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Monday, November 2, 2009

Neapolitan Colorado

More than a year ago in my first post, I mentioned my childhood love of “View-Master” wheels containing tiny, 3-D color transparencies showing exotic places and peoples around the country. I pushed the little spring that advanced the photos so many times that several viewers broke and had to be replaced. I was mesmerized by the scenes illuminated inside these little contraptions, never dreaming I’d see most of them for real.

My favorites were the vivid shots from Colorado, far from my ordinary surroundings in Ohio. My father had moved there, way out West, where I had beheld the Rocky Mountains once as a four-year-old during a train trip that Mother and I took in her unsuccessful attempt to put the family back together.

The View-Master’s teeny depictions of Colorado’s mighty Pikes Peak, the forever-deep Royal Gorge, and the red-rock Garden of the Gods made the return trip to Cleveland bearable.
Later in life, my heart would beat a little faster when Colorado’s first snow-capped Rocky Mountain peak came into distant view.This often followed many days of driving across plains so monotonous that westward-migrating pioneers called them The Great American Desert — endless stretches of land that were nearly treeless, uninhabited, and completely unfit for farming.

Although people associate Colorado with the towering Rockies, its eastern third is indistinguishable from table-flat Kansas to the east. That’s why I call the state “Neapolitan Colorado.”Not after Naples, but with the frozen dessert in mind.
Neapolitan ice cream, so named because a lot of early ice cream-parlor proprietors were Italian, was the first imaginative ice cream flavor, lining up mundane vanilla, rich chocolate, and luscious strawberry side-by-side in cartons and individual square slices.

Unremarkable eastern Colorado is my vanilla, the spine of soaring Rocky Mountain peaks down the middle the rewarding chocolate, and the bumpy plateau to the west — next to Utah, where more Rockies pop out of the earth once again — my strawberry.This Neapolitan slice of the American West isn’t quite a square, but it’s close.  Colorado is a tad wider than deep.

It is a visual treat, shimmering in the fall, when the lemon sun shines through the thin mountain air, backlighting yellow and gold aspens on 10,000 hillsides. It is a feast for the senses in spring and summer, when evergreens glimmer against a stormy afternoon sky, streams hurry down from the Continental Divide into meadows filled with wildflowers, and mountain zephyrs refresh the air.

And Colorado astounds in the winter, when America’s highest state, 2,072 meters (6,800 feet) above sea level on average, sparkles under blankets of snow.

Wait, you say, the nation’s highest mountain, Mt. McKinley, rises in Alaska, and one high glacier follows another below as you fly overhead.  Nevertheless, Alaska’s mean elevation is 3½ times lower than Colorado’s.Remember, Alaska starts out at sea level; even the lowest parts of Colorado are high plains.And its capital, Denver, in the shadow of the great mountains, isn’t called the “mile-high city” for nothing.It’s precisely one mile (5,280 feet or 1,609 meters) high.

All three of the state’s “Neapolitan” regions harbor bear and elk, bison and beaver, coyotes and mountain lions that first lured hunters and trappers westward — as well as all manner of predatory birds, whitewater trout, and woodland snakes.

Colorado has always been among the wildest parts of the West, yet outposts like Denver, which supplied the gold camps and railroads, became almost instant, genteel cities whose street grids were copied from eastern models.

Today the communities along the Rockies’ eastern Front Range form a single “strip city” from Fort Collins, on the Wyoming border, 240 kilometers (150 miles) south to Pueblo, the place to which my father scrammed.The population of the five-county region in and around Denver doubled between 1960 and 1990.In the synergy that comes with growth, all the new people helped create jobs, especially in construction and service industries.

But their cars also turned Interstate Highway 15 into a still life twice each weekday and filled what had been sweet air with a brown haze so ugly and noxious that Denver enacted some of the nation’s toughest emission standards.  Not that it had much choice.It was regulations or an end to its beloved mountain view.

