Living in Colorado is everything I'd ever hoped for, as long as you don't count the gun violence.
So Radish vegan restaurant, boarded up after gunfire erupted in Olde Town Arvada on Monday, June 21st.
They say the most annoying thing about Colorado is that the people who live here can never stop telling you how great it is. I know this is true because I moved to Colorado almost four years ago now, and I haven’t shut up about it since.
In our midcentury brick ranch here in Arvada, we relish luxuries we could never have afforded back in Massachusetts. Luxuries like: off-street parking, closets!, a yard, and a basement.
On weekdays, I walk my girls to school, which is just on the other side of a public park and playground.
Our playground, with our elementary school in the background.
In fact, as a matter of policy, everyone who lives in Arvada has at least one public playground within walking distance, often three or four.
We have abundant open spaces for hiking and biking. I ride my bike probably three times a week. I have two great options for trail riding that I can access right from my house, and a half dozen more within a fifteen-minute drive.
Delightful mountain biking opportunities abound.
“Live Free or Die,” is New Hampshire’s state motto, but Colorado really embodies it. I’ve found it to be even more of a generally friendly “Live and Let Live” attitude.
Here, you can be a hippie or a redneck (we have both on our street alone). You can be a Democrat or a Republican (the yard signs are just about evenly split). You can be a biker or a hiker. You can be a skier or a camper. You can crush Coors Lights or sip fancy, funky microbrews.
The political breakdown of my thousand closest neighbors, according to the New York Times.
Here in Arvada, you might see a giant, gas-guzzling pickup truck hauling a tiny house, and most people you meet would say, “Cool tiny house… and sweet truck!”
The people are friendly, outgoing, and, with a few notable exceptions, pretty chill.
For our first party, we invited everyone we knew, which was about 20 people at the time, figuring based on East Coast calculations that about six would show up.
They all came.
And they’ve kept coming ever since. Our parties regularly begin in the mid-afternoon and last until way past everyones’ kids’ bedtime.
We had a block party on our street just the other night. Very uncharacteristically, it threatened to rain. Almost everyone on the block came anyway. Then it did rain. And everyone stayed.
Our rainy block party.
Strolling down the street with my dog the next morning, I chatted with several of these same neighbors and retrieved my salad bowl from our hosts, along with a 12-pack of beer that had been left for me in the driveway of another neighbor I’d met the previous night, a retired Coors employee with whom I struck up a conversation about IPAs.
Because of the low humidity, what you might call indoor/outdoor living is actually quite comfortable and possible here. I regularly mosey in and out of the house in bare feet or flip-flops, sometimes leaving my sliding door wide open because there are very few bugs.
It’s rare that I wear a coat. Even in winter, I generally walk my dog in cargo shorts and a fleece. Unlike the sun of the Northeast that simply mocks your discomfort from a distance, our sun provides real, tangible warmth throughout the year.
You know how if you use the same towel two days in a row, it’s often still a little damp the second day? Not the case here. Your towel is perfectly dry every day.
People eat lunch outside all year-round.
Chips never go stale.*
In short, it’s perfect.
There’s really only one drawback to this idyllic, family-friendly, cultural melting pot we call home. And that would be the frequent, random, broad daylight shootings.
You might’ve read about the most recent one.
It happened right in Olde Town, the main street section of Arvada that I first fell in love with when I came out for an interview four years back.
I popped into a low-key joint called the Bluegrass, Coffee, & Bourbon Lounge (let the fact of such a place’s existence sink in for a moment). I had an old-fashioned, struck up a conversation with some people at the bar, and by the end of the night, I was pretty sure I’d found the town I wanted to live in.
The rest of the Olde Town area is just as cool. It’s a hub of activity. There’s the taco joint, the tavern, a music shop called the Pickin’ Parlor, and a few comfortable cafes where I might very well have been working and having lunch this past Monday.
That’s when a 59-year-old man pulled up outside the library where we regularly borrow books, chased down a local police officer, and shot him. Someone in the Army/Navy store where I buy fishing gear ran outside to help, and by the time it was all over, the front window of the restaurant where my wife and I ate on our last date night was shattered by gunfire while customers huddled together in the back room.
The details of this story are sad and confusing and don’t play out according to any convenient narrative when it comes to gun policy.
The shooter apparently “hated police,” and video shows him ambush the officer from behind while leaving two bystanders alone.
The Good Samaritan from the Army/Navy store came out with a handgun and killed the shooter. He went to retrieve the shooter’s weapon, picked it up, and began to unload it. That’s when he was shot and killed by a responding officer who mistook him for the initial shooter.
Back in March, of course, we had the Boulder shooter. He lived here in Arvada. He had attended the high school around the corner from our house, and his parents own a restaurant within walking distance.
