CUSTER COUNTY — Two sets of headlights headed straight for the geodesic dome house that serves as the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch’s headquarters.
Outside in the deep dark of Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley, the people who live at the ranch prepared to defend their home.
For weeks, they had received threats online and warnings from others in the area that the rhetoric against the leftist, anarchist alpaca ranch commune for queer people had intensified. The day before, March 4, someone aggressively tailed the ranchers’ truck down the washboard county dirt road as they drove home. The ranchers thought the headlights could be those people coming to harm them. They grabbed their guns.
Then the headlights swerved away. It was the neighbors coming home down their dirt drive, which follows the alpaca ranch’s fence line for a bit.
The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch stood down, relieved.
“I think that moment proved that this is home,” said Penny Logue, one of the ranch’s founders. “We were ready to defend it.”
For about a year, the Tenacious Unicorn ranchers have called home a 40-acre plot of hardscrabble land about 20 minutes south of Westcliffe, the seat of rural Custer County, population 4,700. About nine people live on the ranch at any given time, though that number changes as people come and go from the property.
Logue and her business partner, Bonnie Nelson, created the ranch as a place where queer people can live and work safely and without fear. Along with the human occupants, the property is home to about 180 alpaca, a few dozen ducks and chickens, a herd of gigantic Great Pyrenees dogs, a flock of sheep, a few goats and a handful of cats.
“The birth of the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch was really in response to watching the trans community get hammered under the Trump administration,” Logue said. “We wanted to make somewhere where queer people could thrive — not just escape, but actually do something. We wanted to build community.”
The ranchers love the valley and Westcliffe. The community has been welcoming and incredibly helpful, they said. But after stories about the ranch appeared in High Country News and on Denver’s 9NEWS, they have received online threats and faced increased in-person harassment, they said. In one 48-hour period in early March, they were followed in their truck and caught armed people trespassing on their property twice.
The harassment prompted increased security measures, like cameras, lights and the ongoing installation of 1.5 miles of 6-foot fence around the entire property. But it hasn’t changed the group’s mind about settling in the conservative ranching valley. When they felt threatened, their neighbors offered help.
“We’re a haven for a vulnerable group of people, so it’s doubly important that it’s safe,” Logue said. “It’s not a normal occurrence for queer people to just have exclusively queer space.”
Logue and Nelson chose the valley as their home because it was affordable and would support their dream of a working farm.
They moved in March 2020 from a ranch they were leasing in Larimer County after falling in love with the dome house property. Every day they watch from their home as the sun and clouds play on the jagged Sangre de Cristo mountain range, in all of its moods. At night, the sky is so dark they can see the stars’ colors.
The group shares food, a bank account and chores. Ranching is hard work, said Logue, who grew up on a Colorado farm. Animals must be fed, poop scooped, fences mended. Sixteen-hour days are normal. There are many sleepless nights, like when the ranch’s lambs were born in the middle of a cold snap.
Shearing the herd once a year yields nearly 2,000 pounds of wool, which they turn into yarn to sell. They also pick up work from other ranches or communities, like digging fences or cleaning out barns. Nelson worked for a bit as a driver for an Amish man. They also raise money online.
In their downtime, the ranch residents cook and eat together in the dome house, filled with food, manuals on alpaca health and bulletproof vests adorned with patches showing a rifle on the trans pride flag.
The walls in the main room are bedecked with several large rifles, a 5-foot sword and pride flags representing some of the identities of the people who live there: non-binary, lesbian, agender and asexual. There’s also a red-and-black flag stating, “Sometimes antisocial, always antifascist.” New people arriving at the ranch cry with relief sometimes when they see the flags hanging, Nelson said. It can be tedious living in a world where people see you as “other.”
“We all want to get away from everything because there is so much pressure and stress brought up by just existing,” Nelson said.
The ranch can especially be a safe place for transgender people who are transitioning and who may not want to be in the public eye during the process. Logue said she worked during part of her transition and was met with stares and many questions.
“Having worked retail from beginning to mid of my transition, I can tell you that the world is not kind,” Logue said. “It is unpleasant to be in the public eye during your transition. Offering a place to do that privately is really important. And who doesn’t want to be surrounded by alpaca all the time?”
“An old-school conservative Christian county”
On top of the stress of raising herds of animals, the ranchers have navigated a tension between the ranch and some of the valley’s residents that began after a Fourth of July parade in Westcliffe.
