Is “Connoisseur” French for Snob?

Fall in Colorado, picture courtesy of CDB

Fall in Colorado, picture courtesy of CDB



Is “Connoisseur” French for Snob?

I have a confession to make. It has been years in the making, and I do not make this confession lightly. The realization came to me suddenly, and I’ve made the difficult decision to share it with you.

I am a tree snob.

The realization of this sad fact was revealed last year, on a trip to Cripple Creek. The trip took us over highway 67, which often has some great views of fall color.

Well, in a week or two, maybe. It’s early yet.

As we drove, we saw a number of cars pulled over to the side, taking pictures of the changing leaves. Tourists. We asked them, from our still moving vehicle with the windows rolled up, “Why are you taking pictures of that?!  That is nothing. Wait until next week, when they’re actually turned!”

Clearly, we have become jaded in our appreciation of the beauty around us. We scoff at leaves just starting to change, a small patch twinkling in a sea of green. It takes much more than that to impress us. We pass another group taking photos, and though they can’t hear us we tell them, “Pffffft. You think that’s nice? You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

My sister (who was driving) did offer to stop if anyone wanted a look or photo op. This trip? We didn’t take a single picture, and never once felt compelled to pull over.

Coloradoans are fortunate, indeed, to live amongst such beauty that we take it for granted, and save our pixels for capturing only truly exceptional. We forget that for those that haven’t seen it before, it’s pretty remarkable already.

Part of me felt guilty at not appreciating the scenery. I should not take it for granted that I live in such a place as this, where there is something to admire almost everywhere you look.

The guilt lasted long enough for me to announce to the car: “we’re tree snobs.” They laughed, and heartily agreed.

From then, on, we rated every vista, and if we made any sort of complimentary comment on the scenery, we felt obligated to justify it to our fellow snobs, less we lose their respect for appreciating something substandard.

Perhaps we’re snobs so much as “connoisseurs,” which sounds better because it’s French for “snobs” and everything sounds better in French.   I think I’m realizing that “connoisseurs” is what snobs call each other because it adds levels of class, pretense and sophistication to the term.

On the way back, there was a nice panorama, which we did admire for its scope of color. Numerous shades of green, small shades of yellow, and a tiny hint of red. We agreed that if we could take a panorama shot of that, it would be pretty. But only because of the full 180 degree view.

Speaking Ill of the Dead-Jerks in Colorado History

I put a hold on this book at the library because of title. From the picture on the cover, it was clear that two of the “jerks” were Horace Tabor and Mattie Silks. I would certainly grant Tabor “jerk” status. Mattie Silks, one of Denver and Georgetown’s madams, I wasn’t quite so sure qualified.

Turns out, the book was largely a disappointment.

Each chapter seems to me to be largely a rehash of things cited elsewhere, and then cobbled together with a bit of extra emphasis on “jerkdom.” The author seems uncomfortable with bringing out the jerky qualities in most of the people in her book, and often her summary paragraphs at the beginning of each biography feel like apologies for being about to make a case for “jerkitude.” In more than one case, I really felt like the author never really managed to make a case for jerk status, instead picked one instance of lukewarm “jerkiness,” and “proved” her thesis with little more than a concluding summary statement calling the person a jerk.

Me, I wanted actual jerks.

One of the “jerks” is Queen Anne B. She had a habit of “stealing” cattle. When cattle from neighbor’s herds wandered on to her property, she’d either re-brand the creature, or, she’d butcher them herself.   This was something that her mother had done before her, and everyone knew was a likely outcome of cattle wandering onto her property.

This is pretty much the extent of her “jerkitude.” I’m almost bored typing just that.

Except, the story goes for 5-6 pages in the book. The biggest jerk in the story (who, I grant, does have his own chapter) is the infamous Tom Horn, who was hired by one the Anne’s neighbors to kill her foreman (who was also her fiancé). Horn ambushed the fiancé and one other man, leaving their house after breakfast, then shot and killed them both.

When the author has an actual jerk at her disposal, she seems to be afraid to really tarnish their reputation.

