Holbrook: The silk route through Silverthorne (column)
April 1, 2017
A spring snowstorm swept through town last night and this morning I did not anticipate many customers showing up at the cookware store in Silverthorne where I work part-time. So I wasn't in a hurry opening the store: I counted the money in the register, then switched on a classical music station and took a leisurely stroll through the aisles. The vibrant colors of the cookware — orange, red, cobalt blue, sunny yellow — were at least as effective in waking me up as a jolt of strong coffee.
It was quiet this morning, but by noon the Silverthorne shopping area would be busy with customers looking for everything from designer jeans, to Italian olive oil and French cast iron skillets. While some of the customers are local, more are like the Brazilian family who stopped on their way from Denver to Aspen to buy a lasagna pan; or the executive from New York on her way to Steamboat who needed an extra set of wine glasses; or the rancher from Montrose whose wife wanted one of the immense Dutch ovens in which to make a week's worth of beef stew.
In this pre-shopping lull my thoughts drifted, and landed on a quirky notion: Maybe one could say that the Silverthorne Outlets are not unlike a stop along the ancient Silk Road; instead of travelers journeying from Xian in ancient China, to Samarkand, Antioch and Rome – today they come from Brazil or New York on their way to Steamboat, Crested Butte, Grand Junction or Utah.
While the Silk Road generally shows up in history books as being established in the second century B.C., "the traffic started long before accounts of it were written," states British travel writer Colin Thubron in "Shadow of the Silk Road." "Chinese silk from 1500 BC has turned up in tombs north of Afghanistan. … Four centuries later silk found its way into a princely grave of Iron Age Germany.
"Silk did not go alone. The caravans that lumbered out of Changan went laden with iron and bronze, lacquer works and ceramics, and those returning from the west carried artifacts in glass, gold, silver, Indian spices and gems, woolen and linen fabrics … From China westward went the orange and apricot, mulberry, peach and rhubarb … the first roses. Out of Persia and Central Asia traveling the other way, the vine and fig tree took root in China, with flax, pomegranates, jasmine, dates."
In today's national discourse, some politicians extoll the notion of barriers to trade as a way of "making America great again," and yet historically the times of greatest peace and prosperity have come with an openness to trade. The Silverthorne Outlets are a good example of what we have all unquestioningly come to expect: a smörgåsbord of goods from all over the globe. Coffee and spices from Asia, Africa and South America; cosmetics from Eastern Europe, clothing manufactured in India, China — or in Mexico (where, notably, 40 percent of the content of U.S. imports from Mexico is actually produced in the United States — source: Woodrow Wilson Center, D.C.). For many of us, life would grind to a halt without our mobile phones and computers, all created through a complex process of production-sharing by companies, and by people, located around the world.
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If it is hard for any of us to really imagine what life would be like if significant barriers were erected to the movement and flow of people, goods and ideas that we have all become used to, Thubron offers grim examples from his 7,000-mile journey in 2003-04 tracing the path of the legendary Silk Road. Vibrant cultures that flowered in ancient times have been demolished in China, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Iran through a modern history of war, dictators and isolationism.
As the first customers of the day began to walk into the store, I tied on my orange apron and called out a chirpy "Good Morning!" forgetting about politics and history. Families and couples, speaking in a variety of languages, wandered through the aisles admiring the colorful cookware. The cash register began to ring, and it was difficult to imagine life changing at this place where so many crossroads converge: Colorado's busy ski corridor, and an international shopping hub where goods arriving from all over the world are purchased by customers from all over the world.
In a recent review in the New Yorker of several current books on modern liberalism, author Adam Gopnik warns that "Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening."
In fact, Gopnik observes, there is "a permanent cycle of history in which open societies, in their pluralism, create an anxiety that brings about a reaction toward a fixed organic state, which, then as now, serves both the interests of an oligarchy and those of a frightened, insecure population looking to arrest change."
It is perhaps worth taking greater note of the privilege we have of living in a time and place of such openness and accommodation to difference, even if it is not without its problems. It is as much my good fortune to work in a company in Colorado that was founded in France, as it is to chat and exchange opinions with my customers from Colombia, Australia, South Africa and Summit County.
Gopnik concludes his essay with the reflection: "Moments of social peace and coexistence, however troubled and imperfect, are the brief miracle that needs explaining, and protecting."