Andy Stone: Say goodbye – because we will forget
Say goodbye to the river. Say hello to the future.
Once there was a fierce debate in this valley about four-laning Highway 82. That’s all over now – except for the paving. And the paving is nearly finished too.
Sure, the fight over the Entrance to Aspen is still a live one, but it’s a separate deal. It’s the poison cherry atop the hot-fudge sundae of the four-lane highway that now snakes all the way from Glenwood to Buttermilk – either finished or well on the way to being finished.
For better or for worse, we’ve got a four-lane now and it’s hard to even remember the bitter debate that raged for years over whether the two-lane would be the death of us all (“Killer 82”) or the four-lane would be the death of everything that made this valley special.
Of course, it is now clear that both sides were wrong. But, more to the point, it’s almost as hard to remember the actual debate as it is to remember the scrawny two-lane blacktop that used to wind along the Roaring Fork from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.
Drive the remaining stretch of Old Highway 82 from downtown Basalt to the traffic light at the KOA Kampground and try to recall that this narrow road was once all there was for the whole 40 miles from the interstate to the Aspen city limits.
Hard as it is to remember that old road, it’s harder still to remember the almost identical road that used to wind through Glenwood Canyon.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the debate over the Glenwood Canyon highway was at least as heated and much more widespread than the Highway 82 debate.
The two-lane through the canyon was almost the last missing link in the coast-to-coast Interstate System and the battle over Glenwood Canyon ranged far and wide. It even wound up in the U.S. Congress, where the anti-interstate forces won an enormous victory that turned out not to be a victory at all and … well, anyway, now the interstate highway through the canyon is a long-settled item. It’s there. We drive it. And it’s hard to remember that it used to be very different.
It’s not that the highway is so terrible. The Glenwood Canyon itself is mostly unscarred. We look up at the towering walls and watch the play of sunlight on the rocks and we are still in awe. Indeed, we might even have a little more of a chance to look up, since we’re not steering down a narrow, winding road, swerving to avoid on-coming semi trucks.
But I remember the way it used to be. I made a point of remembering. It happened one day just before they began to work on the highway, when I was driving home from Denver. I drove into the canyon and found myself suddenly amazed by the tranquil beauty as the four lanes of concrete interstate narrowed to two lanes of blacktop that curved beneath the branches of an ancient tree and wound their way gently along the banks of the Colorado.
I slowed down then and told myself to look closely and remember, because this slice of the world would never be the same.
And now, when I drive through Glenwood Canyon, sometimes I think back and compare what I’m seeing with what I remember from that day. And what I really notice is that the canyon is the same, but the river is lost.
No longer is there a sense of a road running beside a river that has cut its way through the mountains. Instead, there is only the road and the rock towering above it.
There is no river – the river that carved the canyon. The river that brought all this beauty into existence. The river has disappeared.
And that’s where we’re heading with Highway 82.
I remember – and it’s easy to remember, because, really, it’s still this way – watching the river, year round, as I drive up and down the valley through Snowmass Canyon.
Clouds of vapor rise from the water on the coldest mornings of winter as the water slices through ice and snow. Leaves shimmer with the first fierce green of spring as the waters rise, churning and leaping, threatening to overflow their banks. The solid mature green of summer settles into the treetops as the river settles down to a steady flow through the perfection of July and August. The leaves turn golden in September as the river shrinks and the gravel bars appear.
Even stuck in traffic jams, commuting to work on mornings when I am ready to hate my life, I can look at the river and remember how lucky I am to live where I do.
But soon, as we drive on the new highway, high on the hillside, cantilevered on concrete, hemmed in by guardrails and retaining walls, we will lose sight of the Roaring Fork.
The leaves will still be there, but the river that waters them will have disappeared from view. The cliffs will still be there, but the river that carved them will have vanished. The valley we drive through will have lost its foundation, its grounding.
Will I mourn that loss?
Well, yes, of course. Until I forget, until my memory of “the way it used to be” is gone.
And all I have left is my pleasure in the absence of traffic jams and the five minutes I save every time I drive into Aspen.
Say goodbye to the river.
[Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. He often drives too fast and forgets to look around. His e-mail address is email@example.com.]
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