Will Call: Up, down and all around
Apparently, for most people, “up” and “down” has more to do with latitude than elevation.
I might have lived my whole life unaware of this, were I not working in a newsroom full of former flatlanders. The first time one of them talked about going “down” to Aspen, I mistook it for a simple verbal gaff. Then it happened again. And again.
Don’t get me wrong, I realize that the top of a map mounted on a wall is usually north. I’ll even talk about going “up” the coast or “down” to Mexico. It’s a reasonable euphemism on a global scale or when elevation remains more or less constant. I never dreamed, though, that it would trump the literal height above sea level, but apparently for some people it does.
Indeed, a certain weekly editor who I won’t name had some real trouble understanding what defined “upvalley” and “downvalley”. I don’t mean where you draw the lines — I’ll get to that later. No, simply that a bus heading south was going up seemed contradictory to him. I eventually advised him to simply note which way the nearest river was flowing the next time he was in doubt.
By this time, several bystanders had piped in and informed me that I was, in fact, the odd one out here. If you were in Hong Kong, Mount Everest would be “down,” the sports editor assures me. Our veteran reporter said he’d had trouble adjusting to the colloquialism when he first arrived. Colloquialism, my foot! Folks elsewhere can do as they like, but I say our way is a literalism. We’re dealing with actual up and down here, even if it’s only a couple thousand feet vertically compared to miles horizontally.
Moreover, there are some very real implications to elevation. You see environmental changes much more quickly going uphill than you do going North, and our economy is fueled by snow. Everything runs down hill, from water to waste.
In our neck of the woods, there are also cultural implications. The wages are in Aspen, the housing is in Rifle. It’s easy to find yourself believing that anyone upstream from you is a silver-spooned elitist and anyone downstream is an ignorant bumpkin.
That brings us to the aforementioned issue of “upvalley” and “downvalley” as specific locations instead of relative terms. Usage varies wildly, but I generally view “upvalley” as Pitkin County, “downvalley” as Garfield County and “midvalley” for that awkward corner of Eagle County in between.
Folks up the Fryingpan and Crystal are usually ignored in these definitions, and even Missouri Heights can be a bit tricky.
Most controversial, though, is the status of Parachute, Rifle, Silt and New Castle. If “valley” means “Roaring Fork Valley,” they wouldn’t be included at all. Although they’re both part of the larger Upper Colorado River Basin, we don’t include Eagle or Granby in our definition, must less Grand Junction or Durango.
If I was sticking with literalism, I’d leave it there, but there are real political, economic and social ties that bind these communities. The paper tries to avoid using “valley” generically to describe the whole area precisely because it’s so poorly defined, but there’s not a great alternative. “The Glenwood Springs Micropolitan Statistical Area” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and don’t even get me started on the term “The Aspen Valley.”
Whitman gave us permission to contradict ourselves, so I’m going to advocate for using “up” and “down” literally and “valley” in a broader sense, which most locals are already doing anyway.
Our language is multifaceted and ever changing, and I respect that not everyone communicates the same way. That’s worth remembering, though, to ensure your meaning comes across intact and without aggravating the listener. For instance, if it’s me you’re talking to, try not to reference a location while pointing carelessly in the completely wrong direction.
Meanwhile, I’m working on not ending sentences with a preposition except when that’s what my whole column is about.
Will Grandbois also thinks it makes more sense for city limit signs to show something static like elevation instead of dynamic like population. He can be reached at 384-9105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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