The Pleasures of Impromptu Planning in Denver

If I had planned out beforehand activities for every stop of my journey, I probably would have gone to Reno, NV for the final round of the Reno-Tahoe Open, then booked it over to Denver and gone to see Neil Young at Red Rocks the following day.

Those would have been memorable events for sure. But would I have found America while watching millionaires play golf on a manicured mountain course for a $6 million purse, or after buying a $60 ticket to see America’s most beloved Canadian musician at one of America’s most famed concert venues?

You bet I would’ve.

As it was, when I missed the train in San Francisco, I haggled (read: aroused pity) for a cheap(er) hotel room next to the station and spent much of the day booking train tickets and hostels for the remainder of my trip. I looked not at the goings-on in the cities but focused exclusively on time tables. It was inevitable that I’d miss something spectacular somewhere–as inevitable as it was that I’d miss one of these 18 trains.

So when I finally got to the hostel in Denver at 8pm, took out my iPad, pulled up the concert calendar, and saw that Neil Young was set to tee off at Red Rocks at that very moment, I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t planned the smallest iota ahead. But there were so many other bands playing inside the city that night anyway. I took note of a venue in north downtown touting their allegiance to Jerry Garcia, Quixote’s True Blue, and set off walking through the American city night.

I made my way up to 16th St., a long pedestrian mall and bustling commercial center in the heart of the city where shoppers, diners, businesspeople, scutter punks, and drug addicts intermingle. I tried to strike up conversation with the barista at a coffee shop, but our chat went nowhere. Further down the street I stopped in at a black-clad hipster spot looking for a bite, a beer, and to watch some Olympics, and when I sat down the bartender looked at me hard and said “What’s up?” His question seemed more than just innocuous greeting, as if he really wanted to know what my designs were being there.

Pianos on the street, open to the public. You bet I gave a rendition of “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

With what I hoped to come off as unflappability, I crossed my arms on the bar and asked for a beer and a menu. He checked my I.D., flipped me a menu, slapped down a pint while looking somewhere else. A subtle and covert gesture war. They didn’t have Olympics on the TV, instead some twenty-something American jackasses bobsledding in Jamaica in wooden carts. They crashed and one of them lacerated his knee to the muscle. When the bartender grimaced and he had no upper teeth.

Intimidated, I had ordered my food to go, after which the bartender seemed to soften. When he cashed me out he flashed me that toothless smile like a row of tombstones shot up in a pistol fight.

Bagging a pesto chicken burrito, I meandered north toward 22nd Street and that Grateful Dead bar. I found a perch on which to eat it beneath a peach-colored tower–the buildings in downtown Denver mirror the colors of the desert–then kept truckin’ north. The closer I got to the bar, the more homeless people appeared out of the darkness. And when I found the place with its colorful murals of Grateful Dead bears, Jerry’s face, furthur busses, and generic skeletons and hippie travelers painted on the outside walls, across the street buzzed a “Jesus Saves” sign in front of the font of stumbling mendicants.

Outside Quixote’s

I knew from the event page online there’d be a $10 cover at the Grateful Dead bar for the band they had playing that night, the Dyrty Byrds, so I kept walking around the corner. Good bars and venues with good personalities, I’ve learned, tend to cluster together, but in this area the griminess overpowered the possibility for good vibes. I dodged the night crawlers and came to another bar with a gate out front and the Olympics on, went inside and watched the women’s high-jump finals while eavesdropping on a couple conversations, but failed to find much conversation or entertainment.

Well hell, I thought, feeling as if I’d really missed out on Neil Young at Red Rocks, I’ll see if I can’t schmooze my way in that Grateful Dead bar. When I went back I could hear the music booming from two blocks away. I approached the venue and had a moment of doubt at the door–I hate haggling, even though I pulled it off in California–but my legs carried me forward and into an open room with a full screen concert of late-70’s Dead playing at the end, a full bar to the left, merchandise and memorabilia covering the walls. I immediately felt among.

At the bar I ordered a drink, and the girl told me the price plus $10 admission. I pretended to be surprised. “Ten dollars?”

“For the band tonight. The Dyrty Byrds are playing out back.” Out behind the bar there was a courtyard with psychedelic paintings, a couple portraits of Jerry, and screaming guitar jam music overlaid with a crying keyboard. Crunchy.

I looked in my wallet and shook my head. “I can’t stay.” She frowned. I walked back into the Denver night thinking I’d head back to the mall and that bar claiming the most taps in Colorado before catching some Z’s at the hostel.

As I walked past the cars in the parking lot, a voice behind me yelled, “She can do five.” I turned. A man leaned on the bannister by the door. “She can do five.” I shrugged and walked back in, feeling awkward. I slinked up to the bar.

“I hate that,” the girl said. “I wish people could just hang out in here, not have to pay for the band.” She waved off my five dollar bill for the cover, poured me a beer, and said, “Wanna take a shot?”

“Hell yeah.”

I made friends.

And so it began. Crunchy music lovers danced in the courtyard. More people filtered in wearing tie dyes and wild hats. I talked to a guy with wide pupils who wanted to drive me out to Red Rocks two days later. People kept handing me drinks. The band was hot with exploratory jams and a lead singer with a scratchy, booming voice. They took a request for “New Speedway Boogie” and the lead guitarist taught the band the chords as they went–the experiment turned into a deep funk groove that had me moving and grinning wide.

Between songs I walked around the place inspecting the concert posters on every surface. When the Grateful Dead show ended on the big screen inside, they put on a Phish video. A guy walked in wearing a stiff Neil Young shirt he had obviously just bought at the show. “How was it?” I asked.

“Same set as last night. But hey, who can complain about hearing ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My’ two nights in a row?”

After last call I made it back to the hostel, no longer disappointed in my impromptu planning process because, even though I missed Neil Young, I landed among a more intimate and impassioned crowd of Denverites.

Thankfully, two days later, I didn’t wait around for the wide-pupiled guy who wanted to drive me out to Red Rocks. He never called. I took the bus north to Longmont and Boulder, checked out Oskar Blues, Avery, and Mountain Sun breweries which all sit over 6,000 feet above sea level.

That thin air makes you tired, thirsty, and winded. The next day I boarded the eastbound train, sad to leave the Mountain West but looking forward to more oxygenated climes where I could fill my lungs again and seek out the next city’s adventure.

Big ol’ Boulder mountains.

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