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The perks of being unbarred from cell service

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By Genevieve Villamizar
Special to The Sopris Sun

It happens to many of us as we shoot past the fish hatchery on Highway 133: that deep, relaxing breath many of us take as we motor upvalley into the land of the unplugged.

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Up ahead, the horizon is wide, embraced by familiar peaks brushing blue skies. Green pastures flood the valley floor. Cottonwood and willow flow with the gentle tumble of the Crystal River and irrigation ditches. Their clear yellow tops mingle with the jewel tones of the landscape, a dazzling tapestry billowing across the skirts of Sopris. Depending upon the hour, wild turkeys often graze pastures with the cattle, heads down in the grass, bringing to mind miniature dinosaur herds. Deer mingle where forest meets grassland. It’s a bucolic, dreamy respite from modern connectivity.

The valley is often described as “going back in time.” The homes along the river are mostly humble. Vintage trucks and cars sit alongside collapsing shacks and carports. Boneyards, tarped machinery and trash bins are evident. Small neighborhoods with “normal” homes peak from the scrub oaks and mountain folds. Anglers sometimes dot the river, but not like the Gore Tex “hatches” choking the Frying Pan.

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The Crystal River Valley is unique for so many reasons, the lack of cell service being one.

Susanna Eubanks lives at the Redstone Inn for the season, waiting tables. She sees the effort to plug in every day the out of towners trying to access wi-fi. “People are anxious because they’re disconnected. So once there’s service, at least people can relax. My sister had an aneurism this summer, and brain surgery. I get it. I was anxious to speak with her.”

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Bruce Alberino bartends at the Redstone Inn but lives in Carbondale. “Have you ever seen a bar without TV?,” he queries.” TV was my first baby sitter. Cell phones are like TV but on steroids, except with TV, at least everyone’s watching the same thing. It’s inevitable. I try not to think about the inevitable.”

In the moment, the bar room is peopled with  mostly tourists. There isn’t a cell phone in sight. Couples look at each other, look around. Low snatches of conversation float about. It’s pleasant. There isn’t a single loud, one-sided conversation perforating the moment.

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Famed for it’s hot pools, quaint cabins, and even a sheepherder’s shack for overnight accommodations, Avalanche Ranch Cabins and Hot Springs  has a reputation for being a getaway.

Owner Molly Jacober admits, “I have mixed emotion about cell service coming to the Crystal River valley. I promote our property as a reprieve from technology and I believe that people truly need it in today’s world.  Without cell service, telephones, tv and wi-fi our cabins have been a haven for conversation and re-connecting to each other and nature. There are currently no phones ringing in the Hot Springs and I would like to keep it that way. Luckily water and technology generally do not mix… but I am sure with cell service there will be some people that will be tempted…  I guess a new sign will have to go up and we will hope that people honor it.”

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Times change though and Jacober recognizes the benefits, too.

“On the flip side it may be good for business.  I know there are some people that can’t come to stay with us because we don’t have cell service.  Also, we may finally have access to better internet access.  We are in a rather antiquated zone for internet and pay a fortune … with no competition to up the game,” she says. “In the end, I think I would rather keep our property off the cell grid if I was given the vote.  I believe it is good for our customers and I love witnessing the transition they go through. When they arrive they often are tightly wound and fast paced and then by the time they leave they are more tranquil.  I do attribute a large part of the transition to having little need for their devices.”

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For Crystal River Valley resident Kimberly Reil, who runs her own business in Carbondale, “Living up the Crystal with no cell service, radio signal, TV connection or internet, as a family we are very connected with our environment and each other. We tend to be more engaged with one another. It’s important to have pockets without cell service so that people can disconnect and be present in their relationships, activities and our beautiful surroundings. I’ve found that people in the Crystal are creative about internet and cell service. I think many of us have pieced together ways to communicate and remain connected without it. Bring high speed internet instead!”

Retired Judge William Jochems has lived in Redstone since 1971.

“We had telephone service with four party lines and toll charges for any calls beyond Glenwood Springs. TV reception was a few on and off channels, via a volunteer-maintained booster on Elephant Mountain. No email, no satellite dish reception of anything, and the only mail was via US Post Office,” says Jochum.

