I lived in Colorado for a couple of years in the late 80s, and in a fit of insanity, moved back to Los Angeles because I missed friends and family desperately. What made this decision particularly questionable is the fact that the Rocky Mountains are the very definition of stunning beauty. My ex and I lived in a cute little house perched up at 8500' in the foothills west of Boulder, arguably one of the greatest cities on the planet (well, it is if you love hippies, anyway). I hadn't been back since, and while I expected that the Denver metro area had grown considerably since then, I had no real idea until we climbed into the rental and drove out of the airport parking lot.
Oh. My. God. If you can imagine Denver as the center of a circle, and a single mile-deep "layer" of suburbs surrounding it, you'd have a good picture of what was in my memory circa 1989. Once you got just a little ways outside of the city center, there wasn't a whole lot there. Lots of empty space peppered with farms and ranches of no especially discernable activity. Heading west, there wasn't much of anything between Denver and Boulder either. Mountains to the west, and miles & miles of prairie to the east. I remember making a point of taking along a good CD for the drive out to Boulder, since without it, the ride was rather nap inducing.
Not anymore. The 30 some-odd miles between the foothills and the airport is a solid mass of homes and businesses. Malls, office parks, houses, condos, small retailers, large manufacturing plants, freeways, and a metro line mid-installation. Everywhere we looked there was something new being built. I saw more cranes in 4 days than I have in 4 years.
And since everything is so new, everything is also very clean, very tidy, and frankly, pretty nice as suburbs go. And the city planners have apparently put some actual thought (!) into little details. The concrete walls wrapping the freeways are embossed with designs (birds, foliage, etc). Hell, even some of the overpasses were artfully designed (yes, *overpasses*). The architecture is pleasing to the eye, with color schemes that actually compliment the surrounding topography. And there are many "open space" areas, designated as such, so while it's undeniably developed, there's been a concerted effort not to cram every square mile with concrete and pavement. Denver to Boulder is no longer separated by empty fields. In fact, there's barely a mile left open between the two cities. Broomfield used to be little more than a wide spot in the road between the two towns, but now it's absolutely bursting with business parks, malls and housing tracts.
It's as if I'd never been there at all. Hell, if it weren't for the mountains, I may not have believed I was in Denver. Don't get me wrong, though -- despite the massive growth, it's still a nice place. The people we encountered were still the same relaxed, friendly folk that were always there, and I was happy to see that the area hadn't taken on the kind of creeping hostility that is typically found in crowded areas.
We drove up to the old house in the foothills on Friday, and I was pleased to see that the growth hadn't made it up there yet. Our road was unpaved then, and it remains so today. Up there, above the smog layer (a tragic function of the meeting of industry and mountains) the air is crisp and clear, the breezes sweet and invigorating. One of the things I miss most living in PA are the evergreens, and they're one of my very favorite part of the Rockies. They carpet the mountains where ever there is soil, and the stunning combination of trees and huge rocky outcroppings is more beautiful than I have the ability to describe. I swear, it's like heaven.
I like to think that someday we'll be in a position to buy a little summer home nestled deep in those foothills, far down a winding road, deep in the thicket. Part of my heart will always be there, no matter where we live. It was hard not to wonder what my life would have turned out like had I not chosen to leave, but when all roads lead to my spectacular husband and miraculous son, it's a train of thought easily dismissed. Still, standing in the shadows of those mountains and breathing that clean, cool breeze, it was hard not to wish for a parallel life or a winning lottery ticket.