They Paved Over Memory Lane


“People and things change with time, but memories remain the same.” – Unknown

At some point in our lives we have an epiphany: what we held dear in our youth, the things we assumed would last forever, can easily become only a brief moment in history.

My brother delivered unexpected news to me this summer. “Have you tried taking Cottonwood Pass this year?” he asked.

“No. What’s up?” I asked.

“It’s closed for the next two years. They’re paving the west side.”

His words were a verbal punch in the face.

I don’t normally get emotional over a road. There are just a few exceptions of course: the Shafer Trail in Canyonlands, Going to the Sun Road in Glacier, and Black Bear Road near Telluride. Cottonwood Pass also ranks among those legends of vehicular travel—partly because it makes easily accessible some of Colorado’s most breathtaking scenery, but mostly due to a life’s worth of nostalgia.

I spent two weeks every year of my childhood in Colorado. From when I was a baby until I graduated from high school, my family vacationed near Gunnison and Crested Butte. We parked our trailer at a campground in Taylor Canyon, at the foot of Cottonwood Pass, and used it as a basecamp for day trips throughout southern and central Colorado. And every year we wore out the dusty dirt road over Cottonwood Pass. For a kid growing up on the Great Plains, these vacations brought high adventure and a sense of kinship with the mountains that manifested in my move to Colorado as an adult.

Though the east side was paved for most of my childhood, the wild, untamed, gravel west side was a driving adventure to which I always looked forward.

Cottonwood's inspiring summit viewNear the bottom of the west side is a serene mountain park full of wildflowers and silence known as Stage Stop Meadows. In the late 19th century, stagecoaches would change teams while travelers would get a break from the rough and dusty pioneer road. Over a hundred years later, one could still get a sense of what this place was like for our ancestors. But with a paved highway next to it, getting lost in time will be more difficult.

My vivid childhood imagination visualized every passing car a stagecoach and its four horse team kicking up plumes of dust on its race to the gold rush towns of Aspen and Tincup. The dirt road allowed me to experience the romance of the Old West.

My dad would curse the road’s rugged washboard in language that would embarrass my mom and make me howl with laughter. Today, he would assure you that somewhere along that road, slowly rusting in the chilly alpine air, are pieces of the family Jeep’s suspension. But along it also lay those fond childhood memories, and no longer will the road’s new smooth surface help me relive them.

I’m not sure what I lost on Cottonwood, but since I moved to Colorado I’ve been back frequently looking for it. Each time, the experience transports me thirty years in the past. I can smell dad’s fresh brewed coffee he would drink from the thermos while he drove. I feel the crisp cool air chilling the skin of a young boy used to the hot dusty plains.  And I hear the hum of the Jeep’s engine, lulling me to sleep after a day of adventure in the mountains.

I write this at this risk of sounding like a grumpy old gray hair lamenting 5-cent Cokes and an era when not virtually everything had a damn computer built into it. I haven’t yet reached the point of screaming at the neighbor kids to get off my lawn. I’m not grumpy, and I’m not against progress. But my values do straddle a fine line between preserving the past and ensuring a better future. I know a paved Cottonwood Pass will save nearly 30 minutes of travel time between the Gunnison Country and Denver. I’m also aware that asphalt and guardrails and wider lanes will be safer. Still, it’s a shame a place that once seized so much character and charm is at risk of becoming just a streak of asphalt charged with transporting oblivious folks to that proverbial point B.

Dirt roads can provide us a sense of peace and calm, a sanctuary from the stressors of modern life. Dirt roads lead us to adventure, to lands untamed and unexplored. Pavement inevitably leads us back to the civilization many of us are trying to escape.

Much of what made Cottonwood special to me will soon be lost to the steady march of progress. It will never be the same place, the same experience as what exists now only in my memory.

It makes me wonder what I’m now taking for granted that I will someday cherish.

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