I'm one week into my Colorado adventure, but it took far less time to discover how incredible this state is. Here's a recap of my first few days in the Centennial State (so named because it became a state 28 days after the centennial of the Declaration of Independence.)
Weekend in Denver
I flew into Denver on Friday April 29 in a light afternoon snowstorm. It was 3:00 but very dark and dismal outside. It took an hour to get downtown, with rush hour, end of the week traffic piling up on the highway. I was disappointed to have almost no visibility to the surrounding mountains. But that time would come.
Once I checked into my Air BnB, I ventured out around 5:00 to grab a quick bite and a beer at the Cheeky Monk. I was staying in the Capital Hill district and the bar was a short 10 minute walk. In fact, the whole weekend I was able to walk almost anywhere I needed to go.
I enjoyed a local lager and a small charcuterie plate, and called it quits early. It had been a long day of planes and buses. Back at my Air BnB "the Aspen Room", which was adorably cozy and very clean, I showered and relaxed with some tunes, planning my next day of sightseeing. I was out by 10:00.
Saturday was a full day of exploring. I woke up at 6:30 (thank you, time change!) and got an early start with breakfast at Jelly's on Colfax Ave. Lavender-blueberry pancakes, bacon, and black coffee. Dang. So, so good. Jelly's is both delicious and affordable, with a whimsical interior (think old school cereal boxes of Lucky Charms decorating the walls.) Go there. Also, admire this rad street art:
After breakfast, I meandered to Tattered Cover Bookstore. Conveniently it was independent bookstore day (April 30.) I snagged a few books on sale. In keeping with the exploration/adventure/outdoor/memoir theme, I picked up:
Blue Highways: A Journey into America-William Least Heat-Moon: A seminal work of American roadtripping, published in 1983. Heat-Moon took basically only backroads (so-called blue highways) in rural America on a three month, 13,000 mile trip. He stopped at towns with odd names like Remote, Oregon; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi; Dime Box, Texas; and Simplicity, Virginia.
Tracks- Robyn Davidson: This famous book was the Wild of its time, before this kind of writing was trendy. In 1977, Davidson, an Australian, set out alone on a 1,700 mile trek across the western Australian desert...with four camels and a dog. Bad. Ass.
The Motorcyle Diaries- Che Guevara: A classic I have somehow failed to read, and intend to rectify.
Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia- David Greene- Greene was NPR's Russian correspondent for two years. To better understand contemporary Russia and Russians, he took the 6,000 mile (yikes) Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok and chronicled the journey.
So I definitely have some reading to do in the next few months!
Next was the main event: the Denver Art Museum. Even those who are not art lovers could dig this museum. It's more like an extended history exhibit with art and artifacts that bring the past to life. That is, it's not just a bunch of paintings hung in a gallery, leaving the visitor to fend for themselves.
It is organized and well curated, giving you a navigable path throughout the museum and continual themes. There are two buildings joined at the second level, but one building extends to seven floors. So, you have your work cut out for you if you want to do the whole thing. I opted to focus on the Western American and American Indian levels.
"The Bierstadts." In college, I did a lengthy paper on Albert Bierstadt's Yosemite Valley, Glacier Trail (he had a thing for Yosemite. Who doesn't?) I've seen some of his work but am always eager to see more. Not just one of the most important American landscape painters, but one of the most important in forming our ideas about the west. He favored large, epic vistas and scenery that invited the viewer to consider entering that "promised land." Bierstadt was also known to combine scenes from different locations, making a perfect composite, and wholly fake, Western scene. You won't find much "danger" in his paintings. This is Manifest Destiny at its height. Still, they are just beautiful. I wish my phone could have captured his use of light, his colors.
I also liked the painting to the right, Herd of Buffalo, by William Jacob Hays, about 1862. It's a nice allegory for the great herds of the West disappearing.
