Ed Quillen: Colorado’s merry intellectual prankster
by Allen Best
I wonder what Ed Quillen would have had to say about this latest round of smoke and fire out on the urban fringe in Colorado. As regular readers of The Denver Post know, he died two weeks ago this past Sunday. Attending services for him in Salida, where he had lived since 1978, I was told that he had a book about the Civil War in his hands at the end. He was 62 – and a good friend, an occasional collaborator in both writing and outdoor adventure, and my first newspaper boss.
That was in Kremmling, Colorado, in 1977. Shortly after going to work for him that July, I mentioned to him a book I had read, “The Monkeywrench Gang,” by Edward Abbey. He had heard of neither. So I presented him with my copy one late Tuesday afternoon. He promised to look at it over dinner.
Two or three hours later he returned. A pokey writer then, I had written four or five paragraphs of my story. He had loved the book. “A real howler,” he said.
I surmised that he had made it through the opening sequence where Hayduke, Doc, and crew had done their devilment on Glen Canyon Dam, and perhaps another chapter or two beyond.
No, he had read the whole book.
A rounded character
Ed was brilliant, funny, and a nonconformist. Some people called him a liberal, but they completely misunderstood him. “Mountain libertarian,” somebody said on The Denver Post website. That’s better. He distrusted the authoritarian nature of most institutions and demagoguery of every tilt. He voted for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter, and maybe George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton. What better that an ex-military man to understand the frauds of the military complex, he reasoned.
Always taking the long view, he concluded in 2003 that we might not know for decades whether George W. Bush was wise or tragically dunderheaded in sending us to war in Iraq.
If he ridiculed conservatives without mercy in recent years, it’s because their hypocrisies were such inviting targets. The Bill of Rights was sacrosanct, and for a time he was a member of the National Rifle Association. But in one of his last columns, he ridiculed the NRA for its fund-raising campaign that attempted to create a socialist monster out of Barack Obama.
Through the years, Ed also lampooned what Ed Abbey had called industrial tourism. Working for the winter in 1977-78 at the Summit County Journal in Breckenridge, he had observed the pretenses. With incredulity, several times through the years he related getting a phone call from somebody fretting about a front-page picture of a snowplow that had gone off an icy road. What will the tourists think?
Later, by then in Salida—accessible, but only by two-lane highway—he dismissed the resort strip of I-70 as a “sacrifice zone.” That left Salida and other places relatively untainted, a place of small-stakes gambles in skiing, river-rafting and vacation real estate.
Ed had grown up in a farming town, Greeley, on Colorado’s eastern plains, working in the family laundry. He never completely lost his blue-collar roots. He often paid tribute to the miners and railroaders and others who worked with their hands. Although a proponent of wilderness preservation, in our backcountry rambles of the 1980s he was most drawn to the remnants of human enterprise, such as the Pride of the West Mine on the slopes of Pomeroy Mountain, west of Salida. Or, west of Leadville, the old Midland Railroad tunnels built to ferry Aspen’s silver ores to smelters and later converted to export an ultimately more valuable commodity, water, from the Western Slope.
Often, he mentioned his experiences with dynamite, a tool of the working man and an element in the early 20th century labor wars in Colorado.
He was a merry prankster. I seem to recall he had some fun making loud noises with lesser-grade explosives in civilized settings. He loved Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, not the Beatles. In Avon, our ears rang after standing in the front row to hear George Thorogood and the Destroyers sing “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer.” At the Jackson Hotel in Poncha Springs one night, we drank rye whiskey – but never wine. He smoked his Camels straight. He liked life straight up.
He was no Luddite. He was a student of technological change, and had an Osborne computer by the early 1980s and soon was writing his own code and building his own computers.
For years, he wanted me to dig deep into the technological changes such as high-powered snowmobiles that were transforming the public lands of the West. From my vantage point in Vail, he reasoned, I had a front-row seat. For just as long, he wanted me to write a history of Interstate 70.
Much later, in Salida, he pointed out that between the water imported from the Aspen area to the river banks created by the railroads, little about the Arkansas River was natural. Everything has a history, and it does matter.
At his core Ed was a geographer and historian. About Colorado, he had vast stores of knowledge in both disciplines. But to truly understand this place required him to analyze a much larger world through time. The Civil War was an absorbing quest, a book on that topic on his hands at the very end. One of his favorite books, I think, was “Nature’s Metropolis,” Williams Cronin’s study of Chicago’s economic empire. Railroads, highways and water – they all interested him. Far from the universities and skyscrapers, he analyzed the world.
Ed’s writing won him modest fame, and it was a remarkable skill. He could deliver a history lesson, provoke a chortle and a snort of indignation — then take you to a place you’d never expected, all in the space of 600 words. I believe that unpredictability is what set him aside from lesser writers. He had many influences, but most clearly H.L. Mencken. But to understand Mencken, he once said, you should go to the source: the 19th century British Labour Thomas Macaulay.
At home in Salida
Salida embodied the distillation of many of his sensibilities. It was at the intersection of the old railroad and mining economies, but also at the intersection of the Sawatch and Sangre de Christo mountains, both ranges littered with 14,000-foot peaks. The town was big enough to be interesting and provide essential services. But it was small enough to be intimate, the post office, the Victoria Tavern, and (for many years) Gambles just a few blocks from home. But even before moving to Salida, he had articulated the lesser environmental impact of urban living, even big cities. A writer for the New Yorker issued a book a few years ago on that same theme. In so many ways, Ed was decades ahead of the crowd.
This year’s new round of wildfires and exurban home destruction would surely have inspired commentary. Beginning in the 1990s, he challenged the presumed closer-to-nature living on the exurban fringe. Forestry experts call it the wildland-urban interface. More bluntly, Ed called it the “stupid zone,” and he articulated the quiet subsidies of fire suppression in disturbance-prone ecosystems. Ed could be prickly, but in so many ways he forced us to examine our assumptions.
In the early 1990s, I suggested that by relocating to Denver, he could more directly engage in the issues of the urban masses—and perhaps earn a living commensurate with his talents. Too, I thought a dose of city living would curb his sometimes curmudgeonly instincts, which at times overpowered his wit and insight. He never had become nationally syndicated, as The Denver Post editor who had hired him in 1985 had predicted would be his future.
Instead of the city, Ed and his wife, Martha, started Colorado Central, a paean (a word I learned from Ed) to a place of small towns and, in its very name, an education. On the day that Ed died, I was returning to metro Denver from a weekend excursion to the Cottonwood Hot Springs. We stopped in Lake George, west of Colorado Springs, and I told my companion that this was geographically the center of Colorado. It was a factoid, courtesy of Ed, but as in so many things, it was also the key to a broader understanding of the universe that we shared.