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rocky mountains

Pearl Street, Boulder, CO

The beauty of Colorado’s Front Range continues to overwhelm me. I do not think it is a mere temporary giddiness as the Birzer family adjusts to its new home. Everything feels not only comfortable culturally for this writer raised in neighboring Kansas, but every varied environment as the Great Plains collide with the Rocky Mountains is also so intensely beautiful and dramatic. The big skies, the mountain peaks colored with blues, purples, greys, and greens, the high meadows filled with wild flowers of every color and shape, the swaying mixed and tall grasses, the seemingly endless vistas and blueness of the sky. Add in the near absence of humidity and the air that always smells of fresh pine, blowing in from the Rockies, and you pretty much have my idea of heaven. Throw in an oak-paneled library and let the apotheosis begin.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Longmont experienced a revival economically and culturally with the successful adoption of a New Urbanist plan in the 1990s. What I did not realize when I accepted the CU position in early May was how serious, broad, and deep the technology corridor is in Boulder County. The area might very well be best known for its wacky love of eccentricity and outdoor living, but it should also be equally known for its tenacious entrepreneurship and relentless innovations. Such emerging and mainstays of the computer industry as Seagate, Western Digital, IBM, and others have made a home in Boulder County. Every where one turns in the more populated parts of the county, one sees tech buildings and campuses happily interspersed among ranches, green spaces, and farms. Though I was too young to have experienced the anarchical days of Silicon Valley in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I would guess that Boulder County is experiencing a comparable moment of creative destruction. Bikes whiz by, morning and early evening, carrying chip engineers (as they call themselves) to and from work.

In no small degree, the area’s companies very much want CU-Boulder to provide them with the managers, entrepreneurs, engineers, and financiers so needed by the growing demand. It is impossible to walk anywhere in Longmont without seeing “help wanted” signs in the restaurants (local and chain) and in the local businesses and countless retail chains. While much of the American east lingers in economic sluggishness, the Great Plains and Rockies continue to boom, the supply of human capital falling short of the demand. The Great Plains are providing the commodities—food, coal, and oil—so vital to economic health, while Boulder County (and others) are providing the technical knowhow and re-innovations to maintain the tech boom so ably begun in the 1970s.

When most Americans think of Boulder, the city, they think of hippies, leftists, granolas, pot smokers, wealthy liberals, and everything else radical (or once was) in American culture. Some might remember the Benet murder, and others might think of Stephen King’s The Stand. But, these things are only part of the story. With the exception of not allowing a Walmart, Boulder looks much like other prosperous areas (at least prior to 2008) in the United States. Home Depots, Whole Foods, Subways, and other familiar chains can be found everywhere in the city. There are some truly “Boulderish” things. Pearl Street, for example, is a perfect microcosm of every stereotype. Street performers and homeless mix readily with the uberwealthy, and coffee shops and bars outnumber all other outlets (or so it seems) and the ever so slight hint of marijuana smoke lingers in the air.

Woodbury Hall

Woodbury Hall

One would lack a soul, however, to think the architecture and layout of the University of Colorado unattractive. Dotted with large and small quads, Oxford-style college residence halls, bicycle repair and rest stations, and a myriad of views of the Flat Irons of the Front Range, the campus is pretty much ideal. My own office, located in Woodbury Hall (completed in 1890), offers a splendid view of the Flat Irons, and I am attached to Sewall, designed by the celebrated architect, Charles Klauder, and completed in 1933.

Rightly regarded as a marvel, Klauder implemented a varied uniform style of Tuscan English Gothic (yes, Tuscan and English!) throughout the campus. Even the buildings of the 1970s—though still employing way too much concrete—conform, at least in part, to the overall style. Distinctively, every building employs the same color of pink sandstone, highlighted by white limestone. Consequently, the deep reds of the buildings contrast wonderfully with the purples and greens of the Flat Irons. The ubiquitous but distinctive western lighting does not hurt, either.

Truly, it would be difficult to find and develop a space more geared to thought, leisure, and contemplation.

As a sidenote, I must also write that I doubt if  I have ever seen a healthier population, at least in appearance. When it comes to eating (even the grocery stores display all healthy things near the front of the stores; one has to dig to find the candy and donuts) and exercise, the citizens of Boulder County generally rank as the fittest in the union. Walking paths and bike trails abound, as do green spaces. Kids play freely in open areas, and couples walking dogs definitely outnumber those without. Almost nowhere does one see overweight people, and I have yet to see obesity. Though given all of these positives, I also would not be surprised to find skin cancer rates are high here. I am only speculating on this last point.

Finally, I must make a longish comment about the character of the people. Again, think of the stereotypical image of the pot-smoking hippie of Boulder. This has certainly NOT been my experience, though I have passed a number of marijuana outlets. When it comes to such things, I am pretty much in line with the late Bill Buckley, and I am not intending to address such an issue here.

How do the people here appear: fit, confident, innovative, and rugged. Public spaces are immaculately clean as litter is practically non-existent. This speaks volumes about a culture and a people. They carry themselves and keep their communities with dignity. A profound dignity. Homes, even poor ones, are kept in good repair. Rarely does one see unkempt yards or homes. Folks do not litter their yards with trash, either.

Vitally important for me, however, is that they possess one character trait that Kansans also possess (and Texans, Idahoans, Nebraskans, Dakotans, Wyomingites, and Montanas): they are genuinely and intensely friendly. You simply do not walk out of your house or into any store or restaurant without engaging someone in conversation. Though it might appear to an outsider as small talk, it is far from it. Conversation here in Boulder County, though unconsciously and without explicit intent, clearly serve two purposes. First, they establish rapport and mutual respect, what might once have been properly called a republican equality. Second, they provide place, that is, letting each member of the conversation know exactly how the other is positioned within society. Who are your people? How trustworthy are you? What have you contributed to the community? Do you plan on being with us long? Why or why not?  Once these two things—each an element of trust—have been established, each member of the conversation then behaves professionally but not formally.

I must stress this: when the grocery clerk in Longmont or Boulder says “have a good one” or “be safe,” she or he means it.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Throughout the year, I will be reporting on my doings and various happenings at CU. For my regular posts at The Imaginative Conservative (my primary blog and home, of course), I will end the naming of these things “Week Three,” etc. I am, however, maintaining a very active blog—thoughts, diary-like entries, links, quotes, etc.—at If you’re interested in more immediate reactions to things—at least as this rather goofy writer and thinker sees them—please hop over there and sign up for updates. I would never want to direct traffic from The Imaginative Conservative, but if you have the same, I would greatly appreciate your support while blogging in Boulder. The email registration is on the right side of the screen.

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1 reply to this post
  1. This area is like this because it is almost exclusively white upper class. Come down toward Denver and you’ll see poverty, obesity, litter, and every other malady that exists outside of the fantasy land of boutique college towns. Wonderful enclaves are always possible when there’s no shortage of money. And when the era of cheap oil ends, high-tech business towns will go with it.

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