In town that morning running errands, the ranchers saw people carrying Confederate flags and banners with the logo of the Three Percenters — one of the prominent anti-government militia movements in Colorado that is classified by the Anti-Defamation League as far-right, antigovernmental extremism.
The ranchers later posted on social media denouncing the flags, which made people angry. Then, in the High Country News article published in January, Logue called the event a “fascist parade.”
The Sangre De Cristo Sentinel — a weekly conservative publication in Westcliffe — republished the magazine story but included lengthy editor’s notes at the beginning and end. The notes, written by publisher George Gramlich, called the ranchers a “hypocritical bunch of hate-filled xenophobes” and said the article was “very, very disturbing.”
In an interview Wednesday, Gramlich walked back some of the language in the note and said the article was generally well done and that the Tenacious Unicorn ranchers are good people. When asked which part of the story he found disturbing, Gramlich pointed to the quote calling the Fourth of July parade fascist. That sentence felt like an attack on the community as a whole, he said.
“There could have been a Three Percenter flag there, but basically people can bring their own flags,” Gramlich said. “We’re not excluding anybody.”
Some in the community agreed with Gramlich’s rebuke of the comment, letters to the editor and social media comments show. Others disagreed.
“The article does not imply that the community as a whole is not good,” one Westcliffe resident commented on Facebook.
The Sentinel has also re-printed several transphobic cartoons and commentary pieces from websites like The Daily Signal and The Federalist.
“This is an old-school conservative Christian county. Folks here have never seen any folks like them before they moved in,” said Gramlich, who has lived in the valley for nine years.
The Tenacious Unicorn ranchers said the publication stirs up transphobic sentiment in the area, though they mostly try to ignore the articles. The backlash they’ve faced has also drawn people to their aid, they said.
Stephen Holmes, owner of Peregrine Coffee in Westcliffe, said much of the angry rhetoric toward the ranchers has come from “a small radical minority” that feels like they have more power in town than they do. Holmes and the Tenacious Unicorn ranchers have grown a friendship over the past year.
“I’m a Christian, I’m a minister, and I’m a Bible teacher,” Holmes said. “People might think that would provide a big gap between me and people like Penny and Bonnie, but there has not been that gap.”
“I think people should try to get to know them,” he said. “They’ve been extremely kind to me.”
Last month, when the ranchers found the trespassers and were facing increased online threats, they asked for help. People from across the country came to the farm to provide guard services. For all of March, the ranchers and volunteer armed security guarded the property 24/7. The ranchers often wore heavy vests with bulletproof plates as they went about their chores and tried to leave the property as little as possible.
On Wednesday, Logue and Nelson still wore their handguns as they worked around the property, even though the tension had started to ease.
“Doing what we do, people are going to hate us,” Nelson said. “If you’re doing things right, the right people are going to hate you.”
The vast majority of the community, however, have welcomed the ranchers, Nelson and Logue said. They’ve joined in with other alpaca farmers in the area to pool their fibers and have them processed in bulk to create hats and socks.
Logue and Nelson hope to expand the ranch so that more trans and queer people can live with them. The dome house already is filled with people.
“We can’t literally house every trans person in this country,” Nelson said. “They won’t all fit in this valley.”
The long-term goal is to help other queer groups start similar communes across the nation. Logue and Nelson envision helping other groups with downpayments, co-signing loans, teaching others how to raise alpacas and donating starter herds.
“I would love it if you could stay at a Tenacious Unicorn from California to New York and never have to stay in a cis hotel,” Logue said.
The group plans to soon fly three flags on the property: one representing the transgender community, one red-and-black flag representing anti-fascism and one pirate flag. They’re not interested in trying to hide who they are.
“We’re not leaving,” Nelson said. “We’re building our foundation stronger.”
WIDER IMAGE The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch made a transgender haven. Then the violent threats began
- Picture essay: https://reut.rs/3icX3Kv
WESTCLIFFE, Colorado, July 16 (Reuters) - The ranch hand walks along rocky ground, the beam of her flashlight cutting through the moonlit night. She holds a shotgun loosely at her side during her patrol of an alpaca ranch founded as a haven for transgender and non-binary people.
Penny Logue, who grew up on a farm, started the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch in Colorado in 2018. It had been two years since Logue had begun her transition and the U.S. Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, had just declared 2017 the deadliest documented year so far for members of the trans and gender non-conforming community, with 31 people killed.
