A place to call his own
Jonathan Wheby, a former Peace Corps volunteer, is building a life in Oak Creek
July 13, 2002
Steamboat Springs — Jonathan Wheby stood on the porch of his new home in Oak Creek. The papers were signed and he was alone in a new town.
“As I watched the jacked-up trucks drive by with no mufflers, I started to wonder, ‘What the hell have I done?'”
That was April 15, 2000. Since then, either Oak Creek or Wheby have changed.
Now he has a massage office on Main Street. He frequents The Mugshot, Oak Creek’s coffee shop, which he said has become a great place for young people to meet.
He sits on the porch these days, watching the trucks drive by, and he feels at home.
Finding his niche in a small town is nothing new to Wheby. He spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mensase, a small village in Ghana.
“I was the only white guy for miles,” he said. “In three years (he spent a third year in Ghana’s capital) never once was I just a regular guy hanging out. My skin color, and the fact that I was American, was always an issue.”
It took him a year to get used to “how things worked over there” and another year to adjust when he came back to the States, he said.
“Everything was done differently,” he said. “I had to learn from the beginning up.”
For example, if he wanted a glass of water, he had to boil the water, cool it and then filter it.
“That was a half-day process,” he said.
He found a place there in the end. The chief of the village adopted Wheby into his family and gave him his name.
Wheby was the fourth Peace Corps volunteer to show up in that tiny village. The first one built a school, but the school was yet to be finished. The second volunteer brought in two water pumps, but those were broken. The third started a community garden, but it was overgrown.
“When someone gives you something, you don’t treat it the same as if you earned it yourself,” he said. He stuck to that philosophy through his entire two years.
At the end of his Peace Corps assignment, he applied for a job as a supervisor. They moved him to the capital city ,where he watched over 40 volunteers.
“I had a guard, a truck, a generator and air conditioning. I sat poolside at four-star hotels,” Wheby said. “I traveled into the bush where no one had ever seen a white person and children ran away screaming.
“At the end of that year, I had taken a mouthful, chewed and swallowed.”
It was time to come home.
In three years, he had returned to the States for a month vacation.
“When I came back, America seemed like a very weird place,” he said. “I traveled across the whole country visiting family and friends.
“All my friends were lawyers or into computers. They were working 60 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. After Africa, it didn’t matter how much money you paid me. I wasn’t going to live like that.”
Wheby was at square one. He didn’t have any debt or possessions.
He came back to Steamboat at the end of 1999.
Steamboat had been his home after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder, via Texas, via France, with a double major in fine art and French.
After school, in 1994, he showed up in Steamboat looking for the life of a ski bum. He even put that on his resume.
He took a job at Heavenly Daze (now Levelz) and moved into a house with some other guys. The place had no heat.
“We all had waterbeds and if we got cold we would just go to bed,” Wheby said. “Our philosophy was if you’re not sleeping, you should be working or skiing.”
He was giving massages back then for extra cash but hadn’t decided to make it his life. He wasn’t ready to make any life commitments. Not yet.
But the ski bum life gets old. It was in 1996 that he submitted an application to the Peace Corps.
“I had no clue where they would send me,” he said. “I offered to teach art and waited.”
After three years he was back in the same place he had started, but he was a different person. He was ready to establish himself.
He stayed with friends at first while he looked for a house.
“I had to have my own dirt,” he said. “Oak Creek was the only game I could play.”
He found a house for $105,000 half a block from downtown with a yard, four bedrooms, two floors and a front porch where he could sit to relax in his new surroundings.
He splits his time as a massage therapist between his Oak Creek office and his shifts at the Steamboat Springs Health and Rec. He does Thai massage, deep tissue and chair massage.
“As far as I know, I am the only Thai massage therapist in the whole county,” Wheby said. “I’ve studied twice in Thailand at three schools.”
Thai massage, he said, is especially good for athletes. It is a traditional form of massage involving assisted stretching and rhythmic compression.
Wheby said he is just one of many young people who are moving to Oak Creek because it is affordable and “a cool little town.”
“It’s still a commuting town with people working in Steamboat,” he said, “but things are happening here and more people will be able to make a living in Oak Creek. I think I’ll be here for a while.”