BASALT - When Basalt resident Joanne Tordoff recited the Pledge of Allegiance on Jan. 14, it wasn't something she automatically spit out from repetition as a school kid. Instead, it came from her heart.
Tordoff, 42, a ski instructor at Aspen Highlands, was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in Denver after years of submitting to background checks, filing endless paperwork, waiting patiently during a probationary period, then passing a civics test and - mostly importantly to her - swearing allegiance to her new country.
"I thought, 'This is it. I'm now becoming a citizen of America,'" Tordoff recounted about the ceremony. "The pledge was from my heart. It really felt like a taking on of a new land. It was an amazing feeling. I felt very proud."
When she took the pledge, it represented achievement of a goal she set in late 1999 when she first discovered America. Tordoff grew up in southern Africa, living in Zimbabwe and Swaziland in her early years and then moving to South Africa to attend high school.
After she was married and gave birth to a daughter, Joanne and her then-husband Tim Tordoff decided they couldn't stay in South Africa, where violence was all too common. They wanted their daughter, Emma, to grow up where she could ride her bicycle to school.
They sold their small farm, and Tim made the fortuitous decision to pursue education in the U.S. as a blacksmith. He had always dreamed of being a farrier. He was accepted into a school in Kentucky in 1998. Joanne said she reluctantly went along with the plan.
"I didn't even want to come here," she said. "My goal was to go to Australia."
Tordoff said her image of America was formed from mass-media reports overseas. The illusions were shattered first in Kentucky, then in Elizabeth, Colo., a small Front Range town where her husband worked as an apprentice, shoeing horses. Tordoff said her family was embraced by the people of both rural places and she warmed immediately to America.
The Tordoffs moved to the Roaring Fork Valley on Christmas Day 1999. Tim took over the business of a farrier who left the valley and didn't want to leave his clients on many horse ranches without a hoof to stand on. Joanne was hired by Aspen Skiing Co. as a ticket seller.
They instantly fell in love with the Roaring Fork Valley and decided they wanted to make it and the U.S. their permanent home. That sparked a long, expensive process that was punctuated by good will.
Joanne said she would have had trouble staying in the U.S. if her work visas weren't continually renewed by Skico throughout the early 2000s, when there was a shortage of workers. She said she cannot thank Skico enough for providing her a steady job.
Tim had the good fortune of having Holly McLain, of Moon Run Ranch, sponsor him in a quest for citizenship. In the eyes of the U.S. government, Tim was a desirable immigrant because he had a rare skill - that of a blacksmith and farrier. Moon Run Ranch had to prove it couldn't fill its needs for a farrier domestically through advertisement on the U.S. Department of Labor website. Because of that, Tim was able to stay employed and both Tordoffs were able to pursue their green cards, issued to resident aliens.
"We were living the life we always wanted," Joanne said. "Emma was riding her bicycle to school."
But earning a green card isn't easy or cheap.
"There's no way we could have done it without a lawyer," she said. "She guided us through all the paperwork."
They started the process in 2000. It became more difficult after Sept. 11, when the U.S. started screening applicants more closely and the process became even more time-consuming. Tordoff recalled long periods where she wouldn't sleep at night, convinced something would go haywire and they would be deported.
"We were in tenterhooks the whole time - just hanging there," Joanne said, using a term from South Africa.
Their green cards finally arrived in April 2005, securing their status in the U.S. as long as they didn't mess up and commit a crime or dodge taxes. They were required to wait five years before they could apply to become U.S. citizens.
After that probationary period, they paid a $680 fee each to the Department of Homeland Security and went through extensive background checks with the FBI. Once cleared, they were given study guides in preparation for a test on U.S. history and civics. Joanne said there were 100 possible questions on her test. She was asked only six in a verbal quiz with an interviewer.
Her questions included how many members there are in the U.S. House of Representatives (435), which U.S president was a prominent general in World War II (Eisenhower) and who the current president is (Obama).
Joanne passed with flying colors Jan. 14 and then soaked in the good feelings at the swearing-in ceremony. Forty-five people from 10 to 15 countries were sworn in, she estimated. Along with the Pledge of Allegiance, they took a special oath and sang the National Anthem.
Tim worked his way through the process and became a U.S. citizen earlier, Joanne said. She estimated they spent $30,000 combined pursuing their green cards and citizenship.
The only sad part of their story, she said, is that their marriage didn't survive. They remain good friends and remain like a family. Emma attends Basalt High School. Joanne, a tenacious athlete, learned how to ski and did it so well she became an instructor for Skico. She impresses the early-morning crew at Basalt Health and Fitness with her hard-core workouts. Tim shoes horses at numerous ranches and has embraced life as a cowboy, Joanne said.
"We were so lucky that all Tim ever wanted to be was a blacksmith," she said.