Colorado and the Mythology of Colorado in ‘The New Yorker’
The New Yorker takes a look at Colorado through the lens of its archives.
There’s a lot crammed into the state of Colorado: dinosaur bones, old cowboy towns, abandoned silver mines, Focus on the Family, and the Boulder International Film Festival are all located there, smooshed together like so many sedimentary layers. As Ryan Lizza put it in a 2008 article, the state is part of the “conservative but idiosyncratic West.” In many places, especially on the coasts, political life has acquired an ossified predictability; in Colorado, political, social, and economic developments have happened in surprising and new combinations.
One of the most striking things about Colorado is that, over the past few decades, it’s become a home-base for both Democrats and Republicans—a place to which both parties look for a glimpse of their possible futures. In “The Code of the West”—probably the most illuminating piece in The New Yorker for readers interested in present-day Colorado politics—Lizza explains what’s made this possible. In the seventies, Lizza writes, “the state’s politics were partially defined by ardent environmentalists and the slow-growth movement”; later, in the nineties, the pendulum swung the other way, and Colorado became an important center for the religious right, and for the anti-tax movement that blossomed, eventually, into the Tea Party. Politics in Colorado is unusually dynamic, Lizza writes, because, unlike on the East Coast, “there’s no culture of political patronage…. [I]ndividual candidates and personalities matter far more than party labels. Colorado’s voter registration is divided roughly into equal thirds: Republicans, Democrats, and independents, with independents growing the fastest.” In the early 2000s, when many of Colorado’s moderates became disillusioned with the Republicans, who were fixated on social issues like gay marriage, the pendulum swung back the other way. In 2008, Lizza reported, the Democratic Party believes that Colorado presents an opportunity to embrace a new, Western form of liberalism, one which will make the party “less and less like the party of F.D.R., Truman, and Lyndon Johnson,” and engaged instead with entrepreneurs and small businesses, environmental issues, and the concerns of educated voters—“more oriented towards high-tech workers and less toward labor,” as one analyst explains it.
Much of The New Yorker’s Colorado coverage has revolved around the technology industry, which is central to the state’s economy to a degree many people find surprising. Much of that technology has its origins in the military. In “No Place to Hide,” from 2000, Michael Specter visits with the government researchers based in Colorado Springs who developed the G.P.S. system; in “The Button,” from 1985, Daniel Ford takes a trip inside the Cheyenne Mountain complex where NORAD is located. (It’s also where the movie “War Games” and the long-running sci-fi TV show “Stargate: SG-1” were set.) The atomic clock, from which all other clocks in the United States derive their time, is located in Colorado, where scientists associated with the National Institute of Standards and Technology are working on its even-more-accurate successor; in 1973, E. J. Khan wrote about the clock, in “The Leap Second.”
All that technology has left its mark on Colorado in surprising, and even moving, ways. In “The Uranium Widows,” Peter Hessler travels to the uranium-mining town of Uravan, where much of the uranium ore used by the Manhattan Project was milled—or, rather, to the place where the town used to be, since, in the years after the Second World War, the site was found to be radioactive and deemed unfit for human habitation. Its roads were dug up, its trees pulped, and its buildings shredded. “On the other side of the world,” Hessler writes, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are revived cities, but the town that helped make the bomb has been wiped completely off the face of the earth.” Many of the residents of Uravan have relocated to nearby towns, like Paradox, Colorado. (“Around here, place names have the ring of parables: Calamity Mesa, Disappointment Creek, Starvation Point.”) When representatives of the uranium-mining industry, which left Colorado in 1979, talk about starting up the mines again, those residents, and their descendents, turn out to be enthusiastic supporters of the idea. Despite the fact that many miners died of lung cancer, they maintain that there’s nothing inherently dangerous about uranium minining. (It was smoking in unventilated mines, they say, that was so unhealthy.) Hessler is initially incredulous, but, over time, he starts to find their arguments convincing. The locals maintain, for example, that a worker in Grand Central Terminal is exposed to higher levels of radiation than a worker in a uranium mill, and this turns out to be essentially true: “The walls of Grand Central Terminal,” Hessler discovers, “are made of granite, which contains elements that produce radon; a worker there receives a larger dose of radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows a uranium mill to emit to a next-door neighbor.” The miners and their families, he writes, are intelligent, careful, and brave—not innocent and ignorant, as many outsiders assume. “I understand uranium,” one woman says, “and I’m not afraid of it.”
