Chapter XVI: Colorado

of Travels with Samantha by Philip Greenspun
Arthur, one of Colorado's first gay rights lobbyist, photographed in the Moab, Utah Youth Hostel in 1993.  Arthur was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1984. "I was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1984. I've been very lucky to be one of the few without symptoms. I decided to spend some time giving back and now I'm going to enjoy. I was experimenting at just the wrong time, in the late 1970s. I tell young people today, `Sex is wonderful, sex is exciting, have fun with casual sex, but use a condom.' I get really scared when I hear that the fastest growing incidence of AIDS is among college students. These people are throwing away their exuberance."

Arthur was Colorado's first gay rights lobbyist. He has spent seven years without pay, living under the shadow of H.I.V., trying to insure anonymous H.I.V. testing for Coloradans. The passage of Amendment 2 to the Colorado Constitution is a fresh wound.

Shall there be an amendment to article II of the Colorado Constitution to prohibit the State of Colorado and any of its political subdivisions from adopting or enforcing any law or policy which provides that homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, conduct, or relationships constitutes or entitles a person to claim any minority or protected status, quota preferences, or discrimination?
"Colorado is on the cutting edge of civil rights circumscription. Christian organizations such as Focus on the Family are staging a hegemonistic coup d'état here. Colorado Springs never stopped growing, even during the recession when Denver was contracting. Christians were moving into Colorado Springs from out of state."

Arthur told me that there are 55 Christian organizations based in Colorado Springs who apparently take seriously the state motto: Nil sine Numine (Nothing without Providence). They've put all kinds of unusual laws before the voters, such as "All literature available in stores that would be potentially damaging to minors would be prohibited from sale."

I'd never met anyone with AIDS before and only knew a few old people with lingering terminal illnesses. George had the good grace to drop dead a few days after I knew he was sick; he would have died within 24 hours if he'd not been in intensive care. Here was a witty, charming, handsome, athletic, upbeat, optimistic person whose days were numbered. Arthur lives more and with more enthusiasm than most people I know; it was inspiring. That doesn't mean Arthur is a Pollyanna.

"I don't make friends easily. I had a few close friends and they have all died of AIDS. Recently I've been making the mistake of trying to turn acquaintances into friends. It doesn't work for me."

I spent an hour or so every day talking with Arthur at the Lazy Lizard hostel in Moab, Utah. He was just starting on a two-month tour of the West. We joked about our complementary physical limitations. I can bike all day but suffer from standing or walking. Arthur hikes four to eight hours a day but can't risk biking because a small cut might cause him to bleed to death. The more I saw Arthur, the more seriously I took Marcus Aurelius: "Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours."

At age 20, my heart of hearts knew that I would live forever. George's death planted the idea in my mind that not everyone lives to realize his dreams. About one year later, a doctor told me that the pain in my joints might be caused by a terminal rheumatic disease. I decided to take the New Zealand trip I'd always dreamed of, but didn't immediately change my philosophy. Arthur's example of purposeful living and service to others reaffirmed my commitment to subtle changes I'd made in my life since returning from New Zealand.

I'd been introduced to the ugly side of insincerity by a girlfriend in Boston six months before my trip to New Zealand, where two months' total respite from insincerity made returning to Boston positively revolting. It nauseated me to see a man call another his friend and then beg off dinner invitations week after week. In the eight months since I'd returned from New Zealand, I had faithfully kept my vow to make time for a person within a few days of him contacting me or not call him "friend."

Meeting Arthur cemented in my mind the value of accepting gifts from others with real respect, especially the gift of time. I'd planned to drive more or less straight to Aspen on the Interstate. Arthur spent half an hour out of the time that remains to him drawing out a backroads tour of Colorado. When I thought that Arthur might very well be dead before I returned to this part of the country, I decided to take his advice doubly seriously.

