American Sabbatical 103: 4/27/97
This town is so healthy it makes your muscles ache. Approaching Boulder from the flats
to the east you begin to encounter bicyclists in airflow helmets
and spandex about five miles out. Sparkle-eyed and pink-cheeked
couples on tandems peddling away furiously with grins on. Maine
exercizists seem to have their faces fixed in grimaces of noble
agony, but out here on the brink of a New Age a mild euphoria
prevails. Of course nobodys above 30.
On our arrival the temperature wasnt much either. Seths tribe had started planting their backyard garden, assuming winter was over. A couple weeks in the 70s, and everyone in tank tops, looks like summer to Maine exiles. Now, three snow storms later, the seedlings were repotted and huddled in a south window. Piles of snow under the budding trees. White-faced mountains.
This is where the prairie smacks into upthrust crustal deformations and you begin to gasp for breath. The big mountains lump up twice as high deeper into western Colorado, but these foothills, the Frontal Range, put all our eastern bumps to shame. The prevailing shade of rock is a burnt purple sienna, fuzzed with the green of pines, now dusted with white. Outcrops of tilted strata in hot red and sour blue-green punctuate the scene.
Boulder is tucked right up against the foot of the mountains,
and city parks fan up the canyons and climb into the scenic heights.
The whole town seems to enjoy the vertical amenities. We joined
them every afternoon. Climbing up an icy trail to steaming falls,
then walking alongside squads of kayakers frolicking in white
water. Doing rolls at the foot of tumbling drops. The kayakists,
not us. Making our lungs sore legging up well trodden trails.
This is a throw back your head and watch the raptors lofting locale.
Thump-thump-thump.. another jogger trudges by. Blue-black and
white patterned magpies. Power-walkers. Huge squirrels. Long-striding
By Monday afternoon the snow is gone, and balmy Spring temps prevail. But pockets of cold air and penetrating freshets can woof down a canyon anytime. The extremes of climate on an afternoon ramble in this place are remarkable. Most of the sportsmen are in T-s, regardless, and the ladies in power bras. A land of feminist midriffs. I cant seem to get the layers right. Exposing my belly-button doesnt do anything for me, except draw amused glances.
One PM I climbed up to the Flat Irons, the best local example
of tectonic activity. Free-standing purple strata tilted at 80
degrees from horizontal, standing in a domino row. After cobbling
a rough sketch, I came down out of the grandeur and was greeted
by a lonely widow-lady and her squirrel-chasing Pekingese. She
invited me into her cottage to see her husbands paintings of
the Flat Irons. Honest.
This ultimate row of houses at the top of Boulder is part of another Chautauqua. One of only three remaining and still hosting summer programs, she said. (We had been charmed by the original in New York State last September.) The land for this summer intellectual retreat had been granted to the Chautauqua in perpetuity, for a dollar. Now the City of Boulder is reconsidering. My hostess told me the cottage next door sold for $300,000 last year.. to a CALIFORNIAN, she whispered. She was from Louisiana (cant you tell bhy mhy accent?), and her husband had retired here from Texas. THEY used to complain about the Texans, she confided, but now its the Californians. So the Chautauqua Association and the City are squabbling. Echoes of Fairhope, Alabama. So much for civic agreements with intentional communities in perpetuity. As long as the rivers run, Kemosabe?
I escaped from Chautauqua with my inflection unaltered. Back downhill
Boulder is a mix of small turn of the century houses, now worth
a kings ransom, a brick Western downtown, and a modern mall-burb
expanding rapidly. Seth and his lot are renting a split-level
ranch on the southeast outskirts, which means theyre a ten-minute
drive from Pearl and 13th, or about the heart of town. House rentals
at the core run in the thousands per month, for minuscule (if
romantic) houses. Seth is sharing a larger sub-division house
with four others, and still having to come up with a large lump
each month. Illegally, at that. Boulder ordinances outlaw more
than three unrelated adults domiciled together. A curious restriction.
We arrived at an anxious moment. The city inspector is due to
check the house out, and everyone is shuffling beds and belongings
to disguise the obvious. When the landlord and inspector arrive,
it becomes obvious that housing conditions are being eyeballed
in the tenants best interests, actually. Wiring safety, plumbing
and furnace functioning. Still, the violation of privacy makes
me uncomfortable. But I bite my tongue, and watch the landlord
sweat. Nobody gets thrown out.
