Hands down, Dexter is a better place than Estes Park, CO, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.
We often dream of other places, majestic places, big and faraway. Exotic locales that have the desirable advantage of being not here, not part of the daily routine, the familiar, mundane and thus ordinary. It is natural to speak in hushed reverence of sacred shores, surf and turf, of the sanctity of woods, fields and streams, and lofty cathedrals of alpine forests, meadows and snow-capped peaks.
Mountains are a favorite place for our imaginations to roam. That’s my get-away when I can get away. The hills are alive with the vision after vision of verdant splendor and cerulean blue. And with the mountains, come rugged mountain towns vibrant in the rarefied air. If there was ever a place to live, it would here where everyone is beautiful, healthy, and all the children are all happy. Or so we think.
In the case of Estes Park, CO, such misty-eyed thinking slammed into harsh reality on a recent visit that left me longing for Dexter. My son Larry and I took his two sons, my grandsons Brendan and Drake, on a camping trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and by necessity were forced to spend some time in its famous gateway town.
When we arrived in Estes Park, Larry and I immediately hated it for all the reasons the boys loved it – touristy with a lot of flash and very little substance. And it works. Milling tourist throngs are thicker than blow flies on a dead elk. I can’t walk. I can’t drive. I can’t breathe. Larry and I want to brush the buggy feeling off and run for the hills.
But this is a kids’ trip after all. We want Brendan (age 8) and Drake (age 6) to enjoy it so they have good memories and want to repeat such trips in the years to come. So we spent just enough time in town to appease the boys. After which, we fled to the mountains for our week of camping and backpacking. Larry then flew home at the end of the week. I kept the boys while the rest of the family came out and we spent the week in a rented house in … (shudder) … Estes Park.
“How was your trip?” I’m asked.
“Good!” I say.
“Where did you go?” I’m asked.
“Estes Park,” I say.
“That sounds nice,” I’m told.
“I hated it,” I say.
“Dexter is soooo much better than Estes Park,” I say.
There’s a smile, maybe a little laugh. They think I’m kidding. Then that awkward moment when I don’t smile and they realize I’m serious. And I assure you … I am serious.
The place is plugged up with tourists. Waiting in a long line at the grocery store, a local told me 4.5 million people move through Estes Park each year. This spoils everything. Fifteen pounds of sausage packed into a ten-pound casing. The place oozes people. None of the businesses has enough help to serve the hordes. We spent precious vacation time waiting in line, dragging the boys upstream no matter which direction we walked, learning to cross intersections diagonally, and battling for space wherever we were. Give me the friendly, breathable Dexter crowds of the Memorial Day Parade, Dexter Daze, and the Holiday Hustle with the smiling faces of people I know.
Downtown is a trinket shop competition. If you like souvenir t-shirts, coffee cups, taffy, animal figurines, and other impulse buys to through in a box when you get back to Dexter, Estes Park is your nirvana. Each shop vies for your attention by trying to outdo the other with intrusive displays spilling out onto the crowded sidewalk. I longed for the class and quiet dignity of Artistica, Hearts and Flowers, Three Birds, and our other downtown shops whose curios, whether practical or whimsical, are so much more valuable than emblematic trinkets that left me second guessing my purchase almost as soon as I muscled us out of the understaffed, overcrowded shop. But anything for the boys.
The Stanley Hotel v. Gordon Hall. Sure, the Stanley has the whole “The Shining” connection, and the old hotel is a classy place to visit – top notch coffee shop, restaurant, ghost tours and other attractions. But that’s the thing; it’s been a tourist destination since it was built in 1909. The Stanley is stuck catering to a tourist mentality to survive. Dexter’s Gordon Hall is the historic symbol for the development of the southeast Michigan Territory of which Samuel Dexter played an integral role. Nobody fought for the Stanley, to rescue it, to refurbish it. The Stanley inspires no one as a cause. The Stanley may have things that go bump in the night. Gordon Hall was a stop on the Underground Railroad which was plotted by the Northern Star at night. In terms of significance, symbolism, and meaning, Gordon Hall wins by a landslide.
Touristy stuff for kids v. Hudson Mills. Of course there’s Rocky Mountain National Park, but kids don’t care as much about high peaks, alpine meadows, emerald-green mountain lakes, and breathtaking vistas nearly as much as they want engagement. Estes Park has places like Fun City with pools, bumper cars, and a giant slide – a place to go when you have nothing else to do, a vacation wasteland. Hudson Mills has trees, a beautiful river, and entertaining programs put on by rangers who talk to the kids keeping their attention, engaging them, and making them laugh. Thanks for being here Hudson Mills!
We have Ann Arbor. They have Boulder. As far as college town vibes go, Boulder has it going, especially downtown. But there’s a problem. Boulder is, as Led Zeppelin sings, “over the hills and far away” winding down Highway 36 for 37 miles, almost an hour of behind a long, slow line of nervous mountain road drivers. Ann Arbor is 8 miles down the road. We win again.
The grocery store. Dear Lord. The residents have to eat, right? Estes Park has a Safeway the size of Busch’s which has to serve a lot of those 4.5 million passing through. The manager told me they were short-staffed by 16 people. We shuffled dead-eyed searching the aisles for a case of LaCroix only to wait in line 37 minutes for one of the two registers open. Dexter is smaller than Estes Park and we’ve got two grocery stores.
Schools. If you were one of the 8,800 permanent residents of Estes Park, your kids would be attending schools that receive ratings ranging from 4 to 7 on a scale of 10. Dexter Community Schools have ratings ranging from 8 to 9.
Parking. Think Dexter has a parking problem? You have a choice in Estes Park: Either park blocks away from downtown and walk in, or park so far away you have to catch a shuttle bus into town.
Restaurants. Estes Park has great places like Hunter’s Chophouse, on the outskirts of town. But the downtown dives are avoidable to “meh”.
Overall, daily life would just be plain difficult in this mountain town – getting to the hardware store, buying groceries, running errands, or going just out for a bite to eat. How do you separate community events from tourism? If I through some unfortunate series of events to become a resident of Estes Park, I imagine one would develop a sense of familiarity with the place but not a sense of home with its warmth, embrace, and acceptance.
Home is the Memorial Day Parade, Thursday night concerts at the gazebo, the B2B, our schools, the cider mill, The Creamery, the rivers and parks, Rotary Club, Lion’s Club, Dexter Forum, board meetings, writing stories for We Love Dexter, breathable air, and trails.
Dexter is not just a place where I know the buildings and the roads. Dexter lives and breathes. It has a pulse, a vibe, a character. Its George Bailey’s Bedford Falls, Walton’s Mountain, Avonlea, This Is Us, and every homecoming ever. It is a place, (our place!), to live, laugh, hurt and cry.
And sure, I dream of the lofty western peaks in their rugged splendor and intimidation. But every time I leave my driveway, I’m already looking forward to returning home.
Dexter will always win, for there is no better feeling than coming home.
You can find more of Doug’s writing on his personal page at http://www.intothewilderness.net/