Feature

Denver at 150

November 2008

Mountain Passage
By Janis Hallowell

My grandfather worked on the railroad crew that built the Moffat Tunnel 30 years before I was born. I have a picture of him there, in 1927, standing at the west portal in the snow with five other guys and a boxcar. My grandfather is a young man, but his wrinkles are already deep from squinting into the bright sun. In that world of white the only dark objects are the train and the men. Their task was to fulfill David H. Moffat's dream of punching a tunnel through six miles of rock, allowing the railroad to pass under, rather than hauling itself over, the Continental Divide.

Moffat was a visionary in a time when trains were synonymous with civilization. He knew that Denver, landlocked, with its back to 14,000-foot mountains, needed a tunnel to connect the city to the world. He didn't live to see his tunnel completed. My grandfather did.

Consider the nature of tunnels. A tunnel connects here to there. It provides passage through or under a geological impediment, often a mountain. It becomes a conduit through which natural resources, people, trade, and information pass. In the case of the Moffat Tunnel, a lot of money was made and the city grew, but progress has had its price. Prosperity came, but small towns, farms, ecosystems, and species were lost. The connectedness brought a paradoxical disconnect, too.

Denver, always a city of boom or bust, boomed loud and long starting in the late 1950s, around the time I was born. My parents moved us to Littleton in the first wave of houses that ate up the farms and grasslands. They believed that in the suburbs we would be safe and have access to nature without giving up any of the city's benefits, but I remember walking to school and watching with dread as the brown cloud over the city crept closer to us. By the time I was in high school, we were inside of it.

Still, the new prosperity allowed us to buy a cabin in the mountains near Dillon. Up there, my sister and I rode, fished, camped, and skied in country that was wild, at least by comparison to Littleton.

At that time there weren't any tunnels for cars under the Continental Divide. So, going to the cabin meant crossing Loveland Pass, about 25 miles south of the Moffat Tunnel as the crow flies. We loved each crossing because we left Littleton, made the trek up into the airless otherworld of 12,000 feet, and drove down the other side into our mountain world. Sometimes the weather at the top closed the pass and we'd have to turn around and go home. Even when it was open there was no guarantee. It could be snowing in Denver and sunny on the pass, or T-shirt-and-shorts weather on the east side and a blizzard on top.

As we transformed from girls into young women, my sister and I spent more time at the cabin, often without parents. One time, coming home on a Sunday night in a snowstorm, my sister driving, the headlights cut out as we reached the summit. In her sixteen-and-a-half-year-old wisdom she decided I should sit on the hood of the Jeep and hold the flashlight. So, out I went in my powder-blue Gerry jacket and straddled the hood ornament to hold the light. It was darker and quieter than I could have imagined. Snow swirled around me as we climbed. I floated past the high peaks, holding my light like some phantom rodeo queen. It was foolish, but glorious. I was 14 and immortal, and that night I was one with my mountains.

Two years later my sister moved away from home, and a second tunnel, the Eisenhower Tunnel, went through, making Loveland Pass a novelty. Everybody stopped taking the winding road over the Divide in favor of the efficient tunnel. Within weeks our mountains changed. Fat new highways brought hordes of tourist skiers and condos. The meadows where we rode and fished? Sold for hotels and gas stations.

Partly because of the changes the tunnel brought, I started staying home alone while my parents went to the cabin on weekends. I was home when the call that my grandfather was dying came, just after midnight on a Sunday. I phoned my parents at the cabin. "We'll be there in no time," my father said.

Big snowflakes were beginning to fall when I got to the nursing home. My grandfather was small and curled like a newborn; alive though not awake. I took his bony hand and felt his whispery pulse. I knew my parents were probably in the Eisenhower Tunnel at that very moment, speeding to get home in time. But even so, my grandfather didn't wait for them. After moments of nearly no pulse at all, I felt his blood surge through his veins and then he was gone.

The nurse came in and turned out the lights. I sat with my grandfather in the dark and waited for my parents. It was utterly quiet. Outside, the snow was falling harder and faster, swirling furiously in the parking lot lights. I felt a floating calm, a fierce pride, like my hood ornament ride over Loveland, to have been alone with him as he passed.

And I wondered, was it was clear and bright up there on the Divide?

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