Colorado Bookstores & Other Madness
"'Oh, these Denver doldrums!' yelled Carlo to the sky." - Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Now wasn't the time for you to be traversing unknown western locales.
You weren't in the right mental or financial state. But there was work to be done in Colorado, so you couldn't get out of it. You had to make the journey. Money was advanced for the trip—but not quite enough. Scouring websites for plane tickets at the last minute, you go in for a so-called "hacker deal." It's the cheapest option, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of only telling you the dates and start/end points of the flights without any other details. You take it.
Instead of leaving early, as would be ideal, you're leaving late. Instead of coming back late, you have to be on a flight at 5AM. And the flights aren't direct either. Great. Plus there's a crater in one of your molars and you couldn't go to the dentist this week, but that's okay because you patched it yourself. Also your phone battery is pretty much shot, so you have to limit your phone use. Got it? Let's go to the airport.
From Newark, you've stopped over in Atlanta. It's evidently near a military base, and there are many related loudspeaker announcements and billboards as well as soldiers walking around in fatigues. You could try the airport approximation of southern comfort food, but your partner wanted tacos so you're eating a burrito. When you finally do ride on a plane traveling west, you catch your first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains as shadows against the orange burst of a setting sun.
The whole plane ride had been a debate about if there was enough money to rent a car. Now that you're at the rental office in person, you find out that even though the price looked good online, they're tacking on a lot of hidden fees. Great.
The sky has darkened as you drive though the highway of Aurora, a name you've heard of from a mass shooting. Only the mess of capitalist stuff is lit up in the area—stores, dealerships, hotels, movie theaters. Ugh, is that where it happened?
Now you're driving through the outskirts of Denver. The buildings are low to the ground. The streets are desolate. You stop at an intersection and gaze at a redbrick building, which is at a strange angle to the road. There's no one around. It's rare to see one person cross the street. Every time you go to a new famous city, you're surprised it's not New York.
In downtown Denver, you discover the hidden skyscrapers and the people out tonight. The huge fancy Marriott reaching into the night sky is your destination, so you park in front of a 7-Eleven and backtrack to it. Entering, the lobby opens up across multiple floors into an expensive restaurant and lounge. People are drinking and milling about near fireplaces, and your chest jumps with anxiety to think that you should be dressed business casual and networking among them. But no, you couldn't imagine being that work version of yourself. You're dressed in a travel-stained t-shirt and cargo pants, carrying your rucksack like a hobo clinging to one's few worldly possessions.
"Good evening," the concierge says as you walk up to the long desk. You fish through your backpack as he pulls up your reservation in the computer. He finds it and you hand him the business check to pay. The concierge takes the check, says something gracious, and walks out of sight behind a wall. You imagine there's not really anything back there. He's just counting to thirty to make you think he's taking this seriously. He reappears and says, "I do apologize sir, but unfortunately we are not able to accept any form of check as payment." But it's a business check. It's what your company gave you to pay for this. "Might you try to call them and see if they can provide another means of payment?" he suggests.
So you and your partner grab your baggage and powwow a few feet away from the desk. You look up the finance department online and place a call. It goes to voicemail. You try another number. Voicemail. It's 9:00 on a Friday night. The office is closed and no one will be back until Monday. "Well, we've got the car. We've paid for the rental car, and we can sleep in the car. We'll find a Wal-Mart or something nearby. They won't harass you for sleeping in a car there." This option is not well received. "We drive out of the city and find a motel that will be much cheaper than this place."
"Let's just check the finances." The dates work out so that a payment is expected tomorrow. You've got enough to pay for tonight, and then after the direct deposit tomorrow, you can pay for the other nights. Of course, you will need your company to reimburse you for this ASAP as things will be tight.
Up in the room, all the decor seems to be a shade of deep red. There are two beds larger than your bed back home, plus a larger bathroom and a wall of windows offering an evening view of the nearby skyscrapers. You lie down for a bit, complaining that your job would send you 2,000 miles from home and have no back-up plan in place to keep you from getting stranded.
The car is parked at a meter, and it's almost time, so you head back down to the street. A snack and drink from the 7-Eleven takes the place of a proper dinner. You drive around for a while, trying to take in the sights, surprised how quickly the city gives way to a vaguely western suburbia. You'd like to explore more, but you've got to be up before 8:00 AM and actually do some work.
