BOBBY MAGILL

Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a senior science writer for Climate Central in New York and a journalist who has covered fracking and the environment in Colorado and New Mexico since 2001. 

Highway 34 Revisited

As I was photographing the Eckley Garage on Thursday, a guy in an old blue Buick pulled up behind me, looked over and said, "You writing another story?"

Another story? A story about what?

Turns out someone else had been snooping around Eckley, Colorado, taking pictures and writing something about this tiny village way out on the Eastern Plains in Yuma County. The guy in the Buick started talking about a dilapidated brick building across the street, which he said had been an opera house at one point. I should write a story about it, he said.

"I really thought you were the guy writing a story about his place," he said.

"Well, I do work for a newspaper, but that's not why I'm here," I said. "I'm just taking pictures."

"Where you from?"

"Fort Collins," I said. "Never been through these parts."

I've also never been confronted by anyone while taking pictures, but I figure Eckley doesn't get many tourists. I returned to my car, drove down the street, and the guy followed me all the way to the store on U.S. 34 selling both cold beer and insurance (guess you need both to survive out here).

I'd never ventured into Yuma County before, so I consider it ripe for the subject of a photo expedition into new territory. My inclination is to go east from Fort Collins partly because everyone else seems so intent on going west from here. There must be something interesting to explore in eastern Colorado. And, of course, there is.

There's one thing, besides the flatness, that sets this part of Colorado apart from the rest: Shit.

No kidding. The feedlot fecal odor in northeast Colorado is inescapable, so when the air is further filthied by other development nobody seems to notice because the breeze is already thick with the stink of manure. Not that that's such a bad thing. You just have to get used to it.

As they say, Kansas starts at DIA (Denver International Airport), and the U.S. 34 corridor east of I-25 is squarely on the Kansas side of Colorado. Perhaps it's more accurate to say the Nebraska side of Colorado because Hwy. 34 crosses into Nebraska at the state line, but only slightly north of the Kansas border.

Though my favorite part of Colorado is Mesa County, specifically, and the Western Slope in general, the Great Plains fascinate me mainly because they're poo-hooed by urban Coloradans as merely flat and uninteresting. To these people, it seems the lack of mountains necessarily means the plains are unworthy of both exploration and a second thought, something to speed through as fast as possible on I-70 between, say, Ohio and Vail.

Of course, as with all blank spots on the map and other places looked down upon by the mountain-climbing masses, there's plenty interesting about the Great Plains and, more specifically, Colorado's great forgotten third. No, Fort Morgan ain't Fort Collins, but it's no less worthy of getting to know.

As I'm attempting to capture with my camera, every bombed-out motel or rotten, peeling, dilapidated old storefront, post office or farm house has a story to tell. There are plenty of photographers and storytellers out there who have tried to capture such striking (and, now, often cliché) images of fading Americana, but only a few, it seems, have done so in the context of Colorado, which, it goes without saying, is known more for its ski slopes, Fourteeners and some of its bat-shit crazy characters than for its majestic hardscrabble eastern plains.

I live just north of U.S. 34, which, in my opinion, is Colorado's consummate plains-to-mountains highway, meandering through some of the most majestic of both. Granted, a case could be made for U.S. highways 24, 50 or 160, but U.S. 34 is a special case.

Hwy. 34 has the distinction of being the highest continuously paved through-highway in both the U.S. and in Colorado. At the Nebraska border, it's the lowest U.S. highway in Colorado. The lowest point in the state, along the Arikaree River at the Kansas line, isn't far south of there. At the other extreme, U.S. 34 is Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, where the highway climbs to above 12,100 feet before descending into Grand Lake and ending at Granby.

A road trip along Hwy. 34 is a bit of a meditation on land use, urban development, idiotic highway design (the U.S. 34-85 interchange in Greeley comes to mind), industrial agriculture, energy production and right-wing radio, among many other things. Feedlots aplenty in these parts, inhaling as  you drive by thousands of cows lined up at a fence behind giant mounds of manure will make you contemplate the origins and implications of the cheeseburger you ate for dinner last night.

As the temperature climbed to a balmy 77 degrees near Wray on Thursday afternoon, I spent some time at the obscure Sand Sage State Wildlife Area, which sits along the North Fork of the Republican River. There's a pastoral quality to this place as the tiny river meanders through thickets of cottonwood. It's the sort of all-American landscape celebrated ad nauseam in so much of our literature and in our popular America-as-breadbasket notion of ourselves. It's just a nice place. Peaceful and serene. Calmness just out of sight of the trucks screaming down the highway.

Nice isn't rugged or majestic or even very interesting. But, as a walk through Sand Sage proved, nice does have value.