Take, for example, the case of Colonel Chivington. He was the jerk who led the Sand Creek Massacre, where he and the majority of the soldiers under his command murdered mostly women and children of the Arapaho tribe on the banks of the Sand Creek. This is discussed in the book.

When he was taken to trial for his actions, Silas Soule, who refused to take part in the killings, was the chief witness against Chivington. Soon after, Soule himself was murdered. The assassin, while it never went to trial and proven, was likely hired by Chivington. This part of the story is left out of the book.

It seems to me, if you are writing a book about “jerks,” you’d include all of the misdeeds that qualify them. Granted, Chivington was never convicted in association with this crime. Yet, every account I’ve read of this story indicates that this was more than mere speculation. Everyone knew who’d hired the assassin. This part of the story speaks volumes about this jerk, and it’s not even there. One of the few real jerks in the whole book, and one of the most obvious stories of the extent of his jerk-ness is not mentioned? Did she forget to read the title of her own book?

She missed the Bloody Espinozas, whose reign of terror was well known, and who butchered multiple victims throughout the southern part of the state.  She missed, well, I’m not entirely sure at this moment, but, I’m certain there are multitudes of bigger jerks she missed.

I feel like this book was a lost opportunity, and I feel like I wish I’d gotten to write it.



Long’s Peak and a View to Quiet a Mind

I’ve written many times that one of my constant companions is this flu of ideas and thoughts that fill my head, all the time.  My brain is sometimes so noisy with thoughts that I can’t escape them, and it’s hard to follow one thread of thought for enough time to see it to a conclusion.

I know, first world problems, right? Boo-hoo hoo, look at me whiny about not getting a minute away from my own mind. Really, in the scheme of things, yes, it’s a minor problem, and I shouldn’t complain. And, I’m not. Instead, I am setting the stage.

Because, this particular tale I wish to share with you is most remarkable when you are cognizant of how my brain spends weeks with thoughts flooding through, and providing very little in the way of rest.

I had been having a particularly long period of “brain flu,” and I had just learned an alternate route from work during the evening commute, which takes me parallel to the always busy I-70.

The last leg of the trip turns me facing north/northwest, to hook up again with I-70 to go  the last few miles home. This particular day, I turned, and went under the railroad tracks, and as I started to emerge from under the bridge, and as I crested the hill, there it was, huge, and perfectly framed by the narrow passage under the tracks.

For the first time in weeks, my mind was silent. The mountain looked like it was just a few miles away, rather than the 70+ miles away I knew it to be. I stared at it, as if I’d never seen that beautiful peak properly before in my entire life.

Anyone who lives near mountains knows that they sometime look like they are much closer than they really are, and that that perspective changes daily.

Here’s a picture I took from just past the spot, and it wasn’t as big the day I took the picture. I don’t remember seeing the crane at all, and can’t even tell you if it was there.

Longs Peak, one of Colorado's 14ers, looking further away than it did on the day our story takes place. But, you get the idea. What I do remember, is thinking, over and over again: “That’s Long’s Peak. Right there. That’s Long’s Peak. It has to be. It’s Long’s Peak, but how? I’ve *never* noticed it there before. How did I miss it? That’s Long’s Peak!”

I starred at it, rampant disbelief echoing around my head which was pretty much empty of other thoughts, so, it had lots of room to run.  That glorious sight allowed me to hear silence. It gave me peace, and then, there were a few appreciative tears, I’m not ashamed to admit it.

It was like a wake-up call to pay attention to what was all around me. To be present in the moment, and allow myself to breathe and take in the wonder and magic of existence. It shouted, “Look, you idiot! You live *HERE* in COLORADO and it’s BEAUTIFUL! It’s amazing every. Single. Day. And, you’re not appreciating it.

That moment was like a breath of fresh air, and there was healing it. It’s one of those moments that remind me of those words of the Psalmist, who said “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from where comes my help.”

Yeah, I know, I’m a big softy, and this wasn’t remotely funny.  But, I was needing this reminder again this weekend.  And, by sheer coincidence, I have been meaning to use this as a blog post for ages, and had nothing better to write about today. So sue me. (On second thought, please don’t. Thanks.)


