Dateline: 6th July 2018
En route from Denver to Great Lakes, Co.
I place the hat upon my head. It grips across my brow, sweet as the hand of a lover on the curve of the back of my skull. The brim is as wide as my palm. It is a warm cream in colour, made of finely woven straw, with Native American symbols scribed around the brim. It feels right from the moment I put it on. At home, it will always look faintly ridiculous. Here, it just seems to sum up the moment and the location.
‘Yes’, I say, standing at a mirror in Rosemount Western Gear, Wazee Street, Denver, probably in the same spot that Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan have stood when trying on clothing there. The place has reputation to spare. It could care less about this skinny, nervous Englishman in the cowboy hat.
‘Yes’, I say again, to no-one that’s listening. ‘Yes, this is the one’.
In Boulder, Colorado, we chose to have a drink at the roof bar of a sports bar on Pearl Street. As the waitress ran off with our orders, the heavens opened. We huddled under as much shelter as we could muster, watching the sports channels frizzing in and out as the rain came down like hammers and nails.
They were bringing the food orders out under umbrellas for a while, and not quite getting it right, rainwater dripping on the burgers. No-one seemed to be complaining–it was just such a relief to see rainfall when a Stage 2 fire ban had led to campfire embargoes across the state.
Ten minutes later, there was a flawless blue sky and thirty-degree sunshine again.
Route 119 dries up a little east of the Continental Divide. If you want to go any further west into the Roosevelt National Forest, your options are limited. Your best bet is to start hiking from the trailhead at Eldora. Frankly, all we wanted was something to eat.
Hawkeye had decided to take a punt on a road out of Boulder, just to see what would happen. He got more of a workout on his shoulders than anticipated, as Route 119 twisted up through the hills. We stopped at a rocky brook, where the canyon walls rose up stark and white on either side. Cold Colorado rain melt surged and bubbled around the scree.
‘I bet I can get across that,’ said Stretch, clearly stir crazy after the switchback ride through the canyon. He had that look on his face, stone cold serious with a mad twinkle in his blue eyes. We had to talk him down. ‘We’re not losing you to the Colorado River two days after your sixteenth birthday,’ Lady Red scolded. Stretch settled for moody posing on a sharp rock in the middle of the stream. Instagramtastic.
He totally could have made it, though. The kid’s a goddam grasshopper when he gets the mood in him.
But that was hours ago, and the sky was falling, and we were running out of battery power, any kind of usable GPS, and energy. The end of Route 119 at Pederland came as a blessing. A ragtag of shacks and repurposed trailers, with a very definite boho vibe–the sort of place to run to if you feel that Boulder is a little too mainstream. A couple of brewhouses, a smokerie, a Nitrogen Ice Cream Experience.
Screw that. There was a dinky Thai place on the edge of town, tucked alongside the roundabout. It didn’t look like much, a little tired and tatty on the outside. But inside it was clean, cozy and comfortable. And the food was on point–bright, sharp and fragrant. You could tweak the heat levels to your liking. We all steered away from Thai Hot. The green curry was the best I’ve eaten in a very long time.
Our server was brisk, precise and the absolute spitting image of young Sigourney Weaver. A little terse at first, but she warmed to Stretch, who is always courteous at table. ‘Young sir’ soon got special treatment. Sigourney gave us hiking tips for the area, and wished us well as we mounted up to wind back down the mountain in the deepening night.
We call her The White Buffalo. A GMC Yukon XL running on Utah plates. She’s a big-nosed, broad-shouldered heifer. Long in the beam, which has made parking in the Denver Metro area something of a task. But there’s room for all five of us, plus all our luggage, and she bears us around the state without a murmur of complaint. Most importantly, she has cup holders and charging points to spare.
She has the odd niggle. The brakes are mushy and vague. She struggles a bit going downhill, twitchy on the low gears on a 6% gradient. But then, aren’t we all. The quirks are what give The White Buffalo personality, and what makes us love her all the more.
