Playing Tour Guide in Alma, North America’s Highest Town

Alma sits at the highest altitude of any incorporated town in North America: 3224 metres or 10,578 feet.

It’s so high that visitors often get altitude sickness within the first 24 hours of arrival. Altitude sickness is Alma’s way of initiating those who dare to visit. It starts with a throbbing headache, then manifests into nausea and vomiting, but it usually doesn’t last long. It’s akin to the worst hangover you’ve ever had, but if you’re visiting Alma, you’re probably expecting a hangover anyway.   

There used to be a bar in Alma called the AOB. It stood for “Alma’s Only Bar”—a perplexing name considering there was another bar, the South Park Saloon, only a block away. My aunt and uncle opened the AOB back in the 90s, but they sold it before I was old enough to run-up any rockstar-level bar tabs at their expense. I’m not sure whether they claimed it as the “only” bar in town as an aggressive marketing ploy aimed against the other bar or because they opened first. Either way, when I eventually got the pleasure of perching up in one of the establishment’s sticky bar stools, sometime in my early 20s, I’d found a good place to shoot pool, neck beers and listen to whichever local character wanted to ramble. And in Alma, there’s always some local character who wants to ramble.

The AOB was just a one-room establishment with a concrete patio down the side. There was a fire pit out there, and on a Saturday night the vibe was more like a house party than a bar. People sipped their drinks, passed joints around the fire and openly smoked pipes back when weed was illegal in Colorado. Cocaine, on the other hand, was better consumed within the privacy of a toilet cubicle.

One night I spent at the AOB stands out to me as simultaneously blurry and memorable. I can still picture a big obnoxious fat man in a red flannel shirt who was causing all sorts of problems. I’m not sure if he was demanding more alcohol, insulting the bartender or both, but soon it was closing time and he was refusing to leave. Most people had already had the good sense to get out of there by that point, but a few locals had stayed back to defend the bartender. I hung around, feeling a mix of heavy inebriation and intrigue, and attempted to play midnight anthropologist.

As I watched the big rig get punched a few times, then thrown to the ground by a man half his size, I’m ashamed to say that I felt a perverse sense of satisfaction. Not for a brutal display of violence—it was really more of a theatrical fuck you kind of situation—but because the big dude had started the conflict and then been taken down by an underdog. And yeah, there were a few punches that connected with his head—enough to topple him—but his big red face was far too durable to bleed.

Once he was on the floor of the bar, he looked groggy and barely conscious, but probably just as much from all the booze he’d consumed as the punches he’d copped. Two of the locals grabbed him by the belt loops and dragged him through the front door, proudly declaring that they didn’t need security guards or cops to protect them. He was then thrown into a snow bank and reminded not to fuck with the locals. And as I stumbled up Highway 9 through the snow towards the warmth of my uncle’s couch, I was left thinking, “This is a solid community. The word ‘community’ pretty much boils down to this.”

In hindsight, it was probably just what it looked like: a sad and ugly little skirmish fuelled by testosterone and alcohol. And while it’s probably unfair on Alma to recount a bygone bar brawl and let it serve as a destination guide, the experience definitely informed the way I see the town. With a winter climate that can kill you in a matter of hours, an array of beautiful, yet super dangerous natural predators and more guns than people, Alma is a pretty hardcore place to hang out. In the last US census in 2010, there were 270 residents in Alma, which goes to show that it ain’t the place for everyone.

To be clear, though, Alma definitely isn’t a shithole. Not at all. It’s got some of the cleanest drinking water in the world, the most incredible views that span the Rocky Mountains and a plethora of trails for hiking, biking and snowshoeing. The stars are super bright up there and the town has a law against light pollution, so it’s ripe for making up stories about the constellations or spending the witching hour howling at the moon. In the summer, the meadows sprout wildflowers and the stream that runs through town gushes with snowmelt. Being the southernmost town in Park County, Alma is where South Park was set (though I’m still not sure if that’s a drawcard or an embarrassment for the locals). To the untrained eye, Alma is basically just a couple of shops dotted along a windy stretch of road called Highway 9, way up in the Rockies. But if you can hack it, Alma’s got a culture all of its own.

See more from the Monster Children Travel Issue right here.

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