State borders are arbitrary; or more accurately, they usually follow the needs and whims of humans rather than the cues of the land. But for some reason, whether it’s an illusion or a place’s culture imprinting itself on the map, something changes when you cross those invisible lines.
When I cross the line into Colorado I know instantly that yes, Colorado will be as promised, it will do exactly what it says on the tin. (It’s a cute tin, with little fir trees on it, and it’s made of recycled materials.) There is no cell signal as I pull over onto a dirt turn-out beside a perfectly on-brand sign. It is rustic, hanging in a rough log frame. Welcome to Colorful Colorado, it says, though the colors here are pale and faded, the windswept browns and greens of the mountains. Colorado knows to put that turn-out there, they know that I will stop and snap a photo, do their marketing for them free of charge.
Off to my left as I drive, a mountain rises, narrowing towards the top as if it wants to be a tower. It is Chimney Rock National Monument, but I know it’s something of significance before I see the sign. In these deceptively empty spaces, you know when you see a notable thing, because when you say to yourself, what in the world is that thing, you know that ever since people have been here, way back in the murkiest depths of pre-history, they have been asking the same.
Soon, arresting black and white birds with elegantly too-long tails, begin to swoop and flit low to the ground beside the highway. I see one and think it’s astonishing, and then I see another and think I’m lucky, but when I see three and four, and when I lose count of them, I realize they are something Coloradans must regard as commonplace, the way I see seagulls. They are black-billed magpies, Google will tell me later; they live in the West, their tails can be more than half the length of their bodies, and when persecuted, they become wary.
I am going to Durango, which the guidebook I read before leaving describes as “a place where visitors come to do stuff, not see stuff.” I’m a bad visitor, perhaps, because I do not want to want to mountain bike or river-raft or even ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad 3,000 feet up the San Juan Mountains. I only want to see a piece of Colorado, because it’s here and so am I, and who knows if that will ever happen again.
Durango forms itself around a lazy avenue of a main street that stretches out parallel to the Animas River. There is a lovely old hotel, a reminder of a grander age, and small storefronts with facades that look as if they were hastily assembled in a gold rush frenzy and then, having proved sturdier than expected, were kept around to house coffee shops and cute little stores. The pace is slow and everyone looks content. The parking meters have little arrows on them that point helpfully towards their corresponding parking space and say “This Car.” If you stand on the sidewalk, in front of a sporting goods store or a cluster of food trucks, and turn in a slow circle, you’ll see mountains rising in the distance on every side.
Everyone I pass is noticeably and uniformly thin and attractive, in an outdoorsy, makeup-free kind of way. They’re sportily well dressed in jeans and boots and slim-cut puffy jackets. They are all, I assume, capable of effortlessly hiking up a 14,000-foot peak after consuming several pints of locally brewed craft beer.
I feel as if I could have seen all this without seeing it. I could have conjured up Durango – and by extension, all of Colorado – in my imagination, informed by years of passively consumed tidbits and stereotypes and photos, and it would have been at least 90% accurate. This is the sort of place they name cowboy boots and SUVs after. But there are some things you cannot know if you don’t see a place for yourself, no matter how well you think you can envision it. For example: most mountain towns feel claustrophobic, penned in by their geography. Either the streets and buildings themselves seem cramped, or the ruggedness of the region requires lengthy journey on difficult roads; or the whole town is dominated by the sheer magnificence of the mountains looming above. But Durango suffers from none of these limitations. It feels wide open, from its wide streets to its wide sky. Its distance from other cities feels deliberate, pleasant even. And the peaks above it don’t threaten, as if they have decided that of all the mountain towns, they are willing to give this one room to be free.