Seth is working for the local healthfood giant , Wild Oats, at their branch in his nearest mall. More nutritious possibilities than you can possibly digest. Seth is tending the juice bar, and tells hilarious tales of wheatgrass junkies lining up for their morning squeeze. I tried a jolt. It tasted just like your average lawn. I didnt start spouting poetry.. or anything.
Although Wild Oats is buying up all the big alternative marts,
you cant turn a corner here without being offered a natural this
or an organic the other from some vendor. Hiking, camping, cycling,
rafting, kayaking outfitters. There are bike paths and lanes everywhere,
rollerbladers on the pedestrian paths, hiking boots and running
shoes on the other foot, everyone striding out. City planning
envisions maintaining green space and a pedestrian ambiance to
the far edge. It makes for a very attractive community, and a
more humane settlement pattern, but the yuppieness is almost cloying.
Fact is, this is a VERY upscale burg. Veggie burg.
Parking at Wild Oats
Colorado U, dominates the economy, and the ambiance. It really is a young town. And all ugly women and brutish men are turned away at the border. This is the future, America: drink your wheatgrass. But its awfully lilywhite after the South, and surprisingly monolingual. Hispanic Colorado starts somewhere down the road to Denver. Seth has mixed feelings about this place. The music scene, the vegetarianism, the whole youth culture thing.. is his meat. But the classism ruffles his hackles. He says there are two kinds of people in Boulder. Those who dont care how much it costs, and those who do all the work. He says its easy to get a job and quickly climb the wage scale in the service industries, as a Mainer. We know how to work, he says. And employers know it. Seth is astonished that most of his peers havent a clue about doing a days work. Hello? Middle America? Boulder is the epitome of Middle America on the millennial cusp. Self-improved. Driving Cherokees. Self-satisfied. Sporting designer labels. Only raising a sweat to stay fit. Ready to go shopping. Gorgeous.
The downtown pedestrian mall, along Pearl Street, is lined with
quaint storefronts displaying chic clothing, fancy arts and crafts,
exotic coffees, the usual BMW boutiques, outdoor cafes. Brick
sidewalks, massed tulips in bloom, select street vendors, and
vetted musicians. No panhandling. I saw one guy quickly busted
for spare-changing the tourists.. by a bicycle cop. There are
also great bookstores, new and used, record stores, ditto, instrument
stores, and salvage clothing stores.. in concentric rings out
from the epicenter. All the cultural necessities.
And music. The lineup of performances on tap every night is impressive.
Lots of venues for local bands, where Seth hangs, and more pricey
clubs for name acts. One night a bunch of us go to The Oasis to
hear a jazz-funk sit-in session at this micro-brewery. Tongue-tangling
stout and a driving beat. I do my ink-sketch act, and the band
comes round to check out their portraits. Everyone knows everyone
else. I see familiar young faces from Maine, and shoot a little
pool while the room pulses. No smoking in any club here, and what
a relief it is to catch a gig without having to wash your hair
and take antihistamines after. We closed the place down, then
sat out front discussing the characteristics of different drum
combinations. Or the musicians did. Then Seth boogied us all home
in the Vanagon.
The next night Seth bought tickets for him and me to see Maceo Parker (longtime saxman for James Brown) and his funk band, at The Fox.. the big club in the middle of CU. What a scene. The old theater has been remodeled as an SRO bar, with narrow bar rails sectioning the floor, and to put your drinks on. It has the feel of the old English football (soccer) stadia. Those beery places were designed for chanting louts to let out a little aggro in. No furniture or decor to rip up and use as a weapon. Where you can sway in unison and abuse the bobbies. At the Fox all the synchronous motion was shaking to the funk beat. Packed. And half polluted. Loud stomping undergrads with their hats on backwards, and slinky Boulderettes in their wriggling peachy innocence. Not a single face of color on the floor. Up on stage six middleage black guys and a balding organ player were making the walls pulsate. Without a break for 4 hours.
You realize what a debt funk owes to James Brown. Maceo pulled
out every one of his old standards, and they didnt play an unfamiliar
lick all evening. Mustang Sally. Better slow that Mustang down.