Yet Colorado also built the world’s largest airport, Denver International, in the 1990s specifically to attract more trade, industrial development, and jobs.The state gave lucrative tax incentives to high-tech companies to locate in the state; they, in turn, attracted thousands of Californians, Texans, and others who had lost work or were fed up with their lifestyles.While Coloradans once flaunted bumper stickers that read “Don’t Californiate Colorado” and joked that it would be great to discourage newcomers by posting billboards urging, “Think Utah!” and “Have You Seen Las Vegas?!” — they met the incessant growth with resignation, investing heavily in light rail, sports facilities, and schools to accommodate the influx.

So the Colorado of today bears little resemblance to the almost primordial place (by comparison) that I visited as a child.  But just when I’m about to despair about the ribbons of concrete and tracts of indistinguishable houses when I visit, I’m in a magical place in the mountains, amid evergreens and babbling rivers and precipitous drop-offs into sheer ravines.

Of course, I’m by no means alone in the Wild. There are people ahead of and behind me in four-wheel-drive vehicles — every second Coloradan owns one, and the local joke is that everyone else drives motor homes.They’re off fishing, hiking, camping, hunting, and star-gazing.The state even did away with its tourism-promotion board, figuring that the word had been amply spread that Colorado was a special place.

Colorado’s new arrivals are notorious for their “last person in closes the door” attitudes towards further growth.But responding to statewide poll after poll, Coloradans still rate the quality of life high, the beauty of the mountains unsurpassed, the appeal of easy access to outdoor recreation irresistible, and the benefits that newcomers bring — nicer restaurants, cultural activities, big-league sports — worth most of the headaches.

The state’s parallel courses — trumpeting conservation as well as growth — are well illustrated in Pitkin County, southwest of Denver in the Central Rockies.A state road heads south from Interstate 70 into it, and then divides.The eastern tine winds through ski resorts like Aspen and Snowmass on its way to spectacular Independence Pass and its serpentine switchbacks, far above the tree line.Beset by heavy snows and avalanches, the pass is closed from late autumn to early May.

Yet thousands of people, including retirees and “lone eagles” whose professions enable them to telecommute without ever venturing into an office, have moved into this area.

The other tine down from the interstate highway meanders far from any resort.You’ll see fly fishermen casting in the sparkling Crystal River and then come upon my favorite spot in all of Colorado: 

It’s Cleveholm Castle, whose tale begins with a benevolent industrialist who not so much tamed as refined the wilderness.

In 1892, Cleve Osgood, a cousin of President Grover Cleveland, had grabbed $40 million in Colorado coal claims and controlled the West’s only steel mill, in Pueblo.Osgood moved to New York, bought an entire city block, built a mansion on it, and began hobnobbing with fellow nouveau-aristocrats.Osgood also coveted a summer address as big as the West, so in 1899 he bought almost 8,000 hectares (19,000 acres) of the wild Crystal River Valley and built Redstone, an American feudal kingdom with a bachelors’ inn, a schoolhouse, a performance hall, and 84 frame cottages for his workforce.  The cabins were tiny, but they included fancy fixtures for their time, including bathtubs with running hot water.

Towering over Redstone stood Osgood’s summer castle, Cleveholm — named for him and the Swedish word for “home.”The “Lion of Redstone” and his Swedish wife stuffed the manor with trophy heads, Tiffany lamps, ruby velvet drapes, and leather wall coverings.  Osgood even built his own railroad spur off the Denver main line so he could bring in his New York pals in private coaches.

Cleveholm still stands, off the tourist path in a field of columbines across from the red-rock mountain from which it was carved.A dude ranch house, a resort, and a bed-and-breakfast inn in turn, it’s very “Colorado”: at once wild and sophisticated.

