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Shared Air

If the State of Deseret had come to pass, my great-grandmother’s homestead would have been on Utah soil. As it stands, my family’s state taxes flow east instead of west. But we in Grand Junction remain your next-door neighbors. So, Utahns, please bear with my testimony.

Utah and western Colorado have in common a high desert landscape, dueling tourism- and resource-based economies, self-reliant culture, and periodic irritation with distant bureaucracies. We share the Colorado River and the Book Cliffs mountain range. Most of all, we live under the same spectacular western skies.

Growing up in the West, I had always subscribed to the old idea that our dry air was extraordinarily healthy. Historically, easterners chasing the cure for consumption fueled an industry that outlasted Colorado’s Gold Rush. By the 1880s, an estimated one-third of Colorado’s population had located here for health reasons.

The therapeutic evidence was mixed, however. A tubercular Doc Holliday died in bed, while the hardy western way of life toughened up the sickly and asthmatic Teddy Roosevelt. A hundred years later, the health pitch for our region has shifted to outdoor recreationists and active seniors.

After spending my career in Minneapolis-St. Paul, I looked forward to building our dream home outside my hometown. While I could no longer run a sub-2:45 marathon or complete a 100K, I figured my wife and I had a couple decades ahead of us to hustle around the region on bicycle, skis, and foot.

Instead, during my first prolonged stay in the valley, I discovered that I had developed asthma.

Ironically, the air quality ratings for ozone and particulate matter are worse in Grand Junction than in the nation’s sixteen largest metropolitan areas. But even if I had read the numbers, they would not have been enough to stop my relocation to the Colorado Plateau. I was, after all, vigorous and far healthier than average. And as someone who grew up at altitude, I took my lungpower for granted.

My new condition is not debilitating, but it is life-changing. In January, I may be able to see the La Sals, but I look down toward a town shrouded in bitter grey. In spring, I walk the dog and turn back early, the smoke from burning ditches inflaming my lungs. I am no longer my wife’s cross-country ski partner. And now, a steep climb, whether on foot or mountain bike, begins with a puff or two from a rescue inhaler.

Although power plant emissions and windborne dust from Utah’s oil and gas development may have helped trigger my asthma, I won’t make that claim. I’m simply saying I feel your pain, right down to the Salt Lake City-like inversions we suffer in the Grand Valley.

It’s difficult for our region to turn away needed jobs, even if they might choke us. It’s tough to admit that the free market produces as much pollution as it can get away with, and that exercising individual liberty to move around can harm the wellbeing of children and other vulnerable neighbors. It’s tempting to look at expansive blue skies and imagine all is well.

The air carries warnings that those with established interests, hopes, and beliefs may overlook. But others who sense danger must, like coal mine canaries, use our labored breath to speak.


Charlie Quimby is a Colorado native whose first job after high school was on a drilling rig near Hanksville, Utah. He is the author of two novels set on the Colorado Plateau, Monument Road and Inhabited, and now divides his time between Minneapolis and Grand Junction.

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