Monday, July 01, 2013

1972 Colorado: A flashback without the nostalgia

A few days ago, I mourned the loss of poet and poetry promoter Kurt Brown. His latest book was a look back at Aspen in its heyday, “Lost Sheep: Aspen’s Counterculture in the 1970s” (Conundrum Press, 2012).

All of us who lived here -- or travelled through -- in the late 1960s or early 1970s have vivid memories of Aspen and other Rocky Mountain hotspots such as Jackson, Boulder, Missoula and fabled Taos. Denver acted as a kind of way-station for coastal travellers, much as it did for miners after placer gold was discovered at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte. Much as it did for Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg and other Beats as they made their mad motorized dashes between New York and San Francisco and back again.

In the 1970s, it seemed as it everyone knew someone with a rundown apartment or house in Denver's Capitol Hill. Those were heady pre-gentrification days, when you could live ten to a house and still have room left for hitchhikers from Florida. And a steady supply of pot, although other illicit drugs, some with nasty side-effects, were seeping into the mix. By legalizing pot, Colorado now is closing the circle on its Wild West Reefer Roots. Not a bad name for a roots band, eh?

The year 1972 was a heady one for Colorado. An iconoclastic Dem legislator, Dick Lamm, was pushing a bill to defund the 1976 Winter Olympics. It passed, causing apoplectic fits among the gasbags at the International Olympic Committee. Avant garde artist Christo was building the "Valley Curtain" in a canyon near Rifle, which caused fits among conservative gasbags on the Western Slope. Hunter S. Thompson was running for sheriff of Pitkin County on a platform to legalize marijuana.

Excitement was building for the first Rainbow Gathering in Granby. Here's how it's described on the Woodstock Museum's web site:
The Woodstock Festival of '69 inspired the 1st Rainbow Gathering, attracting tens of thousands to celebrate their connection to the earth and to each other. This historic, hippie gathering of 1972 was prophecied by Hopi, Sioux, Muskokee-Cree and other American Indian tribes. And they were there! Rainbow Gatherings continue today, all over the world. Always free!

The prophecy says that the great-great grandchildren of the white conqueror would grow their hair long and rebel against society, travel east and west, gather in the mountains under the symbol of the White Buffalo. They would dance, sing and chant in many tongues. Their symbol would be the dove. They would be Brothers and sisters to the Hopi, people of peace. They would come and go, yet be a sign to the Indian that the spirit is returning.
I'm always a bit dubious when hippies and New Agers declare an affinity with Native American spirituality. The Indians I know feel the same way. Just another aspect of their culture being ripped off.

But the Rainbow Family Gathering was a big deal. You have to remember that Colorado was not some sort of hippie paradise. The Front Range was made up of working cities and towns. Denver's growth had been fueled by an influx of World War II veterans who lived in suburbia and made a living in aerospace, real estate and assorted industries. Some of those veterans' children were growing up and hanging out in Capitol Hill and Boulder. The parents were pissed. At the same time, some of those Boomer kids were content to attend CU or DU or CSU, join a frat or sorority, and start looking for their own place in the society of suburbia. As is the case with most generations, we are not all cut from the same swatch of tie-dyed cloth.

Thousands worked at Colorado Ironworks in Pueblo. The same could be said for the big Samsonite and Gates Rubber Company plants in Denver. Colorado Springs was solidly a military town, seeds being planted for the born-again conservative insurgency yet to arrive from the coasts. Fort Collins was an Aggie town, living up to the whitewashed "A" emblazoned on the mountain above town. Greeley was a beef-packing town, with its sprawling Monfort plant and acres of corrals holding cattle destined for slaughter.

Boulder was a long way from becoming The People's Republic of Boulder. Businesses on The Hill posted signs prohibiting junkies from their premises. While all longhairs may have looked like junkies to some business owners, the town was experiencing an upsurge in heroin abuse and abuse of dumb-ass drugs like Quaaludes and speed. Acid trippers added another element. Most people dropped acid at concerts or at home or up in Gold Hill while communing with nature. But a number of burnt-out cases roamed Boulder and Aspen, as recounted in Kurt's book. They were byproducts of a counterculture that took prisoners in the form of druggies who never made it to the other side. I knew a few myself.

I wasn't one. I hitchhiked through the West that summer with my Boston girlfriend, Sharon. She wanted to be a nurse. I wanted to be a writer. Now free of any military commitment, I was out to see the world, or at least the USA. It was as crazy and free and fun and dangerous as The Beats said.

--To be continued--

Sending a thanks to Scott Myers, who writes the Go Into the Story blog for The Black List web site. His column about Kurt Brown included a link to my remembrance of Kurt. If you're a budding screenwriter, or even one that's in flower and has a backlog of scripts, TBL is the resource for you.

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