Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Things To Do in Denver When You're Alive

John Elway greeted me as I made my way off the Frontier Airlines flight, shortly after landing in Denver.  I'm not so sure I feel good about that.  Just seeing his toothy smile pushing a Lasik procedure at me made me feel uncomfortable.  As a Cleveland sports fan, the words "the Drive" went catapulting through my mind, and harrowing memories of past therapy-sessions made me tremble.  But I dismissed it when I came to my altitude-affected senses that in a short time I'd be knee-deep in a cask-conditioned pale ale at Wynkoop Brewing Company.

I believe it's been more than 15 years since I'd visited the Mile High City, and that's probably a conservative estimate.  But the reason then was primarily the reason now: visit my good friend Ron, as well as meet, for the first time, Adam, my contact and the Program Director for the Classic Rock channel on the Dial Global Network.  I also wanted to see if I could squeeze in a few innings of the Rockies-Dodgers game, having never been to Coors Field.  That would depend on the timely and skilled driving expertise of the young Hispanic man behind the controls of the blue Super Shuttle bus that was waiting for me when I exited the airport into the surprisingly somewhat-muggy Denver air.

Riding in a large van with people whom you don't know always sounds like a good idea when you're making the reservation.  You don't have to deal with the cost of renting a car and having it valet-parked for two days, and, better yet, you don't have to pay some cab 60 bucks to take you downtown.  What you do need is a resident-friend or family-member willing to cart you around while you're there, or a myriad of things to do that are within walking distance.  I was hoping for the latter.  I don't like to put people out, you know.

As we waited for the others to fill up the van, I directed my gaze towards the now-setting sun in the west, which had created an Ansel Adams-esque silhouette-portrait of the Rocky Mountains.  I would be transfixed by these peaks for the remainder of the visit, not to mention those of the perky young Mexican lady seating people at the diner on Sunday morning.   But that's later.  Now, I would have to contend with an hour-and-fifteen minute ride stuffed like sausages into a van with people who uttered not one single word the whole trip!  About halfway into town, I pondered the ramifications of breaking into "Meet the Flintstones" in honor of the late, great John Candy, but I'm not the most gregarious person, and opted instead to watch the magnificent display gradually fading away on the horizon, surreptitiously holding my breath so as not to ingest the noxious fumes of whatever my fellow passengers consumed on their incoming flights which seemed to be  filling up the van as the miles piled up.

Luckily, my stop was third on the agenda, at The Curtis, which turned out to be a fun, quirky hotel, with bell-hops dressed in black shirts and orange ties.  The decor was splattered with TV, movie, and other pop-culture motifs.  I was on floor 7, and when the elevator door opened, a voice said, "Welcome to Floor 7, the laugh-out loud floor!"  I was hoping it was false advertising, after the horrible lodging experience I'd had earlier in the summer in Toronto.   My room was tastefully done but still bright with color, including a desk-clock in the shape of a yellow VW Beetle.  I tossed my bag on the bed and made a bee-line for Coors Field to see if I could make it to the Rockies game.

The area of downtown called "LoDo" is a bustling, lively section, complete with all of the bars and restaurants you'd come to expect with three sports facilities nearby.  I walked (and sometimes ran) the equivalent of about 9 city blocks to the ballpark, only to discover that it was already the top of the 9th.  Sweaty and a little dejected, I sough comfort and refuge in the form of Wynkoop Brewing Company.  Named after a former Arapahoe County sheriff from the 1850's, Wynkoop's elicits stellar reviews within the craft-brewing community.  Before I launched into a bison-burger, I soothed my parched, baseball-less nerves with a couple offerings of the cask-conditioned Monkey's Fist I.P.A.  As the game let out, the building became increasingly noisy, and the two-hour time-difference was catching up with me.

Brushing aside the drapes in my room the following morning, I stood in awe of those jagged hills that transfixed me so completely the night before.  Living in Knoxville, I'd spent a fair amount of time in the Smoky Mountains.  And while living in Annapolis, we'd sometimes drive a couple of hours into Virginia to gawk at the Shenandoah Mountains for an afternoon.  But there's something infinitely special about the Rocky Mountains.  I like the way the arid, desolate brown patches merge in with the green, and as the day goes along, the sun splashing against them to create exactly what Katharine Lee Bates saw when she exclaimed "purple mountian majesties".  I told Ron later that I can't believe you actually get to wake up and look at these every day.

I love mountains.  I also love my pillow.  I may love my pillow even more than I love mountains.  My pillow and I are one.  If it were not for Donna, I'd marry my pillow.  But Frontier Airlines charges $25.00 per bag, which meant that in order to take my pillow, I would have to pay $25.00.  Not a big price to pay for love, you're saying.  You're right.  And I was wrong.  Because without my pillow, I was downright miserable.  I tossed and turned all night.  So after worshiping a mountain range and checking the Indians score, I sought caffeine.