Anyone from Colorado for Family Values might have predicted that a gay rights activist's tour of Colorado would start on Highway 666. This rolls through pinto bean fields into Colorado. I'd expected to see a "Homosexuals: we love you but we hate your sin" sign, but all I found was one bumper sticker reading, "Jimmy Carter is no longer the worst president we've had." Farms gave way to ranches and national forest as I turned north towards Telluride. Colorado

Coloradans' mental maps don't contain route numbers but rather pass names. I paused halfway up the Lizard Head Pass (elevation 10,222') to chat with a national forest volunteer. Dave, a retired Oklahoman, educated me about the forest.

"A raw fir log is only worth $75 at the mill and $250 at retail. Aspen is worth even less since it is just ground up for particle board. They have to strip a whole mountainside to make a few thousand dollars profit, but it is what they know how to do so they keep doing it. Most of this forest is off-limits to logging now and is just used for recreation. The trees we are replanting now will be ready for harvest in 75 years, but nobody expects logging to continue then. All the trees cut then will be privately grown."

Heavy overcast dulled the scenery a bit, and most of the wildflowers had already died. It should have been a spectacular drive all the same, but Alaska had spoiled me and I was beginning to feel like Ronald Reagan: "A tree is a tree--how many more do you need to look at?" I wanted wildflowers lining the road, glaciers worming down from the peaks, and iridescent water at the bottom.

Telluride was a mining town until 1979, when the mines closed up. Grubby mines were replaced by grubbier realtors and attorneys as the town became yet another rich folks' retreat. Aspen isn't too bad, but mention Vail with its reasonably priced condos and people here shudder. Samantha and I took a table at the Between the Covers bookstore/cafe.

Telluride's rich kids didn't lust after Samantha. In fact, they scorned her charms.

"I'm waiting for a really advanced computer," noted Judd, 19-year-old lifelong Telluridan, "one that uses fiber optics inside."

Why would this be better?

"Because everything would work much faster then. It would have better graphics and be easier to use."

Despite my reassurance that the signals inside a modern computer propagate at 90% of the speed of light, Kevin looked up from tending bar and agreed wholeheartedly.

Alan spends his summers here painting houses and winters as a perpetual master's student in Boulder. His interests are fine arts and Buddhism.

"Boulder is one of the best places in the country to learn Buddhism, although I've spent a lot of time in Tibet and Nepal also."

Fresh from Oregon, I asked him if the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's philosophy had been orthodox or not. In particular, I was curious to know about the doctrine that people are prevented from thinking clearly because of pent-up sexual frustration and that the solution is to get rid of it with free love.

"Orthodox Buddhists would have found very little to criticize in the Rajneesh's teachings. That doesn't mean they would have approved of all aspects of his community, though."

Alan told me Boston was one of the best centers of Buddhist education, but I said that I didn't think I could ever escape the effects of 29 years of immersion in East Coast cultural values.

No Western experience would be complete without meeting a blue-eyed Jewish girl named Lisa. After 13 years as a successful decorative artist in Manhattan, catering to the filthy rich desire for trompe l'oeil, Lisa moved out here a few months ago. "I meet a lot more people here than I ever did in New York. One doesn't just stop and talk to people in Manhattan. Here it is like summer camp." Her main problem is that the local contractors are all bums and the city government won't approve her septic design for love or money. The "New York Minute" [the interval of time between when the light turns green and when the guy behind you honks his horn] is a poorly understood concept here. Lisa admires men because they won't take "no" for an answer from a woman.

"You shouldn't let rejection get to you. Don't give anyone that kind of control over your emotions. When they reject you, they are saying more about themselves than about you."

A large group of hippies came in from their commune in New Mexico. They were here to attend the mushroom festival, several days of lectures and other events about all kinds of mushrooms (i.e., not just psilocybin). They livened up the cafe considerably, beating their Middle Eastern drums with occasional interruptions to go outside and smoke.

"How does your Mom feel about your not going to college and living this way?" I asked a nose-ringed cotton-dressed Earth Daughter.

"She just wants me to be happy."

At midnight, I rolled into the town campground, which was completely full. I begged hospitality from Pisa and Hans, who were eating dinner at their picnic table by the interior lights of their ancient VW camper van. I could barely make out a large dog curled up in front. Both guys were unshaven and wearing bandannas, which lent them a piratical appearance.

