You can’t run and you can’t hide

Essay by Ed Quillen

Tourism – August 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

This past June was pretty dismal — literally so, because sunshine was a rare novelty, rather than a customary blessing. Looming dark clouds dropped moisture constantly in every known form: rain, sleet, hail, snow. Some streams jumped their banks, and if hot weather had arrived to dissolve the record snowpacks, we could have suffered some devastating floods.

All this had economic effects, mostly indirect. The flow of summer tourists, which generally starts running on Memorial Day weekend, did not commence in profitable volume until three or four weeks later.

The weather was certainly worth griping about, but some complaints bothered me. They weren’t just moaning about the weather; they were blaming the Evil Front Range News Media for reporting our chilly, damp conditions, the snow-covered campgrounds, and the flood danger.

Similar complaints appear whenever there’s a story about hantavirus carried by mice, or plague carried by squirrels, or an accident on the river.

You get the idea that a bunch of editors and news directors must gather in some Denver office tower. “What can we do to destroy those people in the mountains today?” one asks.

“We ran floods all last week. How about a hantavirus story? Haven’t sensationalized that one since ’93.”

“Hard to fit in a headline. What about plague?”

“Good idea. Maybe we could have our news helicopter rescue some people stranded at a campground by a washout. Wholesome Arvada family, almost dead from hypothermia in the cold and damp. Think that’d work?”

“I like it, although a Boy Scout troop would work better. But let’s not forget to play up a river drowning. Maybe we can drive a few outfitters out of business.”

Well, I have a few connections with the Evil Front Range News Media, and none has ever mentioned such a meeting.

Truth is, the Front Range media are just trying to report what seems interesting or important, and that isn’t always what the local boosters would like to see.

In my days as editor of the Summit County Journal in Breckenridge, a snowplow tipped over on the ice-rink of a highway just outside town. That seemed newsworthy to me, so we ran a picture on the front page. It inspired a visit from an angry representative of the Breckenridge Resort Association.

“When you publish pictures like that,” she said, “you give people the idea that our roads are so slick that they’re unsafe to drive on, and then tourists won’t come.” Her unstated conclusion was obviously that reporting any negative news, no matter how true, made me a traitor to the needs of the local economy.

After leaving Breckenridge for Salida in 1978, I went back to visit a friend during the drought winter of 1980-81. He and his wife had just built a big house with a splendid view of the ski slopes across the valley. Although the reports said skiing was great at the Summit, I saw rocks and sagebrush tops poking through such snow as there was.

“How can they say there’s 44 inches of powder and packed powder, with great skiing?” I asked my friend.

“Easy,” he said. “They lie.”

Skiing began as a way to cope with the winter, among people who counted a mild winter, one without the need to ski, as a blessing.

Then skiing became a business. If there isn’t enough winter, they manufacture some with snow-making equipment. Or else they tell people that the slopes are great even when they aren’t.

A similar evolution appears in river-running. Many outfitters started as hobbyists 15 or 20 years ago. They ran the river because it was fun and challenging. They took friends. Friends told friends and the demand grew. Money was borrowed and equipment purchased.

Payments had to be made, and what was once a pastime that could be foregone if the river was too high or too low became a business that must operate come hell or high water, with resulting demands to manage the flow of the “free-flowing Arkansas” for a maximum float season. And if someone drowns in a turbulent river, suppress the news, lest any potential tourists be deterred from dropping dollars here.

Such is the nature of industrial tourism. Manage “nature” (snow-making, river levels), and if that’s not enough, manage the news, too. Every day is a wonderful day in a fabricated and controlled environment like Disneyland. And in the tourist industry — now the largest industry in the world — Central Colorado competes for the same dollars.

I wish I could just ignore this development. But the fact is that if you don’t take advantage of some way to profit from river-running, downhill skiing or mountain-biking, someone else will.

This even works in journalism. We thought there was room for a new publication for locals when we founded this magazine, and we didn’t want to cater to the tourist market. We’ve got nothing against tourism — we enjoy it ourselves. But we wanted to serve, first and foremost, the people who live here.

On the other hand, tourism attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to our community, which is a lot more people than actually live here. (Central Colorado’s approximate population is 45,000.) And tourists inspire new publications, which make the competition for ad dollars and readers fierce.

Thus, even if we don’t want to be among the voices denying all misadventures in our wonderland while proclaiming the exciting times you can have by spending your vacation hereabouts, such voices still emerge — and the overall effect is just about the same.

You cannot think “I won’t be party to this, so it won’t happen.” It will happen no matter what you do or don’t do.

Or consider a local motel owner who’s figured out how to get by through the lean times. Tourism grows, so he should prosper, right?

No. The growth attracts big chains like Holiday Inn, Day’s Inn, Super 8, etc. They’ve got national marketing that makes them familiar to tourists, who are thus less willing to try a local motel unless everything else is full.

The local owner doesn’t want to lose everything he’s worked for, so he joins the promotion chorus.

Just add a few more festivals, brag on the weather, insist that hiking, rafting, and hang-gliding are safe for the entire family, and don’t mention that sometimes you should boil our water.

Whether you want to or not, you get sucked into this system if you’re here.

Moving doesn’t work, either. I tried that, when I fled Breckenridge for Salida in 1978. Industrial tourism was slower to arrive here than in Summit County, but it still came, as relentless as a bill collector. Further, the more people migrate because they want to live in some mountain Mayberry, the more they destroy the ambiance that they supposedly came for.

But I haven’t lost hope that we can keep industrial tourism from devastating all else.

For one thing, any industry that can be damaged by an honest weather report can’t really be all that powerful.

For another, most of us know how important it is to develop a diverse economy: farming, ranching, manufacturing, mining, cottage industries, etc.

As for tourism, the attractions of Central Colorado — scenic, historic, recreational, cultural, artistic — are genuine, and many are available on cold or rainy days. That should be enough for a reasonable but not overwhelming amount of tourism.

We really don’t need to lie, or expect others to do it for us.

— Ed Quillen