Fearlessness, unsurprisingly, is a common theme in The New Yorker’s writing about Colorado. In “Roughing It,” Dorothy Wickenden tells the story of her grandmother, also named Dorothy, who, in 1916, aged twenty-nine, travelled to the remote frontier town of Elkhead, Colorado to become a schoolteacher. Dorothy, along with her best friend Rosamond, had been recruited by a cattle rancher named Farrington Carpenter, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School who had moved out to Colorado and founded the school. “Although Carpenter did intend to create a great school,” Wickenden writes, “his plan was also something of a ruse”:
Tall and rangy, with large ears, a long face, and a prominent nose, he, too, was twenty — nine years old…. [H]is friends had chosen him to solve their biggest problem: the absence of eligible women in the vicinity. A freewheeling storyteller, he told a writer who was profiling him in the Saturday Evening Post, in 1952: “We did not want strays. We had serious matrimonial intentions, and we decided that young, pretty schoolteachers would be the best bet of all.”
Dorothy and Rosamond, who had both graduated from Smith College and had been identified by an acquaintence of Carpenter’s as “the prettiest and liveliest girls in their class,” were ideal candidates, and, it turned out, excellent schoolteachers. Their schoolhouse was a solitary, newly-built stone building on the top of a hill, from which you could see the surrounding territory laid out, Dorothy wrote, like “a topographical map”: “roll after roll of rounded bare hills with little water creases markng them—and no sign of human being or habitation.” They had around two dozen students, many of whom skied to school in the winter, on barrel-staves. I won’t ruin the ending for you by telling you who marries whom, though I will say that bandits are involved. If you want to know what happens, you can read the whole story here.
One of the magazine’s most beloved Colorado stories was published only last year: “Dr. Don,” which is also by Peter Hessler. It’s a profile of Don Colcord, a druggist who lives in Nucla, Colorado, and runs a small pharmacy called the Apothecary Shoppe. Dr. Don, as his customers calls him, embodies the strange mixture of qualities and experiences that the magazine has found, again and again, in Colorado. Nucla, Hessler writes, is in the southwestern corner of Colorado, in “a region of more than four thousand square miles which has no hospitals, no department stores, and only one pharmacy”—Don’s. Don doesn’t have a medical degree, but he’s effectively responsible for the healthcare of everyone he knows. He has “some qualities,” Hessler writes, “that may seem contradictory”:
Don sells cigarettes at his pharmacy, because he believes that people have the right to do unhealthy things. He votes Democratic, a rarity in this region. He listens to Bocelli and drives a Lexus. At Easter, the Colcord family tradition is to dye eggs, line them up in a pasture, and fire away with a 25 — 06 Remington…. He has taken CPR courses, and he’s qualified to use an electric defibrillator. He has a pyrotechnics-display license, so that Nucla can have fireworks on the Fourth of July. When he heard about a new type of hormone therapy, he flew to California to attend two days of classes, and now he compounds medicine for four transgendered patients who live in various parts of the West. Every three months, Don talks with them on the phone and prepares their drugs; he finds this interesting. On Friday nights, he announces Nucla High football games.
Reading through The New Yorker’s Colorado coverage, it’s clear that the magazine has been attracted not just to the reality of Colorado, but to the mythology of it, too. And who wouldn’t be? It’s no wonder that both the Republicans and the Democrats want to feel at home there.