A handful of Saturday mornings, I have driven out of Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood juggling a bowl of granola on my lap, trying to rub the sleep out of my eyes and asking myself if I packed everything in my pack— harness, shoes, rack or rope, headlamp, food, water. It’s 2 a.m., and people are spilling out of bars, Sancho’s, Gabor’s, The Park Tavern, almost ready to say goodbye to Friday after their last beer. I’m sipping coffee, exactly 95 minutes away from the Bear Lake trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park but still 3 hours from seeing the sun. Sometimes I wonder if anyone in any other major city in America does this.
Denver never gets any press for being a rad “adventure town,” or even a rad town, I don’t think. We’re out on the plains, and the mountains are there, but so far from downtown, you can go days without seeing them (unless you’re biking through that one turn by the fountains on the road through Cheesman Park, or on the lawn in front of the museum in City Park, or a couple places on 11th Avenue).
We don’t have the bike culture of Portland, we have the skiing but way more ski traffic than Salt Lake City, we don’t have the music culture (or culture) of Seattle, our mountains are choss piles compared to the Cascades and the Sierras, we’re not Boulder, Aspen, Moab, Jackson, Bishop, Boise, Bozeman, Missoula, Flagstaff, Santa Fe, Hood River, or any of those places, but damn.
I want to climb mountains and ride my bike to work year-round, and if I quit my job, I want to be able to get another one that doesn’t involve washing dishes. Are there many places where you can work all day in a 50-story steel and glass building, leave work early and climb on thousands of granite and gneiss sport routes a half-hour from your office? Or mountain bike, or trail run, or mash out a road bike ride with 1000-plus feet of climbing? And still have time to roll into a Major League Baseball game afterward, on a weeknight?
Jack Kerouac spends a good part of the beginning of On the Road talking excitedly about how he can’t wait to get to Denver, and I think maybe some of his over-romanticizing of the town is buried somewhere in me ever since I read that book when I was 15. I love Denver like you love your girlfriend or boyfriend or husband or wife—I look at it and see great things you don’t see, and it’s a part of who I am now, another member of my family. And although they’re not the same as they were 40 years ago, I still see the mountains in my backyard as John Denver’s Rocky Mountains. Sometimes I joke that Denver is so full of former Midwesterners because we start heading west, get to Denver and say, You know, this is pretty great. Then we stop.
I know there’s better coffee in Seattle, better mountains in other places, and better food and culture in Portland and San Francisco, but give me rock climbing in Eldorado Canyon in a t-shirt on my birthday in January, and ’80s movies under the open sky in Red Rocks with 5,000 friends during the summer, and looking up at the lit-up downtown skyline from the Cherry Creek bike path at 10 p.m. on a July night when it’s no one but me and the homeless folks sleeping under the overpasses down there, and Devotchka and Paper Bird and Trout Steak Revival and Salvagetti and tempeh chorizo tacos at WaterCourse and giant bowls of Cocoa Puffs at The Shoppe and pho on Federal, and smog but no mosquitoes ever, and 300 days of sunshine, and snow that falls but never stays around too long, and 3 million other people whose company I don’t mind all that much.
I’ve spent time in plenty of mountain towns and western cities, and think lots of them are great for all kinds of different reasons. But if I can have mountains, I still want the grit of a city like Denver with all the hard-luck folks hanging out on Colfax Avenue running right through its heart. A magazine writer years ago called Colfax “the longest, wickedest street in America,” and it’s cleaned up a bit, but it’s still seedy as hell in a lot of spots, in a way that’s entertaining but not really that dangerous, just a bunch of day-laborers, a few small-time dope dealers, and some fast talkers and panhandlers trying to survive one day. I ran almost its entire length on the original Colfax Marathon course back in 2006, about 24 miles in a straight line, and I love that street, because I think it reminds all of us that yeah, I’ve been a little down before, too, and have had a couple days or weeks or months of life feeling like all those folks on Colfax feel today.
I used to eat those orange Keebler peanut-butter-and-cheese cracker sandwiches religiously in the mountains—for a long time, they were the only thing that tasted even OK when I lost my appetite above 12,000 feet. One summer morning a couple years ago, I was walking to work, waiting for the signal so I could cross Colfax at Franklin, and I felt this homeless guy next to me looking at me. I glanced over at him, and he smiled big and said nothing, holding out his hand with a package of orange cracker sandwiches in it. I grabbed them, nodded, took one iPod earbud out and said Thank You and smiled. Then we both crossed the street, and I looked between the cathedral and the capitol building 14 blocks away, where I can usually get a one-second glance at the mountains.