"What kind of dog is he?" I asked.

"A Shepherd/wolf cross."


"Only to good people."

Thursday, August 26

Telluride is the end of the road; I drove back west to Placerville and then up north through the Dallas Divide to Ridgway. "This is another tiny Colorado mining and ranching town that lives off tourism now," said the clerk at the local bookstore/cafe.

"I've lived up on the mesa for years, without any services of any kind. I was alone for a long time, but recently I found a man who wants to live this way also so we're together."

It was scary to contemplate ending up with a woman this independent, someone who would be perfectly happy to be alone for the rest of her life: "Thanks for the five years of marriage, honey, but I think I'm going up on the mesa for the next decade or so."

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument (Colorado) After a soak at Ridgway's "clothing optional" Orvis Hot Springs, I hit the road for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. A river goes to all the trouble of slicing its way straight down through 2700' of rock and it doesn't even rate national park status. That's what comes from being right next to Utah. The walls of the Gunnison's canyon are much steeper than those of any of the sandstone canyons of the Southwest, mostly because the water drops so fast. The perfectly smooth rim road made for fabulous biking, especially because I could bike out to overlooks that motorists had to walk to. Sunset on the nearly vertical gray walls of the canyon wasn't much to write home about, but the light was beautiful on fields, ranches, and distant mountains as I drove down to Montrose.

I drove through darkness to Delta, where I pitched my tent at the local KOA.

"There are only four people here tonight; camping season ended a few days ago," noted the proprietress. After dinner at the local Mexican joint, I went to the bar in back and chatted with the mostly Hispanic crowd. Did they think Colorado was being taken over by Fundamentalists? What did they think of Amendment 2?

"All it says is that homosexuals can't be considered a minority like blacks or Hispanics or whatever. It is perfectly fair to give special treatment to people who were kept down based on their skin color. But why should homosexuality be given equal status with something that can't be changed?"

Friday, August 27

The drive to Carbondale is listed as scenic, but it passes a lot of ranches and coal mines. This is the Colorado of Ayn Rand. Real men subdue Nature and brag about their achievements in a Homeric manner.

"This--she thought, looking at the mine--was the story of human wealth written across the mountains: a few pine trees hung over the cut, contorted by the storms that had raged through the wilderness for centuries, six men worked on the shelves, and an inordinate amount of complex machinery traced delicate lines against the sky; the machinery did most of the work."
--- Atlas Shrugged

"There are enough miles of tunnel in this mountain to reach San Francisco and back."
--- roadside sign near coal mine
Over a smoked chicken enchilada at Carbondale's finest restaurant, I read the email harvested from CompuServe. It had taken three months, but I'd finally gotten a commercial network to work for me, albeit at a price. CompuServe charged me as much to receive an Internet message as the Post Office charges to carry a physical letter 3000 miles. I wondered why people think computers are efficient and always complain about the Post Office. Also, I noticed that I didn't really want most of my mail anymore.

When I started the trip, I was so lonely that every contact from friends made me feel warm inside. By now, however, I'd learned to make connections with people quickly, and a dashed-off note from a work-obsessed friend didn't add much to my felicity. Even if America OnLine hadn't severed my electronic link with the world early on, my whole idea of taking this trip with my friends in Cyberspace may have been flawed. Most people stuck with the same problems, faces, and tasks every day don't want to hear about the panoply of experience that is available to the traveler.

After driving uphill to Aspen and finding that the gondola wouldn't take bikes ("we consider the mountain too steep"), I rode the Rio Grande Trail, an old railroad bed that starts right in downtown Aspen. It is a beautiful riverside ride, beginning with little waterfalls, interesting trees, small-scale canyons, and generalized woods, and ending with views of the sewage treatment plant and airport just before one is dumped into a housing development. The airport speaks volumes about the kind of people who come to Aspen; it is packed with small personal and business jets. The really big and really small airplanes favored by the Common Man are nowhere to be seen.

