Rocky Mountain Highs and Lows
One thing you must say about Colorado.
It ain’t Iowa.
Having spent a long weekend visiting Denver, Evergreen, Conifer and Idaho Springs, CO, it became clear that in this land of white-tipped mountains, blue spruce trees, and blooming columbine, one finds a paradise, particularly if you own a transmission repair shop.
Chugging along in my rented Toyota Yaris, I encountered many Rocky Mountain highs—and lows—and highs again as I drove past warning signs about “steep gradation” and “runaway trucks,” all the while taking in the gorgeous Rockies I had once hiked as a Colorado resident in the mid-1990s.
But the ups and downs I experienced were not limited to gravely roads and superhighways, but extended to water as well.
My trip featured my first time whitewater rafting, with the Clear Creek Rafting Company (http://www.clearcreekrafting.com), just 30 minutes west of Denver in Idaho Springs.
My native guide, Karen Morales, a long-time friend and business colleague, announced that the beginner level of rapids was “too boring,” so signed us up for the intermediate route along Clear Creek, described on their website as a “steep, narrow technical river” offering “more rapids than most commercially rafted rivers in the state.”
I learned we would encounter at least three “level 4” rapids along our 8-mile journey which would last about two hours.
“A level 6 rapids is, like, Niagara Falls,” our sinewy, sunglassed-raft leader, Troy, announced, just to give us an idea.
Clear Creek Rafting runs a very tight ship (raft?), efficiently processing large groups of “extreme-loving” teens and 20somethings, with a smattering of middle-aged duffers like myself, sporting befuddled “what-have-I-gotten-myself-into” looks. Once registered, you can rent rubber waterproof “booties” and are supplied a neoprene wetsuit, a helmet and life preserver. Cost for the intermediate experience was approximately $50.
Following a 10-minute bus trip to our launch point, we met our team leader/guy-we-all-prayed-would-keep-our-raft-people-side-up Troy, who gave us a quick indoctrination. As a novice, I had expected we would be sitting inside the raft. Wrong. You actually sit along the edge of the raft, your feet jammed in along the sides. No seatbelts, of course. We learned the forward and backward strokes and what to do should we flip up right or left or, heaven forbid, we find ourselves pitched into the roiling waves.
Luckily, that didn’t happen. Working together, Troy shouting commands – “Forward TWO!” (two forward strokes) “Backward THREE!” – we safely navigated the rapids, getting soaked, enjoying the beauty of the river and surrounding lands, and absorbing the history (several old mining operations line the river banks). As we plowed through each “level 4,” Troy would shout, “Paddle high five!” and our group would raise and slap our paddles in salute. At the end of the trip, we had the opportunity to purchase photos of our trip ($27 for a single 8×10 color glossy seemed steep, but for a moment of a lifetime, why not?)
Speaking of highs and lows, there were plenty to be had as we walked the many steps up and down the famed Red Rocks amphitheater that was built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps under the New Deal. I learned that many locals will visit Red Rocks in the mornings and weekends to run the length of each row of bleacher sets, 70 in all, or will climb the 12 planter boxes the line the amphitheater, from the stage to the top (there’s even a group that specializes in fitness routines, www.redrocksfitness.com).
The visitors’ center features videos of top musical groups that have played at Red Rocks, as well as listings by year of every entertainer who has graced the stage (I learned that the Limelighters, the Kingston Trio and Ray Charles were among those who have performed at Red Rocks in 1962, the year I was born!)
To be in Denver and not visit Coors Field, particularly with the Rockies in town (just two seasons removed from their 2007 World Series appearance) would be grossly inappropriate, so I found myself on the first base side just three rows from the field thanks to the largesse of my hosts, Ken and Karen Morales.
With Atlanta battling for more runs, I decided to take in a bit of the park. Designed by the HOK (now Populous) architectural group, the same company which produced Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Coors Field boasts the same winning mix of “old style” ballpark looks and modern day amenities, like the handy cup/bottle holders attached to the back of every seat.
The bill of fare ranged from the so-called “Super Dog” (a natural casing frank) to the Rockies foot-long bratwurst, to nachos, the pound pub burger, mesquite grilled chicken sandwich, even “Rocky Mountain oysters” (grilled bull testicles…really!), as well as the ever popular “sundae in a cup” shaped like a Rockies batting helmet. All good, all expectedly overpriced.
