County government in Western Colorado may never be the same.
By Michelle Nijhuis

Art Goodtimes is driving my car, and he's making me a little nervous. Not that he's a bad driver. But he's talking Colorado politics, and he's warming up to the subject. He starts gesturing, and soon he's taking both hands off the wheel when he particularly wants to make a point. I realize my car's alignment is in much worse shape than I'd thought. We're driving to a ranch in Unaweap Canyon, where Goodtimes and his family are expected to join friends at a sweat lodge on this Sunday afternoon. While his wife Mary, daughters Iris and Sarah, and baby son Gregorio follow behind in their Subaru, Goodtimes drives and answers questions while I take notes. I get the feeling that this is how Goodtimes, who's been one of San Miguel County's commissioners for the past three years, operates most of the time: he tries to squeeze work, and play, into every available moment.

Even a quick look at Goodtimes' ramshackle place outside the tiny town of Norwood, where he's lived for the last 16 years, will tell you that he's not a typical western Colorado county commissioner. Not by a long shot. The yard is hung with handpainted prayer flags, and a collection of skulls, rocks, road signs, and license plates decorates the property. A big orange cat reclines in the yard, and a beat-up red pickup truck painted with white polka dots sits in the driveway, plastered with bumper stickers from long-ago elections. The truck enjoys fifteen minutes of fame in the Telluride mushroom festival parade each year, when the festival's king and queen ride in the back and wave to their subjects.

Art Goodtimes

Next to the main house, Goodtimes' small office is crammed with overloaded shelves of books and papers. Incense hangs in the air, and three aging computer monitors balance on makeshift desks. He rushes through the room, picking up a new translation of a Pablo Neruda poetry collection to show to me, and he starts talking excitedly about his days with the Union of Street Poets in San Francisco, a loosely organized group of spoken-word performers. Then, interrupting himself and adjusting his gray bowler hat, he rushes back out to the yard to show me this year's crop of heirloom potatoes, which he raises for sale at local markets.

Even by Western Colorado standards, the west end of San Miguel County is quiet, with one state highway and three tiny, isolated towns. At the east edge of the county, though, redrock turns into mountains, and life moves at a different pace. There are about 5000 permanent residents in the county, and Telluride is home to most of them. The upscale ski town's urban refugees explain San Miguel's predominantly left-leaning politics--and they're the reason why Goodtimes, a member of the Green Party, is in office in the first place.

But Goodtimes' home in Norwood is about an hour's drive west of Telluride along the San Miguel River. Norwood is a conservative town, once supported by ranching and uranium mining, and now mostly dependent on service jobs in Telluride. It's definitely not the sort of town you'd expect to be represented by someone whose outgoing answering machine message is in verse. Somehow, though, Goodtimes has gained support from many on this side of the county.

"When I got elected, a lot of people really felt like I wasn't going to represent this part of the county," he says. "They really were worried. But I've gone out of my way to back the issues here. That made all the difference. That was like, 'OK, this guy's weird, he looks funny ... but he's a nice enough guy, he's not mean, and he actually represents us. We may not like him, but at least we're not mad at him.'"

The contrast between Goodtimes and many of the people he represents doesn't faze him much, probably because he's dealt with odd contrasts all his life. A seventh-generation Californian, he grew up in San Francisco with what he calls "a working-class background and an upper-class education." "I understood both worlds," he says. His father, a postal worker, was a union activist--"He was always a fighter for the underdog. We never crossed a union picket line," says Goodtimes--while his mother taught him to love academics. His brother joined the Hells' Angels, but Goodtimes went in the opposite direction: He spent nearly seven years training for the Catholic priesthood and getting a classical seminary education.

After leaving the seminary, Goodtimes threw himself into political activism, getting involved in left-wing organizing in San Francisco and eventually becoming a VISTA volunteer on the Crow reservation near Billings, Montana. It was there, he says, that he first fell in love with the West. He also started to learn that his idealistic, urban style of activism wasn't the only way to make change happen.