Having completed 15 miles up and down the trail, I biked around the town's central residential and business districts. The rich live well here, with their $2.5 million townhouses, Toyota Landcruisers, and neo-Victorian architecture. It isn't that striking until one remembers that this is probably a third or fourth home for many of the people nominally here. A "no growth" policy adopted some years ago means that even a dumpy two-bedroom condo goes for $300,000.

Aspen was an amazingly rich mining town until the U.S. went off silver and onto the gold standard. Stately 100-year-old brick buildings attest to the mining wealth. The town's revival began in 1944 when big-shot executive Walter Pepke came out here. In a perverse reversal of Atlas Shrugged, he did not come to escape the IRS and build a more perfectly selfish union. Pepke decided New York executive life wasn't fulfilling enough and started the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. I didn't stay in town long enough to figure out its real purpose, but it sounds a bit like the Bohemian Grove with more babes, less nudity, and fewer drunk Republicans. Prominent statesmen, business leaders, and intellectuals gather here to receive and exchange wisdom. Albert Schweitzer came to the U.S. only once, and it was to hang out here.

Businessmen may occasionally start things, but it takes the U.S. Army to finish the job. The 10th Mountain Division built the world's longest single chairlift here. After the war, hedonist Eurotrash ski bums crashed Pepke's exclusive party and Aspen as we know it was born.

Aspen, Colorado The nexus of Aspen hedonism is the Paragon, a huge nightclub, restaurant, creperie, and sidewalk cafe by a pleasant pedestrian mall.

"This used to be the best restaurant in town back in 1972. I was just a kid then when I bought it, ripped everything out, and turned it into a disco. Nobody here even knew what `disco' meant," related Teddy, the trim handsome owner. "I brought in the best acts from all over the U.S., and there was a line halfway down the block every night. The Wall Street Journal even did an article on us."

Some big nightclub operators from New York and L.A. bought the place but sold it back to Teddy when they couldn't sustain $10 million/year in revenue. Teddy lives mostly in Paris now with his French girlfriend.

"I only came back to get her son started in the business. I'm training him now, and I'm going to hire a manager for the winter to train him then. After graduating from school in Arizona, I came here to work at the Institute in the food and beverage department. I felt important just looking at the guest list every day. In some ways, the nightclub business is fabulous; one is getting paid to socialize."

As my crepe came (nothing like a second lunch to maintain that typical American physique), we were joined by Renee, a local businesswoman. I asked her about the five recent suicides in Aspen, a subject of some concern considering the population is only 6000.

"I knew two of the five, one a 56-year-old pediatrician, the other a 43-year-old woman. I hate to say this, but I think it was because they'd never been married. I've been divorced for 16 years, but I know that I'll always have my three wonderful children and eventually grandchildren. If I were this age and never-married, I'd be really depressed."

Renee must have noticed the incipient slash marks on my wrist, for she quickly pulled out a photo of her beautiful (yes, and Jewish) 24-year-old daughter in Boulder and suggested that I look her up. Renee, Teddy, and I talked while I porked down both a dinner and a dessert crepe. They encouraged me to stay and explore and Teddy comped my bill, but I could feel my September 8th meeting staring me in the face.

Before running away from town, I dropped into Eddie Bauer, presided over by Charles, every girl's dream ski instructor. He had toured Western Europe for a few months on his mountain bike.

"I feel like an idiot. Based on what I'd read for years in the American media, I thought of Eastern Europe as shabby and gray so I skipped it. Now I'm going around the world with my bike for 18 months and I'm going to see everything I missed. I figure I can do it for 10 to 15 thousand dollars."

How does Charles fund his trips?

"I work three jobs here and can save about $600-1000/month. I don't have a car, one of the jobs pays for a ski pass, and I share a room in a house for $400."

What about the Aspen image of cozy couples?

"In my house there are two guys in one room, two girls in the other. Just about everyone here has to live this way so people are used to it. If a couple wants privacy, they sneak off to the living room when everyone else is asleep. It isn't the way I want to live, but there's not much choice."

Teddy had told me that Pepke chose Aspen because he was particularly fed up with "one man putting himself on top of another man," something he found rampant in New York City. Yet some Aspenites now work three jobs and have to share a room while others never work and can drop $40,000 on a toy car to sit in front of their third home.