It was not mining, and certainly not tourism or outdoor sports, that first brought white settlers to these mountains.Except for the Santa Fe Trail to the dry and dusty southeast, which skirted south into New Mexico, most great migration routes and early railroads bypassed Colorado’s spine of peaks — it has a stunning 54 “Fourteeners,” or summits higher than 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) along the Continental Divide.The pilgrims turned north instead, toward hospitable passes in Wyoming.

The Spanish, who had moved north out of Mexico and claimed much of what is today the southern half of Colorado, simply stopped when they reached the Rockies.Not just the imposing pinnacles deterred them.Marshall Sprague pointed out in a U.S. Bicentennial book on Colorado that the Spaniards’ custom of forcing Indians to build them pueblos and work their farms simply did not work there.They found few natives to enslave, since Comanches and mountain Utes were elusive horsemen who prized their freedom to roam and fought the idea of planting Spanish vegetables to the death.

Besides, the high country’s growing season was so short that early explorers had to either shoot and catch their food or carry it in.So it was at the San Luis Valley that the conquerors stopped their expansion into “Colorado” — Spanish for “red,” a name that they first applied to a river that runs through the region.

That same river rushes down into Arizona, where over eons it unearthed the brilliant sandstone layers that line the majestic Grand Canyon.

It was gold that opened Colorado’s mountains to settlement and began a boom-and-bust cycle — later applied to silver, oil, and uranium as well — that would torment the state for generations.John Babsone Lane Soule, an Indiana newspaperman — first wrote the words “Go west, young man” in the title of an editorial he penned in 1851.The line is often attributed, incorrectly, to New York editor Horace Greeley.The astute Greeley did journey to Denver and returned musing about the “intoxication of success” in the Colorado goldfields.This was sure to be followed by “the valley of humiliation,” Greeley wrote.  “Each season will see thousands turn away disappointed, only to give place to other thousands, sanguine and eager as if none had ever failed.”

He got it exactly right.

The United States first got its hands on part of Colorado in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.Incredibly, Louisiana stretched that far west from what are the hot and swampy Louisiana lowlands today — and as far north as the Canadian border as well.The French, from whom we bought Louisiana, paid little attention to the high country, other than to dispatch a few trappers.

Nor had any known American ever seen the Colorado portion of these vast new holdings.When a U.S. expedition under Captain Zebulon Pike first spied the Rocky Mountains in the distance, Pike assumed they must be about the same height as the old eastern Appalachians.The Rockies proved to be three and in some places four times higher.Pike and his men tramped all through the mountains, looking for the sources of the Arkansas and Red rivers — they never found them — and more than once had to slog around precipitous canyons like the Royal Gorge, 380 meters (1,250 feet) deep in spots.Eventually they ran into a squad of Spanish soldiers, who promptly arrested them and hauled them off to jail in Chihuahua.

Still, Pike came away with one of the nation’s most famous landmarks named for him: Pikes Peak, now the dramatic backdrop to the city of Colorado Springs.

In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain, and the new government opened trade with the United States through what is now southeast Colorado.  “Mountain men” like Jim Bridger were some of the first to veer off the trail in search of animals to trap for their fur.Tales of these men and the country they tamed thrilled their countrymen back east and gave Americans their first inkling of the wonders that lay beyond the prairie.Before long the fur trade was connecting remote reaches of the high Colorado mountains with the most fashionable salons of London and Paris.

By the mid-1800s, thousands of Americans were pressing westward into these alps.What is now Colorado was a geographical mishmash — part of it in Utah, some in Kansas and Nebraska, a sliver that was an extension of the Texas panhandle, and a lot in a sort of no-man’s land that Mexico had relinquished.But after solid veins of gold were discovered.“Pikes Peak or Bust” cries rang out.And in 1861, as the nation split asunder in a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln declared Colorado an official U.S. territory by presidential proclamation.Its almost perfect rectangle abutted seven states, and at “Four Corners,” Colorado’s boundary intersected those of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico territories.It is the only spot in the nation where four states meet, and Four Corners remains a tourist curiosity — perhaps America’s most remote.