"It's funny how the simplest things can have such a profound impact," he says. One day, he picked up several hitchhikers on his way off the reservation, and arrived at his destination to find one man still sitting quietly in the back. "'Didn't you want to get out a couple of miles back'? I asked him. 'Yup,' he says. That's all he says!" Goodtimes laughs uproariously. "Here was a guy who operated just by putting his intention out in the world and seeing what happened. I thought about that and I thought about that. Since then, I've learned to live my life by putting my intention out and seeing where it goes, not pushing so hard. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't."

He returned to San Francisco to graduate school and the Summer of Love, and spent several years working as a preschool teacher. He didn't forget his experience in Montana, however, and soon started thinking about leaving the city. "I'd lost my urban tolerance," he says.

While considering moves to Maine and Alaska, he got a job at the Telluride film festival. After his first visit in 1979, he decided to stay in the area. "Telluride was a halfway house for urban people," he says. "It was really an urban environment in a rural setting. But there used to be a mixture of people in Telluride, a mixture of classes. Famous people, rich people, were all mixed up with the others."

Goodtimes didn't slow down as he settled into his new home. He worked as a journalist for the Telluride papers--he still writes regular columns for the Telluride Daily Planet and the Telluride Watch--and he edited the poetry page for the Earth First! Journal for nearly a decade. He was also active with Sheep Mountain Alliance, a local environmental group that watchdogs public-lands issues in the county.

Telluride was too pricey for Goodtimes, so he lived in nearby Placerville, where he rented a falling-apart house without heat or running water. While on a honeymoon with his second wife, Betzi, his house burned down, destroying years' worth of journals and photographs.

The fire turned out to be a test of Goodtimes' commitment to his life in Colorado. "That took me a long time to get over," he says. "I left for California, but couldn't find a job there, so I sheepishly came back to Telluride after renouncing it. That was a good lesson for me. A couple of years later we had a daughter, and I felt like I was going to stay here for a while. We'd planted so many gardens we never got to harvest, and we decided just to stay put.

"What happens in the mountains, when you live in the mountains, you need some sort of initiation," he says. "A lot of the people who come here, you have to lose something, you have to give something up."

Six months after returning to Telluride, Goodtimes moved down the road to Norwood. He'd finished his time in the "halfway house" of the Telluride community, he says, but adds that "I still had a lot of fixed ideas about right and wrong." The house he bought--the one that's now decorated with prayer flags--was the former home of Raymond Snyder, a Republican county commissioner, who Goodtimes soon befriended.

"I liked Raymond's attitude, he was very honest," says Goodtimes. "He had strong opinions, but was always willing to talk, always polite. I realized it was important to respect one's elders in rural areas, even if you don't agree with their politics. They really know and understand the land." Goodtimes was, and still is, an admirer of the poet Gary Snyder, one of the early proponents of bioregionalism and Deep Ecology. He found that communities like Norwood already knew more about these principles than he did--and he soon realized that they'd been putting them into practice for years.

"When I moved (to Norwood), I realized that the joint extension (agencies), the joint 4-H clubs, were really unlike the rigid county lines I was used to in California," he says. "They realized that we all lived in one watershed. After that, I began to really pay attention to what people here said."

His acceptance into the community wasn't completely smooth, though. Goodtimes remembers quoting Rachel Carson at a hearing about a uranium mine in Norwood, then seeing a picture of himself in the San Miguel Basin Forum the next day. Opposite his picture was a photo of another man who'd spoken at the hearing; he was quoted as saying "Bums who are on welfare should all be shot." "The implication was very clear," says Goodtimes.

"I'm a little guy with a big mouth, which can be a bad combination here," he says of Norwood. "But what I like about this community is that it's up front, in your face. Most people are very giving, but when people are mean, they're really up front mean. You're forced to be face-to-face with people who think very differently than you do."

