Is Denver the Capitol in “The Hunger Games”?

March 30, 2012

Minutes after arriving at Denver International Airport, I found myself standing near the baggage claim, gaping at a bizarre mural called “The Children of the World Dream of Peace.” A creation of artist Leo Tanguma, it depicts a gas-masked soldier brandishing a gun and stabbing a dove with a sword while a group of children cower amid ruins nearby.

Whoa. Welcome to Denver!

I have to admit, though — I wasn’t totally surprised by what some might see as a child-terrorizing image.

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A map locating Denver, Colorado (By Laris Karklis/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

I read a lot. And ever since the 2008 release of “The Hunger Games,” the first book in the best-selling sci-fi trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the rumors have been floating around: Denver is quite possibly home base for — cue Beethoven’s Fifth — the forces of evil.

Seem impossible? Consider this: The novel, set in a post-apocalyptic, starvation-plagued North America, describes the decadent futuristic capital of the totalitarian dictatorship of Panem as “built in a place once called the Rockies.” Suspicious, no?

The Capitol, as this city is called, is ringed by 12 poverty-stricken districts that it exploits for its own well-being. Two teenagers from each district — known as “tributes” — are brought to the Capitol annually and forced to fight to the death in a horrific reality TV show called the Hunger Games. Although the novel never pinpoints the Capitol’s precise location, it has set the Internet buzzing with fan speculation — from detailed maps of Panem to message board discussions — that today’s Denver area is the future haunt of nasty President Snow and his corrupt, hedonistic minions.

Of course, this isn’t the image that Visit Denver usually strives to promote.

But now there are about 25 million copies of the three “Hunger Games” books in print in the United States, and the new movie starring Jennifer Lawrence could be 2012’s biggest blockbuster. Surely it’s never been more vital to discover whether the Colorado capital holds the template for our dystopian future.

Is Denver the Capitol in “The Hunger Games”?

Armed with only a well-thumbed copy of the novel and 16-year-old heroine Katniss Everdeen’s never-say-die attitude, I searched for clues during a mid-March visit to the Mile-High City.

My downtown hotel, the towering, glass-laden Hyatt Regency Denver, could be the future Training Center for Hunger Games tributes, those chosen as arena fighters in the dreaded “reaping.” A front-door sign read: “Activities within this Hyatt Hotel are subject to surveillance and video recording.” Clearly I’d come to the right place.

Exploring my 37th-floor room, I recalled Katniss’s words: “My quarters are larger than our entire house back home. They are plush . . . but also have so many automatic gadgets that I’m sure I won’t have time to press all the buttons.” The luxurious 1,308-square-foot Bristlecone Suite boasted three flat-screen TVs (one embedded in the master bathroom mirror) and a computer with a monstrous monitor, plus a stainless steel refrigerator and microwave in the marble-countered kitchenette.

After a Katniss-style cleansing in the multi-head shower, I dined at the nearby Celtic Tavern. Seated beneath battered hurling sticks, I wolfed down Irish potato bread topped with goat cheese as a nod to Prim, the beloved goat-tending little sister whom Katniss volunteers to replace in the Games. Next came a hearty lamb stew. “Unfortunately, we don’t have dried plums or wild rice,” confessed my tattooed waitress when I asked to customize the stew to exactly match Katniss’s favorite Capitol dish.

The Capitol’s flamboyant citizens decorate their bodies freely with tattoos, so to finish my day with a flourish, I marched off to Bound by Design. Resembling a well-lit hair salon, this 22-year-old business on East Colfax Avenue was named 2010’s “Best Tattoo and Piercing Studio” by Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly.

“How much would it cost to get the gold mockingjay pin from ‘The Hunger Games’ inked on my shoulder?” I asked tattoo artist Lauren Violet. “About $150,” she said. “And a full back tattoo of Jennifer Lawrence’s Entertainment Weekly cover?” After learning that this could top $5,000 for 50 hours of work, I decided that I’d have to think about it.

The next morning, I scoured the hip LoDo, or Lower Downtown Historic District, for Capitol-worthy fashion statements and found something quintessentially Western. The 1946-founded Rockmount Ranch Wear invented cowboy shirts with diamond snaps and sawtooth pockets, colorfully worn by rock stars from Elvis to Green Day. Owner Steve Weil expressed confidence that his store would survive the coming apocalypse: “We have an impact on world fashion, and we made it through NAFTA, the Wal-Mart-ization of retail, and Urban Cowboy.” No comment on the Dark Days.

A block away, Tattered Cover, Denver’s best-known independent bookstore, had about 360 copies of “Hunger Games”-related books on hand, according to a clerk. However, unlike J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins has never made an in-store appearance here. What’s this world coming to? Kids who kill shouldn’t take a back seat to wizards and vampires. Are Denver children getting the knowledge and training they need to hack it in what it appears will be a lean, mean future?

Unhesitatingly, I rented a bike through Denver’s B-cycle sharing system, rode along tranquil Cherry Creek and disembarked at the Children’s Museum of Denver.

This lively two-floor operation, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013, specializes in “play-based learning that builds community,” according to communications manager Zoe Ocampo. That might sound great if you’re 8 or younger and enjoy cuddling big teddy bears, making bubbles or shopping in a mini-grocery store. But . . . where were the “Hunger Games”-style venomous insects and land mines? Parents can only lament the squandered educational opportunity.