Remembering the Sand Creek Tragedy

November 29th is the anniversary of the Sand Creek massacre, and you may be wondering why I bother to keep such horrible things in my memory.

I could say it’s because I am a horrible person, and my brain gravitates to terribly sad events to hold in its memory.

I could also make a claim that such an event should be remembered as a lesson of man’s cruelty to his fellow humans, but that sounds patronizing and insincere.

I could tell you the gosh honest truth — that I was reading a book of Cololrado ghost stories, and for the first time, absorbed the date of the attack, in large part, because it sunk in that it’s the day before my birthday.

Yes, that means I’m over 150 years old.

When I first heard the story of this dark spot in Colorado history,  I was in grade school, and it was covered in the 4th grade state history curriculum.  We learned that soldiers attacked and killed defenseless old men, women and children in the small village of peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne living on the banks of the Sand Creek.

The massacre was led by Colonel John Chivington in 1864.  It was a national scandal.

What I didn’t learn in school was that not all the soldiers present joined in the attack.  Two officers, Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer refused to follow Chivington’s orders, and told their men to hold their fire. Later, the two men provided testimony of the terrible mutilation of the bodies. Despite their testimony, no charges were ever brought against Chivington.

A few weeks after giving testimony in this case, Soule was murdered downtown by Charles Squires. Most people “knew” that the trigger man, a soldier loyal to Chivington, was probably hired or acting on orders by Chivington. Lt. Cannon tracked Squires, and brought him back to Denver to stand trial. Squires escaped jail, and Cannon was poisoned. Squires was never again captured or tried.

Silas Soule, a fascinating character in not only Colorado history but in US history, was from a famous family of abolitionists, who were good friends with John Brown. He was active in the border wars leading to the Civil War.  His death came shortly after he’d been wed.

Originally, Soule was buried in Mt. Prospect cemetery, and a huge monument graced his burial spot. When that area became blighted, and bulldozed to make way for Cheeseman Park, Soule’s body was relocate to Riverside Cemetery. Today, only a military marker marks his resting place. It’s among the most often visited graves in the cemetery.

I went to the spot this weekend to get a picture, and was successful on that score, but, I failed to be able to get it posted in time to include her. I’ll try and add it at some point.

Usually, every year in late November, there is a healing walk, sponsored by the Cheyenne and Arapaho, that stops by the grave of Soule. They stop to honor the man who had refused to attack defenseless civilians, and who eventually, lost his life for taking this stand.


Sometimes, only the dead survive

There are hundreds of ghost towns in Colorado.   Most of these are reminders of a gold rush long past. Others were once farming communities that could no longer sustain crops, or failed social experiments.

Iron fenced gravesiteOften, there is nothing left to these towns to indicate they ever existed.
One of those towns, Missouri City, also called Missouri Flats, has only one thing to mark its existence. The grave of a small child.

Unlike its neighbors, many which are themselves ghost towns, places like Russell Gulch, Nevadaville and Lake Gulch, (and of course almost-ghost towns Central City and Black Hawk) which sprung up as gold mining towns,  this town was the headquarters of the Consolidated Ditch Company, which was building the infrastructure for the water supply for the Central City area.  The town was big enough to have a post office in 1860, and almost 600 people called it home.  Three years later, the post office was closed.

By 1940, as today, this fenced in grave remains the only evidence that there was once a place called Missouri City, and it’s not very good evidence at that.  After all, there is no mention of the town written anywhere on the stark black fences. The outer fence, which surrounds the fenced in grave, is locked with padlocks that, while a contemporary addition, look to be rusted closed.

Iron fenced gravesiteThe little girl whose grave lies within, once had a marble marker (the base remains), that is long gone.  A small gray angel has been added, and a simple wooden marker gives the scanty details of a short life. “Clara A, dau. of D.E. and S. Delaney, July 5, 1865, Aged 1 y, 5 M,  12 D.” A stuffed bear has been left within the last few years.

