50 States - 05/50 - Colorado


The visit to Colorado came as a bit of a surprise really. My wife was off to a conference so I bought an extra ticket and came along. The conference was in Denver but we added a couple of extra days to the end of the trip. The thing is, we weren't sure what to do with them. As we looked at the map, we noticed that Colorado has so many interesting little nooks, spaced so far apart that it would be impossible to see them all. We had to decide what we'd leave out and what we wanted to prioritise. We decided to stick to the area around the Rocky Mountains National Park, taking a long loop around to see what we could see.

beware dog!

Denver itself is quite the city. Immediately out of the airport, the scenery is very different to that of D.C or the east coast at large. Immediately, I started to think of Least Heat Moon and his book Prairy Erth. If you haven't read this book, or his other excellent work Blue Highways, I implore you to do so! Least Heat Moon has become a bit of a spirit guide for me in my trip around America, and I suspect I'm not the first to say so. Prairy Erth is a book about just one county in Kansas. He describes the flat praries and how they affect us humans in different ways. Many people find such expanses unsettling; no trees, a flat horizon and very little in the way of natural waypoints. It can be quite unsettling.

So it is, with the area around Denver International Airport. Kansas sits due east of Colorado - it's plains growing ever so slowly higher and higher as they approach the rocky mountains. The grassland around the airport is yellow and scrub like. The sun is out but it's not too hot. It certainly isn't humid, that's for sure. However, if you thought Colorado was all about great plains, there is a dead giveaway in the arrivals section that this is not the case. A large luggage belt in the centre of the baggage claim has large, vertical compartments. Excellent for ski equipment.

Yes, as we drive out of the airport, taking in the sights, the Rocky mountains themselves hove into view. It's quite something! They appear like a wave, butting right up against the plains. You can see this on a map but it's something else to see it in person. The mountains are hazy at this time and we don't get too close to them, but once you are in Denver, they form a permanent backdrop to the city. The city itself is about 1 mile above sea level, hence the name, the Mile High City. It has a downtown area with the state capitol building but it has the air of a smaller place. It's not very busy and it seems very clean and tidy. Driving through the suburbs, you get a sense that the city sprawls a bit. It reminds me a lot of Manchester; the trams certainly add to this impression.

theatre in Denver

Denver has a lot of the modern, shall we say hipster conveniences. Large bands often stop there I believe (it has several stadiums). The craft beer scene is quite large and there are very many tasty eateries. It even plays host to some hip electronic hacker outfits but I wouldn't know too much about these ;) I found some pretty nice breakfast and coffee joints pretty quickly, thanks to a little local knowledge (Cheers Dominic). In short, Denver is a city I really got to liking very quickly.

DenHac lounge area

I particularly liked DenHac, Denver's Hackspace. It reminded me very strongly of London Hackspace when it was still at Cremer Street. A large, but not too large space, with a focus on security and computer software with a large helping of electronics and some metalwork. They have a large van that they sometimes take on the road as a mobile hackspace, a beer fridge, a working vending machine and a chill-out area full of books and a surprisingly good collection of laser discs (for some reason). I even managed to find the Dune laser disc, which is quite rare I think, with added extra scenes. I remember as a kid thinking I had to find this version! Sadly, I couldn't think of a way to copy it, and unfortunately, I had to do a lot of MRes writing that day. The folks at DenHac have an open Thursday where anyone can just rock up to their space and work for the day if they can find room. I found the folks very friendly and accommodating. My impression was that these guys were a bit more in the classic hacker vein - mostly men over 30 and of a more rural, stay at home disposition. This is a very different vibe from New York. You are more likely to find a DefCon goon at DenHac, but less chance of a crazy knitter then at NYC Resistor.

lovely view in loveland

The chap showing me around explained that Colorado had passed a law allowing personal marijuana use. This, unfortunately, has had an effect on the rental prices for industrial units, as most of these have moved over to growers. Unintended consequences clearly! So in the end they made a deal with a local radio station and found themselves sharing a building. In return for a reduced rent, the hackspace folk help keep the radio equipment going. Seems like a good, almost symbiotic deal to me. This was the first hint I had that Colorado was quite a liberal state.

