Wednesday, March 25, 2009
One afternoon last week, Dan and I took a drive up to the northeastern part of Colorado where Luke was playing in a baseball game. People who aren't familiar with our state, often think of Colorado as just mountains. In fact, while the western half of the state has some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, the entire eastern half of Colorado is prairie, and it has a beauty all its own.
We drove from our home in the Denver area, north on Highway 25 and then veered off to the east to a town called Windsor. I-25 follows the front range for the entire length of the state and affords a beautiful view of the mountains. Almost 30 years ago, it was the route that I drove back and forth to Greeley, while attending the University of Northern Colorado.
At that time, the land was mostly agricultural. Fields of wheat, corn and hay, and pastures of cattle flanked the interstate. An occasional exit provided a gas station or entrance to a road leading to one of the towns that dotted the landscape -- Brighton, Ft. Lupton, Johnstown, Dacono. The landmark Johnson's Corner boasted world famous cinnamon buns, and an occasional campground or a junk yard occupied a few acres amidst some farm houses. For the most part the landscape seemed rather unremarkable. Sometimes I would take a route farther east and follow along the Platte River where the land greened up with cottonwoods growing along the banks of the river, and the two-lane road followed the railroad, widening for the small towns of Platteville, Gilcrest and LaSalle.
For the first couple years, I didn't pay much attention to sight seeing when I made the trip, eager to get home on a Friday afternoon, or thinking about the week ahead on a Sunday evening. Then in the fall of 1979, the television mini-series Centennial, based on the novel of the same name by James Michener, aired, and it gave me new eyes for the land that had previously blurred as I zipped past in my yellow Volkswagen beetle.
Michener's Centennial follows the history of a fictional town, Centennial, located in northeastern Colorado. The series was epic, 26 hours long with a cast of hundreds, and was filmed in the Greeley area. It followed the lives of the area's inhabitants from the late 1800s to the 1970s. Michener's story introduced memorable characters including the Arapahoe Indian boy Lame Beaver, a French fur trader named Pasquinel and his partner Alexander McKeag, and the beautiful Indian woman, Clay Basket. With time, new inhabitants come to settle in Centennial. Mennonite Levi Zendt runs a trading post, and German-Russian Hans Brumbaugh makes his fortune farming potatoes and sugar beets. Cattleman R. J. Poteet and sheep ranchers follow, and with each new chapter the characters lives are intertwined.
As with most stories, the movie was great, and the book was even better. It begins thousands of years before the t.v. story, with the geological development of the area, laying the backdrop for the characters that eventually enter the story. The land started coming to life during my travels back and forth to Greeley. I would picture the Arapaphoe Indians and their life on a prairie darkened by herds of buffalo. The Platte River wasn't just a shallow, wide expanse of muddy water, but a thoroughfare for fur traders.
Now, thirty years later, it's harder to see the story and people of Centennial. The highway is lined with retail outlets and housing developments. Every exit has a McDonald's and a Starbucks. The fields of wheat, hay and corn are slowly being crowded out by office buildings and car dealerships. I'm grateful that James Michener gifted us with this portrait of the land as it was so many years ago. Look closely and his characters still peer out from the land as it rises and falls along the front range, and their story lives on.