In the weeks following the Columbine High School attack, when Heaven seemed to be punishing us with atypical clouds, rain, fierce winds and wet, unjoyous snow, Denver looked to me like a dreary Eastern city, the kind of place that it's good to be from. The sensuous allure of the place, the forces that have drawn people here for more than a century with no sign of letup--the seemingly constant sunshine, the dry air, the gentle breezes, the architectural and floral sweetness of the older neighborhoods--was slipping from memory. Was this really the place my family and I had chosen, only four months earlier, to come to?
The sun and warmth are back, the city's collective and almost tangible depression is lifting, and I can see it again: the city I longed for as an answer to my growing frustration with the oppressive humidity and attitudes of the East. Walking the other day through our neighborhood of Park Hill, I was soothed by the magnificent shade trees that somehow have flourished in the desert and the calm, confident arts-and-crafts style that predominates among the houses. I couldn't say I felt at home yet, but for the first time in weeks I was remembering why so many people, myself included, want so dearly to make this home.
I realized, too, that this sense of duality--as if there are two Denvers occupying the same space but mutually invisible, like something out of "Sliders"--is very much part of the story of this city. If I felt myself briefly caught between Dreary Denver and Delightful Denver, unsure which I belonged to and thus unsure about my prospects for happiness here, that's pretty much the predicament people here have found themselves in, in one way or another, for years.
The way the life of Molly Brown sliced through the divisions that normally make a city comprehensible--rich and poor, haute and bas, American and European, goodly and stingy--may be the best example of what I'm talking about. But it's more than that.
You're probably quite sure, for example, that Denver is in the mountains. So was I, until I got here. Until some time after I got here, actually, when the evidence my eyes were collecting finally seeped through to my brain. Denver is not in the mountains; it is at the very edge of the great American desert. Downtown is 10 miles, by my odometer, from where the flat earth erupts into the foothills of the Front Range, one of the dozen-plus mountain ranges known collectively as the Rockies. And so it is that we're able to live in a city known to the world and to itself as a mountain city that's actually flat as a day-old glass of Fat Tire.
The mountains, visible most days to the west like the backdrop of a museum panorama, dominate us like pagans. When the mountains smile, there is prosperity in the land; when they are angered, suffering. There was a tone of impending crisis in people's voices just before last Christmas because it hadn't yet snowed sufficiently to make for really great skiing. The gods heard our prayers, and let it snow the entire weekend before the holiday. We were saved, at least temporarily; for the winter as a whole, though, Utah got more snow than we did.
It's rather unusual for any conversation, no matter what the ostensible topic, not to find its way eventually to skiing. It can therefore be hard for a non-skier to feel as if he's fitting in. Fear not: Since talk of skiing is really a form of prayer, and nobody actually expects prayers to be answered verbally, it is sufficient merely to utter an anglicized form of the Hebrew word "amen" to keep the conversation going. Thus:
"Gosh, I'm sick of the groomed stuff. I hope they open more moguls this year."
"I mean, like, really, you know?"
"I heard it snowed in Aspen finally."
And so on.
So let's call duality No. 2 Mountain Denver vs. Desert Denver.
Then there's Crudhole Denver vs. Hip Denver. Natives--anyone who's been here, say, 15 years--still see the depressed, forlorn city that the oil bust of the early '80s wrought. "This must be culture shock for you, moving from New York," they're always saying. "This here's a cow town." I patiently explain to them that Denver, the city they think they know better than I by virtue of having been here longer than I, has art cinemas, legitimate theaters, an opera company, coffee shops, superb restaurants, a fashionable downtown--you know, the good stuff of urban life, and lots of it. They always mull it over for a few seconds, mentally ticking off the attractions I've mentioned to confirm that I'm not making it all up, and concede. "Yeah, but that's just in the last few years," they add.
We're both thinking mainly of LoDo (for Lower Downtown), the warehouse district that, I am assured, was spookily barren just a few years ago. Today it's the envy of the viable-downtown crowd everywhere. The effect that the nostalgically designed, red-brick Coors Field has had on the district will be familiar to anyone who's been to Baltimore's Inner Harbor in the last few years. Though the district's permanent population is too small to support a supermarket, a new loft conversion seems to be announced every other week, and the place jams at night. If you visit Denver, you'll probably spend much of your time in LoDo.
