I’d quickly learned that this was the standard greeting in rural Colorado. It was conveyed without a trace of irony, in a low drawling cadence, not Southern and certainly not Eastern. Rustic, sure, but the undertone was distinctly and sincerely egalitarian. That took some getting used to for a guy like me, born and raised in Connecticut where greetings of sincerity and equality were often in short supply and irony carried a punch far beyond its weight. Like any acolyte of the Atlantic establishment, I could pun, palindrome, and concoct terms of venery with the best of the wags in my college dining hall. If you don’t quite know what I’m talking about, that’s my point—the New England art form in which vocabulary is a rapier that thrusts with cultural dominance. It’s used to appear smarter than you are and to belittle those who don’t know the imperious rules and esoteric verbiage the craft requires. It’s an easy vernacular to adopt, as I just did, especially if you’ve been bred to it, which I certainly was.
In short, Yankee vernacular is the opposite of “Howdy folks.”
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Out here in the West, status is conferred through a different set of cultural norms. One of them is to establish your connection to the pioneer past. That’s hard to pull off, since fewer than half the folks in Colorado were born here. Another status icon is to own your own ranch, tech company, craft brewery, defense contractor, rocket ship supplier, or yoga workshop. Any business owner, large or small, has some prestige. I liked the entrepreneurship piece a lot, but the Great American Dream ethos tends to overlook the vast quantity of business failures that ensue. There’s a reason the word “dream” appears upon that mythic American pedestal. My entry into hemp carried a good dollop of the dream but, to be fair to myself, I didn’t drink the kombucha all in one draught, nor did I swallow the hemp story in one bite like an avocado toast point. I had reservations.
The hemp industry, as it unfolded here in Colorado, never viewed itself as simply a commercial proposition. It had a messianic tinge to it. For example, the fact that the industrial hemp business was always called the Hemp Space by its practitioners reflected its origins in the New Economy, a term that connotes a different approach to capitalism. That sounds very familiar to a geezer like me, and hearkens back to different approaches to capitalism from the 1960s and 1970s.
To be sure, there were still plenty of counterculture vestiges occupying the Hemp Space, but those gray ponytails in battered Subarus were not the majority. The majority were millennials. Some wore the mantle of science; others, like Pierce Grogan, my nephew and partner in this caper, were simply looking to make some coin. Still others believed in hemp and hemp oil with a religious fervor. Few of these folks, especially the hemp apostles, viewed hemp’s resurgence as something so mundane as an industry. Hemp was new, hemp was cool, hemp was a disrupter, hemp had been unfairly vilified by the government. Hemp had 25,000 uses, and CBD was a medical panacea. Hemp had lived through eighty years of a very bad rap, but its time had come. The folks most enthralled by hemp refused to call it an industry, like toothpaste or fast food. Hemp Nation wasn’t a nation of shopkeepers, but a cadre of revolutionaries. They called it the Hemp Space because that implied inclusion, and they saw themselves as a more evolved kind of capitalist. I was happy to sign on with all of that. I didn’t share the evangelical overtones, but I didn’t see how that could prevent me from making some serious dough.
“Rocky Mountain High”
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The hemp revolution in Colorado was not led by stoners. It started at the universities and the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA). Colorado State University and the University of Colorado Boulder have had serious hemp research going on for over a decade, with the support of the CDA. Everyone’s motivation was to develop a cash crop that might reverse the subsistence farming endemic to planting crops on a rocky alluvial plain in a semi-arid climate.
This can be confusing, because Colorado was also the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, but these are two entirely unrelated constituencies. The marijuana initiative was spearheaded by folks who wanted decriminalization of cannabis because of the stigma attached to its use and the resulting legal ramifications. Ultimately, legalization passed in Colorado when the citizens concluded that the costs to the law enforcement community and the prison and judicial systems outweighed any perceived benefit in keeping it illegal. The effort gained critical mass when public officials, always trying to balance budgets in a state historically hostile to most forms of taxation, realized that the tax revenue from legal marijuana would be enormous. Hemp, by contrast, was developed as an economic lifeline for small farmers.
