Colorado is quite a place.
Thousands of residents and visitors have arrived independently at that insight, without the guidance of experts.
Through the verticality of the state’s mountains, the horizontality of its plains, and the dynamic mixture of verticality and horizontality in the exposed strata of its canyon walls, the places of Colorado come well equipped to dazzle the eyes and stretch the minds of any sentient human beings. In these scenic locales, you could station armies of specialists and scholars at lecterns, podiums, and chairs aligned for panel discussions, and the public’s response to this barrage of knowledge might be lacking in gratitude: “Excuse us, but you’re blocking our wondrous view.”
And so, given the power of many Colorado’s places to exercise their own authority to make a case for themselves, why did the editors of the Colorado Encyclopedia decide to devote one section of this online festival of knowledge and expertise to the subject of “Place”?
Good question, well worth asking.
For all of their capacity to make forceful impressions on the human mind and soul, Colorado’s places often register short of forthrightness and full disclosure. Even the most beautiful of places—particularly the most beautiful of places—conceal the full story of their transformations over time. Colorado’s Fourteeners provide geographically prominent examples of places that continue to present themselves as pristine, insulated from time, untouched and unchanged by human presence, power, ambition, desire, improvidence, or enthusiasm for progress. But these high-alpine ecosystems are dynamic rather than static, and a changing climate and a rapidly expanding population of hearty and adventurous Coloradans have accelerated the pace of change in ways that humans are still trying to understand.
So when it comes to thinking about Colorado places, the insights of scholars, specialists, and experts turn out to be far from dismissible and irrelevant. The authors of the entries in this “Place” section have worked hard to reveal what lies just beneath the surface of the stories of Colorado’s places. At every place explored here, different groups of people have come or gone, returned or stayed, settled in contentedly or wished ardently that they were elsewhere. The human relationships brought into being, in particular places, by these arrivals and departures, have sometimes been amicable and congenial, sometimes uncomfortable and tense, and sometimes brutal and violent to the point of terror. When the passage of time has hidden these tales in places that still masquerade as simple and unstoried, the authors of these “Place” entries restore these obscured tales to memory and to our contemplation.
Meanwhile, other historical changes explored in these entries are far more evident to observers with minimal professional training in historical detection. Over decades, people have affected Colorado’s places in innumerable ways by putting in place (literally!) trails, roads, railroad tracks, camps, homes, stores, banks, gardens, farms, orchards, stables, corrals, mines, dams, reservoirs, ditches, mills, factories, schools, colleges, courthouses, governmental offices, restaurants, hotels, ski lifts, and airports (and that, every reader has noted, is a tragically, but necessarily incomplete list).
And now we reach the bedrock justification for recognizing the subject of “Place” as deserving of inclusion in this Encyclopedia. While human beings have wrought significant change in Colorado’s places by building structures of wood, brick, stone, iron, and steel, they have worked even more energetically—and more consequentially—at building structures of meaning that claim places for their own purposes and that the places, in turn, occupy on their own terms.
At once unforgettable and unforgivable for his abuse o’ apostrophes, the popular poet Edgar Guest wrote a famous remark about “home” that has unavoidable bearing at this point. Yes, it might, in Guest’s fractionated words, “take a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’make it home.” In an injury to the ear and mind that some readers may never forgive, we can productively modify Guest’s troubled sentence to the benefit of this Encyclopedia section:
It takes a heap o’ livin’, as well as a heap o’ constructin’ meanin’, to make a place a place.
In (blessedly) other words, the surface of the earth is continuous, even when it is submerged in water. Thus, the supply of square miles, or even square inches, qualified for classification as a “place” is so extensive that it is beyond our comprehension. Colorado’s supply of potential places may be even greater than many people realize: as political scientist Tom Cronin has observed, if this state were flattened out, and if its mountainous terrain got reconfigured as horizontal plains, the state would compete with Texas or Alaska in its dimensions (unless Alaska received the same be-flattened treatment in the calculation of square miles).
A defined unit of the surface of the earth is not going to make it as a place until human beings have worked it over, in either material terms or cognitive terms, or both. To qualify as a place, then, a locale has to be transformed in some way by human activity. In Colorado, material and cognitive activities have come together to produce lasting impacts, allowing human beings to create cities of improbable size in places where water is scarce. Stephen Grace’s article on the Alva B. Adams Tunnel and Greg Silkensen’s writing on the Colorado–Big Thompson project both remind us that the major population centers of Colorado’s northern Front Range—the cities of Boulder, Longmont, Louisville, Loveland, and Fort Collins—rely on the 200,000 acre-feet of water that annually flow through the Adams tunnel. Without this yearly injection of water from the Western Slope, Colorado’s biggest towns would barely qualify as places at all! Locales aplenty in Colorado have undergone this transformative investment of human effort in putting them to use: as sites providing the raw material seized upon by loggers or by preservationists of intact forests, by fortune-seeking miners or by crusading writers lamenting the disturbances wrought by the miners.
And this deposits us at a very important point about the past, present, and future of the idea of place in Colorado.
In the 1990s, the subspecies of homo sapiens, endowed with the honorific name of Western Public Intellectuals, became enthralled with the idea of a sense of place. In hindsight, this train of thought—more accurately, this train of hope—took passengers on a delightful journey through the western past and present. Those of us who rode this train believed that a sense of place arose from a recognition that the US west was our chosen home, and we were thereby called to serve as the grateful stewards and guardians of the land where we had found our bearings.
But an unwelcome question rode the train with us as an extremely annoying fellow passenger: what has happened when people who have come into possession of differing and conflicting senses of place have struggled against each other to take possession of the same place?
The answers to that question, as they are recorded in this Encyclopedia, locate themselves along a spectrum from indifference and drift, to negotiated peace, to unresolved and irredeemable antagonism. Place section authors highlight forgotten spots such as Denver’s Chinatown that slid out of collective memory as the men and women who made up the community responded to intolerable discrimination by leaving Denver in search of a more-accepting place to make a living. Other sites, such as the Amache concentration camp that imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II, sit in the middle of our spectrum. Former bunkhouses remain as grown-over foundations providing symbolic and physical evidence of a reckoning with past injustices. Other places slide up and down this scale with maddening impunity. Fort Lewis College, which grants a tuition-free education to American Indian students, got its start as a military outpost in the nation’s war against Native peoples. The transformation from fort to college barely registers in memory for some while standing for others as an indispensable avenue for the education and advancement of American Indian peoples.
Who—if anyone—holds the authority and standing to serve as a referee when several senses of place overlap and pitch into in a tug-of-war over the destiny of the same locale?
In the early twenty-first century, in our unsettled region and rattled nation, this is a question receiving different answers every day.
It is our hope that the scholars, specialists, and experts who wrote the entries in this Encyclopedia’s consideration of “Place” be recognized as holders of authority and standing, and also our hope that the recipients of this recognition will put it to good use.