Logue says she saw that many in the LGBTQ community had nowhere to feel safe and struggled to find employment, housing, and peace of mind.
"You have people that are brilliant, that just can't interact with society in a normal way," Logue says. "They just get shoved down every time they pop their head up and you watch it over and over and over again."
Logue initially rented a ranch in northern Colorado to raise alpacas, whose wool is sold as a prized weaving material. In March 2020 the operation moved just outside the small town of Westcliffe in southern Colorado with 86 alpaca, 20 chickens, 40 ducks, several dogs and cats, and nine people.
On the ranch, gender is never assumed. Inhabitants are free to love who they love and be who they are. Rainbow and anti-fascist flags adorn the walls, including one featuring the three arrows of the World War II-era German anti-Nazi, anti-fascist Iron Front.
"I got here and I experienced a love and acceptance that I never did before," says ranch co-owner Bonnie Nelson. "I had true family for the first time."
AN UNSETTLING DEMONSTRATION
As they settled into Custer County, the newcomers offered to do odd jobs for neighbors, started a community garden, and helped helm a recycling program.
Logue says that won them a number of residents' support, despite some ideological differences with conservative Custer County, home to about 5,000 people.
On July 4, 2020, Logue and Nelson headed into town for coffee at their favorite spot. The Westcliffe Independence parade had been canceled because of pandemic restrictions. Logue and Nelson saw a steady stream of protesters, a number of whom were openly carrying guns. Some wore body armor.
Amid American flags, one demonstrator carried a banner bearing the emblem of right-wing militia group the Three Percenters, video of the event shows. Another wore a shirt that declared, 'It's OK to be White.' The phrase, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has become a rallying cry among white supremacists.
Logue said she was the grandchild of Armenian genocide survivors and grew up on stories that taught her to respond to "anything that looks like fascism." She wrote in a tweet that same day: "The Fourth of July parade in #westcliffe was a Nazi propaganda parade, I've never been so unsettled."
Messages and calls expressing transphobic hatred and disdain for the ranchers' anti-fascism began then, according to Logue. Reuters has reviewed several hostile and anonymous online messages, two containing death threats. One was an image manipulated to show a gun pointed at the ranch house.
J Stanley, 29, leads an alpaca to get sheared during "Shear-A-Palooza" at the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch in Westcliffe, Colorado, U.S. June 23, 2021. The event was a multiple day party at the ranch held to attract volunteers and to encourage community members to come to the ranch to help shear the ranch’s alpaca or to simply mingle. REUTERS/Leah Millis
In March, a volunteer escorted two armed men away at gunpoint after they were spotted climbing the hill toward the ranch house, Logue says. The identity of the men is unknown.
The ranchers talked about the hostility in media interviews, hoping increased attention would scare off harassers. Logue says they installed cameras, obtained body armor, began to build a taller fence, and stepped up firearms training.
The ranchers have not reported any of the threats to the Custer County Sheriff's Department. The ranchers said they declined to do so in part because they had seen Custer County Sheriff Shannon Byerly in a video speaking at a 2015 rally held near Westcliffe on the anniversary of the founding of the right-wing Oath Keepers, whose members believe the federal government is encroaching on their rights and who try to recruit, among others, law enforcement officers.
Byerly confirmed to Reuters that he spoke at the rally, but said that he does not belong to the Oath Keepers. In the speech, a video of which was reviewed by Reuters, he spoke about gun rights and his feeling that some unnamed U.S. leaders were showing signs of "tyranny." The Oath Keepers did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
Byerly said his deputies checked out media reports of threats against the ranch and found no evidence. He said ranchers were not contacted for the informal investigation because his deputies did not feel welcome at the ranch.
In an initial interview with Reuters, he described a "confrontational" exchange between armed ranchers and one of his deputies, who he said was barred from entering the ranch when he went to investigate an April 22 car accident involving a ranch hand.
Footage from the deputy's body cam video during his visit the day of the accident, obtained through a public records request, shows a single ranch hand, not visibly carrying weapons. The ranch hand told Reuters she was unarmed. The video shows the ranch hand greeting the deputy at the gate, being questioned about the accident, and offering contact information. Asked about the discrepancies, the sheriff acknowledged in a subsequent interview he had been mistaken in his account.
