Denver, Col. — Just one week before the start of the Democratic National Convention, local news in Denver reported that an area cow named Apple chased off a bear that had climbed into her favorite apple tree.
As a Denver native who now resides in Washington, D.C., the story made me homesick. It somehow embodied all that I love about the Mile High City: proud cow town at the edge of rugged wilderness.
The Queen City of the Plains was founded at the beginning of the Colorado Gold Rush. It served as a supply town for the mining camps that sprung up throughout the somewhat-inhospitable mountains, but also as a hub for high-plains agriculture. It’s an oil town, an oil-bust town, and the most isolated major city in the United States.
As delegates, journalists, and pundits descend on Denver for the first time since William Jennings Bryan was nominated here 100 years ago, here’s a rough guide of what sights to check out and how to get along with the natives.
When I first moved to D.C., I was shocked at how frequently I was asked, “What do you do?” This is an badly disguised form of, “are you worth talking to?” In Denver, people also ask what you do, but they are trying to figure out if you prefer to fish, camp, or kayak. One proper response is, “I’ve really been getting into climbing more. So far this summer we’ve hit Mount Wilson and Longs (Peak). Awesome scrambles near the summit.”
When I left Denver, it occurred to me that I had several friends — good friends, even — whose occupation was largely unknown to me. Occupational status is just not as important here as shared interests and hobbies are.
Coloradoans are politically engaged and aware, however. They know they’re in a swing state. They know their votes are important. Most presidential election years, the race is over by the time polls close along the Mississippi River. This year, Colorado’s famous independence means campaigns are devoting lots of resources to capturing votes. Denver residents are also well aware of the impact the convention will have on the city. And whether they’re die-hard Obama fans or reliable Republicans, they’ve been preparing. Any business that stands to gain from the projected $160 million in economic impact is doing its best to be accommodating.
On the Thursday prior to the convention, I overheard a salesperson at the Z Gallerie store in Cherry Creek Mall tell a frantic customer that hotels and event planners had nearly cleaned her out of candles and candle holders.
The Tattered Cover Bookstore, one of the best in the country, greets convention goers with a table of “Books recommended to the President Elect” submitted by Bill Moyers. It looks mostly like the bibliophile equivalent of an election chamber — Al Gore’s Assault on Reason, Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. A selection of “Denvercrat” T-shirts and Obama paraphernalia, including a children’s tie-dyed Obama ’08 shirt (the zero was actually a peace sign), are placed nearby. So are some Republican T-shirts.
The Tattered Cover is located on Colfax Street, known for both its robust prostitution and its status as the longest commercial street in the country. The street has an amazing history, and both the U.S. Mint and the gold-domed Colorado state capitol sit along it.
Capitol Hill in general is a fantastic place to visit. A densely populated neighborhood featuring mansions and apartment buildings, it’s a haven for artists and hipsters. I can lose an entire day at Wax Trax Records. One of the best vinyl record sellers in the country, the store carries music in every format and genre. I bought most of my comprehensive Herb Alpert collection there, but also stocked up on everything from acid jazz to Zydeco.
You can tell a lot about the temperament of a place by what industries it hosts. Washington, D.C., doesn’t produce anything other than laws and bureaucracy. Denver has launched everything from xeriscaping to Baby Einstein’s opiates for toddlers to Chipotle’s fresh and fast burritos. Be sure to visit the original Chipotle near the University of Denver while you’re here. Pick up a pair of Colorado’s famous Crocs for every member of the family. Most people look goofy wearing Crocs, but you almost look goofy if you’re not wearing them here.
Colorado is also home to Fat Tire beer, sinfully difficult to procure in my new hometown. If you’re not hitting a microbrewery every night during the convention, you are not taking full advantage of your Denver stay. Denver’s Democratic mayor, John Hickenlooper, was a brewer before running for office.
Probably the most important thing visitors to Denver can do is find a good bowl of green chile. La Fiesta’s gets good reviews. I don’t think a daily taco is a bad idea either. Besides Chipotle, I like El Tejado on South Broadway for its authentic Mexican dishes and mariachi band.
But let’s say you want to get away from the action at the Pepsi Center. Where should you go? Probably the finest outdoor concert venue in the world is Red Rocks Amphitheater. Willie Nelson is performing there during convention week. Given the laid-back ethos of most Coloradoans and Nelson’s well-known proclivities, you should be able to get a contact high from several miles away.
A visit to the People’s Republic of Boulder might not be the break you’re looking for, but it sure is beautiful. And if you go on a Thursday, you can watch as a crowd of hundreds of bicyclists careen through streets, alleys and bike paths shouting “Happy Thursday.” Some dress themselves or their bikes in costume.
For a completely different scene, head 60 miles south to the United States Air Force Academy, where my brother went to school. The 18,000-acre campus north of Colorado Springs showcases beautiful modern buildings. Its 17-spired Cadet Chapel is considered one of the best examples of modern American academic architecture. You can also check out a ton of airplanes and thousands of cadets marching in formation to lunch.
Denver is a great town in a breathtakingly majestic setting — we natives won’t blame you if you’re tempted to move here. But Denver’s rapid expansion in recent years means it’s been getting awfully crowded awfully quickly, so please don’t.
– M. Z. Hemingway writes for getreligion.org.