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Family values and great divides

Essay by Ed Quillen

Modern Life – July 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

FIRST, A BREAK from momentous issues of local, regional, national, international, and galactic import, and instead some family values. At 1:30 p.m. on June 6, Martha and I became grandparents. Our daughter Abby and her husband, Aaron Thomas (who worked at the weekly Chaffee County Times in Buena Vista in 2001-02), are parents of Ezra Quillen Thomas, who was 22 inches long and weighed an even nine pounds on arrival. Mother and child are doing fine.

Abby, who occasionally writes a book review for us, works at the city library in Eugene, Ore., where she and Aaron have lived since moving there from Salida in 2002. Aaron got his master’s degree in Oregon and teaches high-school English.

Aaron and Abby both have good health insurance, so I was somewhat surprised when she said they planned to have the baby at home with a midwife and doula at hand — something they had to pay for themselves, because their insurers would only pay for the usual hospital drill.

We didn’t raise Abby to be an “earth mother” type, and she’s not. When I asked her why she went the natural home-birth route, she said it was because she just didn’t trust our modern health-care system. Abby believes excessive testing, over-reliance on drugs, unnecessary intervention, and soaring cæsarean rates are encouraged by current medical standards and worry about malpractice suits. Our system gives doctors an incentive to look for something wrong that they can then treat, and she thinks that offers a lot of temptation.

Abby and Aaron didn’t even get an ultrasound, figuring they could wait until the baby arrived to find out whether they had a boy or girl. But they didn’t go it alone. Their midwives were medically trained, conversant with a local physician, and ready to assist in a hospital delivery if necessary.

And that got me to pondering about just how “normal” it is to have a baby in a hospital. One trivia fact provides some perspective: The first U.S. President to have been born in a hospital was Jimmy Carter. The next was Bill Clinton; both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were born at home. Neither of my parents was born in a hospital, although my mother was born in a special rooming house for women about to give birth.

Martha and I were both born in hospitals, as were our daughters. But maybe that was just an aberration in the grand sweep of things, with home-birth as the norm with hospitals available for those times when they’re really necessary.

I recall once when my parents visited us in Kremmling, and my dad was outside watching me split wood. “It does my heart good to see you doing this,” he commented, “and to remember how happy I was as a kid when we moved into a house with an oil furnace, and I could finally quit chopping wood and hauling coal.”

After I mentioned that to Martha, she speculated that we might be part of the only generation in American history who didn’t have to tend real fires; our kids certainly put in some time with firewood. And I can hope that our grandchildren will go out on cold mornings to sweep the snow off solar collectors.

It might be that we Baby Boomers were the only American generation that got to enjoy nearly limitless cheap travel, when gasoline sold for 25.9¢ a gallon and there was a whole continent out there for driving. On the other hand, I can remember when saying “I’m calling long-distance” would persuade a secretary to put you through quickly, and now it’s meaningless. Transportation is getting more expensive, while communication is getting cheaper.

BUT FOR A PRINTED, physical publication like this one, the cost of transportation is part of the cost of communication. And the future is not promising for those of us in the dead-tree media business.

The latest bad news comes from the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, one of my favorite publications. I admire its publisher, Jim Stiles, for his honesty in addressing the effects of the amenity-tourism economy on our environment — and on small-town culture as chain outlets displace local enterprises.

Along with many other people, I got a letter from Jim a few weeks ago: “It is with a heavy heart and with great regret that I have to type these words— barring the totally unexpected, the February/March 2009 issue of The Canyon Country Zephyr will be its last printed edition. This news will come as a sad shock to some of you and a delight and a relief to others. But after 20 years, trying to keep this paper in print is just about impossible.

“Moab is not the same town that I knew and revered in 1989. And I am not the same man. Life and issues affecting the Colorado Plateau were very black-and- white to me then. As the Millennium approached, Moab became more than just a tourist mecca; it became something else altogether. The new ‘amenities economy’ almost made me nostalgic for cows again. And though this New Urbanism/Enviropreneurism was eventually embraced and encouraged by mainstream environmentalists as a solution to the economic woes of the rural west, I became more troubled and conflicted. And I chose to speak openly and frankly about these conflicts, about the hypocrisy of my peers and my own contradictions.

