USA October 2009 : II – Boulder, CO

Covered in snow. In Colorado. Go figure (and other applicable Americanisms…)

Still in “big airport” mode from Heathrow and Kennedy, I arrived at LaGuardia spectacularly early, much to the bemusement of the check-in staff. I was expecting the endless conveyor belts and multi-terminal hell of LHR or JFK and instead got a gentle stroll around the corner to security and leisurely amble to my gate, not an escalator or belt in sight. The flipside, I suppose, is that there was no-one trying to sell me discount perfume, no caviar-and-champagne bar (no bar at all, come to think of it), in fact very little do to at all. Therefore, I spent the next two hours drinking orange juice and watching a car chase on CNN. The televised car chase is a little slice of Americana that you don’t really imagine finding, like lemonade stands on front lawns (something I really did see in Winnetka, IL in 2006, but that’s beside the point…); it’s something else you read about but don’t actually see. This one was complete with a stream of 20-odd patrol cars (what are the last 15 or so going to do that the first couple can’t manage?), overhead camera footage not from the police but from news networks (well, you’ve got to do something with all that advertising revenue I suppose) and scrolling text commentary. This sky blue Ford F-150 was carving through Dallas County at a little under 100mph for no apparent reason while, as the world looks on in high-definition widescreen, men with no discernable qualification to do so speculate wildly on things like how far such a pickup could get on a full tank at this speed and what the man inside could possibly have done to warrant such behaviour. This sort of thing is so fascinating to the British observer that we like to collate such footage and put it on shows with titles like America’s Most Violent Car Chases on those obscure channels you only find when operating under the mistaken impression that you’ll get back to BBC One quicker by continuing to press the up button until you get back to the start. Of course, everyone else went about their business like nothing out of the ordinary was happening (because, I suppose, it wasn’t), catching flights to Chicago or Atlanta, reading the New York Times or calling their families.

Having added a United Airlines napkin to my American one and thereby begun a collection of sorts (one that would go on to include US Airways as well as Amtrak and Acela trains) and been pleasantly surprised by The Brothers Bloom (which, among other things, features Rachel Weisz crashing Lamborghinis and making pinhole cameras out of hollowed-out vegetables to pass the time; what’s not to love?), I passed the remainder of my flight (window seat!) admiring the agricultural patchwork of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas. Passing over the south of Illinois I had chance to reflect on what took me on this leg of the journey. A remarkable set of coincidences when I considered them, and a story I have told countless times since (and ended up telling a couple of days later at a party). Like many good stories, it stars a beautiful girl and a chance meeting. Unlike most chance meetings, this one occurred on a school trip to Berlin. It also featured an exchange of emails about far-fetched dreams of a trip to America. Duly encouraged, these became not so-far-fetched after all, and led to a trip to Chicago in August 2006 and a few of the most impulsive, enjoyable and ultimately free days I have ever passed (and including a double-header Counting Crows/Goo Goo Dolls show at Tinley Park, IL that might as well have been made for us, so perfect was the musical match). Said beautiful girl was now studying at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and it was time to catch up. Flying within the US being so cheap and convenient, it was, to abuse another Americanism, a no-brainer.

Denver International Airport is the first one I have ever been to where I was required to take a train to baggage reclaim. A totally automated train, indeed, and one that announced your arrival on it with a few staccato piano chords. I’m sure it was really just announcing the fact that the doors had opened, but wherein lies the fun in such a quotidian explanation? It runs back and forth between the terminals and the central baggage hall/transport hub, underground. Well, it’s more interesting than another set of escalators and conveyor belt walkway things…

Wandering through the airport (looking for someone who knew which carousel our bags were really on, ie not the one we’d been told on the plane), I was struck by the number of US servicemen and women flying in uniform; America is proud of its armed forces and the people who serve with them. Not for the first time I found myself looking back at my small island and wondering why we had to be so critical, so cynical, and why we couldn’t have enough pride in our soldiers to allow them to travel in uniform. Countless times whilst catching trains south out of Leeds on a Friday I watched painfully new recruits trying to disguise the fact that a couple of hours ago they had left Catterick Garrison and were now going south for a weekend of home comforts. Hats, bandanas, hoodies, all attempts to conceal the buzz cut that was the ultimate giveaway, but there were other signs too, most often the issue kitbags. In America they would expect congratulation, little nods of deference and discounts; I feared that at home they would get suspicion from some, anger and rejection from others.

Baggage claim negotiated, I made for the exit. Stepping out of the airport was a shock. Early October in New York had been mild and I’d been out in shirtsleeves. The cold wasn’t vicious, just omnipresent. The air was different, crisp as I passed through the curtain of warmth in front of the automatic doors and into Colorado. The vista that presented itself was instantly different to everything I’d seen in New York, even before I looked up and saw the Flatirons looming. Wide open spaces, even in airport bus terminals, are the order of the day where the Midwest meets the Rockies.

