In the spring of 2020, my 4-year-old son, Fenn, sat on a rock at the Walter Orr Roberts trailhead, shoeless and wailing. He wailed as a steady stream of hikers passed by, chatting beneath their gaiters and masks. He wailed as other small children skipped alongside their parents. He wailed as I begged, implored and, ultimately, threatened him to put on his shoes or else he’d lose his iPad privileges. This being Boulder, Colo. — a place that remained preternaturally relaxed, even at the height of a pandemic — nobody seemed especially judgmental. But I felt terrible. These Coloradans had come to enjoy the Flatirons, those majestic stone waves frozen mid-crest against the sky. Instead, they found a couple of New Yorkers throwing a tantrum.
Fenn was refusing to put on his hiking sandals, shoes that most of the population — including children — wear like second skin. The sandals had good treads, were breathable and dried quickly when wet. In short, perfect for a town where you could rock-climb, mountain-bike and tube a river in a single afternoon. Fenn wore cheap Target sneakers, rubbed slick. This seemed to invite a sprained ankle or worse. Why, I moaned to myself, couldn’t he just be like a Boulder kid? But I knew the answer. This wasn’t his home. He was a Brooklynite, a boy who had been abruptly taken west at the onset of the pandemic.
Before we got here, Fenn had never been on a hike. Aside from the three flights of stairs required to reach our apartment, his existence was primarily horizontal. We’d gotten him on the trail only by promising videos and ice cream. Now I hoped our Boulder sojourn might motivate him to try some new adventures, appreciate a different kind of childhood. Instead he’d become a grouch, hunkering down in the safety of his proverbial Brooklyn trash can.
Our friends back home were trapped in their apartments, their daily soundtrack filled with sirens. Sure, Boulder playgrounds were shuttered all spring, just as they were in Brooklyn. But it didn’t matter because we had seemingly infinite space: plains to the east, mountains to the west, big sky overhead. In other words, an ideal place to ride out a quarantine. It was an opportunity for us to test-drive a new kind of existence, even be a different kind of family. But not if we refused to do things the Boulder way.
Our family of four — our two sons, then 4 and 14 months, my husband, Jason; and I — were among the roughly 420,000 New Yorkers who left town when the pandemic struck. We lived in a 1,000-square-foot apartment in the northern end of Park Slope, Brooklyn, relatively spacious digs by New York standards. Then, in mid-March, we learned that schools were shutting down. Jason and I were incredibly fortunate to keep our jobs, which meant we’d both be working from home — while running virtual school and caring for our baby. The apartment had four rooms. It was going to be terrible.
Our parents begged us to leave. Mine live in the D.C. suburbs, where coronavirus infections were climbing. That left Boulder, where my in-laws had moved seven months before. Colorado seemed much safer. They had space for us, and my sister-in-law’s family lived nearby, which meant our kids would have some familiar faces. In less than 24 hours, we threw clothing into a couple of suitcases, bought plane tickets and gave the contents of our fridge to a neighbor.
Boulder is a city of roughly 108,000, 30 miles northwest of Denver and on the front range of the Rocky Mountains. It is pristine, with about 50,000 acres of public open space, and it is wealthy, with a median household income of about $103,000. If you remove the open space and significantly homogenize the population, Boulder and gentrified Brooklyn have a lot in common. Cold brew is abundant. (I’d traded Hungry Ghost in Prospect Heights for Beleza off Alpine Avenue.) Independent breweries abound; Boulder even boasts a ska-themed “brewstillery.” And vegan ice cream is plentiful. (Gelato Boy on Pearl Street in lieu of Van Leeuwen.) The boutiques are cute if overpriced. CBD, the cannabis derivative, is everywhere and in everything. Kombucha is on tap. A lot of brands you might associate with Brooklyn are based in Boulder, like Justin’s nut butters and Bobo’s snack bars. The Whole Foods Market near my in-laws’ house carries Gotham Greens pesto, made from Brooklyn-grown basil. One Boulder cafe carried a weird wellness item called “broth tonic.” I hadn’t seen that in Brooklyn, but I was 100 percent sure somebody in the borough offered it.
Both towns are unabashedly progressive. Both are called “bubbles” by residents who are sorry (and also not sorry) to be sheltered from the “real” America. You see a lot of Black Lives Matter signs, though Boulderites have actual lawns in which to stake this claim. I found one, while walking on a rural stretch of 47th Street in north Boulder. The view was breathtaking: fields stretching toward the lush foothills, scattered tractors and barns. I felt a flash of surprise, if only because the other places I’d been that looked like this place — certain parts of West Virginia and rural Maine — often had signs suggesting a very different political viewpoint. It reminded me that a swath of rural farmland wasn’t itself a political thing. It was merely land. We imposed our values and perceptions on it. Standing before the Black Lives Matter sign, I turned in a full circle, taking in the expanse. I suddenly understood how lucky and privileged we were to be here.