ALWAYS ON GUARD
On a recent day in late June, ranchers and volunteers formed a semi-circle, spreading their arms wide and corralling a few dozen fuzzy alpaca into a holding pen for shearing.
May Quinty Dynamic, a transgender woman from Denver, was among the volunteers. Dynamic said she was thrilled to be surrounded by so many other transgender people. She met Logue, who, like her, also began to transition at the age of 35.
"I've been able to talk to everybody and tell my little story over and over," Dynamic said.
After a long day, Logue made her way back to her room as the sun began to sink, sending shafts of light through thick indigo storm clouds above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Sore from a day of wrangling alpaca, Logue collapsed onto her mattress and closed her eyes. Outside her door, the sounds of warm chatter and dinner prep filtered down the hallway from the kitchen.
As she began to drift off to sleep, she rolled toward the edge of the bed. Logue's hand fell off the side of the mattress and came to rest, instinctively, on her rifle.
Reporting by Leah Millis Editing by Donna Bryson and Rosalba O'Brien
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Tenacious Unicorn Ranch
Queer and transgender community and ranch
The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch is a queer and transgender community and working ranch in Custer County, Colorado, United States. Located in a conservative part of Colorado, members of the ranch often carry firearms and wear body armor due to harassment and threats of violence against the community, particularly from local right-wingmilitias. The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch primarily raises alpaca, but is also home to several other kinds of livestock.
Penellope "Penny" Logue founded the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch in 2018, and she co-owns it along with Bonnie Nelson and J Stanley. Logue began the project in the aftermath of the 2016 United States presidential election, fearing and responding to increased hostility and violence from society and the government towards transgender and queer people. The ranch aims to provide a safe place for transgender and non-binary people who have struggled to find housing, employment, or happiness. Speaking to the Socialist Rifle Association Podcast, Logue said, "We really saw the writing on the wall with the way that rhetoric was changing so quickly, how nasty the ramp-up to the election was, how damaging it was for queer people specifically. We didn’t really think it was going to get any better, so we tried to start coming up with ways to not only save ourselves, but bring that kind of safety net to other queer people as well." Logue and her girlfriends adopted a herd of alpaca and moved to the ranch in Colorado. Logue had grown up on a farm, and learned to farm from her grandfather.
Originally based in a rented ranch in Larimer County, Colorado, the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch bought and moved south to a 40-acre (16 ha) plot near Westcliffe in Custer County, Colorado, in March 2020.
Members of the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch are anarchists, leftists, and antifascists. As of March 2020, the ranch had nine residents. The ranch's owners have said they intend to expand their community by buying more land and increasing the number of people who can live in their existing building.
The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch often share photos of their alpaca and other animals on social media, and their social media presence has attracted volunteers and visitors. Media coverage of the ranch also increased its visibility among the queer community, and attracted visitors and volunteers.
The community primarily supports itself financially through selling yarn from their alpaca and working for neighboring ranches. They have also raised money through online fundraising. In addition to maintaining the ranch, the group has helped with community projects including establishing a recycling program at the county landfill and starting a community garden.
The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch also helps other queer collectives start similar projects. In July 2021, they were in the process of helping a group create an Indigenous queer ranch in Arizona. Logue said they intended to cosign for the property and provide the group with a herd of alpaca. Another queer collective inspired by the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch was working towards beginning a farm in Bellingham, Washington.
Buildings and infrastructure
A solar-poweredgeodesic dome called the Earthship provides the primary living space on the ranch. Residents have built or relocated other small buildings and trailers for additional living space. The ranch operates entirely off the grid, powered by solar and wind energy as well as gasoline-powered generators.
The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch primarily raises alpaca, most of which have been donated or rescued. They shear the wool, which they have processed into yarn and sell online to help support the ranch. They also pool fiber with other local alpaca farmers to have it processed into hats and socks. The ranch had almost 170 alpaca as of July 2021[update], and they produce around 2,000 pounds (910 kg) of alpaca wool each year. They also raise sheep, goats, chickens, and ducks, and the ranch is also home to several cats and dogs.
Harassment and threats against the ranch
The ranch and its community are located in a generally conservative part of Colorado, where 70% of the population voted for Donald Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. Although the ranch's members say that the community has largely been welcoming and supportive, they have faced harassment and threats from a radical minority of community members including local right-wing militia groups, as well as online.