The aggregation of humanity lingering around the bus stop spoke volumes about Boulder. Students, yes, but also assorted bohemian types, utterly at odds with the ultra-busy New Yorkers I’d spent the past few days rubbing shoulders with. The bus appeared, late but welcome. The sun was setting over the Rockies, and soon after that over the airport bus stops too. It got dark quickly, and soon after that began to snow. I was on edge; no real idea where I was, and whilst logic told me that Boulder was an hour’s drive from DIA and the final destination of the bus (and that I could therefore afford to relax a little), nevertheless a paranoid fear of missing my stop made me jumpy. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the student types who had said they were getting off at Euclid (a street, apparently; I was still expecting numbers, not Greek mathematicians) decided to get off early. Neither, I suppose, was I put at ease by the driver, who attempted to explain the notion of the request stop to the assembled travelers in a “comic” scary voice more suited to the festival of Halloween still nearly three weeks away. “Make sure you ring that bell, kids, or I’ll just….keep…on…driving…through the night!”

Eventually I put my earphones in and found something to fit the mood. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals live from Leeds Academy, an electric, blistering, brilliant set I’d seen nearly a year beforehand (and, thanks to the benevolence of said band and the wonders of modern technology, had a crystal-clear bootleg recording of). Pedal steel, songs of wide open spaces and loneliness, suddenly appropriate on this bus ride through the dark and the snow, further from home than I had ever been.

I stepped off a bus and into the life of someone I once knew briefly but deeply, filled with uncertainty.

Writing to a friend:

Erin and I spent 4 days catching up like the old friends we are. We ate good food, talked endlessly, carved pumpkins (another American ritual for the collection) and walked in the snow. And yes, the snow was awesome. On the night I arrived, having flown from NY LaGuardia to Denver International then caught a bus to Boulder (following Erin’s instructions), I stepped off said bus and was fairly jumped on by an excited Erin.

Greetings dispensed with, we made our way quickly into warmth and shelter, walking through the still-falling snow to The Sink.

11th October

Snow, unexpected and unseasonal even here, has cast a magical blanket over this place. Erin met me from the bus and we went for the best burger I’ve had in ages while we caught up on life.

For “in ages” read “ever”.

It had started snowing as I was on the bus, so we walked through it to this burger bar she wanted to show me. The Sink, as it’s known, has been there since 1930 and is something of a landmark. Robert Redford worked there when he was a student at the University of Colorado, which is pretty cool. We ate burgers and fries and drank coke and felt very American. This proved to me that there is such a thing as a good cheeseburger, because that’s what I had. Good beef, cooked how you like it (medium in my case, medium-rare in hers), SO tasty. Boulder is a college town, dominated by the bohemian presence of some 20,000 students and the associated hippy types who gather for the bars, the music and the marijuana. The looming Flatiron hills, the leading edge of the Rockies, are visible every time you look west.

From there we went back to her place, dropped my stuff, changed and went straight out to a party. A themed affair, “Professors and schoolgirls”, which mostly meant the girls trying to outdo each other in the sluttiness stakes, short plaid skirts and tight white blouses while the guys stood around wearing button-down shirts and jackets and looking awkward. Drinking games ensued, much like a student house party anywhere else. We did one other party during the weekend, a much more civilized affair involving good food, wine and coffee; they can, it seems do both crazy drunk and quite refined.

The first question everyone asks when you tell them you went to a keg party is, “Did they have those red cups?”

Maybe I didn’t watch enough bad American teen movies or something, but my first encounter with these 12 fl oz marvels was in Chicago. They’re another of those things that just don’t exist in Europe, for no good reason that I can see. There is a chicken-egg dilemma though; which came first, the red plastic cups or the drinking games that create the demand for them?!

The second party referred to was indeed a civilised one; good food, wine and conversation, and awesome Irish coffee. The secret, I was told in no uncertain terms, was freshly whipped cream, sugar and Bourbon. Far be it for me to suggest that Irish coffee should have had Jameson’s in it… Speaking of alcohol, before said party I was called upon to go shopping for wine, another American college experience to add to my growing collection. It’s difficult for an outsider to judge whether the fraternisation between year groups encourages underage drinking or whether the desire for illicit alcohol drives said fraternisation, but either way I’d answered the question of how it makes its way down to the under-21s as I knew it must; the duty is foisted on the older ones, clutching money pooled by the group. Until the point where I presented a UK drivers licence, it felt reasonably authentic; the document tends to cause much confusion/suspicion in a Midwest wine warehouse.

Writing to my father, evidently in reply to a show of concern about the weather:

There’s about two inches of snow in Boulder, started falling about an hour after I landed in Denver. This is apparently early for snow, even here at the foot of the Rockies. It’s very beautiful. I took my long tweed coat for a very good reason, and it proved invaluable. Scarf and gloves in the coat pockets, which was a good thing! That plus Timberland boots saw me through, although I did have to buy a hat. (In answer to his question as to what I meant by the term…) Flatirons are the first bit of the Rockies, as it were, and loom at the end of streets in Boulder, every time you look west.

