Pyramid Peak, Colorado

Why would you ever want to leave Colorado?

A great thing about living in Colorado is that most people you meet are from somewhere else, pretentious “Native” bumper stickers be damned. Everybody who has ended up here has a story, some tale of motivation that brought us from there to here. Some stories are fairly typical: student comes to the University of Colorado, gets a taste of the good life and sticks around. Others come for the climbing or the skiing or just for the lovely mountain views.

I like your stories. I snowboard solo quite often, so chairlifts give me a chance to hear where you are vacationing from or where you played hooky from work. “Where are you from?” is one of the first questions I like to ask new acquaintances. Interestingly, I rarely get asked the question back. The truth is where I’m from is, on the surface, fairly unremarkable. I’m a white guy living in Boulder, how exciting can it be?

To put it another way, consider this. The Boulder/Denver area regularly tops “Best Places to Live” lists. Healthiest, friendliest, most outdoorsy, best singles scene, most educated and so on. Now, reverse all those categories to “worst” and you basically get my hometown. Bear in mind that’s not my personal opinion, but heady sources such as Forbes and The Atlantic regularly cite the city of my birth as one of the worst places in America.

For you see, I am a native son of Waterbury, Connecticut.

If you’re in Colorado via Connecticut, chances are you come from one of the well-off pockets of the state, namely the coast or the Hartford suburbs. That’s the Connecticut like Angela’s house in “Who’s the Boss”. In contrast, Waterbury is more akin to the dreary, hard-scrabble steel towns in Pennsylvania. It is a wounded city, a place that hit its stride during World War II, then slowly faded as brass manufacturing went away and most of the other industries followed. An almost comical succession of corrupt mayors have risen and fallen in Waterbury in recent history. Enormous, spooky factory buildings have been vacant for decades and unemployment hovers around 20%.

Especially eerie is the giant illuminated cross that welcomes visitors to Waterbury and shines down on the city, a reminder of strong Italian, Irish and Polish Roman Catholic heritages. It was the centerpiece of a failed sort of theme park called “Holy Land”, which didn’t feature any rides but did feature a bunch of caves meant to mimic the ancient dwellings of Israel. When that didn’t pack in the tourists, the place folded. In disrepair, it’s become a badge of honor for hipster photographers to snap black and white images of the ruins.

Holy Land photo by Shaun O'Boyle

Come visit the lovely ruins of ruins in Waterbury! Holy Land photo by Shaun O’Boyle.
There are good people and good places in Waterbury, but it’s not really my place to defend it. I left almost 15 years ago and didn’t look back. What is intriguing to me is how a kid from Waterbury, with very little exposure to outdoors recreation, falls in love with Colorado.

The truth is there is wilderness everywhere you look. For me, it began in a withered creek, diverted under a road, where I could flip stones and find glistening salamanders, either red or yellow blending with their smooth black skin. There were hills just high enough to look out onto the world and marvel at the breadth of it all. And every now and again, a brave deer or coyote would wander into a neighborhood and give us a glance at au natural nature. Where were those animals coming from? What was on the other side of the woods?

It’s not as inspiring a story as coming from the abject poverty of a place like East St. Louis or a war-torn country like Senegal. Nor should it be. But like most of us, I’m glad that somehow I ended up here, in a place slightly removed from the well-worn track of the rat race. Even though Boulder is lousy with elite athletes, I have fun in my modest athletic pursuits. I remain in awe that I can ride my bike year round and that snow-filled mountains are less than an hour away. I tire of the sunshine once in a while, hoping for a rainy day so I don’t feel the guilt of being indoors. More often, I look around and feel just dumb lucky to be here.

Some may say I’ve gone from worst to first but I don’t see it so harshly. I hope old Waterbury finds its stride one of these days. But Colorado is home for me, a great place to settle because by definition, Coloradans don’t sit still. Settling here means playing a lot, exploring and doing just about anything other than growing stagnant. I’m guessing you have a bit of that epic odyssey in your life as well. It’s good to embrace the journey from time to time, not just where you are but where you’ve been.

Without it, you would never crave that elusive rainy day.