Surprising Denver

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

Denver surprised me from the moment we began our descent through a thick layer of clouds. When the plane emerged, a flat, dull brown landscape welcomed me to Colorado. I’d driven through southern Colorado before. I’d visited Colorado Springs and camped in Grand Junction where the Rockies dominate the landscape, but those mountains didn’t appear outside my small plane window. As we taxied to the gate, the Rockies loomed behind a hazy mist to the west as the landscape of the high desert contrasted with the peaks suddenly bursting forth from the earth. It reminded me of the flour and paste relief maps I made in elementary school.

Denver brags about its weather, claiming 300 days of sunshine each year. Our first day there, September 11, 2012, proved the Chamber of Commerce point – cloudless sky with temperatures hovering near 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Without the spring and summer rains after a mild winter with low amounts of snowfall, the ground cried out in thirst. As we drove from the airport, only the medians with sprinklers running midday contained green grass. Everything else was crisp and a yellowish brown ready to give up the last gasp of life.

Denver on a rare day when mountain views are obscured by clouds

On our first night, while we wandered in the SoDo (South of Downtown) neighborhood, a slight rain began, but the temperature remained near 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It rained all through the night and all the next morning. By morning, the rain continued, but temperatures dropped by twenty degrees with winter storm advisories in the mountains. Quite a contrast.

I ventured downtown again on the light rail system while cars crawled along through the pouring rain on the Interstates circling the city. I hung out at Tattered Cover Book Store  (SoDo location) for several hours. As the rain continued falling, I pulled five books from the shelf and did the best thing possible during a pounding rainstorm. I settled on a comfy couch inside the bookstore with old hardwood floors. Nothing beats reading surrounded by new and used books while the rain gushes outside.

The day was one of the sixty-five sunshine-less days in Denver. Instead of cursing the clouds, I bought an umbrella and celebrated with the residents grateful for some wet stuff to quench the thirst of the landscape.

I rode the free shuttle down the 16th Avenue Mall to the Civic Center and walked to Colorado’s state capitol building. The dome is under construction but still the architecture inside and out is stunning with its native materials of marble, granite, sandstone, onyx, and gold. When they built the dome, they covered it in copper. The gold miners saw this as an insult, so the miners of Colorado gifted the state with enough gold to cover the whole thing with gold leaf. It’s stunning reminder of how Colorado gained its prominence in the mining world. I wanted to climb the ninety-nine stairs to the top of the dome, but it’s closed for repairs now. Besides, the heavy layer of rain clouds still hovering over the city obscured the promised view of the Rockies.

capitol dome under construction

Next, I walked two blocks behind the capitol to the “unsinkable” Molly Brown’s house, again another surprise. The house is a preserved Victorian set as it was when the Browns lived there around the turn of the twentieth century.

Molly Brown House Museum

The woman the world has come to know as the Unsinkable Molly did more than survive the Titanic. Sure, she managed to escape in a lifeboat and helped save other folks, so did more than 400 other folks. Molly – real name Elizabeth – made use of her time after her near-death experience. She worked for women’s suffrage and fought for Colorado miner’s rights, which were nonexistent in the early 1900s. She ran for public office several times, even though women didn’t have enfranchisement. She made sure her voice received a spot, even for unpopular causes. As a wealthy woman, she could have lived a life of luxury behind the walls of her comfortable home – one of the first with electricity and running water. I’m only assuming she cared more for the human condition than the condition of her home.

Homes on Pennsylvania Street a few blocks off of Colfax Avenue

Afterwards, I headed back to the 16th Avenue Mall, crossing behind the capitol. I walked down Colfax Avenue with the gold dome directing me west to the shuttle. As I crossed Colfax legally, two police cars came roaring around the corner and almost hit me as they attempted to turn onto the avenue. I continued walking when I noticed I was no longer on the tree-shaded street with old restored Victorians near Molly’s house.

I was now in the inner city and across the street two women stood handcuffed outside a drugstore where five police cars pulled up to the curb at slanted angles to create a barrier.

arrest within view of Colorado’s state capitol

Homeless folks sat on the bus benches with signs asking for assistance and colorful graffiti watched over the blighted area within feet of the richly furnished and finished state capitol building.

Maybe Denver isn’t very surprising after all.