The kids loved it. Screamed for more. You couldnt NOT dance.
Stand still and you got jostled rhythmically until you were boogeying
with the rest of them. I was amused by the careful politeness
with which they treated the old man among them. There was always
a small space around me sanctifying my antiquity, and a courteous
apology when I got bumped. If this is monstrous youth, I say clone
When Maceo tried to shut that Mustang down around 1 PM the crowd refused to quit, hooted, whistled, and pounded their feet for 15 minutes until the band came back for more. That was when we made for the exit. As Seth said, When security starts filing in, its time to ease out. MAC-E-O. Tonight its the Reverend Horton Heath. Screaming Texas Guitar. Sorry we missed it. Tomorrow night Mumbling Douglas, featuring Andy Palmer from Brunswick, Maine, on lead and vocals, is playing another theater on 13th Street. And the beat goes on.
As I write this, the Thursday night poker game is upping the ante
in the next room. Life in the mountains. But its too high for
us. Seth and Klara are taking a couple days off, and leaving in
the morning for Moab. Very tempting. But WEST? Were ready for
the downhill run. Headed EAST, one last time.
5/2.. South Platte.
Its never easy to part from your kids. Even when theyre grown and on their road. We did some hugging, said ritual words, bit our lips, and turned tail on Boulder Friday morning.
(Another Turle Island Vehicle parked in Boulder. The text reads:
"The daywe see the truth and refuse to speak out is the day we
begin to die.")
The gurus at NOAA, up on Table Mesa, were prophesying snow, but it was just sullen and blustery out of the north northwest. Id gotten a faceful of snow the day before. Id clambered to the top of the Red Rocks to do a drawing. Watched as the backdrop behind the Frontals filmed to a pale gray. Then the clouds leapt over the edge and wrapped me in swirling white-stuff. Wet and biting. I stiff-legged down to the Owl, and finished the colors at home. Then wed gone out for a truly superb Taiwanese dinner downtown. Now we were winging out onto the hungry highway again, without a hope of fresh vegetables this side of July.
The ceiling was high enough to show us Longs Peak as we pulled
away from the foothills. A proud white cone lording over the local
peasants. I thought of the umpteen volumes of Longs journals
I havent read, and was delighted to realize that there are libraries
full of American journeys still to read.. now with a new sense
of the terrain.
Slanting northeast, to avoid the Mile High City and strike the Oregon Trail up on the Platte, we were crossing Denvers exurb. Polished old brick main streets and shiny new malls. What will our tasteful burbs look like a generation hence? Weve seen a slew of dead 70s malls, outdated downtowns, and superannuated suburbs. Not pretty sights. Here on Denvers leading edge the sailing is quite attractive, for now.
Heaven forbid you should walk, though. Even Boulder, with all its cycle lanes, is too spread out to be truly non-automotive. I went banking with Seth, and there were 12 lanes of driveup and a ten minute wait at the gate, pedestrian mall notwithstanding. Not to worry, the New Age still burns petroleum. Your futures are secure.
Then, poof, we were back on the Great Plains. Over a couple of rises, and the mountains vanished behind us. The arid spacing of sagebrush and bunch grasses knubbled the ground carpet, and tumbleweed bounded across the road, hurdled the barbed wire and sprinted off. It was blowing HARD, now. Gusting 55 from the North. On the fourlanes the semis were hogging the upwind lanes. My left hand was locked down tight.
LaSalle. Greeley the sign said. Centuries of history in two names. Eastern Colorado was worthless desert in the 1850s. Trapped out early by the mountain men, the fur trade headed for extinction, it was hostile territory to be avoided. Until that hint of color in Cherry Creek in 58. Suddenly the descendants of LaSalle who had married this land were cuckolded by young men who heard Greeleys cry: Go West. Denver has hardly stopped booming since. The gold dome on the state house is the real McCoy.
But a lot of disappointed dreamers went back east over the years. One of those currents of history not noted in the almanacs. Our plan is to follow these waters back to St. Louis, more or less.. downstream, but against the flow of history, as told. Boulder Creek and Cherry Creek both feed into the South Platte, then it snakes into Colorados northeast corner. Thick bands of cottonwood rise up along the sand-choked and braided waterway. It looks like you could walk across it anywhere. Reisman, in Cadillac Desert, tells of one boondoggle dam in these parts where the water simply ignored the impediment, plunged into the gravels below, and resurfaced downstream. Like untold migrations in the American story. Like the undreaming.