The museum featured modern & contemporary Western art in addition to the more typical depictions. These were exciting and fresh, for someone who has only studied the canonical and classical painters and photographers of the West. Here are some highlights:
Native American Art
The museum had Native American art from the 1800s to present, spanning all regions of the US, from Northwest/Pacific to Plains to Southwest to Arctic. There were original tipis, painted animal hides, beaded clothing and objects, enormous sculpted and painted totem poles, and much more.
However, I think the museum was wise to include contemporary art alongside the "traditional," showing that Native American art is still vibrant and important today.
The one below is Straight Ahead, by James Lavadour, 2010. Lavadour is a contemporary Walla Walla painter. I love his color, lines, and boldness. These are depictions of the mountains of Oregon, where he lives.
The next few works subvert the assumptions of what it means to be "Indian," criticize ongoing cultural appropriations of Indian images and traditions, and explore what art is considered "Indian art."
I spent three hours at the museum. I haven't even covered the Pre-Columbian floor that I viewed, or the contemporary Western photography. Long story short, if you're in Denver, it's worth the time!
Post-museum, I relaxed with a flight of beer and bite of pizza at Lost Highway Brewing. It was a slow afternoon with few customers, so I had a long chat with the bartender, Cameron, and sought some advice on Colorado must-sees.
With an early train to catch in the morning, I wanted to keep it low-key for the night. I ventured to the Horseshoe Lounge, in "uptown" Denver (about a 20 minute walk from where I was staying in Capitol Hill.)
This place rocks. They serve all varieties of tater tots. POUTINE tater tots. BUFFALO tater tots. THAI PEANUT tater tots. TRUFFLE PARMESAN tater tots. And of course, the usual assemblage of both classy and cheap beers / liquors. What puts it into superstar category is the vibe.
Mel, a tattooed, superhero-comic-book-legging-wearing broad, is one of the (all female) proprietors. She immediately introduced herself, shook my hand, and poured me FOUR generous samples of local beer to select my favorite. I chose the "Colorado Native" lager and posted up at the end of the bar, watching the crowd slowly get rowdier as it went from "drinks after work" to "all night rage."
The lounge is comfy, the jukebox is prime (not to mention, it proudly reads: "if you play Wagon Wheel, it will be skipped,") and the pool is free. The arcade is delightfully kitschy. I intended to stay for maybe a beer, and ended up devouring a bowl of tots, having several beers, staying for four hours and playing doubles pool against several teams (my partner was Aaron, a local bartender who was friends with the staff.) I did finally leave a bit after 10:00 to crash.
Train to Glenwood Springs: The California Zephyr
A six am wakeup got me to Union Station for my train. I checked my hiking backpack and duffel, free of charge (thank you, Amtrak) and munched breakfast while watching the increasing snowstorm.
The famous California Zephyr runs from Chicago to San Francisco, taking about two and a half days. Traveling in both directions, the entire journey is 2,438 miles. Heading west, it passes through Iowa, crosses the Nebraska plains, climbs the Rockies of Colorado, continues to Salt Lake City, ascends the Sierra Nevadas, and descends into Reno and Sacramento before ending in the Bay Area. The stretch through Colorado is frequently listed as one of the most scenic routes in all of North America. After spending six hours on this famous train- meandering through the forests, scaling the mountains, cruising around bright red canyons, and following the mighty Colorado River- I can attest to just how jaw-dropping it is.
We boarded just before 7:30. There are two levels, upper (where most passengers sit) and lower, where the restrooms, cafe cart, and baggage are located.
The upper level has a special car, called the Observation Car or the "sightseer lounge," made entirely of big windows and swivel chairs. It allows passengers to enjoy panoramic vistas on both sides of the train without any visual interference of seats or curtains like in the regular passenger areas.
We departed right on time at 8:05, leaving the front range in Denver for the remote stretches of Western Colorado. The journey to Glenwood Springs is 185 miles, but takes 5 hours and 45 minutes. It only makes two quick stops, first at Winter's Park/Fraser, and then shortly thereafter in Granby.