I wished my husband shared this appreciation. Jason grew up in South Florida but never failed to mention that he was born in New York. (But, I mean, Westchester?) In 2008, when he moved to Manhattan, he happily rented an apartment in grimy Midtown East, just blocks from the Queensboro Bridge on-ramp. He was a New York City snob and proud of it. I finally lured him to Brooklyn in 2010. Over the next decade, he grew to love its small-town feel, where you frequently ran into neighbors on the street. The same thing was true of Boulder; after meeting someone at a socially distanced barbecue, we saw that same person the next day — halfway up a mountain.
Of course, there were plenty of differences. Boulder is more hippie than hipster, more leggings than skinny jeans. Sushi in Boulder is insanely overpriced, and for reasons we still don’t understand, the bagel shops in town insist on referring to “everything” bagels as “Italian.” But during our early months in Colorado, Jason was struggling to connect. He had nothing to say about the trails, or the gear, or the jam bands whose marathon concerts had been canceled. For him, New York is a way of life: defined by drive, ambition and endless professional curiosity. Yes, Boulderites are driven. The city has a large start-up scene, a Google hub. But a lot of people come here because they don’t want to conflate work and identity. They come because they’d rather be on the trails than in the office. They come because why would you endure a freezing, rain-drenched daily commute when you could drive a Subaru and never have to parallel-park it? Boulder drive was encapsulated by the T-shirt my father-in-law gave Jason. It said: Sea Level is for Slackers.
There was plenty to be engaged by in Boulder. It just looked — and sounded — different. Instead of New York’s 7 p.m. clap for front-line workers, Boulderites howled like wolves every evening at 8. I thought it was actual animals until Jason explained what was happening.
The same was true of the city’s political expression. Before the November elections, three corners on a stretch of 28th Street were monopolized every Saturday by advocates. On one corner, there was a modest showing of Biden-Harris supporters, including a handful of Latino first-time voters from the University of Colorado. Opposite was a massive Trump-Pence bus and a throng of MAGA folk, led by an organizer in an Indian headdress. On the ground beside him, someone had written “The Working Class is Intersectional” in yellow chalk. Only in a place like Boulder would the Trumpers — who ordinarily criticized anything that smacked of wokeness — use a word like “intersectional.”
And then, a block down, representing his own vision of democracy, was a man in drag dancing to Taylor Swift and Rihanna. Skinny and scantily clad, he’d donned a flowing rainbow-colored wig, fishnets, stilettos and a black boa. He held a large sign that read “Werk the Polls” on one side and “Honk if you’re horny to vote” on the other. “I’m seducing people to the polls,” he told me when I stopped by to chat. “I saw there was aggression and intensity.” He nodded at the Biden and Trump camps. “I don’t think the animosity is Boulder. At the end of the day, we’re all people. We’re all humans on the same journey.”
Describing life as a journey, all of us hiking our earthbound trail together — it didn’t get more Boulder than that.
By late summer, the school situation in New York looked precarious, so Jason and I decided to spend the boys’ upcoming academic year in Boulder. At least here, if things shut down, we’d have family help. Now we had no choice but to lean fully into suburbia. Every weekend, we took the kids to a different playground — there were so many! Our favorite was Arapahoe Ridge Park. The central feature was a large rock formation, designed to mimic a mountain range. It had been built into a hill, the boulders and slabs stacked with relative degrees of steepness, and was full of tunnels and crawl spaces. It was just dangerous enough — a 11-foot drop from top to the bottom. Underneath was a cave where kids could draw on the rocks with chalk. Park Slope had nothing like this; it was what people back home called a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Fenn loved scrambling around Arapahoe Ridge. He would free-climb up a rock face or dangle over ledges. At some point, I realized that he’d gained a unique kind of independence and self-assurance. In Brooklyn, you couldn’t let a kindergartner out alone. Here, he frequently fled my in-laws’ house to play with dogs or kids in the nearby park. He stayed until after dark. We didn’t worry.
On a weekend trip to the mountains, we canoed the Dillon Reservoir, charting a course toward a series of tiny islands. Afterward, we headed to Breckenridge, a former mining town in the Rocky Mountains known for its ski slopes. The pandemic had shuttered many of the attractions, like the gondola and the alpine slide, but Fenn found the perfect substitute: rock scrambling in the Blue River, which bisected the town. He still lacked hiking sandals, so he shucked his shoes and jumped in. We watched from the Blue River Lawn, where picnickers were being serenaded by an acoustic guitar.