This is not the only ghost town whose existence is marked only by the cemetery. Most of these sites have more than one grave marker. These stone memorials of those who lived and died in a place become the only monument of the place they knew.  In Summit County, there’s also Parkville, which was the county seat in the 19th century.

We visited the Missouri City site yesterday, and despite persistent rumors over the last decade that this humble reminder of the area’s pioneer past will soon be no more, possibly paved over for gambling parking, or other “progress,” it’s still there.

If you want to see this spot, head towards Central City over the Parkway. When you enter town turn right at the stop sign, then another right on the opposite side of the  big casino parking lot. Turn onto the Virginia Canyon road, and follow it across the Parkway. Immediately at the end of the bridge, take a left, and follow it past the maintenance vehicles and maintenance buildings.  The fenced plot will be on your right.

*Images can be clicked for a larger version.

The Legend of the Quaking Aspen

When I was learning Colorado history in grade school, my teacher told me us the legend of the quaking aspens. She said it was a Ute story. The story goes something like this.

One day, the creatures of the forest learned that the Great Spirit was coming to visit them. The animals and plants did their best to make the forest ready for this great honor. All except the aspens. They were haughty, and did not fear the Great Spirit.

And the time arrived, and the forest and her creatures welcomed the Great Spirit, and in their fear and excitement they shook even as they bowed to honor their guest.

All except the aspens.

So the Great Spirit told the trees, from now on, you will always quake and tremble whenever anyone looks at you.  And quake they do, even to this very day.

There was something about this story that captured my attention. I’m not sure if it was the fact that it was a story from another culture, and when you hear such stories, you get a real sense of the kind of people they are; the things they value and the way they see the world, or if it was more the fact that there were aspens all around me when I was growing up, even on the playground of the school where I heard this story, and I thought about how often the aspens quaked.

Whenever I heard the sound of the aspens, I also thought about the Great Spirit, and I wondered if the story was as much about associating that ubiquitous sound with the Great Spirit as it was about humility.

Over time, I forgot the specific detail of the story’s conclusion, and I remembered the story to have ended with the Great Spirit forcing the aspens to quake whenever the Great Spirit was nearby.

It made me think that maybe the point of the story was really about saying the Great Spirit was everywhere. Whether you could see it or not, the aspens knew it was there, and they shook. It struck me as a beautiful way to be constantly aware of the creator’s presence, which was always all around us, which means that even though my version of the story makes little sense, I like the fact that for nearly 30 years I’ve thought about the presence of the creator nearly every time I’ve heard the sound of the rustling wind shaking the leaves of the aspens. I think any story that makes us pause and think about the world around us, and acknowledge the sacred source of all things is a pretty good story. Even if it’s a story that mostly existed only in my brain. Until now, when I’ve shared it with you.

I don’t know how authentic the original story is. As far as I have been able to tell, it was a story told by William Byers, the founder of the Rocky Mountain News, in 1873.  I’m not even sure if, at this point, its origin matters so much. After all, it’s not his version that stuck with me over all these years.

Snow Day, Yay?

Working from home has many advantages, but, today I learned of one disadvantage. Denver was struck by a blizzard, and while most everyone got at least a partial snow day, I, who wasn’t going to face the asphalt jungle anyway, had no excuse not to work.

I’m feeling ripped off.

While my friends lounge in PJs and enjoy an unexpected, paid day off at home, I’m sitting sadly at my computer screen trying to figure out how to make the situation work for me.

“Um. Didn’t you hear? Huge blizzard. Yeah. Kitchen Pass was closed, and I couldn’t make it to the office, you can just give me money, right?”

Sure. I could take a weather day, but, there’s no money in it for me. Which means, I had to brave the elements, find an alternate route to the office through Bathroom Flats, and make the best of a snowy day.

As I sat in front of my computer, it was sorta like looking out the window at the kids enjoying recess while I served my detention in the classroom with the teacher. They laughed and played, their red, happy faces positively glowing with exuberant joy.

This is not a particularly powerful motivational tool.