Just up the South Platte River, REI’s sprawling Denver flagship store offers better preparation for the arena’s perils. Besides selling knives and ropes for outdoor rec enthusiasts, the late-Victorian red-brick building houses a 47-foot-tall climbing pinnacle made of hand-sculpted rock. There are 11 routes to tackle, including three for kids. More Training Center-worthy goodness. You never know when you’ll have to shimmy up a natural obstacle to evade adolescents bent on murder.

I spent the afternoon in Golden, a cozy mountain town just west of Denver, brimming with museums. Since tributes are whisked to the Capitol aboard luxury trains, I made a beeline for the Colorado Railroad Museum. I didn’t find any of the “high-speed Capitol models that average 250 miles per hour” mentioned in “The Hunger Games.” But the 15-acre lot does showcase a plush private business car that once transported railroad tycoon Charles Elliott Perkins, plus vintage steam locomotives powered by coal, the lifeblood of Katniss’s District 12.

Back in Denver that evening, I wanted to catch the city’s version of brutal gladiatorial battles. So I headed to the Pepsi Center, the home arena of the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche.

Seated at ice level amid the howling crowd of 15,045, I witnessed a teenager shooting to kill in sudden death. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado’s 19-year-old rookie-of-the-year candidate, scored in overtime to beat the Anaheim Ducks, 3-2. Hunger Games TV host Caesar Flickerman would have gushed over the budding puck warrior.

That performance called for a drink. Denver has the highest per-capita beer production in the United States, and I quaffed a post-game pale ale at the Wynkoop Brewing Co. Founded in 1988 by John Hickenlooper, Colorado’s current governor, it’s the oldest brewpub in town. On this Monday night, the wooden-floored suds mecca lured dudes in with pool tables and pumping ’80s hard rock music.

Single ladies, pay attention! Denver, which Travel + Leisure readers selected as America’s ninth-best city for singles last year, is nicknamed “Menver” for its legendarily high ratio of men to women. If you’re seeking your own Peeta Mellark or Gale Hawthorne, the hunky rivals for Katniss’s love, this gives new meaning to the “Hunger Games” catchphrase: “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

I had unromantic aims on Day Three when I headed to the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (CELL). Situated in Denver’s Golden Triangle Museum District, this institute funded by conservative Denver entrepreneur Larry Mizel provides a multimedia crash course in how to spot vigilantes with bombs. But it was closed for renovations, denying me a preview of the sorts of tactics that the Peacekeepers — the trilogy’s ruthless military police — could use to crack down on rebellious districts.

No skin off my (unflogged) back. Next door, I admired the silver sci-fi architecture of the Daniel Libeskind-designed Denver Art Museum. The adjacent Clyfford Still Museum, which opened in November to spotlight the American abstract expressionist’s work, has a stark, Soviet-style exterior that suits the grim vibe of his early paintings, which feature the haunting stares of skin-and-bones Depression-era folks. Still probably would have loved Panem’s paupers.

And, of course, I had to tour the ostensible Capitol’s real Capitol. However, from the cafeteria’s veggie sandwiches to the tapestry celebrating Colorado women, this gold-domed, marble-laden 1901 building wasn’t particularly intimidating or totalitarian.

Visiting cultural and political institutions is thirst-inducing work. Facing Denver’s sunset-tinged skyline and sampling the 42-beer selection at the Ale House at Amato’s, I realized that Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss’s alcoholic mentor, would be right at home here.

On my last day, my investigative mission turned animalistic. I hoped to track down the local forerunners of the horrible, genetically altered beasts called “muttations” that attack Games contestants. Denver’s public art had aroused my suspicions, with statues such as the demonic-looking “Blue Mustang” at the airport, the enormous blue bear called “I See What You Mean” outside the Colorado Convention Center, and the metal gorilla guarding a fridge containing Silverback Pale Ale at Wynkoop.

I drove out to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Encompassing 15,000 prairie acres, it’s Denver’s answer to District 13, which was noted for making nuclear weapons and was bombed into a toxic wasteland by the Capitol’s military during the Dark Days. Starting in the 1940s, the Arsenal manufactured napalm, sarin and other chemical weapons. Once heavily contaminated, the site has benefited from an ongoing cleanup since 1987. More than 330 species now enjoy sanctuary here. I saw deer and prairie dogs on my hike.

Mysteriously, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, no staffers admitted to knowing about collection founder Edwin Carter’s horror at 19th-century mutations, such as two-headed goats, caused by chemicals used in mining. But the dusty Wild Animal Sanctuary in nearby Keenesburg — established to rescue abused or abandoned animals — had promising “muttation” candidates, from the rare white tiger with a recessive gene to the Arctic wolves whose ferocity seemed muted when viewed from a 20-foot-high walkway.

After a decadent six-course dinner at star Denver chef Kevin Taylor’s namesake 14th Street restaurant, I was in full Capitol mode. I checked out downtown’s new crystal chandelier-laden Fluff Bar, which offers on-site haircuts and shaves while you imbibe. I even envisioned a makeover that could get me into the Games and make Katniss’s prep team of stylists proud.

Crazy stuff, but fun. Just like Denver.

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Aykroyd is a freelance travel, sports and entertainment writer based in Vancouver, B.C.

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