He speaks of daily connectivity, but not of the cell phone sort.

“When you walked down the street, or a trail, and met an oncoming solo walker who was talking, you knew they were saying something to you. When you sat in a restaurant, and overheard conversation from the next table, you knew it was directed to someone at that table, or at least in the restaurant, and was usually more substantive than “Nothing, what are you doing…I don’t want cell phone service, but I’m resigned, I know it’s coming.”

The inevitable

Communications Project Engineer Drew Petersen, of Pitkin County Communications, explains what currently exists, and what they hope to achieve. Included will be that practical need for reliable internet.

“The cell tower is not a stand-alone project, but a potential expansion of the County’s efforts to rebuild our existing translator site on Elephant Hill. Currently the site consists of a worn-down equipment shelter and six guyed-wire towers ranging from 20 to 50 feet in height, and consists of public safety, TV/FM translator, and some minimal ISP presence into Redstone and down valley toward Carbondale.  The equipment is aged and the site has reached maximum capacity, so it all needs to be replaced to support any telecommunication infrastructure growth.”

A pair of new 40-foot self-supporting towers, explains Peterson, are “ designed with the  capacity to hold all of the existing antennas, plus microwave dishes to connect to our site on Sunlight Peak and elsewhere up-valley…as well as support for a chandelier of panel antennas (which is commonly used by cell service providers) and possible additional antennas to support the Pitkin County Broadband Initiative.”  A prefabricated shelter will house associated equipment.

Site plans and the design of the tower upgrades are finalized and the work has been contracted already, explains Peterson. “The land is leased to Pitkin County but owned by the USFS, and we have completed the USFS special-use process and review to redevelop the site and have received permission from them.  The site also underwent Pitkin County Planning and Zoning review last May, in which the Crystal Valley Caucus was notified and did not object. The Crystal River Valley residents thus far have also been widely supportive of the project. We have the written approval of a nearby property owner for all construction and helicopter staging.”

It is not for certain cell service will come. There are rumors that Verizon has expressed interest.

“There is no road to the top of Elephant,” points out John Emerick of the Pitkin County Translator Advisory Board. “Cell providers generally want locations for their towers that have vehicular access, and to my knowledge, there are no imminent plans to install a cell tower on Elephant.”

Peterson explains that “Any cellular coverage and installation must be approved by the USFS. With their approval, Pitkin County would simply be leasing tower and equipment shelter space to a local service provider.  The County does not have a particular service provider intended for the space, and to the best of my knowledge would treat it as a first-come, first-serve scenario.  So far, only Verizon has reached out to the telecommunications team about available space up there.  Crystal River Valley residents have also expressed interest to us in improving Verizon coverage in the area.”

“This opportunity for potential cell coverage came from a need to improve aged/unreliable TV/FM translator and public safety radio services, as well as from the Pitkin County Broadband Initiative,” Peterson says.

“The infrastructure to support the microwave connection into the microwave backhaul system from Sunlight Peak was critical in the tower designs.  Public input has also been heavily pushing for improved broadband and cell coverage in the area, which influenced the design for additional tower capacity.

Construction of the new towers will be a true mountain adventure.

“The site is accessible by helicopter only, or an intense hike, but no other vehicle can support it,” Peterson says. “We are also working with High Altitude Army Training Services and the National Guard to provide and coordinate the Chinook lift, which we anticipate to take place in late spring/early summer next year. We are hoping the site will be complete by mid-summer, at which point Crystal Valley residents will almost immediately receive improved public safety radio and translator services.”

Reviews are mixed about potential cell service up the Crystal Valley. Residents in Marble across the board expressed relief at being unaffected. Jen Cox, formerly of Carbondale but a Redstone resident for several years now jokes. “I love the unplugged lifestyle! It’s bracing enough at times to handle the amount of tourists. To imagine them all on their phones is unbearable!”

For those that pass through, seeking that trip back in time, we’ll have to roll with flow, cell service or not… but the glove box is looking mighty handy.

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