Before long, Fenn set off down the river bank. We followed him from the pathway above, keeping one eye on him and another on the quaint shops and cafes. Soon, though, I started to get nervous. The water looked increasingly deep. The rocks had created small rapids. And the bank was getting steeper. Fenn seemed oblivious to any of these dangers. Finally, I’d had enough and made Jason climb down to get him. I was relieved when they were both standing beside me on the sidewalk.
In my own pathetic way, though, I tried to be similarly adventurous. When my parents came to visit in October, my dad begged to see “real” mountains. As a temporary Boulderite, I took offense: Weren’t the Flatirons beautiful enough? It’s not like you got anything higher than a small hill in Bethesda, Md. Still, the closest I’d been to the actual Rockies was the brief view of distant snow-covered peaks on display from Arapahoe Road in town. We drove an hour northwest to Rocky Mountain National Park, stopping for sandwiches at the St. Vrain Market in Lyons. Our destination was Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile highway whose highest elevation is over 12,000 feet. Eleven of those miles are above the tree line. My dad was definitely getting his “real” mountains.
Up and up we climbed — 4,000 feet in just a few minutes — until a vista of jagged peaks opened up wide before us. The road was well paved and not especially narrow, but it was labyrinthine and often without guardrails. I hugged the double-yellow lines as best I could, going slow and, when a car came from the opposite direction, even slower. My heart pounded, and my palms grew slippery against the wheel. I was starting to feel as though this entire drive was one continuous accident scene — where you don’t want to look but can’t look away. And every time I glanced outward, at the swirling abyss of gray slopes and green foliage, my stomach dropped. Finally, I’d had enough. I pulled over and made my dad get behind the wheel. After that, I could relax. A little. We pulled above the tree line and into tundra, a palette of tans, dim yellows and dull greens, its grasses whipping in the wind. Many miles away, a crystalline lake sat in the basin between two sharp slopes. It was astonishing — and the first time I understood the term “picture perfect.”
After we’d been in town for a few months, people started asking if we planned to stay there permanently. We were certainly living like permanent residents. I cooked dinner for the family every night and was loving my mother-in-law’s pressure cooker-air fryer, which could only fit in a suburban kitchen. Jason had taken to working outside on the patio and going on daily bike rides. He’d even started waxing poetic. One afternoon on our way to Arapahoe Ridge, I pointed out that we must be Boulderites if we had a go-to playground. “To visit a place is to constantly explore,” he said. “To live in a place is to constantly return.”
We’d also found people to be incredibly friendly. Quarantine fatigue was likely responsible, but so was Boulder’s “the more, the merrier” vibe. Socially speaking, people were as open and inviting as the landscape. We befriended the cello professors across the street, two former New Yorkers who’d first met on the C train, and some recent techie transplants from San Francisco. We managed to socialize safely even in winter, because everyone either had a fire pit or propane heaters.
Boulder weather is hands-down the country’s best. It is sunny nearly every day, even in the dead of winter. And even when it is technically cold, it feels warmer because at 5,430 feet above sea level, the sun’s rays are that much stronger. The weather is also interesting. It can easily snow two feet one day and then reach 65 degrees the next. The average humidity in summer is zero. When I mentioned all this to a Colorado native, he begged me not to blow the state’s best-kept secret. But no, we told everyone, we weren’t moving to Colorado. We were committed to Brooklyn, at least for now.
Many months into our stay, we returned to the Walter Orr Roberts trailhead to give the hike another try. Fenn was still wearing his Target sneakers, and Jason carried the increasingly heavy toddler on his back. We’d managed to slather the kids in sunscreen without too much complaint, which struck me as a big win. It was another beautiful day.
Fenn ran ahead of us down the dusty trail, jumping on top of and over every rock he could find. We managed to hike for nearly 20 minutes before he announced that he was tired and wanted to turn around. Jason and I looked at each other. “Forty minutes total isn’t terrible,” I said. “Right?”
“It’s not like we have a choice,” Jason said.
We headed back the way we’d come. By the time we neared the parking lot, our toddler had fallen asleep in the carrier, and Fenn was asking for his iPad when we got home. Nearby, someone’s kid was throwing a fit. A Boulder kid, not my kid. “Sure,” I said to Fenn. “Watch as much as you want.”
Jennifer Miller is the author of four books. Her next, about first-generation college students, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers.
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.