When I moved to Colorado, it didn’t take me long to see that this was a very unusual state. There was an alluring mix of urban, suburban, and rural citizens not inclined to emulate the political schisms rampant elsewhere in our republic. There was a functioning two-party democracy featuring Democrat and Republican legislators who were generally moderate, pro-business, and had no problem working both sides of the aisle. It helped that Colorado was ranked second nationally in college degrees per capita.
That attracted even more educated folks, and when those emigrants arrived, they saw the value of agriculture, open space, and the desire for good government from farmers, urban dwellers, ski resort operators, colleges, and employers. They assimilated easily and this created a positive feedback loop that fostered mutual respect. There’s enough right there to make it an attractive place without even mentioning the Rocky Mountains, four National Parks, and a vibrant Latino community; some families go back to the sixteenth century and can trace their holdings back to land grants given by the Spanish Crown.
I also came to love the enormous variety of ecosystems and topography. The state’s eastern half is the Great Plains, and the southwest is the desert. In between are coniferous forestland and alpine peaks with snow on top year round. Anchoring everything are the two great rivers: the Arkansas, which runs southeasterly, and the Colorado, which runs southwesterly. And the state is big. Back when I was a trucker, I remember a call from my dispatcher. I happened to be in Denver, and he said I was to deliver a shipment to Durango and be back to load in Fort Collins the next morning. I pointed out to him that the distance from Denver to Durango was enormous—it would be the same driving time as from Raleigh, North Carolina, to New Haven, Connecticut. He was surprised, as many Easterners are, when given such big-state illustrations.
The bottom third of Colorado is transected by the Arkansas River, which starts in the Rocky Mountains and flows to the Mississippi. It’s the sixth longest river in the US and probably the one least known. It’s important here because the area of Colorado south of the Arkansas was part of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. While Denver is as cosmopolitan a city as any in America, go south of the Arkansas and you’re back in Spanish America. Head west from there, and you’re in Navajo country. Head north from there, and you’re in the Rockies and Ute territory, with pockets of Colorado ski country filled with beautiful and history-rich towns like Telluride, Ouray, Crested Butte, and Aspen.
Nobody in Colorado thinks twice about a four-hour road trip west to the mountains or south to the Arkansas. Fewer people go east to amazing places like Bent’s Fort, a rebuilt trading post from the 1830s, when the Arapahoe ruled the roost and dictated terms to the palefaces, or the Pawnee National Grasslands, whose rolling knolls finally make clear how much fun it must have been to ride ponies mile after mile running down bison. William Bent built the fort he named after himself; he was permitted a trading license from the Arapahoe and Southern Cheyenne after marrying the aristocratic Owl Woman and starting a family. This was twenty-five years before the Colorado gold rush, and white people had to show some serious community solidarity, like marriage, to gain any status inside the powerful Native structure.
You could spend your entire life exploring Colorado and not scratch the surface.
The Rocky Mountains are very close to the major population centers of what’s called the Front Range. The borderland between the mountains and the plains, the Front Range runs almost due south five hundred miles, from Laramie, Wyoming, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Front Range is home to an ancient highway, created by Homo sapiens eons before recorded history, though I suppose the footpaths are in fact a form of recorded history. They were trodden first maybe twenty thousand years ago by peoples on their trek from the Bering land bridge to the bottom of South America. The term “land bridge” is entirely relative, since the “bridge” was probably 450 miles wide, but no less daunting for that. The time-frame is currently a subject of great disagreement; some scholars say the footpath goes back much further, and some say it’s of a more recent date. Anyway, Interstate 25 tracks the footpath perfectly; the engineers from the Eisenhower days simply followed the route those ancient travelers had already figured out.