After a short time in Norwood, Earth First! tactics no longer seemed like the best approach to Goodtimes. "It's become a warrior clan whose effectiveness is limited," he says. "Every tribe needs its warriors, but their anger wasn't always targeted very well. And (direct action), that's dangerous and scary. You have to believe totally in this if you're going to put your life on the line. I had a family, and was in a different space." Goodtimes started working within the system. "People here said to me, 'You always come down here and tell us we can't do things, but our economy is the shits. What are you going to do to help us?'" he says. His chance to do that came when he heard about an unpopular proposal to build a dump for uranium mine waste near a school in Naturita. "I jumped on that like a rabid dog," he says. Goodtimes helped bring the community's opposition to the attention of federal agencies, and the dump was eventually moved to Uravan. "I'd found an issue I could work with them on," he says. "I realized that it's possible to make allies with people you aren't allies with, as long as you find the right issue."

With the encouragement of friends in Telluride, Goodtimes decided to try to take his activism to the county commissioners' office. He ran on the Democratic ticket against a fourth-generation rancher from Norwood, who he describes as "the utmost in polite." He got barely a quarter of Norwood's votes, but he won overwhelmingly in Telluride, and joined the county's three-person commission in 1996.

It hasn't been easy. Goodtimes recently supported a gravel pit--an unlikely position for a former Earth Firster!--because it had the backing of most people on the western side of the county. Although stands like this aren't always comfortable for him, he says, they're usually the exception. "I find I'm the ally of a lot of people on the Western Slope. I'm opposed to trans-basin (water) diversions, and I'm a supporter of local control. There are more of these issues than those like the wilderness bill (for Bureau of Land Management lands in Colorado), where I know I'm in the minority.

"I get along with people, I'm not mean. I respect them," he says. "I try to give them the same kind of respect I got from most people when I was a long-haired hippie outsider."

His approach seems to have worked; at least, he hasn't felt the need to get a haircut yet. He's on the state public lands steering committee for the Colorado counties' association, and he's also a member of the National Association of Counties' public lands steering committee. "People take you seriously even though you look weird," he says, sounding a little surprised. "It really is an opportunity to speak out and make a difference." At the wilderness hearing in Grand Junction last June, when Sens. Larry Craig, Wayne Allard, and Rep. Scott McInnis gathered to hear public testimony on BLM wilderness issues, Goodtimes' speech in support of wilderness got cheers and loud applause. "I realized I had a constituency statewide, a clear majority that was well-disposed toward environmental issues," he says. "They care about the environment, they live in it. Politicians haven't quite caught up to that issue--the environment isn't their top priority. If I have any activism left, it's to move people in the political realm toward what I think the electorate supports, and that's environmental health."

As we arrive at the ranch in Unaweap Canyon, Goodtimes is putting in a plug for the Green Party, which he joined partway through his term. "I met Gary (Snyder) at a philosophy conference in Estes Park a while back, and I said 'What are we going to do?' He said 'Greens,' and I said 'Oh, OK.' I really respect Gary's vision. So now, not only am I a weirdo long-haired hippie, but I'm a Green!"

It might not be the best strategy for reelection. But Goodtimes seems to be willing to listen to nearly anybody--anybody who gives a damn, that is--and he's gutsy enough to break ranks with his past when he hears a good argument. Not to say that he's forgotten, or abandoned, his past lives as a seminary student, a radical activist or a journalist. All the parts of his crazy-quilt background come into play in his current career, even, he says, his seminary training in Aristotelian logic. "I like trying to convince people of my position," he says. In the process, this "little guy with a big mouth" is making sure that county politics in Western Colorado are nothing if not interesting.

And he's not going to stop adding careers anytime soon. Maybe, he says, he'll teach Latin at a private school in Telluride in the fall when he's not at the county commissioners' office. "I'm not the greatest Latin teacher in the world," he says, "but I know something of it."

Why am I not surprised?

Michelle Nijhuis lives in Paonia, Colorado, and is staff reporter for High Country News. She still hasn't gotten her steering fixed.

To Zephyr Main Page August-September 1999