Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

For a long time, I’ve loved the idea of living in Colorado. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a skier, I didn’t know anyone living there who could plug me into the social pipeline, or that I hadn’t ever actually been to Colorado.

One of my close college friends moved out Fort Collins a few years ago to pursue an advanced degree at Colorado State University, met a nice girl, and was getting married on July 3. He asked me in December if my girlfriend and I would like to come out for the wedding. Yes, we would.

We arrived in Denver the morning of the wedding, which gave us just enough time for a quick lunch on 16th Street Mall, a nap in our room at the Embassy Suites, and then we were off to the wedding, just across from our hotel at the Ellie Culkins Opera House. After a night of catching up and mingling, dinner and dancing, and a cake that Cake Boss would be proud of (it was deliciously heavy on the FAHN-dahnt), the first leg of our Colorado trip was in the books.

On Day 2, the Fourth of July, we checked out the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, a 15-minute drive from our Downtown Denver (a.k.a. LoDo). The event was terrific. Artists came from all over the U.S. for the event to display and sell their work. Prices ranged from $40 for a ceramic tea cup into the thousands for some of the larger framed paintings and photos. One piece grabbed my attention right away: a colorful wooden statue by Jef Raasch, carved and painted in the shape of a life-sized human, but whose body parts were made of animals—meaning its chin was the face of a squirrel and its left butt cheek was a turtle and its hamstring was an owl.

My favorite booth featured a collection of clocks, key hangers, and shelves by Jim Rosenau made out of similar-themed hardcover books on the same subject (e.g. cooking, or writing). One shelf was built using two cookbooks stacked horizontally with a third cookbook sliced into a triangle wedge as the shelf bracket, and an egg beater poking through the middle of it (perfect to mount in your kitchen to hold, I guess, more cookbooks).

We were priced out of most of the artwork, but we had enough to buy a $3 bottle of water from one of the Pepsi “Hydration Stations.” Normally I’d wince at paying $3 for bottled water, especially when nearby bars were selling Rolling Rocks for $2, but each station’s proceeds went to a different cause, including a local high school’s music program. We happily contributed and hydrated.

Our Fourth of July evening activity was a concert at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. Toad the Wet Sprocket and Matisyahu were the opening acts before Blues Traveler, the headliner, who has played at Red Rocks every July 4th since 1994. (The next time you hear a ‘90s band on the radio and think, “What ever happened to those guys?” remember that fact.)

Tailgating is popular at Red Rocks, but we hadn’t come prepared. I walked around the parking lot to try to buy a couple of beers off some fellow tailgaters–I was willing to go as high as $6 for two cold ones. A friendly group of guys gladly handed me two chilled Miller Lites, free of charge. Colorado, you’re the best!

I’m not much of a concert guy, so I knew virtually nothing about Red Rocks going into the trip. Set against flat, pale red rocks and overlooking the city of Denver, the Ampitheatre is easily the best concert venue I’ve ever been to. And on July 4th, we were particularly spoiled by the view from the cheap seats: as the sky darkened, the fireworks across Denver started in waves, first a few puffs of red, white and blue, and later many blasts, big and small, throughout the city. I’m also not much of a fireworks guy, but that citywide spectacular blew me away.

The concert audience was a pretty standard, couples and groups of friends in their 20s, 30s and 40s, plus some families who showed up for the fireworks. As for concessions, my made-to-order burrito ($7) was surprisingly good. I drank an $8 local craft beer (16 oz) before downgrading to $7 Coors Lights (20 oz).

A group of friends sat to our left, dressed in Hulk Hogan-esque red, white and blue 80’s gear, including fake mutton chop sideburns, mustaches, and blonde mullets. To our right, a guy bargained with a group of stoners: “Who wants to trade me two seats in row 29 for one hit of pot…or I’ll just buy it.” I had heard the marijuana laws were pretty relaxed in Colorado…

The wedding and concert were enjoyable, but we were banking on Day 3 in Boulder to make or break our trip. We left around 10 am and drove 35 minutes north of Denver to Boulder, and beelined for University Bicycles, a bike rental shop recommended in our travel guide. For $15 apiece, we rented two really nice bikes for four hours—my girlfriend got a Specialized and I got a Cannondale. In a couple of hours, we did most of the scenic and physically challenging 16-mile loop around Boulder—I’ve never seen a city with so many parks! We made a quick stop at a nearby church so my girlfriend could do a couple of laps around their labyrinth, then locked up our bikes and went to The Kitchen for lunch, just as the rain started. We sat down just after 3, an awkward time for most restaurants, so we were only able to choose from their “Community Hour” menu. We picked on hummus and mac and cheese, nursed local beers, and mulled over our plans for the rest of the day. (We even had a tiny argument over moving to Boulder; I, of course, was ready to move immediately; my girlfriend suggested that one of us have a job lined up in Boulder first.)