When that's taken care of, it's back to explorations. There's a big park where people and golden retrievers play, modest houses surrounding it. You walk through the alleyways and past the trees with their crocheted sweaters.
There's a free bus to ride up and down the bustling walkway of shops. Your partner looks at a magnet that reads, "Colorado." She says, "Colorado?" and then she says again, with a Spanish accent, "¡colorado!"—a word meaning a ruddy color. You look at and reject many restaurants, one standing out as having claimed to be authentic Colorado fare, but the advertisement for an elk burger is too off-putting as you imagine a majestic creature running through the wilderness and having its life cut tragically short.
As night falls once more, you find yourself in the area of the University of Colorado at Denver, its campus lit with an orange glow from the streetlights. Walking down the sidewalk, there are more shops, and you poke through a record/pop culture shop.
When you had mentioned this trip was coming up to a colleague, he told you about the time he'd visited Denver with someone who had gone to the University of Colorado in the city, and one of the places you just had to see—that he knew you'd love—was the amazing Tattered Cover Bookstore.
The bookstore appeared like a warm firelight in the darkness, the entrance embedded in a cozy alcove. You know by all means that this bookstore is amazing, with its multiple levels so crammed with books that there are even extra stacks of books littered here and there throughout the store, but you still can't shake the forlorn hopelessness weighing down your shoulders. In your current state, it's far too overwhelming—a reminder of all the books you hadn't—and would never—read. ...Of the futility of attempting to transcend existence through writing. ...Of the impossibility to write.
And the fact that the only photo you manage to take with your partner's phone is their recreation of the Denver skyline in books is very unlike you.
On one of the floors, a live author reading is happening. Clearly this is a cool place to be on a Saturday night. You follow your partner as she peruses the shelves. She encourages you to get something, but you don't want anything. She buys you a mug that says "Tattered Cover Bookstore" and features a list of readers' rights and a brain only wired for eating and reading. You wish you were actually like that.
When you find yourself in Denver and not dealing with an unexplained existential crisis, you simply must luxuriate in the sheer radiance that is the Tattered Cover Bookstore. Being one of the largest independent bookstores in the United States, they actually have multiple locations in Colorado. The store referenced here is the East Colfax location, which is a former theater.
The Mountains at Nightfall
The blackness of the Denver night made it seem later than it was, but on this night it seemed that there might be just enough time to drive forty minutes through the mountains to reach the nearest hot spring. You had once experienced the natural hot springs of Iceland. Your time in that country seemed without past or future, so strongly rooted were you in that moment. You were astonished by the natural beauty—not just the mysterious reindeer, the stout Icelandic horses, or the arctic humpback whales, but the land itself—the waterfalls around every bend, the vast glaciers, the winding fjords. Perhaps a trip to a mountain hot spring could capture some fraction of that feeling and reignite your spirit.
Traversing the mountains by night is ominous because of all that you can't see. The road veers up at such an angle that your partner starts complaining at the pain of her ears popping. Big yellow warning signs scream at you to avoid certain routes unless you've got tires with chains to traverse the mountain snow. The road winds continually up and around, giant eighteen wheeler trucks groaning their way next to you. You take the exit and soon find yourself on the main thoroughfare of a tiny Western town, an empty street with a post office and archaic theater.
You see a sign for the historic Indian Hot Springs: "The pure mineral water flows from our springs at 125 degrees and runs directly into our pool and baths. Come for the day and choose from our family friendly pool, gender specific caves, private baths or outdoor Jacuzzis."
According to Seth Boster's article, "Soaking Colorado: This Colorado hot spring was frequented by U.S. presidents," "Indian Hot Springs in Idaho Springs is rooted in a history that goes deeper than the mining days that made the surrounding town famous. Before the gold rush, the Ute and Arapahoe tribes were divided by a creek that those people knew fed the waters of the Great Spirit. The hot springs were on common grounds before the white man took control and developed what is now Idaho Springs. / Once attracting the likes of Frank and Jesse James, Walt Whitman and the Roosevelts, Indian Hot Springs is now the go-to soaking spot for the Interstate 70 populations and a popular stop for vacationers."
You're told at the front that the only option at this hour is the natural hot spring swimming pool, so you pay, get your towels, change in the cramped locker room, and make it out to the pool.