The Front Range has been a population center since then, starting with the Clovis people, then the Folsoms, and on to the Arapahoe and Southern Cheyenne in the late eighteenth century. Everyone stopping here appreciated the mild winters, the availability of water, firewood, and forage for animals. Naturally, there was a lot of competition, meaning violence, about who got to live here. The Front Range is now populated by tech entrepreneurs, transportation specialists, Big Ag, defense contractors, and a solid but dwindling cadre of family farmers, and they’re still fighting about who gets to live here. Nowadays it’s done with dollars instead of clubs, but it’s no less competitive. The median home price in Boulder is $1.1 million, and for the Front Range as a whole it’s almost $600,000. I don’t know what a family with two earners, one working at a cell phone store and the other maybe at a pet day care or a grocery store, is going to do when it comes to home ownership. Well, I actually do know; they’re not going to be homeowners.
When the first gold seekers camped in what is now Boulder in 1858, they met the Arapahoe chief Niwot, called Left Hand by the Anglos, who told them to go away. When they didn’t, Niwot tried to get along with the newcomers, and for his efforts was massacred at Sand Creek in 1864. Niwot left a legacy in his well-known Curse of the Boulder Valley: “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.” He left an additional legacy—shared by most of America, where many place names are attached either to the first white man to arrive or the last Indian to leave—in the village of Niwot just north of Boulder. For the perfect contrast, I live in Longmont, right next to Niwot, which is named after Stephen Long, a Dartmouth-educated engineer who “discovered” and named Long’s Peak in 1822.
Niwot’s curse aside, I loved picking up all this recent history. I also loved the climate. It was one of the many great unexpected surprises about living in Colorado.
When I first arrived, I was shocked that the city of Boulder didn’t plow the streets after a snowstorm, making a morning commute difficult. Before I could even draft a stern letter to the editor on the appalling lack of city services, the snow had melted. It would invariably be gone by the next day. Boulder County has over three hundred days of sunshine a year. The bike paths, of which there are over three hundred miles within the city limits, would once again fill with commuters, and restaurant managers would put out the sidewalk umbrellas. This is not the Nantucketer’s experience grinding through the long shank of a New England winter.
Almost five million people now live on the Front Range, and the Rocky Mountains are no longer seen as a forbidding and impenetrable barrier but as a nearby playground. A typical weekend outing, regardless of one’s age, might be the ascent of a 14,000-foot peak, called a fourteener. Nobody bothers to ask if the summit is above your level of fitness. It’s assumed you’re in shape. There are fifty-eight fourteeners in the state, and a common bucket list item for regular citizens is to bag all of them. These folks aren’t extreme athletes. They’re postal workers or courthouse clerks or furniture movers. In winter, another standard outing is a hut trip, where you strap skins onto your skis and climb into the mountains to grab some fresh powder while staying a night or two in a back-country cabin. You have to hump in all your food and beer in a backpack. These activities are considered normal weekends in Colorado. Other standard pastimes include heading south to the Arkansas for a raft trip through the rapids or soaking in hot springs outside Salida. You can check out the many ghost towns or take your four-wheel drive SUV and see some country for real that the Land Rover commercials show on TV. Try elk hunting, or maybe snowmobile the bowls around Steamboat Springs. Want some downtime? Head to Crestone, in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and you’ll have a choice of a couple dozen retreat centers to soothe your soul. The name Sangre de Cristo tells you, without a map, that you’re well south of the Arkansas.
All this may sound like I’m working for the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, but I’m not the only one who feels this way. People come out here to college or graduate school or on some road trip and, well, they stay. Young people. People with ambition, brains, and a far clearer idea of life–work balance than my generation ever possessed. These were the folks who formed the vanguard of the hemp revolution, and it was the oil from the plant—cannabidiol (CBD)—that got everyone excited.
Reprinted from Rocky Mountain High: A Tale of Boom and Bust in the New Wild West by Finn Murphy. Copyright © 2023 by Finn Murphy. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Finn Murphy is the author of forthcoming “Rocky Mountain High” (W.W. Norton, June 2023) and “The Long Haul,” the national bestseller about his many years as a long-haul trucker that was named a finalist for the Indies Choice and the Colorado Book Awards. Murphy grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Colorado on a small ranch with 40 cows, two miniature horses, six chickens, his partner Deb, and a Blue Heeler named Charley. In addition to his writing, Murphy is a certified adaptive ski instructor, an active member of the local Grange, and advises small business owners on best practices.