It's a late-June morning, the sky is a spectacular color of blue, and I'm hurtling north on I-25 toward downtown Denver in search of something I'm not sure I'll find because I don't know what I'm looking for, or how I'll know if—and when—I've found it.
What I'm looking for is Denver. Not literally, as in where the city is fixed on a map. I've lived here 20 years and can full well find my way around. No, what I want to find is the essence of Denver, the beating heart of this town, the special something that gives this city its vibe. After all, other Colorado towns loom large in the national consciousness: Prius-driving, trail-running vegetarians set the speed limit in Boulder. High-rolling hedonists host Aspen's never-ending party scene. And right-wing Christians and Air Force cadets keep the corners tucked on Colorado Springs. But Denver? Who's drawn here, and what's this place about, anyway?
To find out, I decided to spend the summer pinballing through town to discover what—aside from its elevation—makes the Mile-High City unique. But as I exit onto Speer Boulevard, rocket past the Pepsi Center, and glide into the slow crawl of traffic between the brick buildings of Lower Downtown, it occurs to me that my search may be far more personal than that.
I grew up in the dim-sum, drag-queen paradise of San Francisco, and although I've lived in Denver since 1989, I've never felt this place quite measured up. I miss the wig-wearing, roller-blading characters of San Francisco, the misty fog around the streetlamps, the smell of warm sourdough, and the crazy mishmash of cultures that come together on that small hillside. I miss, in short, the home I grew up in. Yet whenever I've had the chance to consider moving back, I've always decided to stay here—for the lifestyle, the sunshine, my partner, my friends.
But still I yearn. And one of the things I yearn for most is that clear sense of personality I came to identify with the home I left behind. Comparing Denver to San Francisco may be like comparing apples to aliens, but somehow I believe that if I can find the special thing that makes Denver Denver, then I will have also found what I need to loosen nostalgia's grip and proudly embrace my adopted hometown.
I park my car, walk up the 16th Street Mall, and settle in next to Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs cart at the corner of 16th and Arapahoe streets. With notebook in hand, I ask bankers and lawyers and other downtown workers with plastic security cards looped around their necks to tell me how they would define Denver's personality.
"Hmmm, good question," says a young man wearing dark sunglasses and fresh-pressed khakis.
"Never thought about it," adds his companion.
"Umm...mellow?" asks a young woman, as if guessing the correct answer might win her a weekend getaway to Cancún. To help them out, I become more focused with my questioning. Is Denver youthful or mature? "Both." Single or family-oriented? "Both." Liberal or conservative? "Split right down the middle."
I've been at this for exactly 10 minutes and I can already tell it's going to be much harder than I'd thought.