On July 4, 2020, Logue and Nelson traveled to Westcliffe for coffee and errands and saw a group protesting the COVID-19 pandemic-related cancellation of the town's Independence Day parade. Many protesters were heavily armed and armored; some carried Confederate flags or banners for the far-right militia group the Three Percenters, and one person wore a shirt with the white supremacist slogan "It's OK to be White". The ranchers posted about the event on social media; Logue tweeted that day, "The Fourth of July parade in #westcliffe was a Nazi propaganda parade, I've never been so unsettled". According to Logue, this marked the beginning of the often transphobic harassment and threats of violence towards the ranch and its community.
Threats intensified after the ranch became more widely known following increased media coverage in early 2021, and Logue said they began receiving death threats. According to the High Country News, it was rumored locally that militias were "patrolling" the borders of the ranch to "establish dominance". There were several incidents in which residents were followed in their truck or armed intruders were discovered on the property. Residents began to carry firearms and wear bulletproof vests while tending to the farm. The ranch's members and a group of volunteers began running 24-hour guards along the perimeter of the property, and during one patrol on March 6, 2021, they found armed intruders trespassing on the property. After posting on social media about the incident, the ranch received widespread support, including from a local chapter of the Socialist Rifle Association, which donated body armor for all residents. The ranch subsequently raised $100,000 with a GoFundMe campaign, which allowed them to replace the patrols with six-foot-tall (1.8 m) fencing, lights, and security cameras.
According to Logue, the threats became less intense in mid-2021. Logue says that several residents had developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the period, which she described as "taking a group of people and dropping them into what is a potential combat zone everywhere they go in their home".
Interactions with the Custer County Sheriff's Department
The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch did not report the threats to the Custer County Sheriff's Department, which they said was due to a 2015 video of Sheriff Shannon Byerly speaking at a rally held on the anniversary of the founding of the far-right anti-government Oath Keepers militia group. In the speech, he discussed gun rights and his beliefs that some leaders in the United States were demonstrating signs of "tyranny". In July 2021, Byerly confirmed to Reuters that he spoke at the rally, and said he was not a member of the Oath Keepers.
According to Byerly, his office investigated reports of threats against the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch after seeing media coverage of the incidents, but found no evidence. He said that the department did not contact any members of the ranch as a part of the investigation, claiming that his deputies felt unwelcome at the community. In an interview with Reuters, Byerly initially described an April encounter between his deputies and members of the ranch that occurred when deputies visited to investigate a car accident. Byerly described multiple armed and "confrontational" ranch residents, and alleged that they barred deputies from entering. After Reuters reviewed body camera footage of the alleged incident and found that it involved a single unarmed ranch resident who greeted deputies, answered questions, and offered contact information, Reuters reported that Byerly "acknowledged in a subsequent interview he had been mistaken in his account".
The majority of the local community has been welcoming and supportive of the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch. The Associated Press quoted a Westcliffe resident and friend of the ranchers, who attributed local opposition to the ranchers to "'a small radical minority' that feels like they have more power in town than they do". According to Colorado's High Country News, the ranchers' presence helped to "[galvanize] other local rural progressives", who began expressing support for the ranchers and antifascism after the ranchers' social media posts about the July 2020 Westcliffe parade cancellation protest.
A January 2021 profile of the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch in the High Country News quoted Logue describing the July 2020 Westcliffe protest as a "fascist parade". The Sangre De Cristo Sentinel, a local conservative publication which has published transphobic material, republished the High Country News article with long editor's notes which called the article "very, very disturbing" and described the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch as a "hypocritical bunch of hate-filled xenophobes". The writer later walked back some of these comments in an interview in which he said that the ranchers were good people, and that he had felt they were attacking the community when they described the parade as "fascist".
The Sangre De Cristo Sentinel also published a letter to the editor in March 2021 which accused the ranchers of exaggerating the harassment they received in order to earn money via online fundraising. Logue criticized the writer for characterizing the problem "not [as] the abuse, but ... that they went public with the abuse", and said that the ranch earns most of its money from selling goods and services rather than from online fundraising.
- ^ abcdefghijklmnopqrsSchmelzer, Elise (April 25, 2021). "Ranch becomes haven for queer people in rural Colorado". The Associated Press. Archived from the original on July 18, 2021. Retrieved July 18, 2021.
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- ^ abcEastman, Katie (March 2, 2021). "In conservative Colorado, Tenacious Unicorn Ranch a safe haven for trans community (and 180 alpaca)". 9News. Archived from the original on July 21, 2021. Retrieved July 18, 2021.