Red Rocks, for me, was always seared into memory from the U2 concert screened as Under The Blood Red Sky. An epic setting for an extraordinary gig. Say what you like about U2, but there are moments where they are untouchable. Their Red Rocks gig was one of them, a pivotal moment in their path to global ubiquity.
The Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater is a must even if you’re not seeing a band there (and worryingly, the roster does skew heavily towards dreadful jam bands like Umphrey’s McGee these days, which somehow seems appropriate for a 420-friendly state like Colorado–if baseball is a game you can only enjoy while drunk, jam bands are an experience that only becomes bearable when thoroughly baked). Great swooping waves of crimson sandstone crash and boom across the landscape, and they all have names and personalities. Creation Rock. The Seat Of Pluto. The Cave Of The Seven Ladders. Mythic, mysterious, awe-inspiring. Going off-trail and trying to climb these vast structures is strongly discouraged. Lose your footing here, and you’re on a death-slide to Pancake City.
The Amphitheater is worth the climb. A natural bowl surrounded by curtains of stone. Behind Stage Rock, you can see the mesa marching away, back towards the towers of downtown Denver on the horizon. At the top of the bowl, it becomes a view from a classic Western.
On non-concert days, there’s always a bunch of ripped dudebros and perfect-toned princesses using the steps of the Amphitheater as a jungle gym slash yoga studio. You need to be pretty well beach-body ready to be doing this in public, though. Your average person flubbering up and down the steps would seriously put you off your lunch.
Before you hit the road again, the Colorado Music Hall Of Fame is worth a look, although fame is a questionable quantity if you’re not famous outside Colorado. Flash Cadillac, anyone? John Denver gets a room to himself, naturally, and I found myself strangely moved. You might call him bland and twee, but there’s a heartfelt honesty and positivity to his music that makes me smile. Somehow, it speaks volumes as the White Buffalo guides us onto country roads.
Georgetown is one of those small towns that adapted to changing circumstance by using its history as a commercial resource. Downtown is a cheerful slumgullion of old clapboard buildings and Italianate hotels, all offering tours and shopportunities. Squeezed between I-70 and the mountains, it’s very much a place to pass through, have a snack or an ice-cream, enjoy the scenery and move on. You can, if you want, take a steam-train ride through the heavily wooded hills, which will take an hour out of your day. Can’t say I felt the urge. But by then we had been burning black-top for hours.
I sound like I have a downer on Georgetown, and that’s a misrepresentation on my part. It’s open, welcoming and friendly (a little too friendly, as the gentleman from the local arts society kept TLC and Lady Red in his gallery for a good twenty minutes yakkin’ away while they both became increasingly desperate for a pee). The outskirts are a little tatty, but give a truer picture of a community making the most of what’s around. Mining may be a spent force, but there’s a ready stream of money surging past on the highway.
Route 40, up through the Berthould Falls, road like a snake twisting up through the green walls of stacked pine to either side. To one side, Mount Eva, Mount Flora, James Peak rolling off below us. To the other, Stanley Mountain, and you have to crane your neck to catch the top of the tree line. The pines stab up into the sky, an army of armies, jabbing massed spears at the clouds. We’re at 8,500 ft above sea level. It’s not just the altitude that’s taking our breath away.
And finally, we hit the lakes. A very different feel to the urban niceties of Denver. A low, warm, woody shack with the Colorado River running just past the back porch. Yes, we have a back porch. Our host gave friendly but not-to-be-ignored warnings. ‘A bear hit our dumpster last night, and the moose are pretty nosy right now. Just pay attention and don’t leave any food outside, and you’ll be awesome!’
And to be fair, we are. Writing in the sunshine, surrounded by greenery under blue skies? This is a feeling that can’t easily be beaten.
Me and Stretch and Hawkeye and Lady Red and TLC. Spittin’ the pips from our road apples all the way from Denver to Shadow Mountain Lake.