The route we had planned took us out of Denver, north towards Boulder. Boulder has a rather famous university I believe, along with an impressive number of craft beer breweries just northwards. As far as I could tell, this place seems like a college town. Much smaller than Denver but still busy for it's size it seemed. We bought groceries and a bucket load of impressive beers for our final destination - a small cabin in a place called Loveland, just south of the main entrance to the Rocky Mountains National Park.

Rocky mountain national park

The view was beautiful! It reminded me of parts of Spain, with that yellowish scrub grass and small trees. The mountains loom even larger here. Wildlife seemed abundant and we were almost mobbed by a gang of deer as we drove in. Seems they don't mind cars or even humans for that matter! I was quite impressed. Apparently there are beers and even cougars in these lands. I thought maybe I'd heard one late in the evening but who can say? My city slicker senses are not attuned to such things. The fresh air and far horizon made for a lovely change from big cities.

The weather didn't last long. Colorado has a lot of storms! We were treated to an impressive thunderstorm, with real bolts of lightning, arcing across the sky. Very impressive stuff. It didn't last very long oddly. The storms come and go rather quickly. They bring interesting colours and contrasts to the landscape, as well as some excitement! The weather would catch us again throughout the drive.

Venturing into the Rocky Mountain National park, you get the feeling for what most American National Parks must be like. Large, and car accessible! There are plenty of roads but this being peak season, there was a considerable queue and many of the car parks were full by the time we got there. Still, there were a few spots we could leave our trusty steed and get out walking. Although sunny, it was a little cooler. As we ascending the side of some of the hills, the altitude made itself known. If you aren't yet aclimatised to it, the feeling of being out of breath and light headed can really catch up with you. But it is most definitely worth wandering around this park. The views are tremendous and the wildlife is all over. We managed to see a moose, several small and inquisitive chipmunk-like creatures and deer.

12000 feet

Driving through the rockies is a real treat! The road is quite treacherous at times, with no guard rails. It's closed for most of the year and I can see why! We stopped at a cafe near the top and found ourselves at 12,000ft up. There was a path up to the nearby summit made of shallow, stone steps. As we climbed each one we could feel ourselves gasping just a little more for breath. The view was worth it though. This alpine country reminded me a lot of Switzerland and with good reason. There is still snow up here. The buildings are few and far between but their design - steep roofs with poles for marking out roads, speaks of much heavier snow in winter.

Driving down through Central City, the weather turns grey and damp. Rain pours in buckets and suddenly I feel like I'm back in the UK again. Central City is quite a famous old town apparently. Around here, it's all about mining and the gold-rush. We approach our next destination, Nederland. The small town of El Dora sits just outside Nederland and it is this place, with it's one stop sign and amazing little hotel where we stay for the night. It's a funny little place. An historic building on the National Register, the Goldminer Hotel looks like something straight out of a Western movie. I'm not sure if we'll end up in horror movie - murdered as we sleep, or possessed by some ghost lurking in a wardrobe! The place is amazingingly kooky inside, with more chintz than your grandma's house, because this is a grandma's hotel, complete with resident grandma and granddad. goldminer hotel

We chat with the couple over breakfast the day after. I learn that the couple are quite liberal, and so is the majority of the state. I'd often thought that California was leading the charge on progressive values and such but I think Colorado could give the west coast a run for it's money. Nederland itself is quite a treat. It has a pretty good pizza joint that serves local craft brews. Not only that but it has the amazing Carousel of Happiness - an entirely hand-carved carousel, with a proper Wurlitzer playing 60s pop tunes (we had The Locomotion - quite fitting!). This place is definitely Small Town America but perhaps it's small town America done good? I don't know if people commute out from here or live locally and work but I get the impression things are going alright for this town. It doesn't have the fake, Disney-fied feel of, say Estes Park (the town immediately outside the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park) and I like it much more for it.

Carousel of Happiness

Driving back to Denver for the flight back to DC, I'm pretty struck by how much I liked Colorado and how much I needed to see it. With all that's going on in America, a change in scenery and a change in attitude was just the tonic I needed. I'm reminded that America is a really big place with amazing and impressive scenery. As one member of DenHac put it "we're more like a collection of countries than one country". I think there's some truth in that. I loved Colorado! I think we'll end up visiting again, what with places like Bishop's Castle, sand dunes national park, Mesa verde and the four corners monument. Lots to see yet!