Monday, January 4, 2010

This Must Be The Place

I am living in Boulder, and Boulder is in Colorado. At least, I'm pretty sure it is. Some days, I'm not quite sure where Boulder is.

Seminal U of T geographer Edward Relph defines placelessness as "the casual eradication of distinctive places and the making of standardized landscapes that results from an insensitivity to the significance of place" (Relph, 1976). So a placeless landscape is that which can - and does - arise anywhere, oblivious of or indifferent to any inherent human or geological variations which should make the landscape unique. When you picture your friendly neighbourhood commercial strip - complete with a Denny's, Staples and Canadian Tire - you are picturing the epitome of placelessness. It is the phenomenon of getting out of your car in Surrey, taking a look around and knowing that you could just as easily be looking at Truro and not know the difference.

The longer I am immersed in it, the more apparent it becomes to me that Boulder - in all of its residential, post-1970s boom glory, and notwithstanding its overabundance of yoga mats, dreadlocks and self-righteous liberal bumper stickers - is a study in placelessness if there ever was one. While my daily bipedal commute to either of my jobs starts off on Folsom Street and takes me West towards the mostly unique businesses of the Pearl Street pedestrian mall (set in the shadow of the Flatirons), a trip East of Folsom into the bulk of Boulder sends one into a labyrinth of chain stores, strip malls and everything else that is average and common in North America.

And while some thinkers - most notably geographer J.B. Jackson - speak to the authenticity that can be found in these seemingly inauthentic spaces, a placeless landscape is not what I came to Boulder seeking. I thought I was making a break for the mountains, but the suburbs seem to have gotten here first and have acclimatized to the altitude just fine.

So with occasional exception, Boulder hasn't quite provided the Colorado experience that we moved here looking for. We would have rather moved to a tiny mountain town, but the need for immediate employment forced our hands when we arrived, so we settled in and on Boulder: bigger than the mountain hamlets, but much smaller than Denver. The mountains are nearby, but they require at least a little bit of time and money to enjoy. Given that we don't have an abundance of time (because of our jobs) or money (also because of our jobs) right now, we have found ourselves lamenting the fact that we feel so close to, yet so far from everything we came here looking for. And so we made an unofficial New Year's resolution to make sure that we actually take the initiative required to live in Colorado while we are living in Colorado.

Step one was last Thursday night (12/29), when I invested my Grandmother's Christmas money into the local economy in the form of tickets for Sarah and I to see the Yonder Mountain String Band at a theater down the street. Yonder has been in high rotation for me since 2001, and all four band members make their home in the nearby mountain town of Nederland (NED-er-lind). The band plays fast-pickin', hard-drinkin' bluegrass music, and they do it with airtight precision that can blow the roof off a room. The last indoor show I saw them play was in Montreal to less than a couple hundred people, so to be able to dance atop the Boulder Theater balcony and watch them captivate a crowd more than ten times as big in their own backyard was quite a treat. This was a Colorado band singing Colorado songs to a Colorado crowd within a ten minute walk from our house. The show ripped, and was about as subtle as a kick to the teeth in its reminder of where we are living.

With a shared day off today, a few days removed from a Yonder show that we are still humming along to, we decided to just get in the car and drive for the mountains. We were unsure of where we were going to end up, but hopeful that it would be, well, Colorado-y, at least in terms of our romanticized notion of what that means.

We headed due east for 20 miles and reached Nederland, a mountain town we fell in love with shortly after arriving in the state. We wove through the dirt roads and rickety-yet-mountain-tough homes of old town Ned at an elevation of almost 9,000 feet (Boulder is at about 5, 400), turning south on the Peak-to-Peak highway toward Rollinsville, ten miles away.

Picture the smallest settlement you have ever been to. Now divide it in half. Got it? Rollinsville, Colorado could be a suburb of the town you are now envisioning. We're talking a tiny crossroads tucked into the mountains, where you couldn't pretend to not be in Colorado even if you wanted to. There is a post office where people who work at the watering hole can get their mail, and a watering hole where the people who work at the post office can drink, and not much else save for a smattering of single-floor residences. The pavement runs out once you get about fifteen feet into town. This isn't a problem, though, as town itself only extends about another five hundred feet. The detour into Rollinsville was a scouting mission for us, as we will be returning to town to see our current bluegrass favourites - Michigan's Greensky Bluegrass - play a show at the town's bar on January 23rd (no, really).

Back on the highway, now at over 10,000 feet we headed for the town of Black Hawk. "Oh, someone I met in Boulder was telling me about Black Hawk," Sarah said. "She told me how charming it is and how much cooler she thinks it is than Boulder." We arrived in town and parked just past the welcome sign. Sure enough, it seemed unique, charming and pretty small from what we could see although we couldn't understand why this tiny town had its own police force (a cruiser had passed us by when we first rolled in). We got out of the car and started walking.

"Hey look, a casino," I said. We laughed, thinking we were somewhere about the size of Nederland or Rollinsville, and yet there was a casino just up around the bend...and another down the street...and another around the next bend.


Yeah, so Black Hawk is a major gambling center in the absolute middle of nowhere. We're talking a mini-Vegas, where every business we saw (at least 15) was at least mostly a casino, there were multi-level garages or valet parking on every block, and a fifteen-story mega-hotel and casino overlooked town. This was a total and complete non-sequitur and was a little much for us to take on our day in the mountains, so we skipped town pretty quickly (but not before making an offering to the blackjack Gods and snagging a comped Diet Coke like the high-rollers we are).

From Black Hawk (son of a bitch that place was weird) and the equally gamblo-centric and neighbouring Central City, we descended in altitude back to around the 8,000-foot mark and found our way to the Interstate. We followed I-70 West for about 20 miles, stopping briefly in Idaho Springs (Colorado still) and then ending up in Georgetown.

Georgetown. Sitting on a valley floor flanking Clear Creek, wedged so sliver-thin between the peaks that the air was painted a premature dusky gray in the late afternoon, even as the skies above were a bright blue.

Georgetown. Where on this afternoon a keen naked eye could spot a herd of big-horns (Nature!) grazing on the slopes bordering the town to the North, and the mountain lions sometimes visit from the hills to the South. Town's main street makes a feeble and insignificant border between the two sets of mountains.

Georgetown. Where mining has left and the interstate has slowed things down (easier access to the nearby ski resorts means fewer people stopping over in the winter), yet none of the 1,800 residents seems to mind. The tourists still come in the summer and the locals are content to have the run of the place in the winter, so long as the jobs at the resorts keep coming.

Georgetown is the sort of place I want to come home to some day.

After chewing the fat with a few of the locals and staying for a couple of hours and a plate of nachos, it was time to get on the road. We jumped back on the Interstate and headed East to Golden, turning North just before Denver to head back to Boulder. I'm back in my apartment now, feeling a little down to be back in my placeless new home, but grateful for the day I just had and the fresh eyes with which I can see my current situation. For the city may be where I sleep, but my living is done in the mountains.