“But, Mrs. Larson! All the other kids are making a snowman! We’ve not had snow in ever so long! I’ve never even gotten to make a snow ball since <i>last</i> winter, and they’re making snow men and snow forts and angels and having a huge snowball fight! Can’t I do my detention <i>tomorrow?</i> I promise I’ll stay in all next week! <i>Please, Mrs. Larson? Please?”</i>

She ignores me.

I stare at the computer. I hit the reload button. Facebook tells me that everyone else is having the Best.Day.Ever.

I decide I should shovel. That’s the ticket! I’ll get my responsibilities as contentious neighbor and homeowner done, and take a break from all the nothing I’ve accomplished, and I’ll get it out of my system! Brilliant!

I shovel. There’s about four inches, and it’s fun to be out in the winter wonderland! I get done way too soon, and go back inside.

It didn’t help.

I’m still staring at the computer. The snow continues to fall. Some of my friends, who went to work, have now been sent home. Although it’s taking them 8 times longer than usual to get home, they are getting paid to sit in traffic. They’ve got a nice weather-related war story to share with the other storm survivors for years to come. I’ve got deadlines and a blank screen, taunting me. They’re going to get to stay home Friday, too. I hate them.

Wait a second. Maybe I don’t hate them. I can <span style=”font-style:italic;”>use</span> this. Harness the pain to some sort of lame blog post! Yeah! That’s the ticket! But what will I do tomorrow?

Requiescat In Pace

Today the Rocky Mountain News published its final issue, 55 days short of its 150th birthday. Even though I knew it was coming, it was hard to think that Colorado will be without the paper older than the state itself.

After I’d read through the issue, the first physical copy of the Rocky I’ve read in ages, what I most lamented was the sense that the Rocky grew along with Colorado, and is more inextricably linked to the state’s heritage as any current institution could ever be. This solid thread to our pioneer past has been cut.

As I pondered these thoughts, I had a brilliant idea. I would go and visit the final resting place of the founder of the Rocky, William Newton Byers.
Grave of William Newton Byers, with the final issue of the Rocky Mountain News
I was not the only person to have this idea. Maybe “brilliant” is the wrong word.

As I drove into the entrance to Fairmount Cemetery, the local NBC affiliate had a news van exiting the cemetery. Of course, they may’ve been there for some other purpose, but, I like to think they’d swung by to pay their respects.

When I got to the grave site, I found that it had been decorated with a black wreath, circling today’s final issue of the newspaper that Byers had started with the printing press he’d hauled across the plains. Well, he didn’t haul it. Oxen did. But he drove. Byers was 28 years old.

Byers was one of those people who really saw the potential of Denver. His paper was the first published, just days after arriving in town, and beating the nearest competitor by a mere two hours. That other paper didn’t last.

The Rocky’s first “home” was a very rickety hint of a building, closely matching its frontier environs, where all the buildings were held together with good thoughts and a handful of nails. In the fifth year of operation, there was even a flood which carried the “building” and the printing press floating down the Cherry Creek.

The paper survived despite these things. The biggest reason? Byers had an over-riding vision for the paper’s role. He used high quality paper, and made the content indispensable. He was widely respected, and people wanted to hear what he had to say. These ingredients never go out of style, and had the current owners of the paper been as foresighted as its founder, those qualities would’ve carried the Rocky for another 149 years, 10 months and and 5 days.

Byers sold the paper after 19 years, but, remained committed to promoting the city of Denver, which he dubbed “The Queen City of the Plains,” and to the state of Colorado. There’s a town, a street, and a middle school named in his honor.

I’m sad that the Rocky Mountain News has moved from a record of Colorado history to a part of it. Rest in Peace.

Requiem for the Rocky?

The Rocky Mountain News, the oldest newspaper in Colorado, is for sale. Far from being a portent of strength and prosperity, it seems that in Denver’s 150th year, the Rocky could be in its final one.

I have long and fond memories of the Rocky. In elementary school in Summit County, it was the newspaper we read once a week. I loved its tabloid format, which meant easy handling for my small arms, the only “grown-up” newspaper that I could easily manage.