Everyone told me not to drive over Independence Pass (elevation 12,095') because the weather wasn't so good. They didn't tell me the road was winding, guardrail-free, and only one lane wide in many places (yes, there is two-way traffic; don't ask me how it works). When I got to the top, though, a magnificent sunset was spread over the tops of the mountains. A roadside lake with a boulder in the middle made the spot a lazy photographer's dream.

Independence Pass (elevation 12,095), east of Aspen, Colorado Independence Pass (elevation 12,095), east of Aspen, Colorado

It was just past 9 when I rolled into Leadville. Next time someone from Denver brags about it being mile-high, just remind them that Leadville is fully two miles up. Leadville was all about mining until a few years ago. The population declined from 100,000 in the late 1800s to 12,000 in 1980 and now consists of 4,000 shell-shocked souls. I dined and diarized at The Grill, a Mexican place 10 blocks off the main highway and hence safe from tourists. The owner's son told me that the biggest excitement here at the Grill was when Art Garfunkle, Nicholson, and Jimmy Buffett got drunk here in 1977. It must have been more exciting when Oscar Wilde visited in 1882: "I read [the miners] passages from the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, and they seemed most delighted. I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me. I explained that he had been dead for some little time, which elicited the enquiry `Who shot him?' They afterwards took me to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was printed a notice, `Please do not Shoot the Pianist; He is doing His Best.'"

The locals decided it was too cold for me to tent, so I slept in a beautiful guest room. One good thing about shrinking towns is that everyone lives in a nice house. As I fell asleep between soft sheets, it occurred to me that I would be very happy to spend another six months on the road. I'd rolled into Aspen, a poor man in a rich man's town, and made three friends in five hours. Nature had provided me with a magnificent show at sunset. Strangers had given me food and shelter.

Saturday, August 28

Vail was built by more 10th Mountain Division alumni, and it stretches for a few miles along I-70. One can go from Interstate to gondola in 10 minutes. Vail is just 30 years old and as democratic as Aspen is exclusive. They want everyone to come here, ski, and buy a condo (at one-third the price of Aspen). "Wanna-be Bavarian/Swiss-German" has taken root with a vengeance here. Pedestrian malls in the town centers, Bavarian architecture, and hanging flower baskets make the European experience complete. One can ride all the mountain bike trails for free if one is willing to grind up from 8,300' to 10,350'; I opted for the $16 lift pass.

Mountain biking off the lift in Vail, Colorado Warm sunshine and high altitude's late spring burst of wildflowers greeted me at the top of the California-made gondola. Vail sits in a national forest and views south of the "back bowl" stretch out civilization-free as far as one can see. I was in no mood to dispute Vail's claim to being the world's largest ski resort after seeing dozens of little lifts scattered throughout the back bowls.

After meandering among the high meadows, I coasted down six miles to Vail Village on a bumpy dirt road at 25 mph. After I got off the bike, I continued to shake--just like Wile E. Coyote after a mishap with some Acme spring products. The next mountain bike is definitely going to have a suspension.

A view from I-70 between Vail and Boulder, Colorado

I-70 out of Vail is a remarkable road punched through Loveland Pass. It is a tremendous climb up to a final tunnel at the top. My air-conditioner cut out but I didn't complain; the roadside was littered with overheated underengineered European cars. I'm not sure the scenery from I-70 is any less spectacular than what one sees from the little roads of Colorado, but there isn't much time to appreciate it at 50 mph (uphill) or 80 mph (downhill). There was time to be awestruck by the engineering achievement. I won't gripe about paying federal gas tax anymore.

Route 6 ducks off the Interstate into a mysterious 200'-deep winding narrow canyon. After I turned north on 93, the landscape turned into open flatland. Just before Boulder, I donned my lead BVDs for the breeze past the Department of Energy's Rocky Flats facility. Local legend has it that you will grow a second head out of the side of your neck after 10 passes.