Another example of Crud vs. Hip is what, to me, is our used-book district, near the baroque, gold-domed state capitol (which, by the way, is worth a visit to see how our awe of the Western landscape was once rendered in sense-pummeling public art). I was so excited to stumble across it--how many cities other than San Francisco still have a used-book district? Crawling from bookstore to bookstore, ogling delightful irrelevancies like an English-language pictorial guide to Buenos Aires from the '50s, it occurred to me that I was having to step over quite a number of grungy men who were literally crawling. The used-book district happens also to be the drunks-falling-to-the-pavement-outside-seedy-bars-and-staying-there district. Whether the neighborhood ultimately attracts respectable people or repels them is, I guess, in the buy of the beholder.
One of my favorite examples of my Denver-as-dual-universe phenomenon has got to be--forgive the cliche, but sometimes life is a cliche--Urban Denver vs. Cowboy Denver. There's always been a cow town, no way around it. It feels nothing like that now, of course; LoDo is as urban-chic as SoHo, the suburbs are family-friendly and sprawling, and you're likelier to see people wearing Eccos and a tuque than Fryes and a Stetson. Other than the gun thing, the most common expression of Western expansiveness nowadays is intentionally (it's got to be intentional, it happens so often) taking up 1 1/2 parking spaces at Target just to screw your neighbor.
For two weeks each January, however, the yupper-middle-class forces that have taken over this "small town" of 2 million turn absolutely apoplectic as the National Western Stock Show holds forth. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association is based in Denver, you see, so thousands of boys and their cows gather here for a vegan's nightmare--a celebration of meat and meat culture. Serious business goes on during the show: There's talk of "carcass merit" and "high-quality replacement females," and herds of cattle, buffalo, elk, even yak are bought and sold, as are genetic-engineering techniques and delightful products like the Bovine Beacon, a heat-activated device that lets you know when a cow's been intimate.
There are public events where you just have to say yee-haw--and visualize the snobs in the leafy residential neighborhoods just east of downtown cringing as you say it. The Mexican Rodeo with its stunt riders seems to be the most popular, and the schedule published in the Denver Post lists such must-see events as "Dog Agility" and "An Evening of Dancing Horses With Michael Martin Murphy & the Rio Grande Band."
I went to a bull-riding competition, bought a $10 nosebleed seat, and got what I paid for: transportation to another, utterly unfamiliar world of big boots, big hats, chawin' tobaccer, dirt, bridled critters and unbridled patriotism. The smoky-throated announcer introduced the evening's riders to the theme from "Rocky," and didn't disappoint my eagerness to experience stereotypes in action when, describing the financial success one of them had had in such competitions, he intoned, "Only in a country called America can dreams come true."
I watched a few riders fall off their bulls--it really is a terribly boring sport if you're not used to it--and wandered the massive sales floor, where, I found out later, a stall selling elk-horn chandeliers was cleaned out by a Japanese businessman hunting for paraphernalia for a new theme restaurant.
Even people who hate the National Western admit it's a valuable reminder of Denver's uncultured cultural roots. And I think the cowboys wouldn't give it up for the world: Every night during the event the parking lot at Shotgun Willie's, our most famous girlie bar, overflows with out-of-town pickups.
(Two months later, the losing side in the war for the West gets its shot at the Denver Coliseum: We have one of the biggest Native American pow-wows in the country every March. I didn't make it, since it's three days long versus the Stock Show's two weeks, but my wife took the kids, and reported that the opening procession of dancers from various tribes impressed upon her, for the first time, the intricacy and diversity of native cultures.)
Finally, the duality that has done the most to force me to rethink my relationship to society is Sports Fan Denver vs. Wuss Denver. I, alas, am the sole wuss. Everyone else is a sports fan. I found out about this by accident when I discovered that any comment about football--any comment about anything, really--could be rejoindered with the single word "Ellllwaaaaay!" Thus:
"See the game last night?"
"Think they'll go all the way this year?"
"Bob, the big client meeting is tomorrow and I'll need that sales projection you've been working on."
