Paul Andersen: We are lucky to have the choice
December 23, 2002
A few weeks ago, I ran into longtime Aspenite Klaus Obermeyer at the Hot Springs Pool. It was late afternoon and wisps of steam spiraled into the crisp winter air. The pool was quiet and uncrowded, a peaceful haven in which we acknowledged the serene atmosphere.
“We are so lucky to live here!” exalted Klaus, a huge grin on his face.
“Maybe it’s not just luck, Klaus,” I suggested. “Perhaps we have made the right choices.”
Driving into Denver last week, those choices stood out dramatically. Heavy traffic clogged C470 and a thick brown pall of air pollution hovered overhead. Cookie-cutter subdivisions and strip malls stretched to the horizon.
The heart of the city beat with an inexorable cadence as thousands of merging capillaries joined the clotted arteries of myriad highways. I felt like an amoeba caught in a tide of protoplasm that pulsed with every stoplight.
In Parker, which only five years ago was farmland and open prairie, a triple overpass sorted traffic to various points within a cosmopolis that sprawls today across plains and foothills. Solid urban and suburban impacts are now felt from Fort Collins to Pueblo.
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For anyone who grew up along the Front Range over the last 20 years, the shock of sprawl must be thoroughly disorienting. Complaisant acceptance is perhaps the only antidote to madness over the effects of explosive growth and rapid change.
Traffic represents the most obvious urban affliction with its accompanying noise and pollution. Huge SUVs and sleek sports cars form impromptu motorcades behind every traffic signal. Each driver cradles a cell phone through which they commune with another driver landlocked in another vehicle stuck behind another traffic light on yet another crowded byway.
Commercial monoliths dot the landscape, providing a display of conspicuous consumption and constituting a prime reason for driving. Big-box chains like The Great Indoors, Sam’s Club and Home Depot define today’s acquisitive society as shoppers are drawn lemming-style to the allure of bargains.
Shopping is one of the foremost social, cultural and recreational activities for the millions who flock to these massive warehouses, which are packed to the rafters with the trappings of modern living. The rewards of city life are measured in the volume of debits on one’s credit card, belying the struggle many card-wielders face with each daunting downturn in the economy.
Henry David Thoreau decried the “lives of quiet desperation” that he witnessed in his urban contemporaries from his sanctuary at Walden Pond. How many lives of quiet desperation are described in the hoards of shoppers who think the road to a better life leads into the concrete vastness of the mall parking lot?
Last weekend I made a pilgrimage to the hallowed halls of the American Dream. My wife and I shopped for accouterments for the beautification and function of our home and work places.
We joined the traffic throng on our perambulations around Denver in search of the right lighting and the most affordable faux wood blinds. Soon, the rapacious urge to buy and the crush of human congestion caused a sinking disillusionment that soured my soul.
I hit my limit at Expo, an emporium of consumption, a temple to materialism. The collective glare of Expo’s lighting display required sunglasses; the heat felt like a supernova. Shopping for wall sconces in the glare of those lights, I could feel a massive electromagnetic field jangling my synapses and irradiating my DNA.
We escaped without a single purchase and fled the madness. I gassed up the car at a self-serve island that featured a miniature TV screen where a talking head pitched low-interest mortgages at the latest prefab enclave. I merged back into the coagulated artery of C470 like a rogue red blood cell and headed west on I-70.
After passing Vail, I could breathe again. After Glenwood Springs, I felt my nerves unwind. Turning up the Frying Pan Valley at Basalt, I felt free and easy. At home, I raise my arms to the Seven Castles and to the glory of untrammeled nature and spoke from my heart: “Thank you! I love you!”
[Paul Andersen thanks God he’s a country boy! His column appears on Mondays.]
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