Sunday, May 29, 2016

Boulder, SUVs and goats

      I've spent a lot of time in Colorado: a full year, in bits and pieces, since I was a teenager. I don't love it the way many do. I mean, it's nice. Mountains. Forests. More mountains. Fine if you like that kind of thing.  I'm there now, visiting my parents. So I thought I'd share an observation from a dozen years ago, when SUVs were newer and more something to be remarked upon, as opposed to something accepted with a shrug.

     BOULDER, Colo.--There are fewer sport-utility vehicles on the roads here than in Chicago. That was a surprise. I assumed, with all the mountains, it would be the other way around, and worried I was somehow misperceiving things, perhaps due to the less congested traffic zipping along new, clean highways, plus the wide open spaces. But I quizzed my wife, cleverly not tipping my hand, and she viewed it the same. And we definitely did not spot a single Hummer in a week of driving the kids hither and yon, through the Rockies and back and forth across town.
     I have a theory as to why this is: People in Chicago drive all those Behemoths and Whales and Mountainsides--complete with headlight grills to brush away nonexistent branches and fog lights to cut through the mist of fjords 5,000 miles away--as part of some elaborate interior fantasy, a parody of the life they'd lead if only they weren't working like dray horses in windowless brokerage houses on LaSalle Street.
    But in Colorado, where people actually routinely shun their work and responsibilities and race off to the mountains and climb them, sometimes with their bare hands, they don't need to fantasize. They're busy hiking, riding, paddling, skydiving. They don't need a 3-ton, 11 mpg, $60,000 hunk of junk to prop up their outdoor delusions. They've got the real thing. We pulled over to the side of the road in Rocky Mountain National Park and watched a herd of elk basking in the sun, if not eyeball to eyeball, then as close to a group of elk as I want to be without bars between us.
     And I was driving a sedan.
     Not that Boulderites are without their own fantasies. Living next to smoggy Denver, which is a kind of Cleveland with mountains, and with every acre of farmland rapidly turning into tracts of pre-fab homes, there is a certain frenzy to environmentalism here.
     For instance. We were zipping along Foothills Parkway when we passed a couple hundred goats at the side of the road. We were in residential Boulder, and a glance beyond the goats confirmed that this wasn't some sliver of farm. There were houses around the goats. My wife was puzzled, but my long acquaintance with the People's Republic of Boulder--I've been coming here since the mid-1970s--gave me a hunch what was happening. The goats were mowing the grass, a diligent step on the road to ecological Nirvana. I had to know more.

     Recession, not eco-friendliness       
      "I came up with the idea," said Patrick Tarver, median maintenance flood supervisor for the City of Boulder. "We've only had it going about three weeks; it started out as a pilot program."
     To my disappointment, the goat mowers were not inspired directly by some chai-swigging, patchouli-scented macro-organic aversion to internal combustion engine lawn mowing, but because of lawn care services folding in the recession.
     "We couldn't get a mowing contractor," Tarver said. "The budget hit them really hard. They had let people go, sold equipment, and couldn't handle the job."
     Enter the goats.
     "We had a noxious weed problem, and used the goats in the past, and it just kind of came to me to try goats out," he said. "We have real steep berms, and it would take a lot of time to weed wack the whole area."
     A company in a nearby town, "Nip It in the Bud," provides hungry goats at $1 a day each--there are 232 in Boulder's herd, and Tarver said the goats' work compares favorably to human mowers at $10 to $15 an hour. Temporary fencing keeps the goats from wandering away.
     Tarver said that while the primary motive was "an economic thing," there is no question that goat mowing scratches a particular Boulder eco-green itch.
     "It is a Boulder mentality item as well," he said. "We're always looking for alternatives, and the goats don't put out ozone, don't put out noise pollution, don't use any fossil fuels."
     One man's ceiling is another man's floor, however. While I was appreciating Boulder for its wide-open spaces, grass-gobbling goats and zoning that doesn't permit any building that doesn't look like it was made out of mud by Pueblos, I ran into a resident who was thinking of packing it up.

     A few people can be too many
     "I've lived here since 1966," said a deeply-tanned, squinty kind of guy I met on the trail, while his dog and my boys played in what I hoped was a creek but could have also been an open sewer. He didn't have to finish the thought.
     "I suppose it's gotten pretty built up for you," I said.
     "It has," he agreed.
    "There's always North Dakota," I said, nodding sagely and forcing down a smile.
     We flew back into Midway, and saw our first Hummer of the week on the treacherous terrain of Cicero Avenue. I was calm though. I'm trying to get beyond the fist-shaking scorn for SUVs that I've felt over the past five years. I'm trying to replace it with more of a bland, avuncular tolerance just shy of contempt. If kids can play cowboys and Indians (well, just cowboys nowadays) then why shouldn't adults buy big rolling playpens and pretend they're being chased by rhinos in the veldt?
     I just wish they wouldn't feel the need to drive while doing it.

                             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 8, 2003


  1. Never read this column before; enjoyed it. I've been to Colorado a few times, seen the Rockies, etc. and appreciate the natural beauty. It's certainly a healthier lifestyle, though I wouldn't want to live there. Good point about the SUVs. I remember when many of us here in Chicago were drooling over Hummers and the like; people driving them would smugly look down (pun intended) on those of us still chugging along in our sedans.

    While reading about the fellow you spoke with who said he felt like moving away, and thinking about the goats chowing down, I couldn't help giggling, wondering if the man as well as the goats felt the "grass might be greener on the other side" of the mountain.


  2. I wouldn't mind SUVs so much if there were some way to see what's in front of them. Not only are they higher than a sedan, but wider as well. Maybe there's an app for that -- programming Google to show the road 25 feet ahead.


  3. I hate hate HATE all SUVs with the passion of a million white-hot burning sons. They guzzle gas, hog the road, block the views of normal drivers and make parking a nightmare. As far as I'm concerned, if you don't do a lot of off-roading and/or have fewer than four children, you have no damn business owning one.

    Bitter Scribe


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