Colorado The light is fading over the freeway as we approach Denver. Way out west the sky is painted with improbable exuberance, attempting to distract from the serene, serrated silhouette of the Rockies. Denver rises from the undulating mid western prairie – the mile-high city. With our luggage still somewhere between Dublin and Dubai we are travelling light and running on empty.
On the second floor of Earl’s Place (that’s one above ground over here) there’s a sports bar and a restaurant which is practically al fresco, the outer wall is somehow removed and we are of a height with the city trees, swaying balmily in the breeze. American waitresses are programmed to attack. Relentlessly cheerful and equipped with the anorak’s grip of every nuance of the cuisine. Each order is answered with a question – how do you like your steak? your eggs? American or Italian cheese? Oh, surprise me, Oran entreats. Yet their enthusiasm is infectuous. Maybe it’s the altitude but we mirror their smiles and echo their repartee, and then find that it comes naturally.
The 16th street mall is Denver’s main drag, a pedestrianised street a mile long, lined with trees, restaurants, cafes and bars. A free electric shuttle bus operates along the street or you can take a horse drawn carriage if you fancy something more grande. The atmosphere is laid back, quiet and friendly. At one end of sixteenth street is the State Capitol, typically neo-classical, with a high burnished dome of twenty four carat gold. The high rise financial district is relatively recent, gleaming like an extrusion of giant crystals through the red brick fabric of the nineteenth century cow town. Even more unlikely is the teetering sharp edifice of Libeskind’s Art Museum. A sudden jolt from the classical lines of the Civic Centre, the multi faceted structure seems to have made an unplanned landing at the plaza from some distant and bizarre planet.
We return to the airport for our car and to leave instructions for our wandering luggage. We’re pencilled in for a Buick but at Davin’s insistence we upgrade to a Cadillac. This is still shrink wrapped, a white panther for our west coast prowl. Out on the freeway I am engulfed in a stampede of pick ups piloted by laconic maniacs in stetsons. Home on the range rover, if you like. We make for the maw of the Rockies. It’s a relief to get off the freeway and snake up silent curved roads to the mountains.
Leadville is a gem cunningly concealed in its base metal name. Here on the continental divide Colorado’s highest peaks rise snow topped over the purple sage and the scent of columbine spices the scarce air. At two miles above sea level Leadville is America’s highest incorporated city. The discovery of silver brought the boom times here. There are fifty buildings from the 1870s when Leadville was a boomtown of 30,000 people. The Tabor Opera House and Grand Hotel remain even if the population did not. The ghosts of gunslingers are caught reflected on the fine frontage of the grandly named Harrison Street where Doc Holliday, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack once strutted, and no doubt caused plenty of lead to fly.
I enter Leadville’s legendary Silver Dollar Saloon which dates from 1879 and is the perfect synthesis of the Irish pub and the wild west saloon. It’s all aged woods and bottled beers, a louche ambience enlivened with the crackle of conversation. All roads lead here. The woman tending bar tells me she’s of Indian, German and Scottish stock and that the McMahon family has run this place for nearly seventy years. I fall in with two Canadian truckers and with the mixture of alcohol and altitude everything suddenly seams hilarious. Later I float up the sidewalk as the night sky bursts above me, just two miles nearer heaven and the view is perfect. Mind, on those echoing raised sidewalks I keep an eye out for a phanthom gunslinger, for Doc Holiday or Texas Jack; not that I’m sure I can shoot too straight right now.
After Leadville the Collegiate Range – Princeton, Yale and Harvard – guard the horizon to the west. We pass through Granite and Poncha Springs towards Gunnison. The premonition of an impending showdown is emphasised by Gunnison, still resplendent in its western clothes. There’s a fleeting Irish connection at the Gunnysack Bar which serves Harp lager on draught – but you won’t hear the cry of the curlew out here.
Davin determines that I risk life and limb to ride through a raging torrent in a tub. They don’t call it brown trouser rafting, but they might. We book with Scenic Tours for a two hour raft down the Taylor River. Their advertising doesn’t deceive and shows people plunging headfirst into boiling waters and clinging desperately to rocks. The starting point is an hour’s drive up a wooded gorge which could once have teemed with hostile Indians. Instead, thirty or so enthusiasts full of foolish and youthful optimism await the flotilla of six rafts.
Greg is our guide and tells us the hidden dangers of rafting, as if the obvious ones weren’t enough. The paddle is the source of most grief. The leading hand should keep the top of the handle covered so it doesn’t get waved about in rough water. Otherwise, according to Greg, “Franklin here could have a case of summer teeth: Some are in the boat, some are in the river and some are in Franklin’s head.”
In fact Franklin and his wife Liz are well experienced with the great outdoors and cede pole position to us on the helter skelter of the Taylor. They have a hike planned later. They want to live. After a short practice run of about ten seconds, we drop over a mini Niagara and enter a world more suitable to fish, bears and what’s left of the Mohicans. Greg has a deep knowledge of the river and of the helpful names of its most frightening features. There is the Tombstone and the Toilet (don’t ask) and more besides that I was too busy to commit to memory – why memorise something that might kill you? The Tombstone is the only one to claim victims as a rookie guide and four teenage girls get upended. There is a brief frantic scramble amongst the flotilla but all are dragged quickly to safety.
To add spice to the quieter lower reaches, as I begin to enjoy the scenery despite shivering from the soaking, Davin is allowed to ‘ride the bull‘. Greg positions him on the prow and there are a few good plunges on the last stretch to give him the soaking he so richly deserves. He enjoys it immensely. What the heck, so do I.