Sometimes life takes an unexpected turn that can change one's course forever. For Mark and Joei Malone, that unexpected turn happened two years ago on a road trip to explore the possibility of relocating from Summit County to Montrose.
At the time, they were living off the grid in Heeney, Colo. Both multi-talented artists, their art studio was a one-room school house complete with stage and blackboard and a ghost named Bob Farris.
If you haven't heard of it, Heeney is a "census-designate place" -- an unincorporated concentration of people counted by the government for census purposes only. It's situated on the shores of Green Mountain Reservoir. Its closest neighbors are Dillon, Kremmling and Silverthorne, and its sub-arctic climate is marked by periods of bitter cold winter weather and high winds. Those living there are a hearty and independent lot, and Mark and Joei were no exception.
Joei started out in Ohio and has slowly migrated west. She used her degree in computer sciences and studies in childhood development to run a cell phone business and special needs daycare in the Denver area for 14 years. Her electronics company also provided education to teens about texting and driving.
About seven years ago she faced one of her biggest challenges when she was diagnosed with a rare brain disease that, in part, leaves her vulnerable to seizures. She retired and went to work on a ranch in Clear Creek County. There she met Mark, an artist, hard rock gold miner and local bachelor. "He rescued me," says Joei, whose attraction to Mark likely led to a lot of broken hearts.
Their first home was an off-the-grid bus. Mark was the night watchman at the Poor Man Mine. When winter settled in, they relocated to the Resumption Mine and lived in a cabin and a Winnebago.
They then lived in Heeney and eventually made the decision to leave and seek a warmer climate. They set their sights on Montrose. A friend in Summit County had told them to check out a little town along the way called Paonia. "Neither one of us had ever even heard of it," said Joei. They never got to Montrose. After dropping off of McClure Pass, they took a left turn off of Highway 133, stopped in at The Diner, and fell in love with the place. That was just over two years ago.
"I think it really is the people," that make it such a special place, said Joei. Mark marvels at the dichotomy. "You can go down to The Diner and you've got hippies sitting next to cowboys."
They rented a house on Main Avenue for 18 months and were looking for something to buy when someone told them about a small property on Minnesota Creek that needed a little TLC. It just felt right. "We've never lived in a place where people were so happy and welcoming to have us move in," said Joei.
The property was littered with decades of junk, and the cabin needed work. But the hardwood floor was salvaged from the old Delta County Court House, and the ceiling was from a house once owned by Debbie Reynolds. A two-seat outdoor privy hauled down from Bowie was among the outbuildings. The place had potential.
Most of the junk is now in the landfill, but moving some of the old equipment will require removing the trees growing up through it.
Shortly after arriving, a series of Mark's oil paintings was featured in a show titled "Awaiting Summer," at the Paonia Public Library. Mark grew up in the Denver area. His love for the arts began with drawing comic strips in second grade of "Gigantor," a "bigger-than-big, stronger-than-strong" futuristic cartoon robot superhero of the 1960s and 1970s that was controlled by a 12-year-old boy. He later studied advertising design at the Colorado Institute of Art, now The Art Institute of Colorado, in the Capitol Hill area of Denver.
Full disclosure: For the past two years Mark has worked one day a week in the DCI mailroom. He's also very active in the community. He uses his skiing and other backcountry skills to serve on West Elk Mountain Rescue where he's involved in high-altitude training and rescue. The organization covers western Gunnison County and assists rescues for the National Parks Service in the Black Canyon of he Gunnison National Park area. "It's a really nice organization run by a nice bunch of people," he said. This past year they had no fatalities and some very interesting rescues.
"He loves it," says Joei. "He gets a rescue call at 2 a.m., and he gets excited."
Mark is a carpenter by trade, an occupation he's worked in for 30 years. He's made many custom signs, including the Phoenix Gold Mine sign in Idaho Springs and the three-dimensional "Falling Waters" sign made of metal, logs, with twisted branches for the waterfall.
He's also a furniture maker and recently made a table from cedar burned in the Wake Fire on Wakefield Mesa near Paonia in July of 1996. He's working on perfecting a folding rocking chair based on a design by his grandpa Malone and made of No. 1 pine. The canvas sling-style seat, made by Joei, is decorated with a custom silkscreen design. It's a great camping chair, he said. "I call it 'grandma's fishing chair.'"
He also dabbles in graphic arts. In 2009 he designed the label for a collector's edition frosted glass bacon-infused vodka bottles for the bar at Arapahoe Basin. Most recently he designed a new logo for West Elk Mountain Rescue, which he said was only possible with technical help from some of the members.
Mark is also an accomplished painter. He doesn't paint on-site or from photographs, but rather from memory, often incorporating scenes of other places he's been that have stuck in his mind. He's currently working on a series of oil paintings that put skiers and wild animals on the same canvas.
One painting represents his impression of the North Fork area from the day he and Joei arrived. The painting, he said, covers 30 miles in five feet and stretches from the orchards of Paonia to the desert. It was dead of winter and the remaining leaves on the orchard were red. "Colors I've never seen before," said Mark.
Joei keeps busy making her original spiral design hats for family and friends and handcrafting soaps, which are sold exclusively at The Heart of the Dragon in Paonia. Most people have no idea how soap is made, she said. She wants her business to remain small, and she loves having her work displayed at the store.
It's been a long and often difficult path, but Mark and Joei said they've found their home. Standing out in the heavy snowfall on Christmas day, a fire crackling in their outdoor fire pit, dog Sophia at their heels and a flock of juncos flitting about, the garland strung around their house lit by strands of colorful Christmas lights bouncing off of the icicles gave the place a peaceful and quiet glow.
Said Joei, "I feel like I live in the center of a snow globe."