HILLSIDE - If it's not Sunday, the ranchers arrive in waves of two or three early each morning. They park trucks in the gravel lot outside and open the post office's front door with a long creak. They can smell the coffee brewing because there's always a pot or two in the back - Barb Koch makes sure of it. As longtime postmistress, it's part of her job.
"Everybody is really busy. If they didn't stop what they were doing to come into the post office, they wouldn't see each other," Koch says.
Before the men return to their ranches, spread out over a few miles on either side of Colorado Highway 69 in the Wet Mountain Valley, they come here. In between sips of coffee, they complain about too much rain or not enough. They wear plaids tucked into faded jeans and boots splashed with mud. They amble through the small store and buy a soda or bag of chips for later. Eventually, the ranchers, some in their 60s and 70s, squeeze keys into old letter boxes and grab their mail.
"It's how we see people," says John Stoltzfus, a stack of envelopes in hand. "We know it's very unusual for a post office."
Koch then bids them off and goes back to her desk.
"This is it," she says. "This is morning in Hillside."
Not about us
Chris and Tara Seegers call Hillside their tiny town.
In this 9-acre property nestled in the Sangre de Cristos, there's never been a mayor, town hall or city council. No stoplights. No restaurants. No gas stations.
Roughly 100 people call Hillside - situated between Westcliffe and Cotopaxi - home. That's what Chris calls it too, despite living in Texas. Chris remembers visiting the post office on summer vacations, when he would watch quietly as his grandpa would take slow sips of coffee, collect his mail and talk with other ranchers. They'd chat about the rain, chat about who was getting married and chat about who had died. It was all part of the tradition.
Chris never thought about owning Hillside. He didn't know someone could buy a town until driving by the for-sale sign one weekend last year. When he got back to Texas, he asked his wife, "What if ... what if we bought it?"
"I really wasn't sure about it, at first," says Tara, 28. "But his ideas usually turn out to be good ones."
For Chris, Hillside is a memory of growing up. For Tara, it's the wooden sign Chris pointed to while passing by on breaks from Colorado State University.
"Hearing him talk about it, I could tell it was something really special to him," she says.
The area soon became special to both as the valley served as the backdrop for the couple's summer wedding.
"We just couldn't stand to see it abandoned," says Chris, 29, who works full time for an oil company.
So they bought Hillside - the post office, livery stable, corral, guest house, two beaten-down cottages and 81232 ZIP code. According to the Fremont County clerk and recorder, the sale price was $285,000.
"We didn't buy this for us. It's not this ego trip," Chris says. "We just didn't want this place, with all its history, to be gone."
Where will the mail go?
It's not easy for Hillside locals to trust out-of-towners with big pockets. Before Chris and Tara Seegers bought the property, an LLC made up of seven nearby ranchers owned the town.
"They just wanted to keep the post office alive," Koch, the postmistress, says of that group.
But then they put it up for sale again. Lori Short, a local contractor, wanted to buy it. Margaret Davis, who owns a ranch across the way, thought about purchasing it with her daughter. They just wanted Hillside to be safe again.
In the 1990s, Texas businessman Dan England wanted to turn Hillside into an old Western tourist town. He had all sorts of plans, Koch says. But after tearing down the historic general store where the post office used to be, his plans fell through. Everything went up for auction, from the post office boxes to the small, dilapidated buildings England never got around to fixing.
"It was not a good situation," Koch says. "He came and basically ruined the town. He said he was going to build it back up, but he didn't.
"Of all the owners, he was not a nice man. He didn't have the heart like everybody else. Everybody else did it to save the post office and make sure it stayed here, and he didn't care about the history. He wanted everything new."
For a while, Koch didn't know where the mail would go. She didn't know where she'd put the coffee pot in the morning. Nobody knew what would happen to Hillside.
A good feeling, a dying breed
In the post office's new home, the numbers on the mailboxes don't go in order and some are missing. Only 50 of the 300 or so boxes are in use, so Koch simply goes by names.
She remembers when this small, white building was her house, up until the point when her two daughters became teenagers. "That's when we needed more than one bathroom," she says.
Koch has lived in Hillside since she was 15. When something happens here, she knows about it. She knows Russell went to a doctor's appointment in Salida. She notes Irv is turning 90 this week. And she wonders out loud why Margaret Davis hasn't come in yet this particular morning, because it's getting close to noon.
And then the front door creaks.
Davis leaves her car running because she's in the process of minding her plants. But she still takes time to chat with Koch after fetching the mail. Davis grew up on a tobacco farm in Kentucky, and she and her husband owned a business in Colorado Springs for 30 years. In 1990, they bought Salers Ranch off Highway 69 to escape the city.
"I kept thinking it would just be for a little while," Davis says. "But we got up here, and the longer you stay, the more you love it."
Her husband wakes before dawn most days to feed the animals. Now they're gearing up for haying season.
"You feel like you're away from everything because you have to drive to anything you have to do - but really, when you get away, you can't wait to be back home," Davis says. "Living here, it's one of those really good feelings."
The feeling of working hard on the land - that's what Hillside was built upon.
When Koch attended high school, kids only went for half days in September because they had to help their parents with the ranching. "It was haying season so school went on the back burner," she says.
Now, times are changing.
"There's no interest. They grow up, go to college and leave. Because it's really hard work to do this," says Koch, who owns a 90-acre ranch.
"People don't realize how important farming and ranching is," she says. "They just want to go make more money somewhere else. It's definitely a dying breed."
Big plans for small town
Today, freshly-printed trucker hats and folded gray T-shirts with the slogan "tiny town, huge views" sit on shelves inside the store - a product of Chris and Tara Seegers' touch. The couple has a website (townofhillside.com) touting the town's renovated cottages, which opened in June and are booked with visitors most weeks.
These days, Koch has more on her to-do list when she closes the store. There are floors to mop, kitchen sinks to wipe down and bedsheets to wash.
"It's a new thing, but I don't mind," she says. "I'm just so happy someone is bringing energy to this place."
One day, Chris Seegers dreams of opening a mountain bike store and maybe a fly-fishing shop in town. He wants to bring bluegrass music concerts to Hillside and maybe even beer and wine tastings. But those plans are down the road.
"We don't want this to be a big town," he says. "We want it to be a small town. That's how everyone knows it and loves it."
That's how Koch wants it, too. "Everything that I hoped would happen has happened," she says. "Somebody bought it and we were able to keep the post office and they've fixed things up."
So now each morning, if it's not Sunday, as 8 o'clock approaches Koch still looks back to make sure the coffee pot is full. She glances over cardboard delivery boxes for any spare envelopes hiding in corners. She powers down her laptop, swivels out of her stool and tugs at the sleeves of her denim shirt. She hears the long creak of the door and looks up to see who it will be.
"That's all I ever really ever wanted," she says.