Denver at 150

November 2008

An Urban Perspective
By Laura Pritchett

A few days ago, I drove to Denver for a reading at a library, although I have sworn repeatedly, on a stack of my favorite books, that I would not ever, ever drive to Denver again for said events. I have two reasons for this: One, as any author knows (except those really famous sorts), I'm as likely as not to be met by a fairly empty room—a few librarians and patrons, and maybe two or three people who have actually read my book and liked it (or not liked it, and want to come tell me the various reasons why).

Reason number two: The long drive down rarely makes that empty-room scenario worth it. And true to form, here's how it went: I drove 160 miles in my old Subaru on my own dime, in bumper-to-bumper traffic. On the way home it poured rain, thus necessitating slow and white-knuckled driving.

The only saving grace was that my father went along. He's aging and we're both busy, and this was a time to talk uninterrupted, or rather, it was a time for me to listen—and I was glad to do so, especially about his early days in Denver. On the drive down, he talked about how small Denver was then, about his first house, and about his time at the Department of Agriculture and his rather fascinating genetic studies of bull's scrotal circumferences and cattle fertility rates. On the way home he was tired, and so he started singing and whistling old tunes. Oh, I wish I was an apple, an apple on a tree, and every time Cindy came along, she'd take a bite of me....

Which not only calmed me during the terror of driving in pouring rain, but also made me reminisce about my early days in Denver. And I was surprised by what I discovered—first one layer of memories, and then another, more important, layer underneath.

By the time I was born, my parents were living on a ranch in northern Colorado, and we went to Denver about once a year. For me, as a kid, Denver was impossibly large, a confusing and strange land that contained, thankfully, 1) Casa Bonita, 2) the National Western Stock Show, 3) the airport, and 4) the zoo, in that order of importance and charm. I'm sorry to say that it contained those elements because I know this only represents the cartoonish, clichéd Denver. But as a kid, it's what I had.

But wait, no, there was more, wasn't there? As I drove in the slanting, crazy rain with semi-trucks roaring past, I realized that Denver had actually been quite a teacher. But not the kind who lectures quietly. No, Denver was my first big city, the one that made me feel embarrassed and enlightened at once—like the proverbial babysitter who was willing to teach me how to cuss and put on makeup. When you grow up among cows and spend summer days reading in the hayloft, Denver, even back in the '70s, was akin to visiting a foreign country. Where else do divers jump from rocks into pools of water while you're eating yet another sopaipilla?

But there was more to it than that. It was from the window of the family van that I saw prostitutes and drug dealers on the way up Colfax to get to the pink restaurant. My brothers noticed too, and would elbow me in the ribs. "Girls don't look like that back home," they offered, summarizing the situation thoroughly.

I remember the sickening, sudden feeling of learning something about my own naïve and ridiculous situation. "Oh," I remember thinking. "That's what a black person looks like." I craned my head around to look back at a young black girl my age, holding her father's hand.

Framed by the van windows, I saw my first wealth: the gold dome on the Capitol, the skyscrapers, the fancy cars and houses that signaled money far beyond my scope of experience. I saw my first homeless person. And ramshackle houses and dilapidated cars. I saw overpasses and underpasses and buildings that reached into the sky. It was my first lesson in the decibels of noise, the smells of city grime, the fear that comes with being in uncertain circumstances.

"Look," my mom or dad would say, "did you see that?" By which they meant: I want you to grow up and see the whole world, not just the one you call home. I do not wish to imply that I—or my family—was hick-like dumb. I grew up in a place that had the smooth, calm beauty of a landscape painting, but it was not devoid of lessons: I learned the things that are required of such a life, such as how to raise goats, tend goats, milk goats, make goat cheese, and then, finally, eat said goat cheese with a smile on my face. But what my parents were trying to do with our city forays, I now realize, was give us some depth—and that is why my memories are painfully bright, sharp-edged, and loud. Denver stands out quite starkly in my mind.

As we age, surely the maps in our brains develop rapidly as soon as we are able to imagine aerial re-creations of a place, or as soon as we are able to take on the challenge of figuring out the mazes and corridors of unfamiliar places. As an example, I recently moved back to my hometown, which is still in the country, still in a rural, mostly white, mid-middle-class place. I wanted to raise my kids here—I wanted them to learn more about making goat cheese than the symphony. That is the hard choice that I made. The house we moved into was built in the '70s and later added onto in all sorts of crazy directions. When we moved in, I could see my children's confusion. In one part of the house, they still got lost: Is this the way to the bathroom? Mommy, there's a bedroom back here!

Watching them, I newly remembered that feeling of trying to unravel a place. Of that myopia that comes from inexperience and smallness. A mild confusion at the mazes of the world. At such a young age, these children could not see the floor plan as I could, from an aerial point of view, with a mind that categorizes and places things in order.

But it will come. To help them on their way, I bring them to the city.

On our three or four trips to Denver each year, I take them, I am very, very sorry to admit to you, to 1) Casa Bonita, 2) the National Western Stock Show, 3) the new airport, and 4) the zoo. Also, they have seen their first dinosaur bones at the Museum of Nature and Science and taken their first roller-coaster ride at Elitch Gardens, and soon they will be old enough for the symphony or a full-fledged play, and later they will be able to wander and perhaps become acquainted with the real Denver.

"This place is kinda weird," my son declared on a recent trip, not liking the uncomfortable feeling that comes with being in new and unfamiliar territory. He placed his hands over his ears, and then plugged his nose, trying to cover both sensory inputs at once.

"Yeah, and mama? There's a man sleeping on the sidewalk," my daughter said, in a worried voice. "Should we go get him?" She is exactly the same age as I was in my earliest memories of Denver, being surprised by the very same thing, and the look on her face brings back a startling-clear recollection of the feelings my heart housed way back when. What the heck, she's thinking, is that all about?

When we go to Denver, I often find myself saying, "Look," meaning the same thing my parents meant: Do you feel the vibe and the energy? Do you feel how strange and spectacular it is?

That is why, during my drive home the other night with my father, who still sat awake (bless him, because it was nearly midnight), I thanked him.

"For what?" he mumbled sleepily.

"Oh, I don't know. For coming with me here." I think I meant: for showing me the negative space in what has become the painting of my life. I could not be so fully in love without being in the world completely, and I could not understand who I am without understanding where I come from and who I could be—or who I'm not.

"Oh, you bet," he answered, good-naturedly. "But it'll be good to get home."