After lunch, we did a little window shopping on Pearl St. Mall, Boulder’s main shopping drag, before heading home to meet up with my now married friend and his new wife for some drinks and tapas before they left for their Hawaiian honeymoon the next morning. Always welcoming an insider’s look at a city, we accompanied them to Linger, the latest trendy restaurant in Denver, which was converted from a mortuary.

The new owners manipulated the large neon sign atop the building, formerly “Olinger Mortuaries,” to read “Linger Eatuaries.” I was expecting a ghoulish theme: cocktails named Witch’s Brew and dishes like Spooky Spaghetti. But it was surprisingly polished inside. The only remnants I noticed from the former morgue were the dinner tables, flat glass placed on top of rolling metal cylinders I’d guess were once used to slide corpses back and forth; and brown glass water pitchers, which ostensibly were meant to resemble old embalming fluid bottles. The menu was separated by continent, featuring three or four dishes from each of Asia, North America, Europe, etc. The food was tasty, though it seemed as if their global menu was an afterthought: I assumed most people were coming for the décor and the atmosphere, not the cuisine.

For Day 3, we had planned a trip to Fort Collins to take a tour of the New Belgium brewery. I’ve had their  Fat Tire Amber Ale a few times while visiting relatives in Arizona and Las Vegas, but had never seen it sold in New York (rookie mistake: calling it “Flat Tire,” which I did several times when I first discovered it). But after checking the New Belgium website, we found out their tours were booked for a month solid.

Plan B was a second trip to Boulder, this time hiking up the Flatirons in Chautauqua Park. The woman working behind the desk at the Ranger Station mapped out a couple of trails for us and lent me a used water bottle from a box labeled “Clean Water Bottles”—a woman who worked there regularly brought these home to wash in her dishwasher. (Note: I would never agree to drink from a used water bottle in a visitor’s center in New York City, but in Colorado, it was copacetic.)

The hike was challenging but worth the view at the top. Along the way we came across serious hikers with those little backpack-straw contraptions (the hiker’s answer to the beer helmet), families, and lots of dogs. When I struggled slightly on the rock scrambles or particularly steep sections of the climb, I would talk myself into picking up the pace: Dogs and children are doing this trail. Man up. When that didn’t work, I blamed the altitude. I always forget that the difficulty ratio of hiking uphill versus downhill isn’t like Chutes & Ladders. Each step of a downhill hike is deliberate and soft, like sneaking in after curfew.

With New Belgium struck from our agenda, we were still feeling like a cold beer after our hike so we Yelped a list of local breweries and Twisted Pine Brewing Company came up. We recognized the name from Linger’s beer list the night before, and sought out its headquarters, which turned out to be an easy-to-miss building in an industrial park a mile and a half off Pearl Street. After perusing the seasonal beer list, we decided on a grilled cheese sampler: four sandwich halves (different cheeses on each) and four 5 oz. beer samples ($8 total).

Twisted Pine looks like a small operation from the outside, but it’s actually been brewing since 1995. And oddly enough, its owner, Gordon Knight, started brewing after he acquired some of New Belgium’s original equipment. The brewing is done on site, but they don’t give tours (we asked)—though if you look right when you come out of the restrooms, you can see the brewers working. Twisted Pine, according to their site, is now being sold in Colorado, Texas, and Louisiana. So while I’ll probably have a tough time finding it in New York City, their Blueberry Blonde was the perfect summer afternoon beer. After lunch we made a quick trip back to Pearl Street to pick up souvenirs at Jackalope and Company and then headed back to the hotel.

For our last night in Denver, my girlfriend arranged to have dinner and drinks with some family friends she knew from back East who had moved to Colorado recently. But we had a little time to kill in between, so we stopped in at the hotel’s “manager’s reception,” a free happy hour for hotel guests. It was also a chance to watch the Shriners kick back a little. One hotel staffer told us that about 15,000 of these Shriners—an international “fraternity based on fun, fellowship and the Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief and truth”—were in Denver for their 137th Imperial Council Session, which explained all the white-haired gentlemen in the tall maroon hats. Much like the altitude, the preponderance of Shriners became an incidental scapegoat for any snag in our own plans, such as a minor traffic jam. (On several occasions, I found myself angrily muttering, teeth gritted: I swear to God, if I see one more Shriner… Still, based on their gumption at the manager’s reception, it seemed like they were all about having a good time, which made me wonder what the hell they were doing in the Denver Convention Center six hours a day for four days straight.)

When I say that Colorado was exactly what I expected, it sounds like an insult, but that’s not how I mean it. Perhaps instead, I should say it was every bit as good as I thought it would be. I don’t know how likely it is that we’ll move to Colorado any time soon—though our newly married friends gave us the hard sell—but I’m already hatching a plan to visit again: if I become a Shriner, odds are they’ll be back in Denver some time in the next 50 years. Now all I need is a fancy hat.


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