The Last Real Wilderness Is Time

by John Thompson


There is a long and beautiful monologue in Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York in which the author expounds upon the peculiar way in which the city lives, and the way that its inhabitants own everything in it, including the continuous and unstoppable state of change. The city, the reasoning goes, is always as you saw it when you first set foot there, and you become a New Yorker once you see an old place you once loved subducted and recycled to be something new. Your city lives in memory; the real city defies sentiment, swallows things whole.

I heard the author recite that passage during a film fundraiser. At the time I was still new to New York and in love with it. The phenomenon described seemed so romantic because I, probably like most people assembled in that room, had come from a place i found lethargic and dull. Whitehead confirmed the city as a mythical site of struggle and rebirth for people like us. What we, or I, failed or refused to recognize was that we were less spectators to the workings of the gargantuan creature that we lived in than lampreys held fast to its flank. I was flattering myself. In time I would have only made the city a worse place.

In true white post-grad fashion, I lasted only a year in New York. At the time it felt something like a defeat. Denver was a downgrade, even though it was much cheaper, with better weather, with older friends on hand. New York meant something that Denver didn’t. When I came around to my new (old) home state, I lost touch with the singular triumphalism that Whitehead’s prose conveyed. New York had become in my mind a site to where young and lost (and middle-class-plus, and educated) people went to catch a bit of their own metamorphosis from that which was going on all around them at all hours of the day. That is a romantic narrative, of course, but even if the great cities of the world are often associated with the arc of the bildungsroman it is not because they are sufficient or even necessary to sustain it.

As you head west, civilization loosens its girdle. The invigorating thing about the East, and New York specifically, is its density. The legroom in Colorado is, by contrast, ludicrous. People have yards and Labradors milling about them. The supermarkets are yawning warehouses. The churches are also yawning warehouses, wrapped in glass and buffered by sprawling, barren parking lots, as though their essential ugliness had leaked out and caked the ground. The car remains as essential to functional living as the horse was 150 years ago. You can go your entire day and never be in a position to share personal space with anyone else, you can live your entire life as a shrink-wrapped unit kept septic from other people. In the city you are packed like sardines even when you mean nothing to one another.

A profound fear of other people is easier to accommodate in the country. It’s not impossible to sustain in the city, but the work that you put into it is more apparent.

Some weeks ago, while visiting my childhood home in Loveland, I dusted off an old bike and headed west toward the foot of the Rockies. I thought about when I’d planned my move to New York, fearing the loss of the mountains like a limb; their permanence had salved my teenage loneliness in a strange way. I could turn west and feel their presence even at night, their bulk swallowing the sun prematurely and masking the stars on the horizon. I felt that I could latch fast to them if the earth were to tilt unexpectedly. I had driven through endless Texas flatlands and had been unnerved by the mountains’ absence, and I was worried that the city would unmoor me.

But in New York I had the Hudson and, more importantly the throngs of people, siphoned in and out at all hours of the day and night. There too is the Empire State Building, which I had somehow written off as a second-tier landmark before I’d even seen it. Not the tallest, nor oldest, nor most modern, even in that city. But from the elevated subway platform, from my bedroom window, from every station of my daily life I could turn west and see it. It didn’t blot out the stars at night, but the city accomplished that feat in aggregate.

By bike you reach the steep gradient of the foothills buffering the true Rockies within 20 minutes of my childhood home, the grassy hills giving way to sheer Precambrian rock and shrubbery, the small verdant valleys beyond the foothills stretching like quick gasps before the plunge into the slopes and peaks of the range. During the day I had been thinking of that reading in Brooklyn, regretting that I never experienced Whitehead’s moment of walking through a block where old haunts had suddenly disappeared. But in riding up the hill toward that final stretch of plains separating our home from the foothills, the city finally seemed less exceptional than it had since I was compelled to leave it.

