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Our usual destination was the state of Colorado, where the Sohns, my grandmother’s sister and brother-in-law and their family, once lived in the San Luis Valley in the shadow of the mighty Sangre de Cristo Range. Every summer when she was a girl, my mother visited the relatives, taking a train from Indiana to Colorado, changing to the narrow-gauge railroad when she arrived in the Centennial State. Aunt Mary and Uncle Herman were long gone from the valley by the time I was a kid, having moved from their potato farm homestead to the nearby town of Monte Vista, but the scenery remained as unspoiled and spectacular as ever, and the air, well, the air was as crisp and clean as newly washed and starched sheets.
Over the years, we visited every corner of the state, and I can confirm that if it is true, as they say, that San Francisco is the city where every vista pleases, then Colorado is the state where every vista (see above). When we were young, my twin sister, Marcia, and I vowed we’d live in Colorado when we grew up. Alas, that never happened, but I still have my memories and, yes, a shelf of books about Colorado that I acquired over the years. Arguably my favorite among them is Colorado: A Guide to the Highest State, a volume in the historic American Guide series, “compiled,” according to the title page, “by Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Works Projects Administration in the State of Colorado.”
Thanks to the WPA and the 6,000 writers it employed during the New Deal years, there were similar guides to every state in the union. The Colorado volume was published in 1941, the year I was born. I’m sorry that I don’t have a first edition, but I do have a copy of the second printing from 1943. Like other volumes in the series, it contains essays about a variety of topics such as the state’s arts, economic base, cities, land, etc., along with portfolios of black-and-white photographs. My favorite part, however, is labeled “Up and Down and All Around” and consists of automobile tours, 42 in all that direct travelers to the state’s every nook and cranny, ranging from Colorado Springs to Glenwood Springs, from Denver to Cripple Creek, from Kremmling to Creede (where “it’s day all day in the daytime, and there is no night in Creede”) and myriad points in between. I loved—heck, I still love—the details contained in the tours. Did you know, for example, that “Creede is the seat of Mineral County, the shadow of a once populous mining camp which, springing up overnight, sat perched on stilts and high foundations above the brawling waters of the Rio Grande”? Mister, they don’t write guidebooks like that any longer.
Another book that I value is Robert M. Ormes’ Guide to the Colorado Mountains, a less venerable but still fascinating volume first published in 1952. My copy is the seventh edition, published in 1979. Designed especially for mountain climbers, this one is illustrated with black-and-white photos and maps that are an invitation to imagination. Since I was the navigator on these trips, I was allowed to sit on the front seat next to Uncle Bud, my mother’s younger brother, who was driving. Uncle Bud was famous in our family for his remarkable resemblance to the actor Tyrone Power. Sitting next to me was Grandpa Steele, my mother’s father, who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a train dispatcher. In the backseat were Grandma, a famous backseat driver (“Oh, Bud, be careful!”), Mother, and Marcia. Some years grandma’s identical twin sister, Aunt Clara, came along, in which case Marcia, when we were very young, sat on a small stool situated between the back of the front seat and the front of the backseat, which meant that half the time she was leaning over the front seat breathing in my ear—but I digress.
When last seen, I was navigating, using the WPA volume to guide us to scenic overlooks where we stopped to ooh and ahh at the majestic mountains the guide described. One of my favorite views was from the mining town of Leadville of the two highest peaks in the Colorado Rockies, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, both topping 14,000 feet. In fact, there are 54 peaks in Colorado that are 14,000 footers, each one seemingly more beautiful than the next. When I was a kid, I could name all of them from memory. Those were the days. Anyway, Leadville, at 10,152 above sea level, is famous as being the highest incorporated city in the U.S., which means the weather is, well, interesting. In winter, it is said, the ground freezes so deep that grave diggers have to employ dynamite! It has been known to snow on the Fourth of July, and the WPA guide claims that the weather is “ten months of winter and two months of mighty late fall.” Then there is the story of the man who said he missed summer that year: he was in Denver over the weekend (pause here for laughter).
I have other books about my favorite state, many of them coffee-table titles adorned with drop-dead-gorgeous color pictures of the mountains, valleys, and vales. But the most beautiful views of all are those that survive in my memory, vivid snapshots from those summers when my family hopped in the car and went west. Colorado, here we came!
Michael Cart is the author of Cart’s Top 200 Adult Books for Young Adults: Two Decades in Review (ALA Editions, 2012).
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