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In defense of a canopy over the Arkansas

Letter from Frank Snively

Christo – August 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine


Judging from the bumper stickers and slogans which have been cropping up around the Arkansas Valley recently, the proposal by Christo and Jeanne-Claude to put some cloth covering over the River — for TWO WHOLE WEEKS! — is the worst thing that has happened in quite a while. Personally, I happen to disagree with the notion that it is evil, and I will try to explain why.

Almost every reader of Colorado Central has driven on U.S. 50 between Salida and Cañon City. Most of the time at least by day some parts of the canyon walls are partly hidden in shadow cast by the sun. Also, even the sunlit parts are somewhat washed out by the glare of the sun.

If the trip happens to be taken when the day is overcast, more detail is visible, because the rocks are not hidden in shadow. Also, the sun’s glare does not wash out the colors. If someone wants to point out that the contrast of light and shadow provides a good view, I can mostly say that it isn’t the only view, and that one should view both aspects, to truly appreciate what the cliff sides, vegetation, and flowing water can show us. To take the example of landscape photography, both Ansel Adams and Dan Downing (our most eminent local black-and-white photographer) do marvelous things with light and shadow, while Eliot Porter and several local photographers do marvelous things with the colors that are all around us. It takes both.

I still recall the first time I walked beside the Arkansas River on a cloudy day (a winter storm was coming in), shortly after I had heard of the tentative plans to roof over some of the narrower parts of the Arkansas River.

Looking up at the canyon walls in the diffused lighting, I became aware of two things. First, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were onto a pretty good idea. Second, had they also traveled on U.S. 50 and/or a D&RGW passenger train in cloudy weather, or did they have an excellent ability to visualize the possibilities inherent in different lighting?

As you might gather, I am of the opinion that the æsthetic considerations alone are a sufficient reason to support the canopy. Needless to say, it will support local business for a short time, from Cañon City on up to Salida, with some spillover to Buena Vista and Leadville, and we will probably agree that it is a Good Thing. After all, we support FIBArk and similar celebrations, partly for that reason. I have mixed, mostly negative, feelings about the fact that a few visitors will be tempted to take up residence in the Arkansas Valley. Perhaps we need to put up some decrepit mobile homes in strategic locations, as part of the preparations.

I’d like to take this opportunity to counter a few of the arguments in opposition.

First, that it will frighten the big horn sheep. Perhaps so, but surely the railroad operations from the end of the Royal Gorge War until the beginnings of the 21st century had to be quite noisy, especially before the D&RGW went to diesel. Yet the big horn sheep are still there. And there is plenty of auto and truck traffic on US 50, especially on summer weekends.

Second, that there will be congestion on US 50. First, there is occasional congestion already, though high gasoline prices may discourage the big house trailers and motor homes (the worst contributors) a bit. The only people who will be seriously affected are those that commute to Cañon City or Penrose. Some of them can rearrange their work hours for the two weeks that the canopy will be in place, or take Colorado 9 from Hartsel. Those who commute to Colorado Springs can take U.S. 24 through Buena Vista, practically the same distance.

And there is also the point of view that “We should leave the Arkansas in its natural state.” Of course 150 years of mining, railroad, and highway construction, and augmented stream flow have hardly left things in a natural state. Also, the enhanced view from within the Arkansas canyon should more than make up for any momentary disruption.

Frank Snively

Buena Vista