Can we make connection? That’s the plan Sept. 27

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald file photo

Jack Turner has been working nine months to put together Durango Connect. In July, he gathered people along the Animas River Trail for a promotional photo.

Bitter conflict threatens to define the early 21st century.

The United States are becoming more divisive. Sorry, but you can’t read or watch the media and avoid the bombardment of politically charged news. That’s why Durango’s community get-together Sept. 27 is such a refreshing anomaly.

“We’re in a very contentious time,” says Jack Turner, the man with the dream. “We’re in the midst of the bitterest election that’s ever going to happen. Whether it’s city politics, county planning, marriage issues, race, foreign affairs – I mean, every page of the paper practically has an element of conflict on it, and so much of it is bitter conflict.”

So, when Thursday morning arrives next week, and thousands of Durangoans converge along a 7.2-mile stretch of the Animas River, can we discard our differences?

“In the big picture,” Turner says, “it’s like, look: How about, we can all agree that the Animas River Trail’s just fine.”

What he’s talking about is Durango Connect, an attempt to form a human chain along the trail’s length. Turner, a fifth-generation native, has been the leading force behind organizing this celebration of a community treasure.

The occasion is the completion of the final link in the now-contiguous trail, which for decades has been a dashed string of concrete and asphalt sections, some more usable than others.

Why celebrate? A trail is just a trail, right? It’s just a path to help us get around town, or to recreate, or to enjoy nature. Why do we need to hold hands and act all happy and stuff? Not quite sure it’s possible to convince everyone why they should be excited, why they should take pride in a civic achievement, but let’s give it a shot.

Let’s start with a tiny item in the minutes of a City Council meeting from June 24, 1975: “Establishment of land for bike trail from East Second Avenue to the 32nd Street Bridge.” The beginning of the Animas River Trail? Perhaps.

Over the years a plan sort of formed to create a contiguous path along the river. But progress was slow, and not always sure. Reluctant landowners and problematic geography offered stiff resistance.

In April 1999 city voters approved a 0.5 percent sales-tax increase to pay for the recreation center and for river trail projects.

“That’s really where things turned,” says Cathy Metz, director of parks and recreation since 1996. If not for those funds, “We wouldn’t be where we are today. ... The community should really be the ones that are thanked.”

The final missing 1,000-foot-long link, a truly magnificent cantilevered section along a steep slope behind the Durango Mall, was finished in June.

It wasn’t cheap, but it is valuable. The trail is the city’s most-used recreation amenity, Metz is fond of reminding you.

Forty years ago the trail seemed like nonsense to some, the sheer logistics too much to even fathom. But “there was a whole group of people who stuck to it,” says Turner, who’s not shy about criticizing government or schools when he disagrees with a policy.

“To me, this trail system is something (the city) really got right,” he says.

OK, great, but why a human chain?

Turner says he was inspired to do something different. The human chain won’t set any records – 5 million Bangladeshis linked along a 650-mile stretch in 2004 – but it will be epic. It’s not often that several thousand people join in a simultaneous community celebration.

“Who else in the country can do something like that?” Turner says. “There’s 10,000 ribbon cuttings every day. All of which are boring.”

Since January, Turner and others involved with Durango Connect have toiled and cajoled to accomplish the task of bringing together the estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people required to complete the chain. Among their accomplishments:

All 5,000 or so Durango School District 9-R kids are attending as part of their class day.

So their employees can attend, many local businesses have agreed to open late or operate with skeleton crews on the morning of Sept. 27.

Individuals and businesses have donated time, water bottles, printing projects, website design and more. A helicopter will shuttle a video crew to record Durango Connect, and Turner plans to make a documentary.

Seventy-two trail captains – one for each tenth of a mile – will help spread people along the path. Entertainers, such as musicians, jugglers, magicians and drumming groups, will keep the mood upbeat.

All this with almost no expenses. “We don’t even have a checkbook,” Turner says.

It’s more than just people standing on a trail linking arms, says Moni Grushkin, a recently retired bank executive who is helping to coordinate media activities for Durango Connect.

“It just seems like a natural way to celebrate all that’s great about Durango,” she says.

Even if the chain doesn’t connect the whole way, “It’s still going to be a big success,” Turner says. “I know we’re going to get close.”

I was asked to invite friends, family and co-workers. I’m going to go whole-hog, lose all journalistic integrity, and invite all you readers, too.

Yes, in the future, the fall of 2012 will be noted for its excessive political rancor, its divisiveness among citizens. But look what happened in Durango at that same time: Thousands joined to celebrate a fantastic community accomplishment. Do you really want to miss out?

Turner, a 1973 Durango High School graduate, sees Durango Connect as a milestone. “The long-term hope I have for this is that kids will look back and say, ‘Remember the day we all came out and did this?’” John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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