“I take my job seriously, and have always believed that being honest and even-handed, regardless of the consequences, was essential to good journalism. And so for the last ten years, I have tried to inform my readers of the impacts the amenities economy can create, even when it put me at odds with my own friends and the very advertisers who keep this paper alive.

“Many of my advertisers have been with me for years, some for more than a decade, and a few since the beginning. To them I will always be grateful. But as they retire or sell their businesses, the ad base shrinks. Seldom do the new owners want to continue the Zephyr ads, and I cannot blame them. I speak my mind and I take my lumps.

“The Zephyr’s ‘message’ is hardly the philosophy they dare embrace if they hope to assure their own survival. For New Moab and the amenities economy to flourish, it must continue to grow. Ed Abbey compared it to a cancer cell. In any case, New Moab is hardly in a position to support a publication like mine, just because they think an independent and sometimes cranky voice like The Zephyr needs to survive in our society. There aren’t many of us left.

“Instead, most businesses need to look at that bottom line. I only recently learned a new acronym– ROI. A newly acquired business stopped ads after 14 years and explained it to me. It means ‘Return On Investment.’ And I can see their point.

“But I think an online version of The Zephyr is feasible and I hope to give it a try. The web site would change dramatically. Instead of the selected stories now available, you’d see The Zephyr exactly as it looks in the print edition, with the same two-page spreads, the same graphics and cartoons. But it wouldn’t be on paper. And in that regard, I can’t help but feel relieved that I’d be saving about a ton and a half of trees each issue and hundreds of gallons of gasoline to distribute it. Still I love the feel of a Zephyr in my hands. It’s actually painful to think about it.”

Salida isn’t Moab, and Colorado Central isn’t the Zephyr. We have paid circulation; the Zephyr’s is free. We’re less environmental, though we address environmental issues, and more aimed at “cultural news,” like local books and artists, though the Zephyr addresses some of that. I suppose there’s a common “crankiness,” though.

We also face many of the same economic realities. I like “dead tree media.” I like producing and holding something tangible in my hands. But I don’t have an answer for the invasion of chains, where the advertising decisions are made in distant cities, nor for the increasing costs of printing and postage.

I suspect the future of printed media is something like the current state of passenger trains; there will always be a few, but they’ll slowly be left by the wayside because they’re not sufficiently profitable. Large newspapers are getting hit hardest now, but I don’t see how the rest of us dead-tree folks are going to dodge the trend. Meanwhile on the home front at Central World Headquarters, the plan here is to carry on, as best we can.

WHERE’S THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE? Obviously, along the Sawatch Range in this part of the world. But it’s also in the rolling country of North Dakota.

This is explained in a fine piece I encountered while looking up something else; it’s on the web at, it’s called “Continental Divides in North Dakota and North America,” and it was written by Mark A. Gonzales of the North Dakota Geological Survey.

In essence, he points out that the continent of North America sits amid three oceans: Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic. So there must be several continental divides of drainage — one between Atlantic and Pacific, like ours; one between Pacific and Arctic; and one between Atlantic and Arctic.

He traces those; the Divide in North Dakota is between Arctic drainage to the north into Hudson Bay and south to the Atlantic via the Mississippi River. He also points out that distinctions can be arbitrary, such as the point on the Alaska coast where Pacific ends and Arctic begins.

So if the Carribean Sea were deemed a separate ocean, then the Appalachian Divide between coastal and Mississippi drainage would be a Continental divide. And even if there’s a Continental Divide sign at the top of Cochetopa Pass in Saguache County, is it really a Continental Divide when the east side flows, not to the Atlantic Ocean, but to the Closed Basin, which has no natural outlet?

(Thanks to the federal Closed Basin Project, Saguache Creek water does reach the Atlantic via the Rio Grande, more or less, so there’s a man-made argument that Cochetopa Pass is indeed on the Continental Divide. As George Sibley once remarked, the federal Bureau of Reclamation sees its duty as fixing all the mistakes that God made in plumbing the West.)