New York repaves itself so often because its tireless growth crashes against the barriers of land and access that bind the city. So it turns back, cannibalizes. The towns of the West face no such strictures. With the right impetus a nascent city will sprawl effortlessly. I was raised on what was once the edge of a town, in the most literal sense of the term: walk a few streets north and it simply ended, the roads and sidewalks cut off as though the crews who made them simply decided to stop. Beyond lay miles of fallow fields until the next town started. In visual terms the rows of manicured subdivisions giving way to nothing were only slightly less dissonant than their platonic ideals in Las Vegas or other desert burgs, where you can move out of a verdant neighborhood and into a parched wilderness in one step.

The rolling grasslands in the North of Colorado have at least (some) naturally provided water, and that allowed us a notion of “natural” expansion. The plains seemed both empty and inviting, a liminal space only “wild” in the loosest sense. In truth the emptiness beyond our streets had already been claimed, sapped of its wildness by settlers, the lonely trees torn down to allow back porch views of the mountains, the prairie dogs sucked out of their warrens to pre-empt the spread of plague. There are no more frontiers, only liminal spaces, sleeping until their princely developer comes to wake them.

The middle school that I attended was placed in the middle of the grasslands, a solid mile from anything other than county roads. The plumbing infrastructure was so new that the tap water came out chalky for nearly a year after its opening. I would often walk home through the fields to my neighborhood and pass small herds of grazing bison (these too were mockeries of wildness–owned and ferried in by some rancher). It all seemed highly impractical to me: the bus loads were large and the commutes long, and I thought the school a sure failure. But here as elsewhere the function of the school as site of learning was in some sense secondary; its true function was to attract. I would call it a “seed” of development, but that would imply a true creative impulse. A new school is less a seed than a magnet for upper-middle class white folks like my family, “putting down roots” and nervously plotting stable futures. Land prices go up with demand (as do property taxes). Chain restaurants and doomed mall complexes appear, quaint main streets decay, focus drains ever outward.

This glut of change was never meant to feel as inevitable as the churn of the city, but somehow it was. My playgrounds as a child were always construction sites. Towns like mine are often misunderstood as places of torpor, lacking the flourish of the metropolis, but the spark of life here is the same even as it smolders at a slower pace. What truly separates them is death, or at least a more profound impermanent permanence. We expect the city to till itself and avoid stasis, and when it does not the results haunt us (as evidenced by the continual fascination with Detroit’s ongoing struggles and devastation elsewhere brought by mortgage crises and hurricanes).

By contrast, death is ever-present in the town, both in its unnoticed spoiling of wild places and in its tendency to leave its failures bare, even to the point where towns in their entirety are rendered as husks. Towns die and leave ghosts in an almost literal sense, filled with reminders of human life that will remain forever hollow. I don’t believe New York or any true city can ever truly die, save at the hands of horror that we’ll hopefully never see. That’s their promise.

On my bike I rode from my home to my old school, once a sore thumb in the grasslands, now the centerpiece of a sprawl. The edge of town I grew up in is now mostly theoretical, only a slip of publicly mandated open space separating us from the next sprawl, on the southern end of Fort Collins. Where the bison once grazed there are now clutches of “French-style” ranch houses painted in earth tones and winding creeks no more real than the terrarium lakes of Central Park. I worry of what will happen when the last of the tech manufacturing work that invigorated us in my childhood dries up (many of my friends’ parents, drawn by engineering jobs, now work elsewhere). Perhaps we’ll become a true exurb of Denver. But the nascent town from my memory will not come back. There won’t even be the slightest reminder, save for (God willing) the view.

Maybe reminders mean less to us here, where the promise of a new development is just beyond the next rather than atop the last. But the memory to me is no less personal. At the reading, I felt as though a grand spiritual rite of passage was in the process of illumination, as though I were being invited to an experience an insight of life among other people that could only be achieved within the city’s throng. But out here in the sticks, the power of time and human desires to erode the places and images that we once clung to is still apparent. I am just as humbled to bear witness to it, and I am still compelled to appreciate to a greater degree those things that have yet to be taken from me and, if I’m lucky, the things that never will be.

John W. Thompson is a professional student pursuing a Master’s Degree at the University of Colorado at Denver. He tweets at @Basic_Chunnel. His work has appeared on The Toast.