Recently, on a quick driving trip into the mountains, we made a conscious decision to inject Colorado Springs into every conversation with strangers, just to see what the reaction would be.
It’s usually worth the effort anyway, even without an ulterior motive. But this time the intent was simply to gauge whether the response would be instantly negative, as often has been the case in the past.
So, from Buena Vista onward to the Western Slope, then back through Denver, at every stop or meal, Colorado Springs became a subject of discussion. Another visit to Denver for a meeting this week added another similar experience.
Through the years, these encounters invariably would lead to dealing with the usual stereotyping of our city. Inquisitive strangers would want to know more about the Springs’ famously conservative politics (starting with Douglas Bruce), the high-profile religious presence (Focus on the Family, New Life) and the best-known examples of city budget cuts (turning off streetlights, not watering parks).
From those conversations, and more that we’ve heard about from others, it has been easy to conclude how the state looks at us. Or, to be more specific, looks down at us.
But that’s not happening anymore.
Mention Colorado Springs, no matter what the context, and it’s all about The Fire. The outsiders, even in Denver, already have forgotten about the Waldo Canyon part. But they remember the fire, and it obviously has affected the rest of Colorado. So the questions come from everyone, whether it’s a gas station attendant, store cashiers, restaurant servers, hotel clerks, bartenders, even others in the media.
“Were you evacuated? Wow, what was that like? How close did it come to your house? Do you know any people who lost their homes? How are they dealing with it? Can you see the burned parts every day? Was it as bad as it looked on TV? What’s it like now?”
That’s just a sampling of the most common questions, because the follow-ups went deeper. Clearly, the curiosity remains. And it’s obvious that many others around the state are looking at us in a different way now. No more politics, religion and streetlights. They’re feeling for us, and they’re thankful it didn’t happen to them.
After enough of those conversations, two thoughts have come to mind.
One, we need to accept — all of us — that we’ve been through a terrible, shocking, traumatic nightmare together. Sure, we dealt with it and continue to deal with it in positive ways, but let’s not forget that we have suffered tremendously, and for many, the psychological scars won’t go away soon. Thankfully, we’re hearing the long-term relief effort addresses that.
Two, the Waldo Canyon fire has changed our city’s image. But that’s not a bad thing, and there should be ways to capitalize on that. Perhaps we could tap into the state’s concerns with a creative campaign, inviting Coloradoans to come and see us in the months ahead, actually helping us recover while satisfying their curiosity.
Also, just as the larger media check back in on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf oil spill and other disasters, rest assured they’ll return to look at us again. We can’t be surprised when that inevitably happens. Instead, we should be ready to tell our story, because others really do want to hear it, even now.
As one young woman serving dinner in Vail put it, “That fire scared everyone, because what you went through, we all knew that could have been us.”