Eastern Colorado became cattle and cowboy country, the railroad connected Front Range towns with Cheyenne up in Wyoming, the Utes — Colorado’s last indigenous Indians — were forced out of the mountains, and on August 1, 1876, Colorado was admitted to the Union as the 38th state.  It was less than a month past the 100th anniversary of the nation’s founding; hence Colorado’s nickname as the “Centennial State.”

A century later more than 25,000 Coloradans worked in oil and gas, including shale-oil fields.Denver’s skyline exploded with more than 1.8 million square meters (20 million square feet) of new office space owned or leased by energy-related companies. 

But then again, a bust: By 1988 more than 14,000 petroleum jobs had disappeared, and the state had had it with the yo-yo nature of economic fortunes.  Soon it was offering incentives to bring in high-tech firms and building Denver International Airport as the main economic “port” of the Mountain West, yet resolving to save its stunning environment at all costs.

The $4.3-billion airport features the largest public-art program in American history.Its own roofline of 30 peaks — symbolizing snowy mountaintops — has become one of the world’s most recognizable architectural symbols.The airfield, which can land 100 planes an hour in weather that would have closed old Stapleton Field, covers 53 square miles of eastern Colorado prairie.That’s twice the size of New York City’s Manhattan Island.(Let that sink in for awhile!)

Denver, replete with imaginative new skyscrapers and grand old structures such as the 1892 Colorado red-granite and Arizona-sandstone Brown Palace Hotel, has turned into the most elegant city between Kansas City and San Francisco.

Denver’s two newspapers, the Post and the Rocky Mountain News, fought a brutal, two-decade circulation war for supremacy in one of the nation’s last two-daily cities.The more regional Post, whose readership reached into Kansas, Wyoming, and New Mexico, prevailed.The News, Colorado’s oldest newspaper, closed earlier this year, two months short of its 150th anniversary.

Wild Rocky Mountain National Park, which had opened in 1915, remains Colorado’s most-frequented attraction.The park straddles the Continental Divide and contains 78 summits of 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) or higher.In and around it, hot springs, dude ranches, rodeo rings, old mining and gambling towns, and wildlife sanctuaries add to the high country’s appeal.
Colorado’s western plateau — the “strawberry” in my Neapolitan slice — is full of wind-carved spires, more than a few dinosaur bones that bring paleontologists back year after year, and massive rock domes. Grand Mesa, for one, is the world’s largest-flat-topped mountain.  To its south, near the rim of Mesa Verde, prehistoric Anasazi Indians once built the largest cliff dwelling in North America, stayed for a few centuries, then disappeared without a trace.

You want “champagne powder” snow at fancy resorts?Ghost towns?The continent’s tallest sand dunes?A narrow-gauge railroad ride amid high mountain passes?A tunnel through eight kilometers (five miles) of solid rock to an old gold camp that was once called “The Richest Square Mile on Earth”?  

Colorado — level plains, looming mountains, and craggy plateau in one — is full of such memorable destinations.Its mountains are more spectacular than imagined; its climate sunnier and drier, cooler in summer and warmer in winter; its sunrises and sunsets more inspiring; its cities more cultural, and more fun.

If I still had my View-Finder collection, I could prove it to you!



 (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Hobnob:  To associate or hang out with someone, especially of high social stature.

Mesmerizing:  Enchanting, almost hypnotic in its appeal.

Primordial:  Primitive, primeval.

Switchback:  One of the winding curves that enabled first railroad trains, and then cars, to make it up — and down — steep mountains by slowly zig-zagging around them.

Yo-Yo:  First made popular in the 1920s, Yo-Yos were toys in which two weighted pieces of wood or plastic, connected by an axle, were lowered, raised, and spun in creative ways by means of a string attached to the axle.To “yo-yo” is to constantly change direction, first in favor of, then against, something.

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