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Meet the gun-toting ‘Tenacious Unicorns’ in rural Colorado
A year ago, transgender rancher Penny Logue found the dome. Fed up with a hostile landlord in the city and fearful for their safety amid record-high deaths in the transgender community nationwide, Logue and her business partner, Bonnie Nelson, sought refuge in the rural, open rangelands.
The geodesic dome perched on sprawling acreage in the remote Wet Mountain Valley on the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, near the rural ranching hamlet of Westcliffe, Colorado. They were intrigued. “Domes are funky and cool and a bit against the status quo — and they help the planet,” Logue told me. So they bought it.
“They are weird but useful,” she said, “which is the essence of queer.”
If the dome caught their attention, the dramatic Wet Mountain Valley convinced them to stay. “We fell in love,” said Logue. “You emerge out of the mountains into the valley and the Sangre de Cristo range just breaks in front of you.” She and Nelson were unexpectedly taken with Westcliffe too — its quaint storefronts and theater, the wide sidewalks, signs for “Shakespeare in the Park.”
They bought the dome, and by March, with the pandemic raging and a divisive presidential election roiling, relocated to the valley and created the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, a community of gun-loving, transgender, anti-fascist alpaca ranchers. While they already knew the financial, physical, and emotional challenges of operating a successful ranch, they had no idea that the Wet Mountain Valley had become a cauldron of right-wing conservatism — home to militias, vigilantes, Three Percenters — anathema to the ranch’s gender-inclusive, anti-racist, ecological politics.
But rather than retreat, the unique LGBTQ+ community, around a dozen strong, asserted its right to exist. They armed up and began speaking out, quickly developing a local reputation that galvanized other local rural progressives. In the process, they’ve showed how queer communities can flourish. “We belong here,” Logue told me this past November. “Queers are reclaiming country spaces.”
“Queers are reclaiming country spaces.”
CUSTER COUNTY, COLORADO,where the newly formed Tenacious Unicorn Ranch is located, is named after George Armstrong Custer. It was founded in March 1877 — nine months after Custer’s defeat at The Battle of Little Bighorn — and its overwhelmingly white, rural and conservative population hovers at around 5,000. While Colorado as a whole has shifted left in recent years, Custer County has tacked right: In every presidential election since 2008, when John McCain carried the county by 63%, the percentage of Republican votes has steadily increased; Trump won with nearly 70% in 2020.
But the county defies easy categorization. Locals describe Westcliffe, the county seat, as politically “purple.” The town is a mecca of sorts, a gateway to thousands of acres of protected wilderness, and its pristine dark skies attract photographers and stargazers from around the world. (It is a certified International Dark Sky Community, one of only a handful worldwide.) A number of countercultural communities have found a foothold there over the years—from Mission: Wolf, an off-the-grid wolf sanctuary founded in the 1980s, to the Mountain Publishing Company, the conservative media organization that publishes the weekly Sangre de Cristo Sentinel(“The Voice of Conservative Colorado!”). The Sentinel’s articles and columns — one called “Patriot Alert!” — editorialize on gun culture, patriotism and the history of “the Old West.”
When I visited the ranch around Thanksgiving, the late-afternoon light was reverberant, volleying off the Wet Mountains and Sangre de Cristos, casting a luminous glow across the landscape. J, a Texan who moved to the ranch in June — after losing her job and housing in the pandemic — waved to me from a long stairwell outside the dome’s entrance. Dressed in all-black denim, she was masked and distanced in a black cowboy hat and stylish black boots, armed with her favorite firearm, a Ruger-57. Ten enthusiastic dogs — five Great Pyrenees and Australian shepherd puppies, all named after Star Trek characters (Worf, Seven of Nine, Geordi, Lore and Data) — howled, tails wagging like windshield wipers. Nearly a hundred hissing alpaca trundled across the pasture.
The ranch exists at a philosophical intersection that is immediately evident inside the dome, where a wall displays prized firearms — Bonnie’s sniper, a Springfield AR-15, two 12-gauge shotguns and a 22-rifle — and flags for The Iron Front, the anti-Nazi symbol used by 1930s paramilitary groups, which now symbolizes anti-fascism and intersectional Pride. Pride flags with colorful stripes — pink, rose, yellow, green, pewter, black, white — bedeck the wall, celebrating asexuality, agender identity, lesbianism and nonbinary gender identities.
