This past week we traveled from our Coastal California home to the Nebraska panhandle for a family reunion (more on that event later). Since we stopped flying in 2007, our trip involved an Uber ride to San Jose, a train ride to Oakland and an overnight stay in a motel, another train ride from Oakland to Emeryville, a long-distance train ride from Emeryville to Denver, Colorado, and a 250 mile drive from Denver to Nebraska. Our return trip was the same in reverse, except the final leg involved a 35 mile ride on a bus and a 40 minute walk from downtown to home.
That was all interesting enough, especially traveling over the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies. It was the culture shock we experienced in Denver that I’m interested in here.
I used to visit Denver frequently, back in the 60s and 70s when I lived in western Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming. We called Denver the nesting ground of the forty story cranes in those days, due the the ubiquitous tall construction cranes looming over the Denver skyline. Dealing with Denver was reasonable in those days, even though after a couple of days I would flee from the city in panic, seeking the solace of higher climes and quieter venues.
That was nothing compared to Denver today.
The Transportation hub of Denver, and the Front Range, has always been Union Station downtown, even before Union Station was built. When I registered for the Draft in 1967, I came by way of Union Station to the Armed Forces Induction Center for testing and a physical. Union Station at that time was, well, a train station, right downtown, a short walk to the YMCA where I stayed for two nights during the induction process (it sounds just as mechanical and inhuman as it felt).
Union Station today bears little resemblance to its 60s appearance.
As if the glitzy, tented dayglo exterior wasn’t enough, the wooden pews, squeaky floors and frosted glass ticket booths inside have been replaced by a frenetic, cacophonous termitarium of fast food boutiques, souvenir emporia, WiFi hotspots, coffee shops and trendy restaurants, with overamplified, popular “music” throughout. What was once a place of relative quiet and contemplation of the railroad experience to come, a meeting place for family and friends newly arrived or about to leave, is now a Go To Place for youthful glitterati, an evening venue, a luncheon assignation, the Place to Be and Be Seen.
Tucked into what once was a ticket booth, off to one side, is the almost unnoticeable registration desk for the Crawford Hotel, which has taken over the top two floors of the Old Union Station, as well as new wings off to either side of the main building. The sleek and modern registration desk is flanked by the worn and polished woodwork of the original ticket office, and is staffed by an assortment of young and eagerly efficient attendants, who never knew Union Station in its original incarnation. The rooms of the Crawford are styled as “Pullman” rooms, in memory of the original Pullman sleeper cars that are no longer a part of modern railroad passenger transportation, carrying on the tradition of naming things for that which is lost. Blessedly, the rooms are well soundproofed, filtering out the noisy human activity echoing from the walls and ceiling of what once what the Union Station Waiting room.
The overweening youth culture of Union Station et al was repeated and amplified as we walked up and down the 16th Street Pedestrian Mall. The May D&F Building (now renamed the Daniel and Fisher Tower) stands alone, forlornly shorn of its accompanying and supportive department store buttresses, dwarfed by the new and under construction glass and steel usurpers. The cell phone impaired walk the cement and asphalt floor of the dim canyons, unseeing and unaware of the snow capped Rockies beyond and the majestic cloud dotted blue skies above. It’s an intensely urban landscape, peopled by intense urbanites who know not what they have lost.
We greeted the arrival of our train, three hours late due to a freight train derailment in Iowa, with much relief and anticipation. It represented escape from the urban excess of a modern American city, a relaxed trip through some of the most beautiful countryside in the world and eventual return to our our wee and sufficient home on the Central Coast.
Our perspective gained from this time spent in the vibrant environs of what passes for civilization these days has underscored our desire to find a place of balance in this increasingly mad and dysfunctional world. The pace of development, gentrification and modernization will only increase until it fails altogether, in its own unwillingness to acknowledge the finite nature of life on this planet, our only home. We can’t stop it or even derail it temporarily. We can only strategically withdraw to a place where growth proceeds at its slowest pace, leaving at least something alive for the rest of the non-human world.