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|June 26-July 3, 2008
Back to Letters
Gone but not forgotten
by Ben Corbett
Writers don’t make squat, but we get all kinds of free books and movies and music long before the general public (or what’s referred to in the corporate world as “The Ignorant Masses”). Naturally, we’re entrusted with keeping unreleased material protected and in-house. Yet despite the law, sleazy as it sounds, many in the media will eBay this stuff on the sly.
An unedited proof of a forthcoming Harry Potter book or a clip from Brad Pitt’s next flick will fetch hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Undisclosed sources have revealed that even Bill O’Reilly was spotted in the alley behind Fox Studios on several occasions, peddling bootlegs of unreleased films to Latin gang members. How else do you think he could afford that swank Maserati he tools around in?
But we’re not all like O’Reilly. Some of us have integrity, and merely possessing the inside dope on upcoming culture is the thing that keeps us high between drafting suicide notes. Anyway, last week I cracked opened my mailbox and, to my delight, sandwiched between the hate mail and lawsuits was a bound galley of the upcoming September book release, State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Before I throw the thing on eBay for six bucks, I wanted to tell you about it.
The volume’s hook is “50 Writers, 50 States,” and it’s as Jack Kerouac as apple pie. What the editors had in mind was to capture the nuances of each state through the eyes of some writer who lives there, or else by dropping a writer in cold and letting them discover a state’s essence. The book is patterned after the Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s — a part of the New Deal where some of America’s greatest writers, from Wallace Stegner to Nelson Algren, were commissioned to write guides about our country.
Coming out at a low point in American pride similar to that epoch, State By State is a brilliant portrait of modern Americana that shows us who we are. After finishing it, I wanted to jump in the car and take a road trip, much like I did 17 years ago — nearly half my life now — when I ended up here and began calling Colorado home. I came in from Pennsylvania, from out in those woods that everyone romanticizes about — a dead-end of alcoholism and millwork and clock-punching. It was one of those towns that, if you’re trying to do anything, you want to escape from, and the story is probably not much different than anyone else’s. Except for those who perhaps got transferred here for some corporate job, and it always surprises me when people say, “I can’t stand Colorado. I miss the water.” The water? I always ask these people if they’ve ever sat up in some cranny of rocks at Gross Reservoir with a bottle of red wine at sunset?
Boulder has always been weird, because practically everyone here is from somewhere else. It’s like an amalgamation of nomad misfits who, unsatisfied with where they came from, now groom their egos on the reality of their restlessness. Who could forget that first time driving over the hill on Highway 36 and drifting down into the valley and the dizzying vastness of it. One of those wide-open, life-altering moments where you feel like you’re driving into pure possibility. And then getting into town and meeting some other people from somewhere else and the sparks begin to fly.
Boulder was a different place back then. It was a quieter, smaller town with much less traffic. You used to bump into Allen Ginsberg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other literary luminati walking around Chautauqua. Every fifth car was a Volkswagen and the canyons looked like a parking lot after a Grateful Dead concert with all the hippies camping out in their buses. You could walk down Pearl Street smoking a joint, and nobody cared. And familiar faces that you’ll only see at certain happenings today, those Boulder lifers still hanging on from the ’60s, were out in the middle of it, all the time.
Some of these people are still around, but they don’t group anymore, and it’s sort of sad in some ways. I remember we used to talk about Boulder’s magic and why we were so in love with being here. And as it changed and evolved we’d talk about that, too. About how it was losing its luster, becoming commercial. A friend of mine once said, “It’s changing, but in 20 years, it’ll be just as magical for new people coming here. It’ll just be a different kind of magic.” So now, almost 20 years later, what I want to know is: Is it still just as magical for newcomers, or is something once special — that Boulder essence — gone forever?
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