Adam and I were supposed to meet for breakfast, but a prior commitment moved up our time.  Ron wasn't getting off of work until 4:30, so I basically had a day to kill in Denver.  I thought I'd take some pictures with my new phone, so after my morning workout at the fitness center, I headed down again through LoDo.  It was hot.  Not St. Louis-hot, but warm nonetheless.  Like a magnet, I found myself in front of Coors Field praying that they would move the 7:05 p.m. first-pitch to an afternoon start.  But, the Divine must favor night-games.  I visited a couple gift stores, walked past Union Station, and strolled north towards some condos on a hill so that I could get a better picture of the mountains.  But nothing was working.  And, I was getting really over-heated.  I headed towards the Tattered Cover Book Store, a cool spot that I'd heard Ron talk about on numerous occasions.  After perusing the stacks and finally deciding on something from Augusten Burroughs, I left to meet Adam.

I've always been intrigued by the West.  Our trip to Arizona about 6 years ago ranks as one of my favorite.  I like a lack of humidity.  I like the expansiveness of this part of the country.  And, yes, as someone once told me, the sky does seem to be more blue here.  But I'm not sure this particular section of Denver denoted anything remarkably "western" for me.  Aside from that big mountain range, everything looked....fairly normal.  A Rite Aid pharmacy is a Rite Aid Pharmacy.  And a car can blast past with you with Eminem pulsating out of the speakers in any city in America.  Oh, sure, there's the rogue cowboy hat and, of course, a Tim Tebow jersey, but did I suspect anything particularly "Denver-ish" so far?  I put this question to Adam, a Eugene, Oregon native, when we finally sat down for a 5 Barrel Pale Ale from Odell Brewing Company of Fort Collins, while sitting outside at Ted's Montana Grill in Larimer Square.  I got the feeling from him that people here in general are more active, seem to enjoy the outdoors more, and tend to be more "green" in their approach.  But, he said, not any more than people in Oregon or Washington State.  "What you do have here," he said, "is a bunch of former Wisconsinites and Minnesotans.  Somewhere along the way, they took a wrong turn and ended up in Colorado."  Sure enough, when asked, our waitress said she loved it here but sometimes missed her home...in La Crosse, Wisconsin!

I walked Adam to his train just in time to be picked up by Ron outside of The Curtis.  Damn, if he hadn't changed a bit!  He looks the same as he did when he was barreling through the door of an extremely smoke-filled room 132 at the Pontifical College Josephinum, ready to lay the smack-down on anything from Descartes to liberation theology.  Ron Valladao is one of the most well-read and most academically-gifted people I have ever met in my life.  And although I still consider us the best of friends, I do admit to being a bit sheepish, intellectually, in his presence.  Remember the Tyson-Spinks fight in '88?  It took all of 91 seconds for Mike to put Spinks on his backside and then hit the shower.  Same at the Josephinum.  I can recall a number of occasions over beverages in the make-shift pub in the bowels of the seminary when Spinks-like theologian wannabe's would scurry back to their dorm room with their breviary between their legs after a good brain-thrashing from Ron.

We made a mad dash for Pints Pub, a cool British-style watering-hole, complete with authentic English ale, served at proper temperature, some of them cask-conditioned and served via a real hand-pump.  As I expected, the time flew by too quickly.  Even on the plane-ride home, I thought of numerous subject-areas that we never even came close to touching.  Such is the case when you're trying to catch up on life-experiences stretched over some 20 years.  Although he's not a tenured professor at some prestigious university as I would have expected, he ought to be.  It's a shame that so much distance has to separate us.

Ron works weekends and rises early, so we strolled through the downtown capital area a bit and then said our goodbyes.  After Ron dropped me off, thirst got the best of me and I was determined to check out Falling Rock Tap House, a spot I noticed earlier in the day during my picture-taking spree and a beer-bar that a friend also suggested on Facebook.  It was packed, since the Rockies game had just let out.  I did manage to squeeze in an Alaskan Amber, a beer I've only tried one other time, via mail-order when we lived in Pittsburgh.  It's slightly-sweet texture and full mouth-feel was easy to enjoy.  After giving up my seat to a couple of inebriated female Rockies fans, I slowly made my way back to the hotel.  With a mild bit of hesitation, I did stop at the Rock Bottom Brewery, just down the street from The Curtis.  Surprisingly, I was impressed!  They won't get any awards for their names, but the "Red Ale" had nice malty, toffee overtones, and the "E.S.B." was hearty and flavorful.  I'll give credit where credit's due!

After another restless night without my beloved pillow,  I crawled over to a Starbucks next door to read the paper.  And before that big blue van came to pick me up, I decided to find some breakfast.  I love diners, and Sam's No. 3 was an ideal choice.  It was imperative that I sat at the counter.  Although I had some of the morning's paper with me, I was much more intrigued with the rapid-fire performance of the cooks and the take-no-prisoners display by the wait-staff.  And the chorizo sausage!  It's spicy flavor seared the top layer of my esophagus, but I figured it would grow back.  I couldn't get enough of it.  Or the delightfully well-endowed hostess who caught me gawking several times.  What can I say, I enjoy tempting scenery.

Trying to digest the essence of a city in less than 2 days can't be done.  But I like the feel of Colorado.  I can do 300 days of sunshine a year, low humidity, and an abundant supply of Dale's Pale Ale.  It would be cool to hang out with Ron more.  And I suppose I could even stomach the constant barrage of John Elway advertisements, too.  I'm sure Denver has a whole host of competent psychotherapists, though, if the need arises.  And if one of those guys can't help...or that hostess at Sam's No. 3 isn't working... I can always stare at those damned mountains.

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