Moral Uplift

A Chautauqua thrives at the foot of the Rockies.

Boulder
Boulder Colorado Chautauqua Auditorium

Credit: Colorado Chautauqua Association

In 2003, I moved to Boulder, Colo., in search of inspiration. I had been living high in the Rocky Mountains for a year, working on a book about the town of Leadville's struggle with the federal government over mine waste. Home then was a third-floor studio with a view of the range's highest peaks, but by September, with my book half written and the deadline four months away, I rented, sight unseen, a studio over Boulder's food co-op with a view of a red brick wall.

After throwing my futon on the floor, I went in search of places where I might write. Boulder's numerous coffee shops looked promising, as did its downtown public library overlooking Boulder Creek. But true stimulation came, unexpectedly, from a little patch of lawn along a quiet, narrow lane in Chautauqua Park. The Waterwise Garden, intended to promote xeriscaping, is a triangular wedge of grass within the triangular grounds of the West's only surviving Chautauqua, part of a national movement that provided education and entertainment to isolated communities beginning in the 1870s. Ringed by native grasses, sumac, and daisies, the rustic garden lacked the formality of the park's Centennial Garden and the popularity of "the Green," an expanse of lawn often filled with picnickers, students, and dogs.

The old-fashioned garden became my favorite writing spot. I never set foot inside a building in Chautauqua Park—although I did pull on a few locked doors—never spent a night in one of the cottages, never attended a performance at the auditorium or ate a meal in the dining hall. I had no time or money for any of that, but I did feel a connection to this place, as if my writing pursuit would meet with approval by Chautauqua's founders. Surrounded by simple, early-20th-century cottages with their friendly porches looking on, the Waterwise Garden was a quiet place for park visitors to let toddlers play and to greet neighbors. I spent many mild, sunny days that winter sitting on one of the garden's uncomfortable, if original, iron benches and looking up occasionally at the massive red sandstone formations known as the Flatirons. Relaxed and less hurried, I could easily slip into a world of my own creation. My laptop—but not my labor—was the most incongruous part of the experience in a place that I imagined was much like small-town America a century ago.  

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