Fans were boisterous, but well-behaved, and the ushers provided free use of sunscreen and spritzes of cool water to relieve the heat…though it did make me feel a bit like an oversized potted plant.
In a game of ups and downs, the Rockies trailing 7-3 at one point, the team rallied to tie at 7-7 in the eighth and to win on a double by their All-Star right fielder Brad Hawpe in the 9th, with congratulatory beers undoubtedly flowing in the clubhouse.
Beers flow quite a bit in the state that’s home to the national Coors brewery in Golden, as well as many a microbrewery and winery.
Take for instance the Creekside Cellars Winery and Italian Café on Highway 74. Creekside became a bonded limited winery in 1996 and in 2002, planted their own vineyards in Palisade, CO, known as “Vinelands.” Not a wine drinker myself, I did enjoy the Panini grilled cheese and the best cinnamon chocolate brownie I’ve ever had. Served warmed with a glistening layer of chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream, it was moist and decadent.
As for beers, you’ll find local brews with names like Jack Whacker Wheat Ale, Alpine Glacier Lager and Cocoa Porter Winter Warmer at the Tommyknocker Brewery and restaurant in Idaho Springs. Noted for their award-winning brews and homemade root beer, Tommyknockers is named for the legend of the helpful gnome-like creatures of the same name that were said to live in the cracks and crevices of the mines.
Though not normally one to imbibe, I did try the summer seasonal brew, TundraBerry, described in their flier as a “slightly tart, refreshing pale ale made with raspberries, blueberries and other natural fruits”—an apt description.
While in Denver, I stopped by the Mercury Café, a Hampdenesque spot that’s part eatery and part theater, where I learned that a documentary film is screened once a week as part of the café’s regular entertainment. The evening’s show, “Intelligent Life,” urged viewers to be more ecologically responsible and was followed by a Q&A session with the filmmaker, Brian Malone (www.intelligentlifefilm.com).
One doesn’t normally think of catching a movie at a restaurant, or a brewery in a café, but these were just a couple of the interesting pairings that made my visit to Colorado so enjoyable. Touring Highlands Square in historic northwest Denver, I noted shops like Heidi’s Bagels and Ice Cream, and the Urbanistic Tea & Bike Shop. Bagels and gelato? Tea and bicycles? How about stuffed buffalo heads and rattlesnake appetizers?
If you’re into taxidermy, steaks, and a variety of unusual game on the menu (including elk, yak, and yes, even rattlesnake), be sure to visit The Buckhorn Exchange on Osage Street in Denver. Founded in 1893, the Buckhorn holds the first ever liquor license – Number One – in the State of Colorado.
It’s hard to find a bit of wall space that doesn’t feature the stuffed head of a buffalo, a deer, a moose or other animal, and even more difficult to find an entrée under $20. But it’s well worth it—where else can one expect to find duck, salmon, quail, Cornish game hen, and even fried alligator tail in one place?
Our party did sample the rattlesnake, marinated in red chile and lime and served with a chipotle pepper cream cheese; we all agreed, it tasted like chicken. I sampled the 8-ounce buffalo tenderloin steak served with garlic steak butter; I enjoy buffalo, as I find it leaner and with a stronger taste than beef. The meal came with an adequate garden salad and baked beans which were more like chili, and there was nothing wrong with that.
My stay in Colorado ended at Lucille’s of Jersey in the town of Conifer.
There I met chef Geno Accetta who, it turned out, was a friend of my hosts and joined us for dinner. He prepared a special fish and shrimp dish for Karen with a sauce of orange, lemon, olive oil, garlic and assorted herbs that left the table speechless, unless several repeated “Wow!”s count as speech.
I dined on Orecchiette alla Gigante, a small pasta shaped not unlike a World War I doughboy’s helmet, with tender broccoli and sausage cooked in butter, herbs and garlic. Magnificent…as was the view of the Rockies and the quaint town of Conifer which was chosen as the site of the restaurant to honor proprietor Steve Naples’ mother, Lucille. Lucille’s features all natural steaks (no bovine hormone) as well as home-cooked Italian dishes representing the many regions of Italy.