Denver visit 2016

I returned to my home state of Colorado for my cousin Emily's wedding. I decided to take a couple days before the wedding in Denver to visit old haunts and indulge in a bit of nostalgia. I didn't attempt to see anybody I used to know as it would have been complicated to arrange, and apologize to anybody reading this who would have liked to visit.

After recovery from a super early flight, my first stop was the University of Denver, where I studied and worked for a few years. Most of my time in school was spent at a different campus, but the music and law schools have since been moved to the main, and now only, campus. I was particularly curious to see the new music building. I visited after hours during the summer session so things weren't open; I wandered through the music building but couldn't see into the new performance spaces. It does look like a much nicer facility than the one I studied at; I wonder if the education has also caught up?

The school seems to be half new buildings now, most of them clad in sandstone. Every now and then an old familiar building would peek out at me. When I worked there after graduating, there was a big capital campaign going on, and these are the fruits of it; in fact new construction is still ongoing. While many buidings were brand new, and others seem to have been renovated, others seemed to be exactly as I left them. That was actually somewhat jarring in context. Equally surprising was how many of the names of schools, buildings, and programmes are exactly the same as I left them 20 years ago. Somehow admidst all the major changes visible in Denver, I didn't expect other things, particuarly soft things like names, to stay the same.

Also quite striking on this nostalgia walk was how memories would pop up as I walked by places. Some of the memories were general ones of the time I was a student and employee there, but others were quite specific memories of little events that I hadn't thought about in years and wouldn't have expected were still in my memory. Some of them are in fact objectively terribly insignificant, yet they stuck in my mind.

In front of Stranahan's DistilleryMy next activity was to tour Stranahan's Distillery, adding to my list of whiskey tours. This is something else that didn't exist in my day, but then neither did my interest in whiskey. It's a newer distillery with mostly younger stock, but practicing many of the techniques used by classic distilleries. The stills were actually surprisingly small especially considering the size of the fermenters and their distribution. I wanted to see the distillery just to see what a small distillery would be like but wasn't expecting too much, but was actually impressed. They've built themselves from the ground up and seem to have acquired a lot of knoweldge the old fashioned way. They made a lot about their "small batch" process, and said they plan to keep that even as they expand, which will make them darlings among afficionados. One thing they're not doing yet though is aging whiskey in the mountains, which I think would allow for longer aging periods and a great story for their labels.

Beyond what they've learned to do as producers, their marketing acumen was also quite visible and probably has a lot to do with their success (and the fact that I've heard of them from so far away). They know how to position their whiskey and story, and in Denver also plastered it with billboards. Their facility was previously used by a brewery that closed; the tour guide asked if anybody had heard of them and the answer was no. It's clear that focusing on production alone isn't sufficient to make a success story. One other thing that I couldn't help noticing was that having a hipster beard seems to be part of the corporate dress code (except the cute bartender who was more interested in how to pour than how to produce).

After this tour I did a couple nostalgic food visits from my childhood. I went to a Winchell's donut shop, which was my favourite as a kid, and I remember resenting that Dunkin Donuts seemed to be driving them out of business. Their donuts actually looked a bit grim, but tasted quite good, lovely to have an enjoyable donut or two from a chain these days. Then I went to the Village Inn restaurant, which was the cheap family restaurant we used to go to back when even that was a rare treat my parents could afford. It still seems to serve that market, but in a nice way, not a dive. The orange colour scheme is calming and seems again to be part of savvy marketing. The food was decent though the pancakes tasted quite like a box mix (again in a nostalgic way), their menu has evolved a bit to keep up with the times but is also a lot the same as it was 30 years ago. Again it's an example of the sort of thing I didn't expect to have survived the tides of time.

All this walking around was pretty tiring, and I got quite a tan. I had forgotten how far south Denver is relative to Ottawa, and the sun was quite shockingly high in the sky. I guess I've turned into a real northerner now, because I'm just not used to such overhead light. I think Denver's winter sun must be where Ottawa's summer sun is. I'm also now used to a far less arid environment. I took a quick walk over to the Platte River, which isn't the small trickle I thought it might be but still is quite small compared to rivers where I now hail from. The state is still the overall brown that I remember dominating the landscape where I lived as a child. It's quite amazing that nonetheless a huge population has amassed here.

Denver itself has changed quite a bit since I left, though there were also spots where the old could be seen looking shabby in the context of the new. There has been a huge amount of development, with a lot more still ongoing. There is now a fairly decent light rail system, whereas when I left there was only one line, which had just been opened and was killing people who didn't think to look before crossing train tracks, so foreign was the idea. Much of the new construction is quite clearly happening around the light rail stations, though to be fair that's mainly the parts I saw.

I was also struck to notice that the people seemed less provincial, for lack of a more polite word, than I remembered. Going to Harvard for graduate school and then beginning work in an assertively international context, my world has expanded greatly since my days in Colorado. I've resented the limited education and viewpoint that I grew up with, and associated my memories of Colorado with it. I don't know if the new development has made the city more cosmopolitan than it was in my day, or if the modern world has caught up to it, or if my own experience just filters my memory. I left at a time that anti-gay legistlation had just been passed by referendum, and that made me not want to come back. In spite of the changes I now see, I still don't want to return, some events leave permanent effects.

I don't know if I'll have reason to visit Denver again, so this visit may have been my final chance to reconnect old memories with reality. As is often the case, some things are better in memory than reality, and others less bad. It's been a great lesson to take forward.

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