Many years ago I was in a hut in British Columbia with a group of friends and the hut (Fairy Meadows/Bill Putnam) is big enough to hold two groups of people. The group that we shared the hut with was from the Front Range of Colorado (aka Boulder/Denver and environs). They were generally okay folks, and from what we saw were generally good skiers who were doing as good a job as we were at lapping up great powder runs. After a few days I found myself sitting with a number of them over end o’ day beers and decided I had to know: “So, you guys clearly are good skiers and appreciate good skiing, and you are from Colorado, so I gotta ask: what’s the backcountry skiing like in Colorado?” They enthusiastically took turns telling me what it was like to be a backcountry skier in the Front Range, and after quite some time one of them asked: “Well, what do you think?” I thought for a moment as I pondered my reply, and finally shrugged and said: “I think that if I lived in Colorado, I simply wouldn’t bother to go backcountry skiing.” Suffice to say, that pretty much ended that conversation, and for that matter any subsequent conversations between them and me for the rest of the week.
Since then, I’ve done a good handful of trips to Colorado, and even been backcountry skiing in Colorado (once, at the dire-but-stable end of the horrific drought year of 2017-18), and I have grown to like it. I’ve done a couple of great bike tours there with Ashley, a great bikepack trip with Fred Marmsater (part 1 and part 2), and have done a handful of mountain bike/paddling trips there to enjoy the Animas/Piedra, Blue, Cache Le Poudre, Roaring Fork, Crystal, Yampa, Delores, Colorado, Taylor, Arkansas, and Gunnison rivers and their nearby trails, including the past week when Colin Gregersen and I hit up the last few of those.
|Colin paddling Number 1 on the Arkansas River's Numbers section.|
Every time I visit, I’m struck by salient fact: people love to love Colorado.
In Utah there are almost daily sightings of the red “U” of the University of Utah and the Blue “BYU” of, well, BYU on people’s cars, house flags (like the new guy next door to us, so we are forced to see “U” daily), Tshirts, and hats. It’s the same in every state, and it’s probably a function of identification with an esteemed alma mater or simply a football thing. But Colorado is different: people display memorabilia showing the Colorado flag. I’m sure that University of Colorado and Colorado State have their fans, and of course they even have their own NFL team, but you don’t see too much memorabilia from those institutions; instead you see people wearing the big sunburst C hats on Tshirts, sweatshirts, and stickers on their cars. I doubt that many Utahns would even recognize the UT state flag, much less be proudly sporting it on their head. So relatively speaking, Coloradans seem like a proud lot.
And they should be: Denver is by far the most significant city between Chicago and the biggies of the West Coast, they have lots of nice mountains and rivers, pretty favorable weather, and a thriving economy. But every time I go I seem to find that people are awfully smug about it, yet - for sure, like everywhere – there are some flaws.
My hut mates who regaled me with tales of backcountry skiing in ‘Rado pretty much told me a narrative that to me seemed filled with traffic (that comes in two parts: desperately weaving through the gauntlet of the Front Range maze to even get close to getting into the mountains, then tackling the 2-lane parking lot known as I-70), big avalanche-prone terrain filled with precariously-loaded windjacked snow, and backcountry crowds. The Colorado resorts have a skier density of 427 skier days per acre, which is over twice as high as Utah’s 180 skier days/acre (ironically, there used to be 175 operating ski resorts in Colorado; now there are only 30). But boy, those three weeks of spring skiing after Independence Pass opens and before it all turns to suncups, the skiing is great! The rivers are nice, but the shortness of the good sections makes the paddling feel a bit contrived and the prevalence of private property on the banks of many rivers and their belligerent owners has been such an issue that American Whitewater has 4 of their 8 staff members based in the state.
Ah, but the mountains! The Fourteeners! There are so many! Yes, there are 53 peaks over 14,000 feet, but I would guess that ‘Radoans hate the fact that they are all slightly short of California’s 14,500 foot Mt Whitney (but Cali only has eleven more fourteeners!). If I ever feel like poking a Colorado native a little I say something like: “the great part about Colorado is that - unlike some other western states - all your big peaks are so easily accessible!” The long history of mining in Colorado basically created an amazing network of mountain roads (that make for great cycling) and indeed it’s a great asset for people who like to efficiently get into elevated mountains.
Speaking of elevation, people love to be high in Colorado. I could of course be referring to the tired old trope of “high” as it’s associated with their pride in being the first to legalize pot, but I’m actually referring to the even more-tired trope of the elevation of most Colorado places. I usually hear what elevation every ‘Radoan lives at within the first few minutes of a conversation with them, but the truth is that I probably already know, because I am regaled by their city signs that don’t bother with population, just their elevation:
Sedgwick? and only 3500 feet?
and of course, the Granddaddy:
Actually, it probably saves money; the elevation never changes, so the signs don’t need to every after each census!
Perhaps Coloradoans are just exhibiting yet another example of the tribalism that seems to be getting ever-more entrenched in our society. I just saw a quote from a book called “Sapiens” that “Humans evolved to think of people as divided into us and them.” So apparently it’s natural for “us” to think of “them” as having lesser mountains/beauty/recreation? And the tribalism can be also get to the fraternal level; Colorado is the only place I know where people actively cultivate "secret" trails that the kool kids try to keep the gumbies away from.
Of course, anyone who lives in Colorado who is reading this is probably at best offended (but I’ve probably lost them by now) and at worst furious and can’t wait to take me out and kick my sorry ass by skiing the likes of Capitol or Pyramid Peaks, running Nolan’s 14 or Hardrock, paddling the Crystal Gorge and Yule Creek, riding the Colorado Trail Race, climbing the Diamond, or climbing the walls of the very intimidating Black Canyon:
Colorado does have great stuff, and I do indeed keep going back: last week I declared that the mountain biking there is better than Utah’s (there seem to be more trails and they seem to me to be rockier/more technical/longer:
|I walked a lot of sections of this trail|
|I don't do this much on Park City's buffed trails; if “better” is “harder” then it’s better in Colorado|
There’s a lot to be said for accessible mountains (once you get into them), short and good rivers are better than an almost utter lack of rivers (Utah), depending on where you are there’s decent proximity to the (Utah) desert (which, to be fair, Utahns also love to love), and the west slope’s fruit-growing ability is legendary:
|them Palisade peaches are big, juicy, and tasty!|
It’s also refreshing that Colorado’s civic leadership understands the value of recreation and invests in it: there are kayak play parks in every town with a river (including downtown Denver), many, many miles of nice and/or convenient bike paths, ice climbing parks, and the state seems to be a fierce protector of existing open spaces and actively promotes trail building and use, which ultimately contribute to the state’s reputation and economic success. Contrast this to Utah’s leadership, which inexplicably ignores examples like the incredible economic growth that has happened around the original Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument and instead values federally-subsidized grazing for a handful of ranchers and supporting the dying coal industry in addition to trying to sell land to extractive uses over the recreation industry (though Colorado also was one of the first states to really embrace fracking, among other extractive industry endeavors).
So while anyone from Cool-orado probably would angrily tell me to “get out and stay out!” of their lovely state, I’ll no doubt continue to return and enjoy what Colorado has to offer, and instead of poking people I’ll be outwardly envious of so many 14ers, admire their many little rivers, sing the praises of their mountain biking, shake my head at how great it is that they have legal weed I don’t smoke, and of course ask them: “and remind me again at what elevation live at?!!?”