Monday 25 September 2017

Denver: Incredible, even if it wasn't a Brokeback Mountain moment

DONAL LYNCH

When I lived in New York last summer there was a large poster for a new reality show that appeared on a phone box on the corner of my block one day.

The poster depicted scenes of muscle-bound guys in canoes, rock climbing, hiking, with the tagline "what if your ideal guy lives in ... Denver?"

Secretly, that was what I had always wondered. Like most jaded city dwellers my summer fantasy was to escape the nasty, mean, soot-covered armpit of the country and go west, where buffalo roamed free, the people were rugged, and mountain zephyrs would cool my sweaty skin.

"It will be kind of like Brokeback Mountain," I told myself, "but with air-conditioning and wi-fi."

In the fantasy, of course, I would have just got there on horseback or, possibly by stowing away on the back of a train, like Kerouac in The Dharma Bums. The reality was flights and drives all the way. We started our adventure in Boulder, which is the kind of place where hippies have become millionaires from herbal tea companies. Foodie-ism is to Boulderites what Mormonism is to Salt Lake City. Grub here is "slow", meat is "artisanal" and probably died with its grandchildren around it. Food is so respected that, we were told, almost everyone who is waiting tables in Boulder has "at least" a masters degree.

The landscape around the town was, as was most of the scenery in Colorado, spectacular -- lush, green mountains rising up out of parched desert. In a place called Loveland, near Boulder, we picnicked on the bank of a river -- washing it down with a delicious locally produced beer called Grimm Brothers -- and I rode a horse for the first time since 1982. I had imagined that, channelling my West Kerry forefathers, I would "whisper" to her and that she would "sense" when I wanted her to break into a cathartic gallop. Wisely, then, they decided to give me a catatonic filly, which seemed to break out of her 'now carrying clueless tourist' trance only to scratch her belly on some nearby furze and relieve herself. So far, so not Jake Gyllenhaal.

From Boulder it was on to Denver, where Gay Pride was in full swing. On the face of it a fairly anonymous midsized American city, Denver is a hub for the entire mid/south west of the US, and so every small- town boy from places like Omaha, Nebraska had road- tripped their way to Capital Hill for the festivities.

The carnival -- there is no other word -- took over the city with a pervasiveness that I had never seen -- even the flags outside Denver's poshest hotels were rainbow-ised for the weekend.

What was amazing to me was how something can go from socially unacceptable to corporate in the blink of an eye: alongside the drag queens on stilts and lesbian farmers on tractors were LGBT-themed stalls for Wells Fargo and Chase Manhattan. "Give us your dollars and we give you our tolerance" seemed to be the thinking.

By now, my journey was beginning to resemble Challenge Anneka rather than Brokeback Mountain -- we checked out of six hotels in six days, each time before dawn, before piling into a mini-bus and on to our next destination.

I began each day in a bleary tizzy of frantic packing. It was all made very bearable by the gigantic American breakfasts that awaited us, particularly at The Delectable Egg in downtown Denver. " ... And a side of pancakes" rolls so easily off the tongue in America. They might not be the best grammarians in the English-speaking world, their news media cycle may be shrill, they might not do banter, but damn it, you have to respect a culture that has sanctioned ice cream at breakfast time.

When you've 'gone there' at breakfast it's difficult to touch another thing all day. Nevertheless the food in Colorado was worth getting tubby for.

A particular highlight was The Kitchen, in Boulder. The English chef, Hugo Matheson, has crafted a simple, delicious menu and it's the first place I have ever tasted real cream used in a dessert in the US. Luckily we also stopped at an outlet mall that sold muumuus.

The other thing that made everything else worthwhile was the side trip we took to Aspen, winter residence of Michael Douglas and Martina Navratilova and by a country mile the most beautiful place these eyes have ever seen.

Originally a mining town -- the largest piece of silver ever found came out of one of these Technicolor hills -- it gradually morphed into a tourist destination during the second half of the 20th century.

There was no skiing at this time of the year but we still took the gondola (ski lift) to the top of the mountain and had a delicious picnic at the top outside a restaurant, which teeters over a gorge so beautiful that it would make you determined to find someone to marry just so it could happen there. You realise photos are totally pointless as they won't take in the full 360 degrees of natural majesty. I can only say see it before you die. I stayed at the Hotel Jerome, a rustic remnant of the silver rush, where you got an actual key, rather than a key card to open the door.

My room had a view of a hot tub overlooked by mountain. It was like having a honeymoon with yourself.

The desk staff had a distilled, heightened version of the natural small town American friendliness; when my passport, briefly, went missing, I consoled myself with the thought that I would just have to live there with them for a few more days.

It was like being a spoiled Victorian child in a period mansion with several helpful nannies fussing over you.

My adrenaline gland was by now missing a crucial piece so I let off steam by going out that night, in the process discovering that Aspen also has a kicking party scene.

The comedown from all of this was the journey home. I actually fell asleep for a few minutes on a bench in Heathrow and felt surprised and relieved when I awoke that nobody had identified and removed me as a 'suspicious package'.

Colorado is not a short-hop away and you would want to be ready to do some serious driving when you get there, but the food is great, the scenery is incredible and the schlep is worth it for Aspen alone.

GETTING THERE

British Airways (www.ba.com, 0844 493 0787) flies daily from London Heathrow to Denver, return fares start from £659.79 including taxes. BA offers a seven night fly-drive to Denver from £719 per person for travel between October 22 and December 14. Price includes return British Airways flights from Heathrow to Denver and Avis Inclusive car hire for the duration, based on two sharing. 0844 4930758

www.colorado.com and www.greatlakesnorthamerica.co.uk. for general information on tourist activities in Colorado. www.sylvandale.com gives details of the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch at Loveland. www.aubergeresorts.com for information on the Hotel Jerome.

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