Gonzales makes it clear that our Continental Divide is not The Continental Divide because there are several continental divides. But he does not diminish ours in his argument:

“The notion that there is a single, unique continental divide in North America is untenable. This notion is based on a poor understanding of the geography of North America and on the unfortunate propagation of misinformation in introductory geography texts. The continental divide, which is commonly referred to as ‘The Continental Divide,’ is perhaps more appropriately called the Great Divide, reflecting the great elevations along much of its trace and its great length from Seward Peninsula, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego near the southern tip of South America”

“Great Divide” sounds good to me, although there are times I think we make too much of it. The highest peaks in the Rockies (Elbert, Massive, Harvard, La Plata) are near the Divide, but not on it. The Platte-Arkansas Divide has the highest pass (Mosquito) and has in some ways been more of an economic and cultural boundary than the Great Divide. Gunnison and Salida have a lot more in common with each other than either has with a downstream city like Grand Junction or Pueblo. Quite a few Colorado counties straddle the Divide: Archuleta, Conejos, Rio Grande, Hinsdale, San Juan, Mineral, Saguache, even Lake and Summit.

Gonzales brings up a lot of interesting questions in his paper, and if you’re a geography buff like me, you’ll love the article. It convinced me to try to use “Great Divide” in Colorado Central where appropriate.

I TOOK A BREAK from writing this to watch Sen. Hillary Clinton’s concession speech — a graceful and becoming exit.

The primary campaigns sure surprised me. When I pondered the Republican line-up, I wished that Mitt Romney had been running for President the same way that he had run for governor of Massachusetts, on a platform of health care, etc. And culturally liberal Rudy Giuliani looked pretty good, if he’d admit to his cavalier attitude about civil liberties and promise to do better as president. And if the John McCain of 2008 had been the John McCain of 2000, I’d have put his sign in the yard, for here was a man who knew personally that torture was wrong, and a man who seemed to hold strong convictions about preserving our constitutional rights.

But damn, it was painful to watch them twist and wriggle to placate the “Republican base,” which is a very different group from the Republicans I can remember when I was a kid — proud supporters of civil rights for all, true believers in the virtues of a small government and a modest foreign policy, skeptical of federal power.

Oh well, as Ronald Reagan once observed of his party change, “I didn’t leave my party. My party left me.”

On the Democratic side, my first favorite was Sen. Christopher Dodd, who seemed quite sensible. If you were going to hire a guy to run the executive branch and handle foreign policy, he looked like the perfect candidate.

But as the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson once observed, “every successful politician needs a dark, kinky streak of Mick Jagger in his soul.” And Dodd was about as far from that as you can get, which likely explains his early departure from the running.

John Edwards, the 2004 vice-presidential candidate, remained in the running, and I liked his populist message. He’d been through a national campaign, so he knew the drill and had some name recognition. I planned to support him at our precinct caucus on February 5.

But alas, he’d dropped out by then. Essentially there remained Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama. Their positions were almost identical on everything from health care to foreign policy, so it was difficult to make a decision on the issues.

Thus I had to ponder which one had a better chance of winning the election and of helping down-ticket races, like our U.S. Senate contest between Mark Udall and Bob Schaffer.

Sen. Clinton, I thought, carried more baggage than Amtrak. Elections ought to be about the future, and she’d be kept busy trying to explain cattle-futures trading from two decades ago along with a host of other matters. And as the campaign progressed, her pandering on stupid proposals like a gas-tax holiday really started to annoy me.

Further, we all like to think we’re important participants in the American polity, and I was irked as hell to learn that I lived in an insignificant state where my vote didn’t matter because it was cast in a caucus.

So I feel pretty good about supporting Obama and seeing him win the nomination (although I’m fully aware that it’s not certain until the delegate votes are counted in Denver). His “lack of experience” doesn’t bother me; he’s demonstrated that he knows how to hire smart people. I was about to point out that he and Abraham Lincoln’s previous experiences are comparable (inspiring orators from Illinois, both lawyers, statehouse experience, short time in Washington), but Lincoln’s election led to the Civil War, so that’s not necessarily a good analogy.

Obama may turn out to be great. Or perhaps ineffective in a Jimmy Carter way. Or maybe he’ll prove to be all too good at accomplishing things I abhor. I’m terrible at making such predictions. Nearly eight years ago, I figured George W. Bush was just another centrist Southern governor, and Dick Cheney, who’d always seemed like such a sensible fellow — as Secretary of Defense, Wyoming’s U.S. Representative, and President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff — would be the adult in the room in case Bush decided to do something stupid.

How wrong I was.