A Two-Lane Life

During a recent road trip along the backroads of eastern Colorado, I encountered a tiny, somewhat-deserted town every twenty to thirty miles. Slowing to pass through them - sometimes turning off the main road to meander the back streets - a sobering thought confronted me:

Are these towns simply being deserted, or are they decaying?

Many buildings look as if they’ve been empty for decades. Boarded-up, often crumbling, they sag against the weight of neglected years. Cars (and a lot of pickups) trundle past without the drivers offering as much as a glance at the rotting reminders of what used to be. Perhaps the remaining residents don’t want to acknowledge these bruised sections of their town; maybe they resent the people who fled for larger, urban areas.

Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe those who stuck around believe - somehow - that a revival will breathe life back into the community. Maybe tearing down the battered remains of the past would just be too painful, an insult to fond memories.

I admit I don’t know much about small towns. My family briefly lived in a town of about 900 people - plus a few thousand on the nearby military base - but, other than that, the majority of my life has been spent in cities. I’m numb to traffic, spoiled with nearby conveniences and a multitude of cultural experiences.

But these days, getaways in the wide-open spaces are becoming more frequent for me. While the majority of people in Denver might spend a three- or four-day weekend in the mountains, I’m increasingly heading north, south, or east, away from the congested highways and $400-a-night condos, driving down two-lane roads where I might not see another car for twenty minutes.

I take pictures of random things: gas pumps at an abandoned fuel station (the pumps still registering 24 cents a gallon), a schoolhouse built in the 1800s, even interesting trees.

On this trip I stopped for lunch in Lamar - one of the larger towns on the eastern plains - and noted the decay. Not as pronounced as what I’d seen earlier that morning, but decay nonetheless. Scattered businesses shuttered and dark. Empty parking lots.

Sitting in a diner, I watched the people around me, sitting at tables in twos and threes, barely talking, chins on hands, often just staring out the window. I was happily anticipating what would happen next on my travels; what were they anticipating? What were they most looking forward to in their day? In their life?

Listen, they may be measurably happier with life than I am. It’s possible they journey to Denver and wonder what the hell we’re thinking? And sometimes I wouldn’t blame them.

But life in Eads or Las Animas didn’t seem slower - it seemed stagnant. The impression is that people are just passing time, one day blending into another. The buildings around them are increasingly growing vacant, and their stares match it.

It wasn’t all depressing. I spent a night in La Junta, my first visit to the birthplace of author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest). Although the population of 6900 is down significantly from just thirty years ago - almost twenty percent, in fact - there were signs of a happy lifestyle. I bought a ticket to their community theater, and joined a full house to enjoy Into The Woods. Not only was the performance fun, the atmosphere in the old theater was lively.

Plus, they offered free cookies and punch at intermission. I never get that at The Buell.

During the drive back to Denver, down highways 71, 94, and 83 (the key to these trips is to stay the hell away from crowded interstates), I wondered about the future of these towns. If the population attrition continues - or accelerates - what will happen to them? Can a town that once sported 1000 people still function with 600? What about 450?

What happens to the derelict buildings? Will they be torn down, the lots repurposed? Will they eventually just tumble to the ground before being trucked away?

Or will the tide someday turn, with people who have grown weary of big-city life reversing the slide and moving back to reclaim a quieter existence? Would these people be able to adjust? For that matter, would they be welcomed by the residents who rode out a town’s hard times?

And what’s behind my own need to make these trips? Sure, I despair at the condition of once-proud towns, but obviously there’s something alluring about them. Back home for 24 hours - in my comfy, suburban nest - I glanced around and couldn’t help but wonder: Do I really need this? Am I better off than the people who sat next to me at a small town’s community theater? It probably took them six minutes to get there, and they got free, homemade peanut butter cookies. Who has the better life?

Hey, I know I’m not the first person to entertain these thoughts. We often romanticize a different life, one that’s a little slower, perhaps more contemplative, and we’re probably more likely to do it once we pass 40 or 50. Personally, the call of these towns is undeniable, if tempered by ramshackle buildings.

Yet aren’t there components of our lives afflicted with decay? Do we fool ourselves into believing everything in our world is a shiny new boulevard, when in reality there are metaphorical streets that have reached a dead-end? I’m pretty sure there are buildings in my mind that need to come down.

How can I judge a small town’s degeneration when I’m afflicted with a touch of mental decay?

Somewhere there’s a healthy middle ground, a community offering a lifestyle that’s throttled back without long, vacant stretches. A town where you actually live your life rather than existing in an endless loop of work/traffic/crowds/HOA, keeping up just to keep up.

I’ll continue making the trips, dividing my world between hectic and unplugged. But I get the feeling it won’t be long before I give up one for the other.

Am I the only one who finds this appealing?

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