John Denver was right. Though I think he was referring to his euphoria rather than the altitude. But at 7000-plus feet, Pagosa Springs, Colorado drove his point home. It really is harder to breathe.
Sitting in the Albuquerque airport (they call it a “Sunport” — heh), I am struck again by how big the West is. Virginia is beautiful, but with small rolling hills and mini-ranches. In many ways, northern New Mexico and southwest Colorado are even bigger than my erstwhile home state of Montana. Montana has lovely broad valleys meeting dramatically large mountains, but it feels so much tamer. Missoula’s altitude is 3000 feet, and the Treasure State has few peaks over 10,000 feet. Heck, you’ll regularly hit 8000 feet in Colorado, and the mountain passes climb above 10,000. And instead of the glacially carved valleys, life feels all the more precarious in Colorado’s narrow valleys. These folks see well over 100 inches of snow in the winter — next to that, western Montana seems downright tropical.
Still, there is an excess of civilization. In tiny Creede (over Wolf Creek Pass to the north, along the Rio Grande River, at 8500 feet), a professional repertory theatre has a vibrant summer schedule. We caught Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (try the pie!), an ambitious undertaking for such a tiny venue. They pulled it off with style. And a nice touch: the actors meet the audience along the street as they pour out of the theatre.
And as cliche as it may seem, the people are just nicer. Not nicer than Montana. But certainly nicer than the D.C. area. You have to make an effort not to strike up a conversation in the shops or with others on the street. The only confrontation comes when locals talk about how Texans or Californians are buying up all the land and overrunning the place. But when your nearest neighbor is a quarter mile away, and the traffic jam is due to road construction, the locals will need to get much meaner to drive away the summer visitors.