Slammin. A serious wind. Even turned 90 degrees to it, the ranch windmills are spinning madly. The walking irrigators in full spray look like cresting waves on the plain, clouds of water pluming downwind. Where the big tractors are plowing, it looks like they are launching topsoil for delivery out of state. Yellow dust obscuring the country, like memories of the 30s. We had sung along with Woody, from Oklahoma across Kansas: So long, its been good to know ya... this dusty old dust-storm is takin my home, and I gotta be movin along. Now we watched economy recapitulating stupidity. Is it genetic?
Listening to the Ag News on the Marconi. September Beef up 50 cents. Spring pork is down a fraction. Farming is more about silicon chips than about cow chips. Improve your throughput (another euphemism for side-dressing?). And the smell of money keeps insulting us. Feedlots upwind. Millions of acres of rangeland lying fallow and all the beef is jammed into stinkyards that make your eyes water. Cowboys riding jaded horses around the fenced containments. My spontaneous sympathy for the cow-punchers is probably misplaced. Parties to a travesty. Enjoy your Big Mac.
Fort Morgan. Julesburg. Ogallala. Nebraska! Weve now touched on every state except Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska, Hawaii.. and Utah.. this journey. Our last new state, and were still way out here in the middle of somewhere. Were rolling downhill, though, and can sense the subtle transitions. Marginally more moisture. Less desert veg, more and thicker grasses on the rangeland. Greener tints. And weve merged with the main drag. Route 80, the transcontinental biggie, running alongside the Union Pacific tracks. Tractor-trailers in convoy and mile-long piggybacks stacked two-high. I count 60 piggybacks behind three tandem locomotives, figure the five loco trains run 100 cars. Train after train. Mesh enclosed car carriers covered in spray graffiti, black tankcars, mixed freight, and mile after mile of coal cars mounded high.
There are more hills than Id expected. Low black chains along the horizon, folded khaki convolutions approaching the road. Theres plenty enough flatness to go round, but the windy plains sidle up, undulate, and wave bronze grasses at us.. between the agribiz. Wheat yielding to corn. Irrigated circles. New plowed ground.
East of Ogallala the North and South Platte run parallel, separated by a narrow band of sand hills for 50 miles. All the way to North Platte. Wed seen reference to a grasslands preserve here, and crossed the narrow neck between the branches looking for old prairie. No signs. No indication of interrupted economics. We stop to ask at the local Chamber of Commerce. The lady gives Peggy a puzzled look. Sand Hills? Yes, we have Sand Hills. No preserves, though. Just go anywhere north of town to see the hills.
Sure enough. There are rumpled-blanket hills. With grazing cattle, barbed wire fencing, ranch houses in groves of cottonwood, cedar windbreaks. We shrug and turn east again, following the north bank of the Platte. On the Mormon Trail now. Keeping ourselves separate from those hostile gentiles emigrating along the south bank. Rolling beside the endless coal gondolas headed east. And the hills move in closer. The grasses rise up. Dancing bronzes shimmying to the gusts. It could be another century. Bring on the buffalo.
We smile all the way to the hundredth meridian. Cozad, Nebraska. Where the East begins. We set off two months ago to discover the South. Now we are leaving the West. Go figure. We figure its time to stop slamdancing the Owl, and go looking for bed and board in Lexington.
The victualers seem to have divvied up the day in Lexington. The diners we check out are either breakfast diners, or lunch diners, and have closed. The dinner diners arent open yet, although the staff at Dottys tell us we can eat now at the Irish Bar on the edge of town. They dont even mention the Mexican Restaurant we discover a block away. Where the enchiladas are tender, and the burritos excellent. Were we on the wrong side of the tracks?
The Super8 has just been remodeled, and the wind is ripping shingles off the new roof as we drive up. Cant look any stranger that the two dumpy statues of Liberty and Justice on top of the Lexington courthouse. Or the collapsed grain elevators next to the Happy Leprechaun. This town looks a bit unsteady on its pins. Just the sort of place to sleep it off.