May 5 – Cinco de Mayo – This is one of those holidays that usually passes me by. Sequestered as I am up in northern New England, Mexican independence doesn’t come up in conversation much – I’m not sure I’d know which side I should be drinking for. But we’ll be in Denver for the cocktail hour, and I’m sure we’ll be celebrating something.
This is another day with Kerouac scribbled on it. My job this morning is to leaf through “On The Road,” finding any and all mentions of street names and places in Denver and jotting them down so we can go on a “Jack in Denver” drive through the city later on in the day. While I’m jotting, Bridget’s driving.
But that’s later. Breakfast down in the Grand Junction Super 8 lobby is some ungodly hour like 6 to 9. Our habit on the road is if I wake up at some point during the hotel’s continental breakfast hours, I’ll go down and load up for two and bring it back to the room. Hotel breakfasts generally offer little in terms of nutrition, but they do have carbs and coffee – and so begins another day. This morning I open my eyes at 7:12; I tell myself this is good – I won’t be the last one down for breakfast. Showing up late guarantees that the only thing left is the ubiquitous Fruit Loops and jam packets. It pays to get there early. When I get downstairs, the breakfast crowd is a mix of businessmen, families on vacation and hikers heading out for a day in the mountains. I load up and head back to our room, where Bridget is still asleep. I’m with her; with three hours until checkout, there’s plenty of time for more shut-eye. We’ll have the cold coffee later.
On the road by 11, taking I-70 the whole way, we dash through western Colorado, climbing up the mountainside. Grand Junction is about 4,600 feet above sea level, and we’ve got a climb to about 9,000 feet up the mountain and back down to mile-high Denver on the other side. The higher we climb, the more spectacular the world becomes around us. Ear-popping scenery. We pass by a sign for Vail – ski country – and then Copper Mountain, which doesn’t appear to be in operation this time of the year, but for all the snow on the trails, it could be …
We pass by the exit for Central City, an old mining town turned ghost town, only to be reinvigorated by the 1940s, in time for Jack and the gang to head up for a party weekend during his first visit to Denver in 1947. No time for us to explore – we’re pushing for Denver with Jack coordinates punched into the GPS. Street names like Larimer and Welton, Colfax and 17th, passing by Grant St, where Allen Ginsberg was living at the time in a redbrick rooming house near a church. The descriptions of alleyways, seedy bars and rickety streets all belong in the history books. The intervening 65 years have transformed the rundown hotels and old rooming houses into a downtown full of office buildings and commerce. One thing has stayed the same though – Denver was a happening town when Jack was here, and it’s still a happening town. Before WWII, Denver was an old mining and cowtown, but postwar, returning GIs discovered it, and they and a lot of other people began flocking to this town out in the wide open country with towering mountains on the western skyline.
About a third of its population is Hispanic, and if this is Cinco de Mayo, you know the city is ready for a party. We parked near the State Capitol and headed out on foot, falling into the crowd of people heading to the multi-block open area in front of the Capitol turned today into a Cinco de Mayo celebration, complete with booths and stalls and throngs of people milling about, enjoying the food and the live music performed on stage in the concrete amphitheater in Civic Center Park.
All that Latin music put my mind to margaritas, and we were off in the car in search of fare on Larimer, with its few bars and restaurants (and not much else) open for business on this Saturday afternoon. We found what we were looking for – a place called Mexico City …
… complete with tall margaritas
We fueled up on the chef’s special greasy tacos, washed down with our margaritas, all energy for part two of our exploration of Denver, looking for possible busking locations for Bridget, if we could just find out where all the people were. More to the point, all the people who weren’t heading over to Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies game that evening. From Larimer, we turned onto 21st St, crossing over Market St – a downtown street name if ever there was one. Of course, it’s one-way, the wrong one way for our purposes, so we circle around to get at it from the other direction. We find a spot on the street to park between 18th and 17th, where it’s all pretty quiet with not a lot of car or pedestrian traffic. But as we head south a block to 16th, we hit the 16th Street Mall – a pedestrian mall that extends for a mile and a quarter through the heart of downtown. Indeed, this is where the action is. Restaurants, bars, chain stores, more stores and more restaurants and bars line both sides of the mall and the place is chockfull of people, many of them in party mode. A perfect place for Bridget to busk, so a quick trip back to the car for her violin, and while she goes off to find a good spot to play, I find a park bench beneath the line of trees that runs down the center of the mall and watch a chess game in progress.
Our time in Denver proper is short, a mere glimpse of what it has to offer. We’ve got plans to meet up with Dave – a blast from the past. More Bridget’s past than mine – he’s her first boyfriend, going back to high school age years. It’s been that long since I’ve seen him and in the interim he’s moved to Denver, or rather Aurora, a suburb on the outskirts of town. We’re heading over to meet him when he gets off work at 8 and off to his place to spend the night. As we leave the mall to find our car, standing at the corner of Champa St and 17th waiting for the light to change, a plaque in the sidewalk reminds me of Four Corners – where the four states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet at a corner. I’m told there is nothing to see there but a plaque that marks the spot. We didn’t get to that Four Corners, but we didn’t miss this one …