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Mutt & Jeff: Oh, for the good old days

Locations: Columns Published

While driving Highway 82 either in the morning or evening hours and seeing the Denver-like traffic I am astounded by the way our local valleys have changed.

My parents described the drive from Glenwood up valley in the 1930s on a simple gravel/dirt road. Even more primitive was the county road up the Crystal Valley until being paved in 1959-60.

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Nowadays, several times each year the local newspapers invariably have photos of people soaking in the Penny Hot Springs along the Crystal River. Sadly, the springs seem pretty much trashed by overuse and no toilet facilities, and consist of only some temporary rock-rimmed calf-deep pools useable when the river is low.

My memories of the hot springs go back to the dirt road of the 1950s.  As I recall, the grade of the county road was somewhat lower and nearer the river than today’s highway, but the main difference was that in those days one didn’t need to get into the river for a hot soak. Someone, I don’t know who, years before had built two small wooden shacks, probably ten or twelve feet square below the road but above the water.  Each one had a rectangular pit lined with marble which occupied probably half the floor space.  If memory serves me correctly, at least one of the pools even had a submerged marble bench in it. One of the pools was so hot that you could barely get into it, while the second pool was just comfortably hot.

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The great thing about those times was that  the population was so sparse that a family could arrive at the shacks and usually find them vacant. But even if they were occupied it was only a matter of waiting 15 or 20 minutes and your turn would come up. If we went at night we’d take candles or a coal-oil lamp and have just enough light in the shack to see what we were doing.  When the ‘60s and the new highway came along (with the first Hippies and free love) all of that came to an end. The shacks and pools were bull-dozed away. (Ironically, I suppose the Utes would have resented the shacks and the dirt road.)

Sadly, it seems that this type of “progress” is inevitable. Today, we see once isolated and pristine places being overrun by sheer numbers. Hanging Lake is restricted to a limited number of visitors —  I would guess largely from the Front Range as people try to escape from the nightmare it has become.

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Conundrum Hot Springs out of Aspen has been so trashed by human excrement that it also has officially limited accessibility, and the irony of this is that its ruin has been at the hands of people who claim to be environmentalists and nature lovers. I am aware that official U.S. Forest Service  “Wilderness Areas” cannot have non-historical man-made structures within them. Speaking personally, however, if I had to choose between camping in an area with human waste behind every bush, or having a simple “outhouse” for backpackers to use tucked away in an out of sight spot —— I’d much prefer the outhouse. The trouble is, from what I’ve read, Congress has cut the Forest Service budget so much that they couldn’t even afford an outhouse!

All of this reminiscing and complaining is to set the stage for criticizing what I see as a very negative mindset — but one to which I admit not having a viable solution. The negative mindset is one of growth and more growth. But strangely, it seems to be schizophrenic growth. For example, many people seem to be fleeing California or the Front Range to smaller communities.  But as they flee they bring the demand for more amenities with them. I think of the Glenwood Caverns steady expansion, or of Glenwood being touted as the “Funnest Town in the USA.”

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By contrast, I think of the old fisherman mentality that a real fisherman would never reveal his favorite spot to anyone. Oppositely, it is amazing that all of those glossy travel and adventure magazines broadcast to the world about undiscovered, lovely, uncrowded islands, private beaches and solitude  as their  bankrolls grow. As I write this I have in front of me an “environmental” magazine advertising a book for the “Best Backpacking Trips in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado”. Concerning Carbondale, I can’t help but wonder: Does Carbondale really need a fourth bank or a bigger, fancier supermarket? 

Is there such a thing as a successful economic system that doesn’t require growth and more growth? I don’t know of one. We hear of little towns on Colorado’s Eastern Plains that dry up and blow away.  But I guess all of this is just the disgruntled muttering of an old curmudgeon longing for the simpler and less crowded “old days.” What do I know? I can’t even submit this column to The Sopris Sun by email; my poor wife must do it for me. 

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Meredith shares this column with fellow conservative Stan Badgett.