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Between a rock and a hard place

Essay by Ed Quillen

Changing times – December 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

SOME WRITER whose name I forget but whose talent I envy remarked that September 11 is like “the elephant in the room.” There may be other things in the room that you really should pay attention to — perhaps you should be cleaning the room or tending to the pile of unanswered letters and unpaid bills on the table — but instead you keep glancing at the elephant. Everything else seems unimportant or irrelevant, even if it isn’t.

The elephant was present in Gunnison during the first weekend of November. As I have since 1990, I attended the annual Headwaters Conference at Western State College there. This year’s theme was “senses of place,” and the panels and presentations addressed ways that places are sensed, from spawning trout to satellite imagery. As always, I found portions of it annoying — and provocative and interesting, sometimes all at once.

But it didn’t really address “sense of place,” in the common connotation of the phrase. If you read the fine print under the table of contents on page 3, you’ll see that developing a “sense of place” is one of the reasons we publish this magazine.

What does it mean, though? One of my senses of place is historical. I like to know what happened in days of yore and how a place developed, where the railroads and wagon roads and pack trails ran. I want to know who passed through the place and why they traveled.

Another sense is mythological — I’m pretty sure the cwm on the 13,976-foot peak by Marshall Pass is not the throne of the spirit of Chief Ouray, but I still want to know the story. The same holds with the weeping Angel of Shavano, the web-footed horses of the Great Sand Dunes, the tommy knockers in the mines of Leadville.

Of course I like to know the geography — especially the informal geography of places that don’t appear on maps, like Calf Rock at the north foot of Red Hill Pass a few miles north of Fairplay. Or “Moon over the Arkansas,” a rock formation along Brown’s Canyon that river guides delight in pointing out — it resembles not our natural satellite in the sky, of course, but a set of buttocks.

There’s one place that I wish were on the map so I could find it again. If memory serves, it sits along the North Fork (or the Middle Fork), perhaps 100 yards above the road, and we called it “Bread Loaf Rock” because it’s a truck-sized boulder fractured in such a way that it looks like a sliced loaf of bread. We encountered it several times, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, but I’ve never seen it since then.

HEADWATERS INSPIRED ME to ponder these matters, as well as my mental map of Salida. That made me realize I was turning into a geezer with a brain that resists updating, one with some parts frozen in about 1983.

Here’s how I know. Recently I was asked for directions by a young woman. I started out by saying something like “head for where the railroad depot used to be,” and eventually realized that meant nothing to her, since it was razed in 1985.

Other portions of this mental map were just as out of date. The brick building across F Street from Alpine Park is etched as “Superfoods” in my mind, which it hasn’t been for about a decade, and I used to chuckle at the people who persisted in calling it an even older name, “Boyes Market.” I have trouble believing that there could be a Salida resident who doesn’t know where “Cady’s Hardware” is, even if Jack Cady died five or six years ago. I still have trouble remembering that most people know another building as “Bongo Billy’s” or “Absolute Bikes” rather than “the feed store.”

Thinking about this made me wonder. An older cousin once told me that “The music you like when you turn 21 is the music you’ll like for the rest of your life.” And he was right — my idea of a good time can still involve cranking up some Stones and Dylan.

So at what age does your “mental map” get set in the same way that your musical tastes do? I suspect age isn’t the right factor, so perhaps this should be phrased: How long do you live somewhere before your mental map freezes and seriously resists updating?

In my case, it took about five years. Is that when a place seems like home?

I can remember the day that Salida felt like home, and it must have been around 1982 or ’83. I grew up on the Front Range — where we’d been visiting. I had always thought I’d go back there after a stint in the mountains (where I could presumably build up a decent résumé before I got on with a big newspaper that might pay a living wage). But on this afternoon — one of those miserable blustery March or April days with whipsaw winds and dime-sized sloppy snowflakes — I drove into Salida, bounced across the railroad tracks that still crossed First Street, and on the sidewalk down the street, barely visible through the falling slop, was a six-foot-high mechanical man that looked like a bellhop, its right arm waving up and down, as if it were greeting us.

IT HAD TO BE GREETING US, because ours was the only car on the street. It was one of those goofy small-town eccentric things, just plain silly. But this absurd antique made me feel good about living in Salida. Always before, I’d felt as though a return to Salida was a return to an exile I had to serve before returning to the Front Range. That Sunday, for the first time, a return to Salida felt like a return home.

But is that a sense of place? If so, then did I lose the sense of place when the mechanical bellhop got thrown into the river by some vandal? I know I felt that way on the day they tore down the railroad depot in 1985 — it had always stood at the end of F Street, as the focal point of the town. The only reason there had ever been a Salida was so the train could stop at a depot, and now even that was gone. What was the point?

Well, you adjust. Maybe it’s age, but the need to adjust seems to come with increasing frequency as the years go by; yet it keeps getting harder to make the changes.

I have trouble changing the city maps in my head, and there’s another change-resistant part of my brain that knows the keystrokes for everything I commonly need to do with WordStar, which is why I still use a word-processing program that hasn’t been updated since 1992. WordStar runs in command-line DOS instead of graphical Windows — which always seems to need upgrading, and I’m tired of learning new ways to do my work every time Bill Gates wants more money.

To put this another way, I know things have to change, but I’d prefer to deal with this at my own speed, rather than at a speed pushed upon me by outside forces that I have no control over.

But how can I gain some control? If I don’t even try, then I fear I’ll spend all of my time learning new software and configuring new hardware, rather than getting any work done. If I get totally resistant to change, though, I’ll be like the Taliban — except I’ll be stuck in about 1983 or perhaps 1992 rather than in the 13th century.

THE ELEPHANT IS BACK. Turn my head and focus elsewhere as I may, the critter is still in the room. And this persistent pachyderm represents the big question which keeps bugging me.

We’re trying to build a “sense of place” and a regional identity in an era of global capitalism — and capitalism, as the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter famously remarked, is a process of “creative destruction.” That’s why the Climax Mine that was a vital defense industry sixty years ago is a reclamation site today, and the railroad that soldiers guarded then is out of service.

It’s all about change, and changes that come at a pace that I am increasingly unable to accommodate. I still want there to be a depot at the end of F Street, and I still want to use WordStar while having some understanding of what’s going on inside my computer. I have enough to figure out every day without having to go back and relearn what should be familiar territory.

But the territory, no matter how familiar, keeps changing. Resistance often seems sensible, but where’s the line between “wanting some control over your life” and the pernicious fundamentalism of the Taliban, where if women had no rights in the 13th century, then they should enjoy no rights today?

This magazine is one place we try to draw a line between those global forces and some local “conservatism.” But it’s a shifting and porous line, and since September 11, it’s also a troubling one.

I’d like to think that there are ways to be “local” and “regional” without being “parochial,” that there are ways to “preserve and enhance what you like about an area” without becoming hidebound and bigoted and blindly resistant.

So I try, and keep hoping there’s some course we can chart between the two forces that author Benjamin R. Barber called “Jihad vs. McWorld” in a book of the same name. One embraces “traditional values” with a brutal vengeance, and the other has no values other than those of the market — everything is a commodity with a price.

Both forces are powerful, but it ought to be possible to find a sensible course that succumbs to neither extreme.

Possible, but not easy — but worthwhile pursuits are seldom easy.

— Ed Quillen