Liz's garage in Boulder, Colorado, evidence of the lust for outdoor recreation that induces people to move here

I'd passed nearly all of Boulder's 80,000 inhabitants before realizing I'd arrived in town and starting to hunt for old friend Liz's house. Liz and I have circled around each other for nearly 15 years. We were MIT undergraduates together. We both worked in industry long enough to appreciate academia and sate our materialism. We were graduate students together in the same computer science research group at MIT, our offices just a few steps from each other. The main divergence in our lives is that Liz trained for the U.S. Olympic rowing team (her boat finished fifth in the 1988 Olympics) and I, ... well, ... spent a lot of time with my dog.

There are two styles of hospitality that I've come to appreciate. One is the intense European style. You can't pay for a meal, wash a dish, rent a car, or see a sight. Your host is with you every minute of every day showing you around and taking care of you. This style gave rise to the expression "Fish and houseguests begin to smell after three days." One can't stay very long under the European system, for one would feel badly about being a burden.

America by contrast is so vast that visits can stretch to weeks, and our style of hospitality has evolved accordingly. Liz is a consummate American-style host: "Here are the house keys, the round one is the key to the guest bike lock. Use the Jacuzzi anytime. Help yourself to whatever is in the fridge. Here is the map drawer, laundry room, computer terminal, Macintosh printer, ... Stay for a couple of weeks if you like." The "my house is your house" philosophy leaves one free to run errands, explore the city, and see one's host in a natural setting.

Sunday-Wednesday, August 29-September 1

Seeing friends, attempting to accomplish things, and a rushed feeling poisoned my ability to be a perspicacious traveler. Boulderites could sense that I was just going through the motions and wasn't really interested in their lives. I asked a politically correct cotton-dressed shopgirl in the downtown pedestrian mall why she moved here.

"I don't feel like being interviewed," she huffed.

Boulder is supremely comfortable in some ways. There are great cafes, sushi bars, bookstores, parks, and libraries. Shops allude to Amendment 2 with "hate-free zone" signs. There is an overarching sense of superiority that one can acquire merely by moving here. "We know how to live, unlike those chumps in flatland (most of the rest of the country), trafficland (California), or environmental rapeland (the rest of Colorado)." Unlike Ayn Rand's self-sufficient Colorado community of elitists, however, this one is forced to depend upon the people for whom it has contempt.

Boulder's economy survives on federal money spent at Rocky Flats to make or clean up after nuclear weapons, at a National Institute of Standards and Technology laboratory, and at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The University of Colorado sucks in tuition from rich parents sending their kids to the ultimate four-year party. It is a leech city like Washington, D.C.. Rush Limbaugh would have a field day here.

What is it about the act of selling a man an automobile that turns a human being into a monster? A dozen bike shops continent-wide had performed minor repairs, given me advice, and showed me around without ever expecting a dime. None of them were dealers for L.L. Bean mountain bikes, and none thought I'd ever return. As recently as Carbondale, Colorado, I'd been thanked for stopping by when all I did was ask for a restaurant recommendation.

Car companies love to whine and beg at the doors of Congress.

"Consumers are being mean to us, suing us for killing them or for breach of warranty. We need protection."

I had to go to two dealerships and a Firestone shop before I could be confident that the brakes and transmission on my five-month old minivan would make it back to Boston. All the time I thought of the study where 20% of Americans said they'd rather have a tooth pulled than take a car in to be fixed.

Did I leave Boulder without charming Jennifer, Renee's beautiful daughter? Au contraire.

"I can't believe my mother gave you my phone number. You could have been an axe murderer," Jennifer greeted me.

An axe murderer! I was affronted by this attack on my masculinity--the axe having been a woman's murder weapon from Clytemnestra right down to Lizzie Borden--but I swallowed my indignation and took another tack. Didn't she think that her mother's extra decades of experience might enable her to judge men's characters more wisely than she?

"No way! Mom likes the ex-convict type."

I sent Jennifer a draft of this chapter and her reaction was much funnier than anything I wrote about her: "You make me sound like a world-class caustic nympho bitch."

Chapter XVII: Don't cry for things that can't cry for you

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