He likely drove right past the King Soopers where I regularly do my grocery shopping en route to the King Soopers he attacked just a few minutes away.
In between these two incidents, over 30 shots were fired outside of the gym where I frequently worked out during the pandemic, and whose outdoor pool was a regular hangout for me and the girls the summer before Covid hit.
When I say that these shootings hit close to home, I mean it literally.
Though an uptick in violence nationwide has made national news recently, these sorts of incidents have been a regular feature of life here in Colorado pretty much since the beginning.
Just a few weeks after we arrived, someone walked into a nearby Walmart with a gun around 6:15pm and started randomly shooting people. He fled the scene and was arrested just two miles from our AirBnB.
Another woman was killed outside a dentist office where she was taking her kids for an appointment in an apparent case of road rage. The dentist office we take our kids to is just half a mile away.
Two more folks were shot just outside of Coors Field, just before noon, a place where I’d regularly take lunchtime walks when I worked in the city.
This other guy went on a “crime spree” before shooting it out with police at a gas station where I might very well have been pumping gas.
These are a few examples, and I could find others. Zooming out a bit, this guy was killed by police after showing up at the hospital where my sister-in-law and her husband both work. This happened Friday, after I’d already had the idea for this piece.
I have had to come to terms with the idea that I might very likely be in proximity to one of these shootings one day. I’ve had to think through how I would respond, where I might hide, where I might run, how to keep my family safe, etc.
More than one friend from back east has asked me, “What the heck is going on out there?”
I honestly don’t know.
Part of what I find especially disconcerting about the incidents listed above is how little they have in common.
Back in Massachusetts, we had shootings of course. But by avoiding certain places at certain times, you could pretty reasonably expect to steer clear of them.
Here, by contrast, they invade the daily routine. You might be grocery shopping, taking your kid to the dentist, pumping gas, or just out for a walk when you suddenly find yourself in a life or death situation.
The shooter might be in his 20’s, or in his late 50’s. He might be a fugitive on a crime spree, an extremist targeting police, a kid with a history of mental health struggles, or just someone you accidentally cut off in traffic.
So in answer to the question, “What the heck is going on?” I have no idea. But I have a few reflections.
For one, gun ownership is just a lot more common out here. About 40% of people own guns, versus just 8% in New Jersey and 10% in Massachusetts (the other two places I’ve lived). But 40% is pretty typical compared to most of the U.S.
Colorado still maintains a little of that Wild West vibe. And that cultural diaspora I celebrated above tends to include some people with some pretty extreme views.
I’ve been stunned by the extent to which you can just be left alone out here. Whether that means some kind of organic, hippie commune that sells illicit raw goat milk, or a survivalist compound complete with fully amassed arsenal.
Whatever extreme you want to go to, you can pretty much do it here.
And that live-and-let-live ideological melting pot I love so much, from another perspective might look more like the epicenter of a cultural clash that is rocking our nation from coast to coast.
If you’re the kind of person on the Left or the Right who believes at their core that the country is going to hell in a handbasket, you’ll find plenty of evidence for it here.
From one point of view, there are the legal drugs, the homelessness, the petty crime (package, bike, and car thieves do abound). You’ll find filthy hippies (and I mean that literally, to a degree practically unheard of back east) and plenty of people feeling free to let their respective freak flags fly.
From another point of view, you’ll see plenty of Christian nationalism, people appropriating the Punisher skull logo to signal their rightwing views, lingering racism, and, yes, an abundance of guns.
I always say gun control is like men sitting to pee. It’s probably better for everyone but it’s just never gonna happen.
So we go on about our lives in the shadow of these horrors. We keep a broad peripheral vision. We take note of the emergency exits. We put our kids through lockdown drills. We hang out. We drink beers. We ride bikes. We try to forget about the last shooting, and hope to avoid the next.
For my part, I can say this: I’m not leaving.
I love Arvada. I love our school. I love our street. I love the friends we’ve made.
I’m very resistant to the idea of being terrorized. And I won’t live life in fear.
So for now we carry on with our nearly perfect, sunshine-and-friend-filled lives, knowing in the back of our minds that at any moment, it could all be shattered.
Nice piece, Jon. I love the pee sitting down analogy. I think the conclusion that can be drawn is that curbing gun violence is not a left or right issue (red or blue state), not only a crime or extremist issue, not only a mental health issue, or a regulatory issue -- it's all of the above. The country is saturated with guns and blood shed by gun wounds. Two things need to happen: 1) fewer guns in fewer people's hands; 2) gun violence needs to be analyzed and tracked nationally by an organization like the CDC.
I think we will need to figure out who is peeing on the toilet seat and floor (or preaching the right to unfettered pissing) and make them all sit down until they can aim better.
Take care, friend!