If there’s one big surprise that emerges from a long listen to “Lost Highways,” it is that Colorado is a lot more interesting than a lot of people think. The history-themed podcast, now entering its third season, finds its narratives in unexpected places, and they’re not the sort of stories most folks learn in school.
One episode, “Rock Around the Bloc,” spins the global tale of musician Dean Reed, who hailed from Wheat Ridge and was practically an unknown in the U.S., but who somehow managed to become one of the most beloved pop stars in Cold War-era Eastern Europe.
Another goes deep into the story of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who brought his own brand of Buddhism to North America from Tibet, setting up his main outpost near Red Feather Lakes. The charismatic leader drew thousands of followers to the practice, before some questionable personal behavior brought his operation down.
Even topics that many of us hold some random knowledge of — the murder of radio host Alan Berg, or the peculiar diet of prospector Alfred Packer — can feel new, and subversively challenged, in the way co-hosts Noel Black and Tyler Hill relate them, which is to say cutting short the cliches, questioning conventional wisdom, and looking for fresh angles that connect them to current events.
In some ways, “Lost Highways” feels similar to many of the narrative-driven podcasts that flood the digital world these days. There’s the mingling of wide-angled story set-ups and pin-pointed expert interviews, all edited into dramatic cliffhangers meant to keep listeners from taking out their AirPods. There are those melodramatic segues between chapters that are underscored by pulsing, musical interludes. There are the easy, public radio-influenced, vocal inflections of the highly skilled hosts, who know when to present themselves as serious journalists and when to lay on the pathos.
But “Lost Highways” comes with a level of credibility that most podcasts lack, and that has everything to do with its sponsor, History Colorado, the state agency that operates a network of public museums across the region. Hosts Black and Hill have at their disposal the West’s leading experts on its own past.
Because they produce the podcast in the recording studio at History Colorado, they are often in close proximity to top researchers and curators who keep the energy, and the ideas, flowing.
The episode “‘Six Gay Weddings and a Horse,” for example, started as chatter overheard in the office where someone mentioned that a plaque was going up to commemorate Clela Rorex, who in 1975 issued the first marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Black and Hill morphed it into the 49-minute series opener that included interviews with historians, along with some of the key players including Rorex herself. That mix of authoritative voices and original sources keeps the show reliable.
With each episode, the producers work to put the past into the context of the present — in this case, connecting the dots to Gov. Jared Polis, the first gay (and married) chief executive of the state.
Context is everything with “Lost Highways,” and sometimes the hosts look for it in risky places. One example: connecting a piece on the post-Civil War African-American settlement set up in Dearfield to Wakanda, the fictional all-Black utopia in the movie “Black Panther.” Another, using a show about the murder of prostitutes in late 1800s Denver as an excuse to chat with present-day sex workers about the dangers of their job.
It’s sensational, and maybe a stretch, to compare an important event in Black history to a cinematic superhero blockbuster, though Black and Hill do manage to make such moments palatable, partly by exposing their own wandering curiosity as storytellers — both grew up in Colorado and quickly acknowledge what they don’t know about it — and partly by not presenting their info as pure fact. They make inquiries, question connections, allow things to roam in entertaining directions.
That relentless search for context extends to the way the show presents Colorado itself. It’s tempting to think of the state’s history as local, the product of a place that did much of its early development in an area isolated by endless plains to the east and impassible mountains to the west. “Lost Highways” turns Colorado’s story into America’s story, sometimes for better, others for worse.
“We look at things that don’t tend to be associated with Colorado on the surface,” Black said in an interview last week. And then they find the connections.
Probably the best example of that is the episode titled “A Line in the Sand,” which opens its main narrative with this:
“In the mid-1930s, a man named Edwin C. Johnson, one of the most beloved politicians in all of Colorado’s history, established martial law on Colorado’s southern border to keep out what he called ‘the Mexican Menace.’ ”
The 57-minute episode, which weaves together tales of politics and racism in Colorado’s past, can be a painful listen, especially to residents of a state that likes to think of itself as a moderate place and above border politics. But it demonstrates how attitudes and issues that define the country as a whole are also part of our local story, and they resonate loudly in a time when a campaign slogan like “build that wall” can get a person elected president. (The show includes audio of that actual chant at the beginning of the episode.)
“Everything the United States wrestles with in its own collective consciousness is also here in Colorado,” said Black.
The series, funded by the Sturm Family Foundation and a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, is full of those connections. One ties a small political act in 2002 Greeley by a group of Native Americans who named their pick-up basketball team The Fightin’ Whities with the growing movement to remove offensive names from sporting teams worldwide. Another, in a soon-to-be-released episode, will suggest links between a lynching in 1900 Limon to more recent violence against minority groups taking place across the nation.
These shows are not exactly great public relations for Colorado, and it is admirable that History Colorado, an agency that has come under fire time and again for sticking its neck out on behalf of the truth, is willing to tell them in this show-biz format and with few apologies. But they help us understand ourselves — as locals, as Coloradans, as participants in the greater story of this country, in all of its glory and some of its shame.
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