Good-bye, old friend, and welcome back

Column by Hal Walter

Modern Life – April 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN SOME STRANGE WAY it was like saying good-bye to an old friend who had finally succumbed to a long illness. You’re sad to see the person go, but you’re glad he or she is finally free. The thing is, this friend wasn’t dead, and had not been physically ill.

Lance was merely moving to Montana. The only thing sick about him is that he has spent the last 18 years of his life living and working in Colorado Springs, something I would equate to mental illness.

Lance was my randomly chosen roommate when I showed up in Boulder as a freshman at the University of Colorado more than 20 years ago. It was the beginning of a long and lasting friendship, though in recent years there had been some distance. Lance had become firmly entrenched in the career-track Colorado Springs lifestyle, and I had headed in the opposite direction, quitting all gainful employment and choosing instead to eke out a living as a free-lance writer/editor/etc. in Central Colorado. We had become so different.

When Lance married Shelly, he moved out of his three-room cabin at the base of Barr Trail which leads to the summit of Pikes Peak, and they moved into a much larger home near Woodland Park. His job became more demanding of his time. In recent years he and Shelly had two children. Finally they had moved into town, turned their horses over to a youth camp, and bought a new home.

I assumed he never formally invited me to his new home because he knew how I loathed trips to the Front Range. Or maybe he thought that I couldn’t appreciate his children. Perhaps we had just grown into such different people — he had become everything I had strived not to be, and maybe I had become everything he was rightfully frightened to be. In the last couple of years I had only spoken to him over the phone, and only a couple of times.

As I fought the rush-hour traffic on a Colorado Springs boulevard that really is a 10-mile-long strip mall, I followed the directions to his house and did my best to avoid being the star of a radio-station traffic update. I thought how lucky Lance was to be leaving all of this. I also thought how some people think this is what’s next for places like Salida and Westcliffe. They may not be too far off the mark — recently I drove through Pagosa Springs and got a look at how a small mountain town can quite quickly make the jump to suburbia.

It wasn’t difficult to find Lance’s home, which was truly “palatial.” He sheepishly gave a tour of this trophy, all 4,800 feet of it, decorated like something right out of the pages of Country Home magazine. It wouldn’t be his house much longer — it had lasted only four days on the red-hot real-estate market. It was hard to believe that at one time he and I had spent an entire week camped out, snowbound in wilderness, getting up in the middle of every night to sweep the new snowfall off the roof of the tent so that it wouldn’t cave in.

Off to dinner. Lance was getting his horses back; maybe I could drive them to Montana for him. Yes, he confirmed that we really did cook beans and roast beef on the engine manifold of a Toyota Landcruiser while driving to one of our many adventures on Colorado’s Western Slope, something that was now only on the periphery of my memory.

This was the first time I had met Lance’s son, Luke, who is 2. I had only once seen his daughter, Rachel, in her 4 years.

THE JOB HAD FINALLY gotten to him. The company expected more and more of his time. There was travel away from the kids. He couldn’t sleep at night.

Once I fell asleep at the wheel during a trip with Lance over by Kremmling. Fortunately I woke up and caught the wheel. When the swerving rocked Lance out of a doze, he asked: “What happened?” I said: “We nearly died.”

Now Lance needed a change. He had been bringing his work home on weekends. The big mortgage on the house had him by the achilles like a leghold trap.

The tradition in our CU dorm was to toss residents over the bridge and into the duck pond on their birthdays. I went in with a quarter inch of March ice on the water. Lance’s birthday was in summer, so he never had to swim. But while trying to catch one birthday dorm-dweller for a “ponding,” Lance instead caught a beer bottle across the forehead; I picked him up after he received his stitches at Wardenburg clinic.

Lance and Shelly had dreamed of moving to Montana for years. When he got the offer of a new job working for a company that makes tools in the northwest part of the state, it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Besides, the growth in Colorado Springs, his home town, had made the place practically unlivable, and it now resembles little the town in which he grew up.

Years ago, on the day before my wedding, Lance and I rode mountain bikes off the summit of Pikes Peak down Barr Trail. Mountain biking was a fairly new phenomenon then, and we were certainly among the first people to make this 7,000-foot descent on fat-tire bikes. Surely we were the first to do it hung-over after a night at a strip club.

More recently Lance had watched as a guy who had practically given his life to the company he worked for was shown the trail to early retirement.

At the end of the spring semester of our senior year at CU, Lance and I skied for miles into an old forest service cabin, where we intended to spend the weekend studying the books and notes we had packed in our backpacks in preparation for final exams. Instead we spent most of our time climbing up dangerous avalanche chutes on a nearby peak.

SOME TIME in the early 80s, Lance paid me back for nodding at the wheel when — with me wide awake — he drove his Landcruiser off a backcountry road and onto the edge of a ravine, stopping just in time to leave the vehicle’s right wheels hanging. I opened the passenger door and realized that exiting that side would require flight. Lance could get out on the driver’s side, but we were afraid his actual weight was the only thing balancing the vehicle on the edge. After some discussion, I climbed very slowly, taking care not to rock the vehicle, over the top of Lance, squeezing between him and the steering wheel. Then, as he sat still, I pulled a cable come-along out from under his seat and secured the vehicle to a tree on the other side of the road. With this tightrope in place, Lance drove the rig back onto the road. The whole time we were listening to the Bronco game on the radio.

Since he moved into town, it’s been taking Lance 40 minutes to commute the six miles between his home and job. It occurred to me that somehow, Lance had been more comfortable sitting on that precarious ledge in his Landcruiser with me climbing over the top of him than he could ever be in rush-hour traffic.

But these last years had nearly driven the spirit out of him. The hellish rat race of Colorado Springs, the nightmarish job, the crushing pressures of fatherhood when the time with his kids was so limited: At some point it all added up to nothing but an empty yuppy pipe-dream.

Now he’s finally doing something about it.

Hasta luego, Lance. They say Montana is heaven on Earth. And you’re more alive than you’ve been in years.

Hal Walter hopes no place in Central Colorado ever grows to resemble any place on Colorado’s Front Range.