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Deep in the Heart of the Rockies by Ed Quillen

Review by Ken Wright

Mountain Life – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Deep in the Heart of the Rockies: Selected Columns from The Denver Post 1985-98 by Ed Quillen
Foreward by Richard Lamm
Published in 1998 by Music Mountain Press
ISBN 0-965-612-67-8

ED QUILLEN isn’t exactly a voice crying in the wilderness; he’s more like that guy with a Camel straight in his hand, yelling from the sagging porch of the house down the street.

For those unfamiliar with Quillen, he has been a regular columnist for The Denver Post since 1986, writing from the once-rural and recently-gentrified mountain town of Salida, where he also publishes Colorado Central, a monthly magazine dedicated to the region’s small towns and rural life.

As any reader of his columns can tell you, Quillen doesn’t rest easily in any of the handy traditional political or philosophical categories. A registered Republican until 1993, he despises the Republican Party, but is also hard on Gov. Roy Romer (“who never met a growth he didn’t like”), and on Californians moving to Colorado.

He speaks kindly of Texans and chides no-growthers for pushing zoning laws. Although he’s in favor of government funding of mass transportation, he is against public funding for the arts. He despises the English Only movement, but is against the multi-cultural movement in schools. And he loathes water diverters of any type…

And so on and so on, as he sparks another Camel…

Deep in the Heart of the Rockies is a hefty dose of some of Quillen’s finer ravings, doled out in brief and unconnected doses perfect for the outhouse privy (where Quillen would prefer to be read, I’m sure), or the top of the water closet of a modernly mandated 3-gallon low-flow toilet (which he, of course, also gets around to poking fun at).

The brevity of Quillen’s shotgun-style attacks on the culture of the American West, and Colorado in particular, might be the biggest weakness of this book, but it must be remembered that these are columns, and as such they hang together remarkably well. They also lead ultimately to a coherent philosophy, one that might be called a “ruralist” view, or what Quillen himself calls the “marfie” lifestyle: Middle-Aged Rural Failure. He himself summarizes his philosophy as “one that promotes individual rights but strictly limits group rights (especially if that group is incorporated).”

YOU GET THE IDEA: There’s something here for everyone to both cheer and fear. He hates dishonest politicians from either party and hypocrisy from both big business and the environmental movement. He distrusts concentrations of power, either political or economic, including the police (“It isn’t the saying that if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” he warns at one point. “It’s that if guns are outlawed, only cops will have guns.”). He also likes the impoverished, hard, rough-hewn rural life once offered in Colorado’s mountain towns, and believes freedom should include the freedom to be poor and irresponsible.

“Maybe the Meese Commission is right, and [porno] movies cause exploitation of women in an economy where working women get paid 64 percent as much as working men. Or perhaps pornography inspires a casual commercial attitude about sex in a society whose merchants use exposed skin to sell everything from blue jeans to computer software. Or maybe it leads to mindless violence in a nation that boasts an arsenal of 10,398 thermonuclear warheads.”

In pointing out cultural craziness, Quillen is brilliant — brilliant in the sense that he wields a brutally sharp mind, wit and pen and a spectacularly wide grasp of issues, facts and history (his mind must be like flypaper to odd bits of information) that he keeps shifting around to see what new shapes, trends, and perspectives appear. Then he rubs the salt of sharp humor and sharp-shooter sarcasm into the wounds he inflicts in the Achilles heels of people and groups he finds absurd and dangerous — PCers, English Only-ers, “Family” valuers, the real estate industry, and Republicans that have ruined what he considers to be his party, and one of his favorite punching bags, the War on Drugs.

“The `War on Drugs’ has been an abysmal failure at its stated goal of preventing Americans from using pharmaceutical substances not sold by companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange …

“More lives have been ruined by drug laws than by drugs…. but I suppose we can take pride in one thing. American workers will soon have the cleanest urine in the world.”

He goes on to note that Thomas Edison, who was expelled from school at age 7 and never returned, was addicted to wine spiked with cocaine; that William Stewart Halsted, the “father of modern surgery,” was a morphine addict; that H.L. Mencken drank and smoked; that Sigmund Freud loved cocaine; and that Clarence Darrow chain-smoked. And, he adds, “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would have a hard time staying out of jail today, let alone seeking the nation’s highest office. They grew tobacco and marijuana, kept mistresses, fomented armed rebellions and drank ale before their 21st birthdays.”

Quillen is particularly hard on our 90s obsession with character, from political campaigns to laws, in what he calls our “selective morality binge.”

“The main problem with judging a public leader by private character is that it leads to some peculiar conclusions.

“Consider one prominent 20th-century leader, a decorated war veteran. He abhorred smoking and drank only in moderation. Never was he known as a womanizer. A vegetarian, he despised any cruelty to animals. He liked to take long walks outdoors, and he encouraged his countrymen to become more physically fit and in tune with nature.

“By enlightened New Age standards, this man was a paragon. He got in touch with the mystic forces of the cosmos by consulting astrologers from time to time, and he often considered promoting the indigenous beliefs of his people to replace the alien religions that imperialistic invaders had implanted long ago.

“That was the private character of Adolf Hitler.”

For myself, as a resident of a remote corner of Colorado, my favorite part of the book is when Quillen fires his literary mortars at growth in the rural West. “We mistakenly believed that more water, more industries, more tourists would make us prosper,” Quillen muses. “We never saw a dime of that prosperity. And we lost most of those intangible qualities that made Colorado a pleasant place to live.”

Man, do we ever need someone to speak up about this stuff, to say that not only do our economic emperors have no clothes, they’re not exactly decked out with morals or vision, either. And Quillen is a fine choice for that someone, a lover of rural life, where “nobody made much money, but nobody needed much money.” Now, he mourns, “they’re trying to make it illegal to be poor in Colorado.”

Quillen has a clear sight on an enemy in this battle.

“Apparently, the best way to ruin a community is to have it discovered by people with taste and money, who like the town so much that they move in and change everything they liked about it… How do you destroy a laid-back and ramshackle little mountain town? Easy. Just add money.”

Quillen does have a Quillen-esque solution, of course: He proposes a state-wide initiative he calls “Proposition 781,” a Colorado version of California’s Proposition 187, which was designed to fight the influx of Mexican migrants who Californians claimed threaten the Golden State’s established culture and institutions. Quillen’s Colorado version would also fight “an invasion of folks who sneak past the border stations, plant themselves in our defenseless communities, and then start making expensive demands on our political, social, health and educational systems” — those nasty “People of Money” from California.

But don’t expect that to happen soon, he admits. “In other countries, they call this an `invasion’ and the government may even enlist on the side of the people who’d like to be left alone. In this democratic nation, it is known as `progress’ and the government is always on the side of the invaders.”

So why doesn’t Quillen give up and move on? “As to why I’ve stayed in Colorado, I suspect it’s mostly sloth. Moving is hard work. It’s easier to stay in place and put up a fight against all these folks who, merely to enrich themselves, are bent upon destroying everything I like about my home.”

And in that fight, we lovers of the rural West are lucky Ed Quillen is on our side.

–Ken Wright