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Coming to Colorado
In preparation for Colorado Day on August 1, we asked each member of the State Historian’s Council to reflect on what “our beloved Colorado” means to them. Here, William Wei reflects on the journey that brought him to Colorado.
Coming to Colorado is an essential part of my life’s journey. To get there involved an odyssey through America. It has been a circuitous trip, without the benefit of a guide. In my mind’s eye, it began in the tenements of the Lower Eastside of the island of Manhattan, with a sojourn in the Midwest and visits to the West Coast before finally settling in the Centennial State.
Except for knowing that it was one of America’s fifty states, Colorado barely registered in my consciousness. My youthful understanding of Colorado and the United States in general was pretty much reflected in Saul Steinberg’s 1976 The New Yorker cover, “A New Yorker’s View of the World.” Being a typical parochial New Yorker, civilization ended at the Hudson River and everything west of it was where they built cars and baked bread for New Yorkers. In the case of Colorado, it was a place where I assumed the buffalo roamed and the deer and the antelope played. But by the Sixties, I wanted to see what was beyond the Hudson, to see the land that folk singer Woody Guthrie told me was my land. And I did, with many an adventure while doing so.
As I think about it, my journey was really about finding my soul mate, the person with whom I wanted to spend my life, as well as the place where I wanted to live for the rest of my life. I found both in the Centennial State. For that reason, the person and place are inextricably intertwined in my mind. The person is my wife Susan. We have been together ever since. We met at what has been described as the most boring faculty holiday party at the University of Colorado (CU)—the History Department’s annual winter holiday party. But before that fortuitous event, I first had to come to Colorado.
CU’s History Department had the wisdom to offer me a position as an Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History before anyone else did. Being of a pragmatic persuasion, I accepted it with alacrity. What I remember most clearly about my first visit to Colorado was a tour of CU’s campus. During the stroll around the campus, the chair of the history department invited me to look up at the Flatirons and said, without a trace of irony, that it was worth $5,000 of my salary. Perplexed, I related the story to a senior colleague who, without missing a beat, said, “Damn, inflation. When I came, it was worth only $1,000.” It is, of course, impossible to put a price tag on Colorado’s natural beauty, though the university keeps trying to whenever it hires a new faculty member.
The move from Ann Arbor to Boulder was long, but I did get to see Guthrie’s “wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling” while driving along what he called that “ribbon of highway” spanning the country. I can still recall the thrill of seeing the Rocky Mountains, which appeared like a hazy purple mirage in the distance. I remember thinking that I was almost there . . . almost home, only to discover it would take me another five hours before actually reaching Boulder. I am probably not the first person to have been deceived by the Rockies.
One of the first things I did after arriving in Boulder in August 1980 was to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, where I drove along Trail Ridge Road past the alpine tundra to see the mountains close up. It was quite a sight and made Katharine Lee Bates’ famous description of “purple mountain majesties” real to me. It was in these mountains that I had as near a spiritual experience as a secular humanist like myself was ever going to have. I stood in awe of the mountains, feeling like I had entered a cathedral. Normally agnostic about God’s existence, I could not help thinking to myself, “good job.” And when it began to snow and people, who were mostly wearing shorts, began to scurry to their cars, I also thought the Almighty certainly had a sense of humor.
From my Boulder base camp, I have travelled throughout the state and the region as well as to different parts of the world. No matter where I have been, I always look forward to returning to Colorado, where I have had a life worth reflecting upon as well as a career that includes the privilege of serving as the Colorado State Historian.
After all these many years, I still feel a sense of gratitude for coming to Colorado.