“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”― Ansel Adams
When I stepped off the plane into Denver International Airport at 8:30 that late summer night, this was the only word which could be used to properly describe my internal state. I was dehydrated and exhausted, but more than anything, I was dizzy.
Altitude wreaks havoc on my delicate constitution, the result of spending the majority of my life near the major body of water known as the Atlantic Ocean (you might have heard of it). But I’ve never let the possibility of physical discomfort get in the way of adventures. Even if that means I’ll have to sit down every block or two.
The shuttle from the airport to the Market Street Station took roughly an hour, during which I was wedged in tightly between my bag and my bodybuilder seat-neighbor. The rows of seats ahead were topped with ten-gallon hats, and seemingly disembodied cowboy boots were spilling into the aisles. I was on a different planet.
Market Street Station is positioned at the corner of the hopping 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver. After stumbling off the bus into the dense evening air, my head slowly beginning to return to a calm equilibrium, I made my way towards the noise and bright lights of the pre-Labor Day revelry. The long avenue was filled with inebriated pedestrians, many of which grouped together around ornately painted pianos to listen to talented unknowns play. These pianos, in slightly ill condition due to use and lack of maintenance, offered a warm invitation to every passerby: “Play me, I’m yours.” It was an opportunity few pianists could resist.
Labor Day weekend is a frustrating time to visit any major American city, a fact which I had failed to account for in my initial planning. Nothing is open. You can’t catch a bus. And people swarm the streets carrying open bottles of beer from this or that vendor. Labor Day Weekend in Colorado is also the weekend of A Taste of Colorado, a food, music, and art festival that attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Sounds like a great idea, right? Sure, if you’re not weighed down by luggage and forced to walk 8 blocks in the opposite direction of your hostel because they’ve closed down the streets, and there are no buses to be found. Or, if it’s 90 degrees out and you’ve decided to wear a sweater.
A little more than a mile and a half later, my head starting to swim again and my arms cramping from carrying my bags, I circumnavigated the festival and made it to the 11th Avenue Hostel and Hotel off Broadway. I had originally booked a bed in a four-capacity female dorm with a shared bathroom, figuring that although it would certainly not be the Ritz, it would be decent. I’ve had some positive experiences with American Hostels, and the reviews had seemed good, so I had no qualms about trying it out.
Instead of having four to a room, I had a room with a bunk bed to myself, which was a nice surprise. It was Spartan but clean, with a small sink, a TV, and no air conditioning. The window would open, but since there was no way to prop it up it would immediately close again. Even with the window shut, all the sounds from the hallway and the street found their way under the crack beneath the door to my ears, a cacophonous lullaby to my exhausted self. I slept fitfully.
Dawn woke me up abruptly, as the time difference was making more of an impact than I had anticipated. It was the morning of Labor Day, and after getting dressed and cleaned up I headed out into the blinding sunshine.
I needed sustenance.
Nothing was open.
I wandered as a lonely soul in a barren concrete desert before eventually coming upon an oasis known as City O’ City. In this oasis I gobbled up savory chilaquiles with avocado and Colorado green peppers (the best peppers ever), and drank a gallon of coffee. Soon I began to feel like a normal human being again.
From there I roamed the streets of Denver, sipping raspberry lemonade I had picked up from a food truck and taking in the sights.
I didn’t see much of the mountains while I was there, didn’t trek through the Garden of the Gods or go to Golden and explore Tiny Town. “What are men compared to rocks and mountains?” Jane Austen writes ironically in her masterpiece Pride and Prejudice. Denver instead asks, “What is the city but the people?”
People are much more interesting than mountains.
So I stayed in Denver, exploring the avenues and talking to locals. I was greeted with a welcome that was unfamiliar to me. Many people in the Northeast struggle to talk to strangers, but in Denver I was never short of company. Many fellow photographers would come up to me on the streets, ask me where I was from, where I was headed. A lot of them, like me, were just passing through.
Denver is a city that embraces the wanderer, the lonely, the uncertain. Many people travel to the Mile High City to get away into nature, but many more choose it to find a community who will accept them as they are, which is a rare and beautiful thing.