That simple tabloid format was like a friendly little welcome to me, and when I got older, I naturally sought its familiar form as my newspaper of choice. The Denver Post was bulky, and its fonts looked foreign and stand-offish. I understood the Rocky, I knew its rhythms. It was a comfortable, old friend that I recognized even when I’d not picked it up in years.

In high school, I sat in football games and graduations (including my own) at Damon Runyon field, long before I knew anything about him or his role with the Rocky Mountain News. I knew of <span style=”font-style:italic;”>Harvey</span> long before I knew of Rocky writer Mary Coyle Chase.

As an adult, I admit, I adored the largest comic section in any daily I’ve ever seen. Sure, the Post had Dilbert, but, that was a small loss in the overall comics war. Gene Amole and Dusty Saunders were must reads.

When it was announced that the two newspapers in Denver were going to be merged, and a joint operating agreement was going into effect, I feared only doom for the Rocky. The E.W. Scripps Publishing Company, which now owned both papers, assured us “Denver is still a two paper town! Nothing will change!”  Riiiight. Was that a *Sunday* Rocky Mountain News you wanted?

Soon after the merger, I stopped taking the newspaper. I didn’t really want it any more. In part, it felt like drinking the Kool-Aid (Should I say, instead, “Unbranded fruit drink made from powdered concentrate?”). The other part was that I wasn’t reading much of the paper beyond the comics and the columnists that I really liked. I, like so many others, was finding more relevant news from other sources on the internet. I still read my favorite columns online. Admittedly, it was no longer a regular habit. Clearly, the declining revenue at the paper is all my fault. I’ve betrayed my good friend.

And, yet, betrayal aside, I didn’t miss the paper. Comics  and columns online were actually *archived.* If I missed a day, I could catch up. (And I didn’t have to waste a single bit of bandwidth for Rex Morgan, M.D.)

This is happening to newspapers all over the country, and while I can’t claim to have brought my mighty newspaper slaying ability to bear in every instance, the story is not new. Newspapers have struggled to understand and compete with the internet as a news source. The delivery model and revenue sources are completely different. Simply taking the print publication online is not the answer.

It is likely too late to save the Rocky, and I’m sad that it wasn’t able to adapt to stay ahead of the extinction comet. At the same time, the big old comet worked out okay for everyone, right? Well, except the dinosaurs.

(Speaking of dinosaurs, I actually prefer my dinosaurs in natural history museums and Spielberg films, so, I’ll stop being distracted and go back to talking about newspapers…)

What are some lessons that newspapers could learn?

* Stop covering everything.  Newspapers always try to cover everything, which means having the same re-hashed Associated Press stories that every other paper had. Part of this was to “keep up appearances” of having “all the news,” and part of it was to keep the correct content-to-ad ratio. Now, anyone can find those AP stories themselves, directly from the AP, so there’s no reason to carry them.

* Go with your strengths. Sounds cliché, but, the things I most valued and associate with the Rocky? Columnists and Comics. They were things I could get no where else, and still seek out to this day. Eliminate anything that is mediocre and irrelevant. Unique and excellent content is valuable content.

* Information not data. I can get data anywhere, from a zillion different sources. What I can’t get is information. I need insight. I want experts who tell me what something means, and how to make sense of all the data. I need a trusted source that helps me understand.

* Find a niche. This may sound like a combo of the first two, but, it’s more than that. Covering a niche that is under-represented can be a gold mine. Probably, it can even be something that the newspaper did the occasional story on, but, never put much effort into. Like local governments. Civic groups. What rich content could a team of experienced journalists find if they stopped paying attention to the same things everyone else is watching? Be the first source your audience thinks of for information on the local government, and focus on following it better than anyone has ever followed it. Get those microscopes out, and expose corruption or sing the praises of things that are working really well. The key is depth, not breadth.

The deadline for the Rocky is tomorrow. The Rocky Mountain News reported today that E.W. Scripps has asked potential buyers to submit bids for the newspaper by close of business on Friday, when it will begin evaluating the offers.  I wish my friends at the Rocky well, and may they find a home.

Note: There is a group of Rocky staffers working to save the paper, if you are interested, check out: <a href=””></a>