The Elway to whom everyone refers is John Elway, a highly regarded car salesman--he's actually gone out and asked people, the dear man, what they dislike about the car-buying process--who somehow found time until very recently to moonlight as a quarterback for the Broncos of the National Football League. He evidently did a creditable job, for which the locals so greatly admire him that after the team's second consecutive Super Bowl victory in January they lit some fires in his honor and smashed the windows of several prominent downtown businesses (killing two of their number).
Elway's car ads, featuring the man's mastodon-toothed snicker-smile and half-encouraging, half-admonishing finger point, may be the most frequently seen image in Denver. I would bet that the slogan of John Elway Auto Nation ("It's about lower prices. It's about higher standards. It's about time") makes its way into many Denverites' dreams. (The second-most-seen image are the words "Help Wanted." There is a serious labor shortage here, and one lunch partner of mine likes to point out how that's affected restaurants. One of the waiters at Ellyngton's, at the ever-graceful Brown Palace Hotel, has offered me "osso puko" and several types of pasta that simply don't exist.)
Though I'm sick to death of (the finally retired from the NFL) John freakin' Elway and ashamed of the window-smashers, it is kind of sweet to see how happy sports makes these people. The day after the Super Bowl, on the elevator at work, two guys, their gelatinous bellies sloshing beneath Broncos T-shirts, practically fell into one another's arms weeping. "I'll tell ya," said one, "you can never be too rich, too thin or win too many Super Bowls."
Nor are these fair-weather fans; Sports is as much a part of them as lymph. I would have no way of checking this without learning something about sports, which I don't feel like doing, but I'm told this is the smallest city with franchises in every professional sports league. Discussing relationships with a new acquaintance, I mentioned that a woman I know back East had broken up with her boyfriend in part because he watched too much sports on TV. My acquaintance gave me a blank stare and made no response. I was startled in the way one is when, say, a Japanese person bows deeply at one: suddenly lost, fumbling to find the key to unlock the cultural door that has been slammed so that the conversation can resume.
"Oh," I blurted, "that makes no sense to you, does it--the concept that he could have watched too much sports?" She nodded faintly, comprehension beginning to show on her face. "To you there's no such thing as too much sports, right?" She nodded again and gave me a crooked, you-poor-soul kind of smile.
It was a breakthrough. We still did not understand one another, but we understood that, though we were sitting at the same table in the same restaurant, we were in two very different places.
Eric Hubler last wrote about Brooklyn for the Travel section.
Get Outta Town: Day Trips From Denver
After I moved here, a friend e-mailed, "Is it true once you've breathed the crisp air of the Rockies into your lungs, nothing else will do?"
Alas, Denver is actually in the Plains, not the Rockies, so we only rarely get a whiff of that refreshing mountain air. The famed ski resorts pop up one after the other starting about 60 miles out of town, but you don't even have to go that far for a day in the hills.
Idaho Springs, 35 miles west on I-70, is an old mining town with a cute (cutesified?) downtown featuring historical markers on every single building and a preserved narrow-gauge train. There's also a bathhouse that's rather rundown but fun for a soak.
Boulder, a k a the People's Republic of Boulder, 25 miles northwest on U.S. 36, is an emblematic blend of liberalism and wealth--Celestial Seasonings teas and Wild Oats Markets are based here, which should give you some idea. The city's aggressive, money-driven leftism pays off for the tourist, since Boulder is honeycombed with biking and hiking paths and surrounded by city-owned green space, bringing wilderness adventure within minutes of fine dining and tony shopping.
To the west, Golden, a town over from Denver, is home to the Coors brewery and at least three other places worth visiting: the Buffalo Bill Grave and Museum, the Colorado Railroad Museum and Golden Gate Canyon State Park, where genuine Rocky Mountain hikes and vistas are only an hour from the city.
The ultimate day trip, though, is the Ski Train, departing Union Station every Saturday morning during ski season for Winter Park, a resort on city-owned land next to the Arapaho National Forest, with the return departure half an hour after the lifts close. According to one old-timer I've befriended--all right, all right, it was a cabby and I've never seen him again--the Ski Train was already an institution when he was riding it with his high school ski team 40 years ago. The train stops at the base of the mountain--as bizarre a sight as the ocean liner seen from the desert in "Lawrence of Arabia"--so you can detrain, put on your skis, and hit the lifts immediately. Winter Park is especially beloved by Denver families because it has a day-care center (make reservations early!) and green runs all the way to the top of the mountain, so even inexpert skiers can enjoy long runs and thrilling scenery. The same Front Range peaks that are visible in 2-D from Denver blossom into 3-D here. Tickets $35-$65. Call 303-296-4754.
