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Colorado: a state in a state of permanent conflict

The map maker's straight lines take no account of Colorado's independent, untameable nature. If geography is meant to be a guide to the essence of a place, there is something inherently fractious about the artificially neat rectangle in mountainous mid-America that once again finds itself the scene of terrible carnage and an inescapable sense of conflict.

Maybe it could have happened anywhere. But Colorado is well-positioned to be a human fault line, a once-empty region that has lured in adventurers and escapists and egoists trying to redefine their surroundings and their fellow beings as much as themselves. It is American Gothic with a sculpted body and a ski-run tan, a place where the sunny cheerfulness of John Denver's Rocky Mountain High – the state song, with its tribute to cathedral mountains and quiet solitude – has to face down the serial realities of Aurora, Columbine and JonBenet Ramsey.

Colorado is a swing state at its most extreme – not just from Bush in 2004 to Obama in 2008, but in every aspect of its social identity. It's home to both the universally mocking, vulgarity seeking cartoon comedy South Park and NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command (whose hyper-vigilant, fear-the-worst motto is "Deter, Detect, Defend"). The stars notoriously come out to play at Aspen, where money-is-no-object powder accommodates the most privileged and elusive of the leisured class. Yet Aspen then turns itself around and hosts a summer institute where intellectuals trade ideas on what makes a good society – the kind of deliberating deep thinkers like to do in the rarefied air of the Rockies to escape the messiness of society at its worst.

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Colorado was a gold-rush destination with all that implies about me-first enrichment and out-of-control change. After the miners came other seekers and searchers: Jack Kerouac en route to writing On The Road; back-to-nature types who turned into highly sophisticated Buddhists; the gonzo litterateur Hunter S. Thompson, whose understanding of America was based on not fitting in; and waves of extreme athletes who now dominate the hills and the trails in disciplined pursuit of breathless glory.

It must be hard to grow up in Colorado with a sure sense of who you are or what you might become, who's a friend and who's an enemy: This is a place that is outwardly homogeneous but inwardly in a state of permanent conflict – and not just the kind that was produced among sports fans when the Denver Broncos summarily dumped last season's surprise saviour, the charismatic Christian quarterback Tim Tebow, in favour of the much steadier and more corporate field general, Peyton Manning.

To an outsider, Colorado is impossible to pin down and identify. Other outsized states like Texas strive for an internal consistency, a modus vivendi that allows for an assured sense of self-definition and local pride. But Colorado eludes definition almost as a matter of principle: Its citizens seem to have in common a kind of willful individualism, a contrariness that feeds the state's unpredictability.

So despite the hippie influx of the 1960s and no end of environmental love, a libertarian spirit imbues the expansive suburbs where tax-reduction policies and evangelical Christianity are equally popular. A kind of de facto political segregation rules, to keep the good life tension-free: Democrats are more at ease in the politically correct People's Republic of Boulder, but in Colorado Springs, the United States Air Force Academy has long been a bastion of Republican conservatism, even while weathering charges that its leaders enforced a Christian culture and tolerated female sexual abuse.

A whiff of scandal is never far away in Colorado, a place that attracts tabloid attention well out of proportion to its good-life aspirations – poor painted JonBenet is the poster child for that sense of dissonance between what we say and what we do, between who we are and who we long to be. Was Columbine a crime of place? Very much so in retrospect, but at the time, no one saw it coming – which says a lot about a Denver suburb, about Colorado, about the modern America that the state so successfully encapsulates.

You can see why old-time Coloradans pine for the saloon-era simplicities, when their Rocky Mountain paradise kept its off-grid secrets to itself. Maybe it's easier to put straight lines around this confused state than to sort out its conflicts.

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