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Eisenhower Tunnel, I-70

57 miles west of Denver

At 9:45 A.M., Dan and I pull off the highway and park in a small lot at the entrance to the Eisenhower Tunnel. It’s snowing, and it’s been 2 hours and 15 minutes since we left the Dino Lots, a drive that should take less than an hour without traffic.

We walk into the cavernous building above the tunnel and up the stairs into a dimly lit control room. Monitors line the walls. A lone figure sits in a wheeled swivel chair. Before we can introduce ourselves, he speaks, still facing the screens. “I gotta pay attention,” he says, “and if the radio goes off, I gotta listen.”

Video by Daniel Brenner

This is Mark Kerklo, 58, and as a control-room operator, he serves as CDOT’s all-seeing eye at the 1.7-mile tunnel. (“Why didn’t you take the elevator?” he asks.) In a past life he worked a client-facing job in high-end construction management. Now he’s grown his gray beard and silver-blond hair long. “I don’t see anyone anymore,” he says. “I’m just up here at the tunnel, behind the scenes.” When the radio crackles or the phone rings, Kerklo moves like an octopus, pushing himself off in his chair from one end of his workstation to the other, one hand reaching for a phone, the other for his mouse. He’s here to intervene in various scenarios, from halting semis that are too tall to enter the tunnel, to sending CDOT tow trucks in for Teslas stopped dead in the middle (drivers often underestimate the juice required to climb to either entrance). Right before we arrived, he says, a pair of “teenage ding-dongs” were trying to push their car up to the westbound portal. He had to turn on a light to stop traffic for them. Another time, he radioed a colleague to stop a GoPro-adorned motorcyclist and tell him he’d better not be planning to pop a wheelie in the tunnel. When the rider did exactly that anyway, Kerklo tossed a message up on the digital sign midway that read, “NO WHEELIES.” 

Most of the drivers in the tunnel are unaware that they’re traversing not just the physical lynchpin of the east-west halves of the state, but a historical one that clinched Colorado’s fate and fortune. In the late 19th century, people didn’t travel to the mining town of Breckenridge or what’s now Vail for fun. These high-elevation areas were difficult or near impossible to get to. Colorado’s most-visited destinations were instead places like Manitou Springs and Glenwood Springs, which were accessible by rail and allowed wealthy Victorians to soak in hot pools and gaze upon scenery passively “almost as if it were a painting,” Bill Philpott, associate professor of history at Denver University, tells me.

This was due to infrastructure but also culture, Philpott says. The idea of exerting oneself voluntarily in the outdoors only gained popularity at the turn of the century, as the nation urbanized and leaders like Teddy Roosevelt began to worry that city-dwelling Americans would lose touch with their hardy frontier virtues. Roosevelt extolled the practice of reinvigorating one’s character through strenuous activity in nature, and though his ideals were rooted in traditional masculinity and racial hierarchy, they echo in outdoor culture today.

After World War II, the middle class swelled, and some Coloradans began to see outdoor recreation as a major economic opportunity. Business owners, chambers of commerce, and other tourism boosters promoted their access to activities like hunting, fishing, hiking, and skiing. But the high peaks remained relatively remote. The main roads that traveled from east to west across Colorado were State Highways 6 and 40; both were often hair-raising in the winter.

Travelers bogged on I-70 are known for amusing antics like skiing on the shoulders, doing pushups, or even playing volleyball next to their vehicles; last winter a bluegrass band performed a little outdoor concert for fellow travelers when the road closed.

Initial plans for the interstate highway system in the 1940s and 50s had I-70 begin in Washington, D.C., and terminate in Denver, avoiding an expensive connection through the mountains. But Colorado leaders saw the interstate as crucial to their state’s economic future and refused to be bypassed by the newly minted throngs of middle-class tourists in their automobiles. Testifying before Congress in 1955, Senator Eugene Milliken said, “We do not want to be seen as a second-class state. We are entitled to a straight chute through Colorado, through the mountains.”

As Philpott tells it in his 2013 book Vacationland, once the interstate was approved across Colorado in the late 1950s, communities along the potential routes—U.S. 6 and 40—vied for the highway, already hearing the cha-ching of cash registers. The founders of Vail Mountain printed business cards to entice investors, showing the ski resort’s site on the future interstate. Indeed, once the Eisenhower Tunnel was completed in 1973, Colorado’s ski and tourism industries exploded.

The version of the outdoors that Colorado sold to flatlanders was nonintimidating and car-friendly. “Much of the tourist literature bragged about the all-weather roads, the paved boulevards that sweep you through the mountains without difficulty,” Philpott says. Over Zoom, he shows me a Vail tourist brochure, circa 1965, in which rows of parked cars peek into a scene of snowy lodges. “The business model was, bring people in by I-70,” he says, “but then transition them away from it.” Visitors would park their cars, walk through a covered bridge, and into the Swiss-inspired village.

As more visitors came, many also moved permanently, not so much for jobs as quality of life. Migration toward sunny, leisure-oriented locales like Colorado, California, and Florida began in the fifties, and Colorado’s population surged from that decade through the seventies. Denver-area developers bragged that every day residents “could soak in Colorado’s sunshine and crisp air and find inspiration in its celebrated mountain views,” Philpott writes. Every weekend, “they could take paved highways up to the high country for some fishing, hiking, or skiing.”

The promise of Colorado was always this: that you could live in civilization yet readily escape into the wilds. It was how the state was billed to me 15 years ago, when I was living in San Francisco and a friend from Boulder told me about this land of hoppy beer and rugged men, where you could pedal a bike from town into the foothills in minutes. When I moved to the Rocky Mountains at 27, I understood what John Denver meant by coming home to a place he’d never been before. I thought I’d live there for the rest of my life.

But here and there, Colorado began to break its promise. It’s not exactly true to say that I moved away because of I-70, but the mountains began to feel less accessible. Summer camping trips were cut short on Sunday mornings to beat traffic, powder days missed when weighed against the chaos of travel. My partner and I talked of moving to the mountains. When the opportunity arose, they were mountains in a different state, but it wasn’t as hard to leave as it once would have been.

A paradise so readily accessible by highway was destined to draw so many adventure seekers that they overwhelmed the highway itself. Locals in mountain communities along the interstate today bemoan traffic and overcrowding. Most have forgotten the days when their predecessors clamored for the road. “People were coming to associate with the outdoors in ways that were automobile-dependent,” Philpott says, “but they couldn’t always predict the outcome. They didn’t anticipate how it would come back to haunt them.”

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