I've recognized this fanatical fandom for years, and yet I'm still surprised when I take Denver's Gray Line bus tour—35 bucks for three hours of highlights—and the bus glides to its final stop at the parking lot of Invesco Field. There, we spend 20 minutes trapped inside the bus as our guide waxes grandiloquently about the Broncos. We learn about Mile High Stadium and John Elway, the Bronco's Super Bowl victories and John Elway, and how the seven bronze horses charging up to the stadium were put there by team owner Pat Bowlen to celebrate jersey number 7 and...John Elway. In a sports-obsessed town, it's not surprising that the closest thing we have to a true local celebrity is a retired, middle-aged quarterback.
To find out where this zeal comes from, I attend a Rockies-Pirates game at Coors Field with Mary Leisring, who's held season tickets to the Colorado Rockies since the team's inception 15 years ago, and has decorated her north Denver home in a style best described as Early Larry Walker. Sitting on the upper deck, close to home along the third baseline, we calculate she has probably attended more than 1,000 home games. Leisring, who serves as director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, is also a woman with a deep, abiding faith, which may help to explain her unwavering devotion to the team. "This is my other church," she tells me.
I ask her what it is about the city that creates fans like her. Is it the altitude? The middle-of-the-country isolation? A competitive Western spirit? "I dunno," she says. "It's just plain fun."
She's right, of course. Fun is what we do here. And we do it big. We ski, we fish, we climb fourteeners, we drag enormous backpacks filled with wine and tapenade and caprese salad to free concerts in the park, and, although there are no firm statistics on this, I have to believe that, per capita, Denver sports more fleece, Gore-Tex, Capilene, and sandals worn with socks, and shorts, in the winter, at the theater, than any other major metropolitan city.
We also have more than 850 miles of paved bike trails throughout the metro area, and a prime stop-over for cyclists on the South Platte River Trail is—what else?—REI's 94,000-square-foot retail monument to outdoor recreation. I head to the store at 7 a.m. one day. The South Platte River sparkles in the early morning sun, and the edges of Denver's new steel-and-glass high-rises appear razor-sharp against the bright blue sky. Dozens of cyclists in dark sunglasses, white helmets, and red and yellow and black Lycra have stopped here on their way to work for free juice and bagels in celebration of Bike to Work Day. They surround me, bike shoes clicking on the hard pavement.
I start chatting with one of the cyclists. Her name is Monique Elwell. She's fit, outgoing, 37, and bikes to work at least 10 months a year. Elwell tells me she was living in New York when the events of September 11 prompted her to reevaluate her life. Drafting what she called her Business Plan for Life, Elwell listed the 15 characteristics she sought in a new home, including culture, good public transportation, and a healthy lifestyle. Austin, Texas, made the top of the list...that is, until she added a 16th criterion: no humidity. Elwell eventually found her way to Denver. How does she describe the city? "Oh my God! It's Utopia!"
Taking off her sunglasses, Elwell thinks about the question a little more. "I think Denver is a woman in her late 30s or early 40s," she says. "She's friendly, casual, she can get dressed up when she wants but doesn't feel compelled to, and she's very active but not hard-core insane. She's fit, probably a rock climber, into classical music, and definitely an intellectual."
As she walks away, it strikes me Elwell may have just described herself.