Since Logue founded the ranch in 2018, its frontier libertarian ethos has attracted social justice activists and gun-rights advocates, all seeking sanctuary. “We’re a haven. We offer work, we offer shelter, we offer peace,” says Logue, gesturing toward the expansive open space surrounding us. “There are a lot of people who visit for upwards of a week and just enjoy their time away from society,” Nelson added.
“And cry,” Logue said. “When that ranch gate shuts behind you, the cis world stays out there.”
On that November afternoon at the barn, Justine — a 21-year-old who moved to the ranch in July — filled water basins for the alpaca and sheep and fed the ducks and chickens. “I started the watering because it was needed, but then I realized I was doing it because it got me out of bed,” she said. “As long as the alpaca are healthy and fed, we can keep growing and help more people.”
Logue and her cohort seek to challenge the patriotic myths — about Manifest Destiny, liberty and freedom — that their Wet Mountain Valley neighbors double-down on in The Sentinel. “The American frontier or ‘the American West’ wasn’t conquered with rugged individualism,” she said. “It was conquered by communities sticking together. … Nobody did that by themselves.” Their social mission — akin to that of mutual-aid networks and similar to anti-fascist groups like The Redneck Revolt as well as leftist pro-gun groups like the John Brown Gun Club or the Socialist Rifle Association — stems from their political commitments. “It isn’t through harsh words and violence that you defeat fascism,” Logue told me. “It’s through building community, but only if you can stay alive long enough to do it. That means you have to be armed — because fascists are armed, always.”
“It isn’t through harsh words and violence that you defeat fascism. It’s through building community, but only if you can stay alive long enough to do it.”
This is something they’ve learned firsthand. “There are militias in the Wet Mountain Valley,” Logue said. “They’ve showed up armed and threatening.” That spurred the ranchers to arm up. “Moving here demanded gun ownership,” she continued. The ranchers watched from their front porch with a high-powered scope and sniper rifle — the Springfield AR-15 on the living room wall — staking out visitors loitering at the end of their driveway. The visits ceased. It’s rumored locally that militias unofficially “patrol” their surroundings to establish dominance. “In order to be treated as a human, you have to show you can defend yourself more than they can hurt you,” Logue said. “Then you can reach equality.”But achieving that has been elusive. This past summer, with COVID-19 cases rising, residents disagreed about local officials’ handling of the pandemic. The town’s political conflicts erupted on July Fourth, when armed demonstrators — led by The Custer Citizens for Liberty, a right-wing patriot group that The Sentinelfrequently endorsed— paraded through downtown Westcliffe, protesting the Custer County Board of Health’s decision to cancel the annual Independence Day Parade. The ranchers had planned to avoid the protest downtown but got caught in the crowds during morning errands. “We saw them flying the Three Percenter flags front and center and everybody was armed. It was a fascist parade,” Logue told me. “So, we came back and started antifa accounts on Instagram. We called them out on being Nazis by tweeting about them, then on Facebook.”
What happened next surprised them. “There was a real upsurge from the leftist community in the Valley,” said Logue. The outcry created an unexpected opening, as they unknowingly tapped into long-simmering sentiments. Meanwhile, they found another niche: Many residents began employing them in local handiwork and physical labor. The ranchers also provide recycling services at the county landfill. That has exponentially increased their visibility: “It’s really hard for people to paint you as ‘weird’ or whatever, if you’re just helping people,” Logue said.
“It’s really hard for people to paint you as ‘weird’ or whatever, if you’re just helping people.”
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If the political headwinds they faced seem daunting, they’ve also made them adapt. “We’re queer. We get second-guessed all the time,” Logue said. “We’re always having to innovate and think ahead.” When they couldn’t get certain Department of Agriculture livestock loans, for example — alpacas are technically classified as pets — they acquired a few sheep. “There’s something inherently queer about how many alpaca we have. People don’t know what to do with us,” said Kathryn, one of Logue’s partners, who goes by her first name only. “Sure, we'll bring out some sheep, I guess that makes us ‘normal’ or whatever, but that’s the closest we’ll get to assimilation.”