DETAILS: The Two Sides of Denver
WHEN TO GO: Winter if you want to ski, any time else if you don't. April is supposed to be the rainiest month; this year early May was pretty harsh, too.
GETTING THERE: Many airlines fly to Denver International Airport, and United dominates the place, but you're missing part of the Denver experience if you don't fly our flag carrier, Frontier, the only line based here. Its tickets are less restrictive than those of the big carriers, its flight attendants haven't lost their humanity yet, and it serves the best coffee in the air. Best of all, it has a daily nonstop from BWI. The restricted round-trip fare starts at about $300, but it sells out quickly.
Amtrak will get you to the splendidly located but grossly underused Union Station, with a change in Chicago, in 37 hours. Round-trip tickets are $314 per person and a two-person sleeper costs an additional $864 round trip.
GETTING AROUND: Most of Denver is a grid, so driving is pretty easy, though the grid takes a confusing 45-degree jog downtown. The bus system, despite a general shabbiness (and, seemingly, a requirement to tuck away bus stops on unlighted corners of streets with little traffic), covers the metro area competently and even graciously--one driver once said, "Good evening, sir," when I boarded, and some keep their mikes on to engage in constant banter with riders. The fare is 75 cents off-peak, $1.25 peak, payable in cash or with prepaid discount tickets. Call 303-299-6000 for more information.
WHERE TO STAY: The Brown Palace (321 17th St., 1-800-321-2599) is the place-to-stay place to stay. Room rates are $205 to $800; weekend packages from $169 to, this is not a typo, $5,500. Per night.
To be in the thick of the LoDo scene, choose the Oxford Hotel (1600 17th St., 1-800-228-5838), designed by the same architect as the Brown Palace. Rates are $79 to $359.
Two noteworthy B&Bs that are the result of mightily impressive sweat-equity restorations are Castle Marne (1572 Race St., 303-331-0621, rates $70-$180) and the Lumber Baron Inn (2555 W. 37th Ave., 303-477-8205; rates $125-$210).
If en famille, try the Holiday Chalet (1820 East Colfax Ave., 303-321-9975), a kid-friendly B&B reminiscent of the days when Colfax Avenue was the most elegant address between St. Louis and San Francisco. (It definitely isn't anymore.) Rates are $84 to $130.
WHERE TO EAT: Just $15.95 ($10.95 at lunch) buys appetizers, salad bar and all the protein you can metabolize at Rodizio Grill (303-294-9277), a Brazilian meat orgy at 1801 Wynkoop and two suburban locations. Other restaurants include:
* BD's Mongolian Barbecue (1620 Wazee Rd., 303-571-1824). Different continent, same idea.
* Wynkoop Brewing Co. (1634 18th St., 303-297-2700). It's credited with being the first of the now-plentiful LoDo brew pubs. Try the elk medallions and follow with coffee at the Tattered Cover, a locally celebrated bookstore two blocks away.
* Buckhorn Exchange (1000 Osage St., 303-534-9505). If you have only one meal in Denver, come here afterward. Not that the food isn't excellent--it is--but it's so expensive, you're bound to feel a little taken unless you also take the time to absorb all the Wild West memorabilia. This is Denver's oldest restaurant. While other restaurants display newspaper clippings of reviews from three years ago, the Buckhorn has a clipping describing how it was held up by masked gunmen, suggesting the Old West was a caricature of itself even as it was unfolding.
As an antidote to all this meat, Denver has a huge number of cheap Japanese bento places, many of them in strip malls. Something-on-rice generally goes for around $4 to $5.
Two places locals rave about but that I haven't been to yet are Barolo Grill (3030 E. Sixth Ave., 303-393-1040) and Vesta Dipping Grill (1822 Blake St., 303-296-1970)
For dessert, Josh & John (303-628-0310), Denver's answer to Ben and Jerry, serve ice cream made in their store at 1444 Market St. It's $2.70 for a regular cone; add 25 cents for the daily "churn-fresh" flavor--made that day so it's never been deep-frozen.
INFORMATION: Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, 303-892-1505, www.denver.org.