Nederland might be it. We have hours to kill before Sarah's sister and brother-in-law catch their flight home out of Denver, and so the four of us leave the cabin and come down the canyon like marauders, looking for some place to conquer. Boulder is too much, Denver not even a possibility. Instead, driving as we’ve found ourselves doing this entire weekend, we come to Nederland, which isn’t trying so hard. It’s a spent silver town with mining grit still on it if you don’t look in the wrong places. The people here are the people who should be here. There’s a popular bluegrass band, a handful of hippies, and some of those bearded, thick westerners who’ve never taken a page from anyone and won’t so long as they can help it. These, we find in the roadhouse—a place with shit service, bloody Marys with pickled green beans, an aloof guitarist setting up in a corner, a juke box too loud. We watch dirty children run in and out of the co-op across the street and earn mildly hostile looks from the wait staff, who otherwise ignore us. There’s a pile of a man who rolls a cigarette at the bar, covers his drink with a coaster, and saunters out to smoke—over and over again, as if he forgets what he’s returning from but remembers that he needs to leave. I could stay here all my life.
Yesterday we drove the road through Rocky Mountain National Park, twenty miles from the cabin, planning on making the loop back in time for lunch. On the road, the highest contiguous highway in America, we shuffled up, higher and higher, behind minivans and retirees on too-big motorcycles, having to stop dead sometimes at a seventy degree angle. The drive was frustrating, and then exhilarating when you got a glimpse off the slope—grassy rolls and peaks and snow and Columbines, stretching back to Kansas. Then it was frustrating again. Spiral staircase of a road and people everywhere, like clouds of gnats. I was disturbed to find myself being annoyed at the crowd, which I was a part of, annoyed by our American ability to strike out, alone, seemingly independent of each other, only to find that the plan was copied and sent to all the neighbors. Collective unconscious? Genetic predisposition? I have no idea. We stopped at around 11,000 feet for snow and bought hot dogs and Cokes at a novelty canteen as the elk and sheep and marmots pranced around for us. Then, satisfied, we crawled back down the other side, through that collective smell of our brakes like a chemical fog.
On the map, I found a route to loop back to the cabin from the south side of the park, which would have put us through Nederland on that day, and we would have certainly stopped if that was the case. But that wasn’t the case. The road was closed for rockslide, and we ended up having to drive back down all the way to Golden to loop around. Golden. No one wants to go to Golden anymore. As the miles and hours added up, I’m getting ready to lose it, really fucking detonate in front of Sarah’s sister and her husband, whose weekend in Colorado was turning into a driving tour of the entire Front Range with this idiot behind the wheel, wishing he hadn’t quit smoking or ever learned to drive. You want me to drive? Sarah’s brother-in-law kept asking, knowing I was about to plunge us off of a cliff. You sure? Winter Park, Idaho Springs, Blackhawk—the towns rattled past like monuments to irretrievable time. What we could have done with those hours. But we drove still, hit traffic, highway after highway, through and across and around those stupid suburbs west of Denver. At one point we stopped for drinks at a cantina overlooking a purple kettle of a lake, caught a bit of a head, smoothed out the feathers, and went back at it for another four hours. We might have stopped eight times for directions. Out of charity and probably boredom, Sarah’s brother-in-law drove the last leg up through the canyon as the air got thinner again. I was drunk, and I think I fell asleep. Home, finally, the Chevy on its last legs. It took us ten hours.
Now we’re in Nederland, and I’ve got no plans to leave. It’s luck this place still exists. Stubbornness maybe, certainly not nostalgia. Caribou, the next town over, is totally deserted—tumbleweeds and all, a few stone ruins—while down the valley Boulder’s about to cave into the continental shelf under the weight of all those people. By virtue of where I’m from—Upstate New York—I will never be able to stomach Boulder. I’ll always love the dying towns: grayness of the has-been, ruins of industry; paradox of a haunting, long-dead past still somehow promising a type of future. Here, it was mining they lost. Upstate, it was everything. Maybe that’s why people are still hanging on there.
Could they do it forever? I certainly didn’t. I’m gone. And I can see any of those Upstate cities gone too, dying completely off—industry spent, the gold rush decades over and whoever’s left wandering through the rubble like tornado victims. That’ll be me, maybe, in old age, if I ever go back east. The government will condemn wherever I return to, let the old buildings rot, and years later families will make the drive from Toronto or Westchester with packed lunches to see a quaint slice of deceased America. They’ll stir around the ruins of Upstate New York, buy Cokes from the Welcome Center, and poke their heads into all those empty window frames. I’ll be there to scare the shit out of them.
I think it’s loss that gives you the blood of a place. And there is a certain way of looking at that that we’re always after. People hanging on. That’s what they’re doing here in Nederland. The brown peaks rise above this town like a sleeping army. The road to here stays empty.