Monday, February 26

The Crestone Eagle is a nonprofit monthly newspaper serving Crestone and the San Luis Valley

Who We Are: Leighton Burt: Finding a very big world in a small town 

Leighton Burt has lived in Crestone/Baca a year and it’s still a marvel to him that this place, which feels like the home he always wanted, was here all the time, just an hour from where he grew up. His parents own and run Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa, and the family spent time hiking in the mountains next to Crestone when Leighton was a boy. But rumors about the town, about cults, religious zealots, lawlessness, and dangerous drifters, swirled around the southern end of the San Luis Valley. When night began to fall, the family was always sure to be on highway 17 headed south.

Now Leighton, 24, smiles at being on the other side of that divide. Of course, there are all kinds of people in both places, he says. But from the first day he actually spent time here, at the 2021 Crestone Energy Fair, he felt a strong resonance with those he met—artists, DJs, fire spinners, and other vibrant, creative, eco-minded people. “It was awesome. I didn’t want to leave,” he says.

Nature and engineering

A self-described “old soul but a child at heart,” Leighton always felt out of place among his peers, especially in high school where his scientific and artistic inclinations, and realization that he was queer, set him apart. At the same time, he had the ability to be friends with everyone. And the close presence of all four grandparents provided encouragement and support. The unconditional acceptance of one grandmother in particular was a “big influence in teaching me unwavering compassion,” he says.

Along with all kinds of outdoor activities, Leighton reveled in the creative energy of building and tinkering with things. From middle through high school, he was intensely involved with the Colorado State Science and Engineering Fair, in which he competed and placed seven years in a row. His primary focus the last three years of the science fair: creating an autonomous avalanche rescue drone prototype under the mentorship of a retired Adams State physics professor. The project earned him a two-summer internship with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in its Boulder lab, where he built wildfire monitoring drones.

Drawn to electrical engineering and computer science, he enrolled in Montana State University in Bozeman. But the college-level courses he took in high school didn’t transfer and his hopes for graduating in three or four years evaporated. Bored and discouraged, he switched briefly to graphic design but dropped out before the end of the first year. He remained in Bozeman for a time, making a living in the culinary field, before returning to Alamosa. There he worked in his parents’ business, as he had as a teen, and then as a cook at the Windsor Hotel in Del Norte.

Nearby all along

Believing he needed to tap into a larger world, Leighton was considering moving to Colorado Springs or Manitou Springs in 2021 when a friend told him about the Crestone Energy Fair and the two attended. It was an exhilarating experience. A few months later Leighton connected with the event’s producer, Nick Nevares, and began meeting people in Crestone, many of whom have since become his closest friends. In July 2022 he settled here and began working with the Energy Fair and for Nick’s company, Mountainside Realty. 

Today Leighton serves as Nick’s assistant with administrative work and scheduling, market analysis, and 3D scanning for virtual home tours, among other duties, while studying for his realtor’s license. In his own time, he volunteers his graphic design and social media marketing skills for the annual Energy Fair. Along with Nick, he also co-produces other community events including Crestone’s July 4 celebration and periodic summer free meals. “Everything is meant to flow back into the community, one way or another,” he says.

Meanwhile he is immersed in the local creative community, DJing and producing digital art that he calls calligraffiti, a blend of calligraphy and graffiti. He posts his mandala-like images on Instagram under 1.of.0 (One of None), a reference to prints in unlimited editions, available to all. He also creates stickers and sublimated ink tapestries and hopes to expand into using his imagery in clothing, paintings, and mural art. Another dream is to buy property here and build a house for himself using alternative construction methods and materials. “I have an earthship vision of living systems with the land—highly self-sustaining, regenerative practices,” he says.

A special community

Working in real estate gives Leighton a front row seat on the changes taking place in Crestone/Baca, while reinforcing his awareness of the need to not grow too big, too fast and risk losing the community’s special qualities. He shares Nick’s approach of transparent honesty with prospective newcomers, especially about the complexities and challenges of living here. And as someone able to bridge subcultures, he finds himself fascinated with “being in the forward-facing professional part of the community as well as the more underground arts and performances part.” He calls Crestone a “small town with a very big world within it, in how it connects to so many people and places.” 

Looking back on his boyhood in the southern part of the Valley and his life now, Leighton expresses appreciation for both. From his parents and grandparents, he gained a strong work ethic. Time in nature allowed him a break from society’s “default reality.” His science mentor taught him to think, never providing answers but instead leaving “breadcrumbs” to follow. “It helped me learn from life, so I’m able to play and test and figure things out,” he says.

In Crestone/Baca Leighton has found not only creative outlets and professional work, but also healthy models of masculinity and community to counter those of mainstream American culture. “There’s a level of authenticity and accountability people here have. And also wild, whimsical situations and awesome people,” he says. “I’m eternally grateful to Nick, as well as the rest of the community, for being so inviting, for showing me all the possibilities and allowing me to grow into who I am.”

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