Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Colorado Fourteeners and the Nature of Place Identity

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Colorado Fourteeners and the Nature of Place Identity

Article excerpt

The grandest mountains and mountain scenery are found in Colorado. The highest peaks rise, snow-clad, proudly and defiantly in the clear blue sky; their gray sides and white crests being visible in this clear atmosphere for many, many miles away.

George A. Grofutt, 1881

From mountain gloom to montane glory the world's highest peaks have long commanded center stage in the symbolism of natural landscapes. Language and culture mold the circumstances by which mountains have been judged, and these verdicts are recast to fit the fleeting ideals of different times (Nicolson 1997). Romanticism and geomorphic knowledge prompted a shift from an almost Biblical fear of the mountain fastness toward more favorable attitudes about mountains in Europe during the nineteenth century. At the heart of the taste for mountain scenery was familiarity through personal experience and an appreciation for grand size (Rees 1975). These led to the development of an American mountain aesthetic in the mid-1800s, with the Transcendentalist ideals of Emerson and Thoreau molded at first hand in the raw-hewn terrain of the Appalachian Mountains.

For many New Englanders the position of humanity in the cosmos is defined by a roll call of celebrated summits: Katahdin, Greylock, Chocorua, Wachusett, and Grand Monadnock (Rydant and Bayr 1992). In addition to a mountain's height and shape, direct experience through alpine hiking contributes to the character of a mountain (Stier and McAdow 1995). Throughout the eastern United States various clubs promote hiking a collection of high peaks, including the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, White Mountain 4,000-Footers, New England 4,000-Footers, New England 100 Highest, Northeast 111ers, Catskill 35005, and South Beyond 6000s (Heinrichs 1997). Although the mountains in these collections have attained great fame, equaled by peaks in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range, America's fascination with mountains as ideal nature reached its pinnacle in the Colorado Rockies.

Colorado's fifty-four Fourteeners--mountains with a summit elevation more than 14,000 feet above sea level--affirm the state's long-heralded status as the rooftop of a continent (Figure 1). (1) Including such famed summits as Pikes Peak, Longs Peak, Mount of the Holy Cross, the Maroon Bells, and Uncompahgre Peak, the Fourteeners influence how Americans identify with nature. As a barrier to easy movement and communication, a zone of concentrated timber and mineral resources, islands of moisture, areas of government control, and restorative sanctuaries, the Fourteeners well illustrate these five historic themes of the Mountainous West (Wyckoff and Dilsaver 1995) (Figure 2).

Since the mid-1980s, however, these summits have experienced an unprecedented wave of hiking popularity, which has led to severe environmental threats. The headlines fairly shout, "Peaks in Peril" and "Fourteeners under Siege," as the wilderness character of the mountains is loved to death (Kelly 1994). The Fourteener phenomenon is played out on the national stage as coverage of the climbing allure and environmental perils reaches widely read publications such as the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, and Time magazine (Benner 1992; Kenworthy 1998, 2001; Woodbury 1999). The imprint of Colorado's Rocky Mountains on place identity is also illustrated through architectural design with the soaring, white, translucent roof of Denver International Airport, which is an oft-derided attempt to evoke the snow-capped Fourteeners to the west (Sommers 2000).

Given the tendency of mountain studies to emphasize physical, ecological, or natural hazard topics, cultural geography is a research direction that is essential if a complete mountain geography literature is to be created (Price 1981; Smethurst 2000). A cultural geographical perspective on the evolution of the Fourteeners is presented here as a contrived yet iconic construct, for mountains sustain a symbolic role in place identity, whether at the national, regional, state, or local scale. …

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