The place you're in is like a green house, where hot spring water pumps into the pool and tropical plants are grown all around because it's such a steamy environment. There are a bunch of people jumping around and shouting, and this whole place has left you with the feeling that its best days are behind it. You don't suspect rich Hollywood types go out of their way to visit this place any more. Nevertheless, you try to relax in the hot water, which feels good on your muscles.
Making your way down Larimer Street, you are surprised to see so many homeless people. There's police activity and a crowd of people in front of red brick buildings. Reflecting back on your trip now, it's impossible to understand why you were the way you were. Moods and feelings can be very overwhelming. If you'd been traveling with a mood like the one you've had the last few weeks, you might have spent your time in Denver tracking down all the places Jack Kerouac mentioned in his writing, but the only time this sort of thought flitters into your head is on Larimer Street, remembering young Neal Cassady and his old hobo father. You'd been surprised when you first read On the Road and found there were certain incorporeal characteristics of cities that transcended time, remaining for generations and generations even though entirely different people populated these cities at later dates. Kerouac related many stories of Neal Cassady's youth on Larimer Street and other Denver locales, with an important subplot of On the Road being the hopeless search for Cassady's homeless father. While it is clear much of the area has become gentrified, it is a fact right before your eyes that there are still bums there, just like you'd read about in Jack's books from the 40s and 50s. One homeless person in particular stands out. You see him a few times throughout the trip, and he's always wearing a suit—black jacket and slacks, black tie with a white collared shirt—but despite this fanciness, he looks homeless. His long black hair is greasy and stringy; something about his clothes is dirty and unkempt; stubble has formed on his face. Plus he's panhandling—asking for change as he goes.
The day finally arrives for you to take a trip out to Boulder. The main incentive behind renting a car for the trip was a conversation your partner had with performer extraordinaire Dextre Tripp of Circus Stella. He told tales of being a street performer on Pearl Street in Boulder and said that it was worth it to get out of the cities in Colorado and drive up into the mountains.
The 30 mile drive northwest takes you along a highway that hugs the base of the Rockies. Boulder reveals itself to be a beautiful, forested town. You drive past the expansive grounds of the University of Colorado at Boulder and soon you're parking on a side street to walk over to your destination.
Pearl Street is a walking path of shops and restaurants, crowded with idlers where buskers regale the crowds with performances and music.
Glimpsing juggler and stuntman Peter Irish performing with an audience volunteer, you wonder if you've found some sort of Dextre Tripp origin—the types of jokes, the equipment, taking children from the audience to participate. He did say he'd performed here for twenty years, but you imagined his early days on the gritty streets of old Times Square in New York.
Walking down the street, you find a store that should elicit strong emotions from you, but in your current state, you don't get too excited about it.
Yes, Beat Book Shop, a place all about the Beat Generation. Ironically, despite a prominent sign displaying how frequently it is open, it happens to be closed during your day in Boulder.
You recognize the poster showing a very young Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. You shrug because you can't go in anyway. Had you been here in a different mood, you'd still have tried to peer in through the window to drink in every drop that was possible to see. In fact, while you were in Boulder, you'd have wanted to see the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, where you've considered applying to study writing.
But instead, you keep walking and find your way into a cool place that is open, Boulder Book Store.
Recently named Publishers Weekly's Bookstore of the Year, Boulder Book Store has three floors of books, so you really need this map at the front to help you navigate in case you mind getting lost amidst all the books.
It's cool that they sell both used books and new books. The collection boasts over 100,000 titles, so you could definitely lose yourself in the reading material.
With poems etched into the street, statues, artwork, and more, you can feel Boulder's strong vibes of creativity and know it is a place worth further explorations.
Into the Mountains
You can't lose more daylight, so it's time to make your way up Flagstaff Mountain.
Your partner is starting to get freaked out by the winding and precipitous path up the mountain. You push the car as high as it can go until it's the end of the road.
Now you've got to continue up the hiking trail on foot. The sun is at that angle where it reaches through the trees every so often and blinds you.
As you ascend higher, the wind picks up and tosses your hair around your shoulders, the scent of trees and mountains and nature flowing past.
You find an overlook to sit and take in the scene. The whole town of Boulder is nestled beneath the mountains, and past that the plains of the countryside of visible until the horizon.
To either side, you can see the Rocky Mountains. It's clear that you're on one tiny peak among a multitude of majestic peaks, the highest tipped with snow. The sun is beginning to set. You've got to be getting back. But your mind wants to stay here, where the problems of humanity are distant and the mountains loom large.