October 29, 2021 | LIFE | By Isabel Hicks | Photo courtesy of the author

When you drive on I-70, what do you notice? The slew of Texas license plates that drive at a snail’s pace over mountain curves? The tantalizing signs for hot springs just an exit away? Or my personal favorite, the billboards advertising ski resorts to west-bound drivers, only to highlight injury attorneys on the other side for those driving back east?

I had ample time to ponder this question over block break on my eight-hour drive to Utah. We took I-70 the majority of the way, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of a book I read last semester for Tyler Cornelius’ American Environmental History block. 

“Vacationland: Tourism and Environment in the Colorado High Country” by William Philpott details the rise of Colorado’s tourism industry. Part of the book focuses on how the construction of I-70, the highway that connects the state from east to west, was vital to the state’s success in recreational tourism. 

At a whopping 516 pages, I still recommend it — and given that I constantly find myself complaining there aren’t enough hours in the day, I feel like that’s saying something. 

The book shows how after World War II, Colorado reconfigured its natural landscape for economic development through tourism. Historically, Coloradans made money through extractive industries like mining, logging, and ranching. The state’s eastern and western halves were also functionally separate from each other, with the Rocky Mountains acting as an impassable physical barrier. 

Yet all of this changed with the passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1956 under the Eisenhower administration. 

At first, Colorado had to fight to even have an interstate in its jurisdiction. The Rocky Mountains were seen as a massive obstacle to build a highway through, and other states’ flat topography were attractive alternatives. 

Ironically, Colorado argued that an interstate would make its mining, timber, and farming resources more accessible. But when the state was finally granted its interstate miles, those pastimes would soon be replaced with the more lucrative tourism and recreation industries, all made possible with the creation of a superhighway through the mountains. 

Now, skiing, hiking, fishing, and the wide assortment of outdoor activities could dominate Colorado’s economy. Notably, the famous ski town of Vail did not even exist until developers were sure of I-70’s construction and the route it would take.

One facet of the book that came to mind on my I-70 road trip was the construction of the highway in regard to the natural landscape. 

Interestingly, how I-70 is situated within the physical environment depends on what point you’re at on the road. This is because the highway’s sections were constructed east to west over a matter of decades, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s. Varying attitudes to the environment and regulations over the years changed how the highway looks in different places today. 

In some places, the interstate cuts through the natural environment with no regard to physical barriers. Highway engineers have sliced off cliffs at a 90-degree angle to make room for the road, containing loose rocks with wire netting. In others, careful thought has gone into how to configure the road around the land’s topography and be the least destructive as possible. 

I noticed more of the former tactic around Idaho Springs and Georgetown (constructed 1957-1966), and the latter in Glenwood Canyon, which was the first and only section of the interstate to require an Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. 

The Glenwood Canyon section was the last piece of I-70 to be constructed in Colorado, finished in 1992. The rising environmental movement in Colorado pushed highway engineers to pay attention to the interstate’s placement in the landscape. The result is a winding road that follows the natural path of the canyon and its topography instead of slicing through cliffs to create its own route. 

Of course, it is somewhat of an oxymoron to write about environmentally-conscious highways. Any highway construction will be disruptive to the natural landscape and its biodiversity even if an environmental impact statement is conducted. What I mean to highlight is how these different approaches to building highways were developed over decades, but today, you can see the results over the course of just a few hours’ drive. 

Another aspect of I-70 I never realized before reading “Vacationland” is how much lobbying and economic-based decision making went into choosing the route of I-70. Cities and towns had to make the case of why they were the best choices to be easily accessible right off the interstate.

Driving on the road now feels like it was arbitrarily laid out, potentially based on some geographic factors, but in reality countless battles played out surrounding where the road would lie. 

There were two choices of where to put the highway: along the route of U.S. 6 or U.S. 40. The U.S. 6 route was the most direct from east to west, but there was a catch. A tunnel would need to be built through the mountains. U.S. 40 followed a more winding, less direct route with some sloping and topography that might deter tourists, but it wouldn’t need a costly tunnel.

These pros and cons became the talking points of the towns along each route as they fought the bitter battle of which places would reap the majority of tourism dollars from cross-country highway dwellers and which places would be left out. In the end, those along the U.S. 6 route were victorious. 

Then-Colorado Gov. Ed Johnson championed the idea of building a tunnel through the mountains. Now known as the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel, it was built in 1968-1973 and runs a little over a mile to tunnel cars under the Continental Divide. It is a huge, if not the main, reason for the success of Colorado’s tourism industry that relies heavily on out-of-state newcomers who are averse to driving on narrow mountain passes. 

It takes only a few minutes to drive through the Eisenhower-Johnson tunnel and just several hours to cross Colorado via I-70. Yet the highway is a historical reflection of how Colorado transformed into the recreational hub it is today, and not in the too-distant past. 

Paying attention to the route and landscape on I-70 as you stare out the window might provide just the reflection you need on development, impermanence, and how we situate ourselves within the natural environment. Pick up “Vacationland” the next time you get a chance. 

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