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This underscores a larger point: Exceeding established categories, and reinventing something better in their wake, is a hallmark of “Camp culture” — what critic Susan Sontag famously described in her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” as the “love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’ ... the spirit of extravagance.” The perceived surplus or frivolity is the point. Hence the large number of alpaca (nearly 200, as of January): It’s a sensibility, a vision — a distinctly ecological one. “We deliberately chose alpaca because their poop is particularly good for establishing deep soil,” Logue said. “We do natural farming and ranching, so we don’t rob the land of its inherent goodness. We make it better.” The Tenacious Unicorns and their brand of camp culture are leading the way, reinventing rural America, which is to say, making it more than just a cis-white stronghold.
“You know,” Logue said, “there’s plenty of space in those communities for queer voices.”
Eric Siegelis an editorial intern for High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit aletter to the editor.
More from Communities
Ranch tenacious unicorn
On a February morning in Custer County, the wind carries clouds over a ranch where alpaca wake up, their frames silhouetted against the bright pink sky.
It’s a sight not unlike many farms in Westcliffe, the mountain town southwest of Colorado Springs, but the people on this land have a unique purpose.
“Yeah we’re queer and leftists so we paint a new picture,” said ranch founder, Penny Logue.
A haven for all:
With 180 alpaca, Logue named the farm the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch.
Logue co-owns the alpaca ranch with Bonnie Nelson, and together they provide a haven for people who identify as transgender.
“We help people get a better foot in life and have a chance to escape the cis(gender) world and just exist happily amongst all the wonderful animals here,” said Nelson, who identifies as non-binary.
But despite creating a safe place, the unicorns choose not to hide. Even though they live in a county where the sheriff said some individuals like to think they are part of militias.
'Gun totin’ open carry people':
In Custer County, nearly 70% of the population voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.
“It’s been talked about in the trans community of just going out to someplace rural and start a farm and just kind of disappear,” Nelson said. “We of course decided not to disappear.”
Part of not disappearing means Nelson and Logue feel the need to add an accessory to their hips for self-defense.
“There’s nothing about gun culture we love,” said Logue. “It’s more the functionality and necessity of owning firearms is an everyday reality for us.”
>> Raw video below: The Unicorns talk about the decision to carry guns
People carrying guns around town is normal, too.
“You know you’ve got gun totin’ open carry people which I probably fall into that category,” said the owner of Peregrine Coffee Roasters, Stephen Holmes. “I’m not wearing my firearm today, I don’t wear it in the shop too often.”
The publisher of the local paper, the Wet Mountain Tribune, has always owned guns for hunting, but he bought a different kind of gun this year after he felt threatened for his reporting on the pandemic.
“This was the first time I went out and bought a self-defense weapon this last summer,” said Jordan Hedberg. “It wasn’t because of the left or rioting in Denver, it was from some of the more extreme elements in Custer County.”
Custer County Sheriff Shannon Byerly said he investigated some of the harassment Hedberg received, but it never amounted to direct threats.
Byerly said the public health director did have a tire blown out and called it “kind of suspicious,” but deputies ultimately never found any suspects.
>> Raw video below: Publisher of Wet Mountain Tribune talks about community
'We get harassed':
In early February, a deputy showed up to the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch to investigate an anonymous tip that they were abusing their alpaca.
“We get harassed pretty regularly,” Logue said.
The complaint was unfounded and Byerly said he wouldn’t be surprised if someone called trying to make their lives more difficult because of a High Country News article that “left a poor taste in most of the county’s mouth.”
“That’s not how you make friends,” said Byerly over the phone, referencing the article’s discussion about growing fascism in Custer County.
Although the unicorns feel there are fascist people within the county, they call the general community “amazing.”
“We have met people that it would blow your mind how kind,” said Logue. “I’m tearing up, just amazing people that’s all.”
>> Raw video below: The Unicorns talk about their community
Tied together by a landscape:
Logue and Nelson get coffee at Holmes’ shop almost every day. And while they might not agree on everything, they listen to each other’s perspectives on life.
“You’re going to land in a different place than I do,” said Holmes. “Can we still be friends and understand each other? We can.”
The people who live in Custer County are tied together by the reason they all came to live on the land in the first place.
“On the worst days you look out at this mountain range and, first of all, you’re like, 'Ok, that’s a trillion years (old), I’m meaningless,'” Logue said. “And also, 'I’m going to leave this better than I found it in a real way.'”
The unicorns know people will never be perfect, but a picture of their life on the ranch comes close.
PHOTOS: Inside the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch near Westcliffe
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