The ride from Denver to Winter's Park was thoroughly snowy. We wound through tunnel after tunnel (31 in total), narrow curve after narrow curve, skirting some seriously steep cliffs that dropped into thick alpine forests. We also passed through the Moffat Tunnel, a 6.2 mile-long rail and water tunnel that crosses the Continental Divide, also called the "Great Divide." The divide reaches its highest point in North America at Gray's Peak in Colorado, at 14,278 feet (though we did not cross at this point.) Moffat Tunnel is at 9,239 feet.
We continued to Granby, elevation 7,936 feet. This is what the Zephyr brochure proclaims about this area:
"GRANBY (1113 mi.) is the gateway city to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Leaving Granby we begin paralleling the Colorado River for the next 235 miles, off the left side of the train. Many call the trip along the river the most scenic stretch of track in America that can be seen from a scheduled passenger train."
The brochure is right. We had 110 miles to Glenwood Springs and each mile was sublime. This part of the journey took us away from the snowy peaks, hugging the river and winding through various canyons. Scenery near Kremmling was particularly amazing. Lots of tall trees congregating near the rushing river. Amazing remote campsites were scattered along the river.
We then moved into an arid, desert-red landscape. There were still trees, but red out-colored the green. There were towering cliffs, unique rock formations and scrubby plant life. We passed tight, narrow, canyons but also wide plains where farms dotted the land.
Nearing Glenwood Springs, the river calmed. We paralleled a highway and began to observe more people and cars. There were rafting trips bumbling downstream and fisherman lazily enjoying their Sunday.
We stopped for a half hour to let another train access part of the tracks. I was having lunch in the observation car and didn't mind the detour, even if it made us a late. Around 2:15 we finally pulled into Glenwood Springs.
There is no public transportation from Glenwood Springs to Paonia (or really, anywhere in this area.) So, someone from Elsewhere would pick me up. Spencer Lightfoot, Elsewhere board members and gallery manager at the Blue Sage Center for the Arts in Paonia, and her colleague Annette (Exec Director of Blue Sage) were given this task. I fretted that they would be annoyed with how late we were. Come to find out, they had been enjoying mimosas while waiting for me. This reassured me that we would get along just fine. They encouraged me to have a beer (a welcome treat after the long ride) while they finished up, so we sat in the sun for a bit and got to know each other. After a quick swing through downtown Glenwood Springs, it was time to commence the drive to Paonia- the final leg of my journey.
The Road to Paonia
The drive from Glenwood Springs to Paonia is 71 miles and takes an hour and a half, winding carefully through mountain passes. Some, like the well-known Independence Pass, are closed during winter. And, lest you forget, April is still winter in some of these places.
We took highway 133 almost the entire way, motoring through White River and Gunnison National Forests. Spots of snow could be seen on mountaintops, but the roads were clear. As a flatlander, I was pretty slack-jawed at the sights.
Annette and Spencer narrated, filling me in on the scenery and preparing me for Paonia life. The North Fork Gunnison River was low, they said, because the dam had been opened to drain the silt build-up. The river, a tributary of the larger Gunnison River, is 33.5 miles long and flows alongside highway 133 through Delta County.
As we drove, Annette and Spencer also told me about the recent mine closure in the nearby town of Somerset, and that the town was preparing for a hard hit. Layoffs had been happening for a few years. But the final blow came last week. The Elk Creek Mine was officially destroyed (that link shows pictures and explains some of the history, as does this article.) Without mining jobs, many fear Somerset could crumble. The welcome sign, "Welcome to Somerset, a mining town since 1896," a fact that became cruelly outdated overnight.
We passed the dilapidated mine just before entering Somerset. It was an odd moment of manufactured ugliness, amidst what had, up till now, been entirely natural beauty. The mine was now a scorched portal into the earth that no longer served a purpose. I wondered what the neighboring towns' inhabitants thought about the closure. I would soon find out. (More on the mine and the economic situation of Paonia and the North Fork Valley in another post...)
Shortly after leaving Somerset, we swung a left off highway 133 onto highway 187, which took us a quick 0.7 miles over the North Fork River onto Grand Avenue- the main drag of Paonia. It was 5:00 on a Sunday, and though the sun would not set for several more hours, town was dead. We had arrived.