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Mulhall column: The root of all pavement

Mitch Mulhall

One spring morning in 1970, my father woke me up at 3 a.m. and told me to get dressed.

Without breakfast or dad’s coffee, we got in his ’68 Land Cruiser and drove north on Grand under streetlights and flashing yellow signals. We joined two other vehicles at the Hotel Colorado and drove east into Glenwood Canyon.

Somewhere in the middle of the canyon, our entourage came to a halt. There, Glenwood Post photographer Jim Coleman set up a long-lensed camera on a tripod and aimed it at a section of the canyon’s north rim.



As stars faded, Jim began taking photos, one every few minutes. Soon, a sliver of sunlight appeared on the canyon’s north rim and slowly crept down the rock wall. Jim kept shooting for more than an hour until the whole canyon wall was bathed in sunshine.

Then Jim packed up his camera, and we left.

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Jim laced the photos he took that day into a time-lapse of a canyon sunrise, and this became an opening sequence of a film produced in 1971 supporting Glenwood Canyon as the route for Interstate 70.

Colorado would finish I-70. The main question was “where?”

By the film’s release, debate over I-70’s route had gone on for nearly a decade, and there were three choices: the canyon, Cottonwood Pass or the Flat Tops.

At the risk of oversimplifying, nobody liked the Flat Tops route. This left the canyon and Cottonwood Pass.

The Cottonwood alternative put I-70 through Glenwood Springs, probably straight down Grand, and only people who didn’t live here were OK with that.

If you called Glenwood home, this left the canyon, and the only problem with that was how to get CDOT to build without using the cut-and-fill construction visible even now between the Vapor Caves and Noname tunnels.

Floyd Diemoz and other adults I knew circulated a slide show of bridges in the European Alps and talked about how such elevated features would be a much better way to build an interstate through Glenwood Canyon.

Despite this, people opposed to the canyon route wound up being labeled “environmentalists.”

These environmentalists included John Denver and other locals who had formed “Citizens for Glenwood Canyon Scenic Corridor,” and in about 1975, they staged a media event to convince the public that the canyon was just too narrow.

The idea was for Denver to throw a rock across the Colorado River while TV news cameras captured the feat.

But it backfired.

The ‘70s troubadour could sing and play guitar, but his attempts to throw a rock across the river at Shoshone — the canyon’s narrowest point — splashed down short.

Maybe I spent more than a teenager’s fair share of time contemplating why canyon opponents were the environmentalists and what that said about the rest of us.

For one thing, bestowing the term and its favored connotations implied we didn’t sufficiently value nature. For another, it suggested Cottonwood Pass was bereft of the magnificence God gave the canyon, and that this somehow made it worthy of sacrifice.

The truth was that you couldn’t build a highway through these mountains without changing the natural landscape.

Advocating an interstate built on bridges was doing something to save the canyon from cut-and-fill, and if this didn’t define “environmentalism,” opponents could have the word.

Today, the interstate through Glenwood Canyon is almost 30 years old, and this summer’s closures due to burn scar debris flows have led me to some observations.

First, a lot of people now think Glenwood Canyon was not the best route for I-70 for none of the reasons people opposed it in the 1960s and 70s. The interstate compliments the canyon’s natural beauty and exceeded aesthetic expectations.

Second, traffic is a lot like water. If nature blocks the canyon and CDOT offers a three-hour detour, people will seek every perceptibly faster route, no matter how impassable.

Third, inconvenience is the root of all pavement. We can’t build a school for autistic people because increased traffic would change Missouri Heights’ rural character, but we should pave Cottonwood Pass.

Finally, if you live here long enough, you come to realize you’re just a guest. Nature is indifferent to our presence and reminds us from time to time who’s really in charge.

Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com.


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