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Dec 2001 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Back from the Front Range
By Deborah Cottin

After three action-packed years of hiking, camping, and snowshoeing in Colorado, I returned to St. Louis with my husband to raise our first child. It was a tough departure, but in the end a supportive, extended family in our hometown of St. Louis outweighed the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the outdoor lifestyle the peaks inspire.

St. Louis constantly reminds me of the benefits of coming home. The comfort and joy of home-cooked meals with parents, frequent visiting with friends and family I've known and trusted for practically my entire lifetime — these were things I could never have in Colorado. Also on the downside, there was neither a free zoo nor a sufficient number of quality chicken-wing dining options in Bronco country. Only in St. Louis can I enjoy these things. Still, in the six months that I've been back in the Midwest, my mind often wanders to what I left, a long day's drive away, still beckoning on the other side of the dreary Kansas landscape...

The sun shines along the Front Range almost every day, no endless weeks of grayness or bitter cold. Sure, there's lots of snow, but it's generally the fluffy variety that doesn't turn to ice on your windshield like the usual St. Louis brand. With the sun shining on their upturned faces, Denver residents can consume good, cheap Mexican food in abundance, and not just in one Hispanic neighborhood, but throughout the metro area. Nothing in St. Louis beats a Benny's combo platter at a cool $5.99. The nearby college town of Boulder sports so many restaurants, in such a dense area, that diners can eat food from around the globe all within walking distance of the Pearl Street Mall.

Weather and Mexican food aside, the real appeal of Colorado is the beautiful mountains and the active outdoor life they nurture. Less than a half-hour drive from my first Colorado apartment in Littleton (a town that is now considered a suburb of southwest Denver) sat enough miles of trails, river, and scenery to keep me busy for months. Nestled in the foothills of the Rockies sat two huge state parks, a huge county park, a nature preserve, a reservoir, and the beginning of the Colorado Trail that stretches all the way to Durango. I listened to total silence while I stood on high peaks looking across the vast sweep of the eastern prairies, before turning to take in the smoggy skyline of Denver, and then finally the ragged mountain ranges stretching out behind me. The sense of grandeur is incomparable, and being immersed in such beauty regularly was exhilarating whether I was on a bike or skis, in hiking boots or snowshoes.

An active outdoor lifestyle — and the "look" and recreational gear that goes with that — are what makes front range living so distinct from life in Midwestern towns. Even those who go up in to the mountains just once a month instead of every weekend look as if they're more frequent visitors. Everybody wants to feel a part of the scene, even if their main workout each day is hiking from the living room couch to the fridge. All of the fit, healthy-looking residents are easy on the eyes, sporting their spandex, Lycra, fleece, capilene, etc. clothing. Who can tell if the firm physique is a byproduct of arduous cross-country skiing or the Nordic Trak at the local Bally's? No one. The active wear isn't just worn when hiking, biking, kayaking, or climbing. Oh, no: it's worn to the mall, the cinemas, the restaurants, and the coffee houses. It gives formal venues an informal appeal, sort of like everyone around you is thinking, "This is just the place I happen to be until the next time I'm in the mountains."

Even the weekly workaday routine is different in Colorado. On the surface, those weekdays that include working 40-plus hours are pretty much the same in any city. Commute, work, commute, get dinner together, and maybe rest for an hour or two before it's time for bed. However, those times traced in Seinfeld episodes are actually quite different.

For example, there's the time in the break room, or outside the office having a smoke. The small talk is different. The question is not, "How was your weekend?" but "Did you get away this weekend?" Destinations are evaluated largely by what recreational crowd was dominant there. For instance, "At Deer Creek you have to dodge mountain bikers to get to the hikers-only portion of the trail." Or you might hear, "El Dorado Canyon is for hiking, but even better if you are into technical climbing." Or maybe, "Aspen is great if you're part of the trust fund set, otherwise go in the off-season and tent camp."

Then there's the time spent commuting. Anytime the neck muscles start to tighten up with the frustration of rush hour, one can look west and see peaks. If they are out of view, drivers can look forward to the next bend in the eight lanes of concrete where another magnificent vista stands waiting to be admired. The closest thing to compare this sense of awe to in St. Louis are those moments when you are way out in the county and hit a stretch of road where all of the sudden you can see the Arch. Hmmm. Not quite the same.

For cities whose popularity is so tied to their outdoor recreational appeal, Denver and Boulder have amazing arts scenes. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is like rolling the Rep, the Fox, Powell Symphony Hall, and the Edison Theatre into one and then some. Denver actually has a resident ballet company that offers a full season each year, plus a handful of modern dance companies who perform regularly to substantial and faithful followings. Will St. Louis ever have this?

Yes, the allure of Front Range living will always pull at me. However, I am devoted to St. Louis now, where autumn is a season to behold and beer drinking is serious business.

When the call of the mountains gets to be too much, I'll go for a vacation. In the meantime, I'll remind myself that the smog is lame, the traffic is lame, and the suburban sprawl is of nightmare proportions. The daily viewing of all the fit, beautiful people wandering about in their active wear can be as annoying as it is easy on the eyes. The weekend warrior mentality — the average Denver citizen's motivation to get somewhere pristine within an hour or less of drive time — can sometimes seem compulsive, dare I say, obsessive. And sure the mountains look great, but driving in them can be a bitch, especially coming down on a Sunday evening during ski season. Yuck.

Still...who am I kidding? If I could move all of my loved ones to Colorado, I'd move back in a heartbeat. But my heart is here, so here is where I will stay. Plus the rivers run too fast there. If I wanted an adrenaline rush while paddling, I wouldn't tote a 12-pack.

Deborah Cottin is a freelance arts and entertainment writer currently contracted with Libraries Unlimited, Inc. to write a selective biographical encyclopedia on dancers.

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