live in a studio apartment with no kitchen in Carbondale or Glenwood. Plus we had a great view.

Still, our savings were paltry at best. We weren’t exactly accumulating great retirement funds.

Eventually I picked up another part-time job. All told, I was working 50 to 60 hours a week, sometimes without a day off.

Then last January I finally found a “real” job in my field — as the photographer for the Post Independent. I took that on as my only job.

These past 11 months with the PI have been great. I’ve become a regular fixture at local high school sports events, met many of our town’s elected officials, become more in tune with community issues and learned countless lessons about journalism. I’ve even had the opportunity to make my first documentary.

Meanwhile, Montana and I got married over the summer. Sick of throwing money away on rent, we bought an RV. Without a monthly rent payment, we can get away without working two jobs each. And it’s been a good little home on wheels for the summer months.

But now it’s cold, and we’ve done some thinking about our future.

Over these past two years, I’ve done lots of great activities. I’ve run to the top of Mount Sopris, biked all over Garfield County, skied Sunlight, rafted the Colorado and gone paragliding from the top of Red Mountain. Montana’s ridden his bike from Canada to Mexico, and this year he rode the entire Colorado Trail in six days. We’ve also met many wonderful, inspiring people whom I’m happy to call my friends.

But renting a place here isn’t a good deal — it’s expensive, and the investment goes nowhere. So we’ve been looking at real estate. Unfortunately for us, the homes advertised in the classified sections are laughably expensive. A 1,400-square-foot home in Basalt is advertised at a whopping “reduced price” of over $400,000. In my hometown, a house of the same size goes for $120,000 or less.

Those prices are completely unattainable for us. Even with our rent-free housing alternative, we’ve still got student loan debt, insurance to pay and food to buy. That leaves us with little extra money saved once all the chores are done. Even the smallest plots of land around Carbondale are out of our reach. Prices downvalley are better, but it wouldn’t be worth the long commute.

So we’re leaving this winter.

The plan is to take a snowbird bicycle tour down the Baja coast. We’ll be gone as long as we can.

When spring comes back to the mountains next year, we might follow it back to the Roaring Fork Valley. But we might not. We’re not sure.

When I broke the news to my co-workers, there was the typical sarcastic eye-rolling about those “damn Millennials.” I’m sure the feeling is especially potent because my departure comes directly on the heels of our Scene editor, who’s also in her mid-20s, and right before the exit of a young page designer. (For the record, they’re both leaving to pursue other jobs, not to wander around in Mexico.)

People like to talk about my generation. The common consensus is that we’re flighty, entitled job-hoppers who don’t understand how to pay bills and have no work ethic (or are we overenthusiastic? I forget…). To a point, I can see how I fit into that mold. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

I think people — not just young people — need to be flexible to get along in life. I don’t believe that young people should plug away at jobs or degrees just because other people tell them to. After all, many of us aren’t trying buy houses or cars just to keep up with the Joneses. We’ll get around to those things when the time is right — not just to sink ourselves into even more debt.

Instead, I think young people should search for careers that make them feel happy and fulfilled — in locales they can afford.

Living in the valley and being a photojournalist is challenging and fulfilling. It does make me happy. But so does traveling, seeing new places and writing about things that take me out of my comfort zone.

Financial stress, on the other hand, is not fulfilling or constructive. So if we don’t have to, I don’t see why my husband and I should subject ourselves to it anymore.

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