What Once Was May Never Be Again


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


At some point in our lives we have an epiphany: that the dreams and memories we held dear in our youth might just disappear. 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.”

He could have been nicer to me by just punching me in the face.

I don’t normally get emotional over a road. There are exceptions of course: the Shafer Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Going to the Sun Road in Glacier, Black Bear Road near Telluride. And in my eyes, Cottonwood Pass 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.

My family spent two weeks nearly every summer, from when I was a baby until I graduated from high school, on our annual family vacation near Gunnison and Crested Butte, Colorado. 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. For a kid growing up on the Great Plains, these two weeks every year brought high adventure and a sense of kinship with the mountains that manifested in my move to Colorado as an adult. On each vacation, we wore out the dusty dirt road over Cottonwood Pass.

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 viewStage stop meadows, near the bottom of the west side, is a serene mountain park full of wildflowers and silence. In the late 19th century, stagecoaches would change teams and 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. That will be more difficult with a paved highway next to it.

My vivid childhood imagination found every passing car as a chance to visualize stagecoaches and their four horse teams sending plumes of dust behind them on their race to the gold rush towns of Aspen and Tincup. The dirt road allowed me to experience the romance of the Old West.

As a young kid, my dad would describe the road’s rugged washboard in language that would embarrass my mom and make me howl with laughter. He would assure you that somewhere along that road right now, 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.

In later years, especially after I moved to Colorado, that lack of concrete and asphalt was what still endeared Cottonwood to me. 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 that many of us are trying to escape.

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 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 unsuspecting folks to that proverbial point B.

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’s a reminder to cherish what we have now—while we can.

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