Here was an experience of American life unlike any I’d seen before (not difficult really, seeing as my experience extended to Chicagoland(they actually use the word, apparently) suburbia and New York hotels); watching American students going about student-y things Subtly different to their British counterparts in all sorts of ways. For a start, almost everyone drives, and in Colorado it’s usually 4x4s like Jessi’s gorgeous, dilapidated ’78 Chevrolet Cheyenne, complete with doors cannibalised from another truck at some point in its long life.

Suddenly there was space. I had become, arriving in the mountains after four days in the city, “a man who gauges bucolic distances by New York City blocks” (Salinger, J.D., Seymour: An Introduction).   I had never felt so much an inhabitant of a city, never so inhabited by one, rarely so alienated by a change in landscape.

Another email:

Other than student parties, my time was mostly spent walking the Boulder Creek trail, trying not to freeze to death and fending off Max the kitten, who was rescued from a sewer and is the most excitable life form of any kind I have ever met. Like your average kitten on speed or something.

Max

wish hotels came with kittens for alarm clocks

Max was a part of the experience, no doubt, and after a short while developed a keen sense for when it was appropriate to climb on me (and another for which bits of the duvet he could paw at without risking a gentle nudge of dissuasion).

The weekend drew inevitably to a close, but Monday was Erin’s birthday. Buying Franny & Zooey for friends is hugely satisfying, no more so than in America, where Salinger books come with the original cover art. It took all my willpower not to buy a full set to take home! Here is not the place to go on at length about the genius of J.D. Salinger, but I can summarise most of what I’d like to say by simply compelling you to look beyond Catcher in the Rye, either with Franny and Zooey or Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters/Seymour: An Introduction. F&Z is a book I’ve bought for several friends. Filled with the best of Salinger’s observational work, the opening page is simply some of the most delicious description of humanity the 20th century American canon has to offer.

THOUGH brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone had hoped it would stay for the big weekend– the weekend of the Yale game. Of the twenty-some young men who were waiting at the station for their dates to arrive on the ten-fifty-two, no more than six or seven were out on the cold, open platform. The rest were standing around in hatless, smoky little groups of twos and threes and fours inside the heated waiting room, talking in voices that, almost without exception, sounded collegiately dogmatic, as though each young man, in his strident, conversational turn, was clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries.

J.D. Salinger, Franny

Having raved about it to Erin the day before, and having known (and planned) that I would be with her on her birthday, I set about getting a copy. The bookshop in Boulder was a revelation in itself (and not just because I found myself reading C.S. Lewis’s lectures). Late night opening hours, vast stock and beautiful wooden staircases with brass rails. Lewis was my first conscious effort at engaging with one of the elephants in the room, the God question. How long can you travel in the US and not meet it? Regardless, the bookshop provided me with both a copy of F&Z and a card with the Goethe quote I refer to in the very first entry in the blog:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.

(I should point out that, should you wish, there is a raft of discussions and articles about the veracity of this quote’s ascription to Goethe, but I’ll leave that up to you and Google…) It’s a delightful sentiment, and seemed to fit the morning.

12th October

Norlin Library, University of Colorado at Boulder

Sunshine! Mountains finally creeping into view. Bagels with Erin and Jessie, beat-up ’78 Chevy Cheyenne adds to the sense of Americanness.

If I was on a search for the essence of this nation, riding shotgun in a Chevy pickup to go and get bagels for breakfast gets close. I can’t handle the cream cheese on everything, but hot cinnamon and raisin bagels with butter and honey are pretty remarkable.

That night we dined at Antica Roma, the best Italian restaurant Boulder had to offer. I eat a lot of Italian food, in Italy when the chance arises but otherwise in both independents and various chains in the UK, to varying success. The combination of Italian food and American service, however, is utterly incongruous and faintly unnerving. Somehow it just feels wrong that there’s a waiter at your elbow just dying to rush around at your beck and call, ice water, bread and oil arriving without so much as a word (or a charge) and with such politeness as to be a little discomforting for the hapless Brit. Leaving aside the service for a moment, the food was good. Quite how one gets hold of mozzarella in the Rockies I’ve no idea, but the pizza was authentic and unpolluted by America’s idea of what pizza ought to look like. I’ve nothing against deep-pan Chicago-style; indeed, Erin introduced me to the magical place that is Gino’s East (and somewhere in there our names are scrawled on the walls!), but this was proper, wood-fired stone-baked thin, crispy and tasty Italian pizza, in the heart of Middle America. Just when you could have slipped away into a recollected reverie of Rome, our ultra-helpful waiter arrived to ask if I’d like a doggy-bag. Ah, America the gluttonous…

The following morning I was awakened by Max, whose uncanny sense of timing prevailed once more. A quick breakfast then Erin guided me back onto the airport bus. A sad farewell, but safe in the knowledge our paths will cross again, wanderers both. Back to Denver International and onto a United flight to Dallas/Fort Worth.

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