Paonia

A cosmopolitan, internationally known, tiny town

Originally published August 5, 2014 at https://www.hcmagazine.com/paonia/

Nestled in the idyllic North Fork of the Gunnison River valley not far from the pristine West Elk Wilderness, the tiny town of Paonia is a cosmopolitan and internationally connected, progressive center that is often the summer home of New Yorkers, Chicagoans and Europeans.

Paonia is home to the unique, pioneering community radio station KVNF, which can be heard on the Front Range and worldwide at http://www.kvnf.org. Unlike Denver’s public radio stations, which play only jazz and classical, on KVNF you will hear those genres as well as bluegrass, blues, country, zydeco, reggae/world beat, rock ’n’ roll, hip hop, electronica and even music from “One Woman’s Perspective.”

The station was founded in 1979 by Paonian Campbell Stanton, who started with a 10-watt transmitter, two turntables and a microphone in his garage. It has evolved into a powerhouse that covers 10,000 square miles with its 3,000-watt primary signal supplemented by multiple translators in Lake City, Montrose, Grand Junction, Ridgway and Crawford.

The station’s 95 or so volunteer disc jockeys program the station themselves. To really enjoy this article, go to kvnf.org and start streaming the signal; you’ll get a multi-media perspective on the community, its values, its people and its unique qualities.

KVNF General Manager Rick Watts comes from a commercial radio background. He waited six years for the chance to move to Paonia and work in community radio after spending one night as a tourist there that he described as “one of the best nights of my life.”

For science-fiction fans, Paonia’s claim to fame is the presence of Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi, who has a style similar to Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. Besides the Hugo and Nebula (the highest awards in science fiction) Bacigalupi has swept through virtually every award offered by the sci-fi field, including the Locus, Compton Crook, John W. Campbell Memorial, Theodore Sturgeon and Michael J. Printz awards.

Bacigalupi (whose mother Linda works at KVNF) grew up in Paonia and Hotchkiss, and moved to Beijing after his college graduation to practice the Mandarin he had studied. Today, many of his novels are set in the Far East. But to him, the best award he has won is the respect of his young son for writing “Zombie Baseball Beatdown,” a juvenile fantasy about baseball-playing kids who fight zombies created by beef processing irregularities.

“My 10-year-old son Arjun finally thinks I’m cool,” Bacigalupi said. He often writes for the young adult audience, but his signature novel is the adult-themed “The Windup Girl.”

Early in his career, Bacigalupi wrote for the High Country News, a highly respected environmental magazine covering the entire West headquartered in Paonia.

Ed and Betsy Marston, former New Yorkers who summered near Paonia in the 1960s and moved there in the 1970s, founded two small newspapers in Paonia but were selected to publish the non-profit High Country News magazine. Ed, after suffering through cancer treatments 12 years ago, relinquished his role with HCN, but Betsy continues to edit Writers on the Range, a syndicated opinion column provided to multiple publications throughout the West.

Ed, a former Queens College physics professor, today serves as president of Solar Energy International, a school for solar design and engineering that teaches students from all over the world.

Other environmental organizations found in Paonia include Citizens for a Healthy Community, which guards against the dangers of oil and gas development; the Western Slope Conservation Center, which is concerned with air, water and land use issues; and the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, which scientifically measures unhealthy chemicals affecting the local ecology.

Paonia is a mini-Nashville, spawning bluegrass and country bands such as Honey Don’t, Sweet Sunny South, Zach and Travis Mann, Haldon Wofford and the High Beams, the North Fork Flyers and many more.

Every summer, Paonia’s town park hosts local, regional and national musical acts at its Fourth of July Cherry Days celebration and the weekly Pickin’ in the Park series.

Paonia is also a Mecca for artists, photographers, playwrights and street performers. It is home to The Eccentric Artist Gallery, featuring the psychedelic paintings of Thomas J. Bachman; the Blue Sage Center for the Arts, which promotes painting, sculpture, drama, ceramics and cultural presentations; and the newly renovated Paradise Theater, which shows Hollywood blockbusters as well as documentaries, art and nature films.

Paonia’s original claim to world fame was the then-illegal cultivation of Paonia Purple Paralyzer, which in the 1970s earned recognition from High Times as one of the most powerful Afghani strains available. The strain has been somewhat diminished by genetic pollution over the decades, however Acme Healing Centers – a dispensary based in Ridgway, Crested Butte and Durango – has started to clone the strain once more.

Paonia Purple is back, just in time for the November election, when Paonians will vote to determine if recreational marijuana stores will be allowed there.

With such a vibrant cultural scene, Paonia is a destination worth a visit to anyone traveling through Colorado’s Western Slope.

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