City on the Plains, Part II

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, 1995

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, 1995

Later that evening we drive around Colorado Springs. The foothills of the Front Range rise to the west, though the real mountains, the 14ers, especially Pikes’ Peak, are sleeping behind clouds. To the east we drive up a sharp hill and find the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, a compact, modern commuter college of 5,000 students, perched on the side of a mountain so steep the buildings stretch out in a line rather than a cluster. I had gotten a letter expressing interest from the chair of the English department in response to my query about a full or part time position. He would welcome the opportunity to talk to me if, as my letter suggested, I was in the area. The campus is deserted, however; not only is it Sunday, the next morning I would find out begins Spring Break, something I should have investigated before driving 1,400 miles to look for a job.

We drive to Garden of the Gods, an open-space park just outside of town, and drive through the roads between chiseled red and white rock formations thrusting out of the ground like stone wildflowers tended by some benevolent god. Trails wind between twisted spires, stunted evergreens, and patches of snow in the shade. The air smells clean, feels clean, even pure, although whether or not that is a quality that can be quantified I don’t know. It may just be an emotional response to the moment: Happiness; a sense of being—belonging—in this place; a sense of regret, of having missed something essential due to the circumstances of my birth in the South. Black and white magpies the size of crows flit from tree to tree. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to live here,” I say, and Lisa agrees.

The next morning is clear. The sky is a brilliant blue and the sun warms up the day so jackets are unnecessary. I take Bonnie for a walk behind the hotel and Pikes Peak rises out of the earth and overwhelms the landscape. I call the school and find out about Spring break. A secretary tells me the department chair will be in later in the week. Disappointed, I leave a message and we drive to Denver. Forty miles up the highway we are still able to look back and see the mountain clearly extending above the Front Range.

We cross a rise and Denver appears before us, laid out like a body of water extending from the foothills on the west and out of sight to the north and east. Miles away, the downtown skyscrapers rise out of the earth like trees above an island. Lisa has been here before, visiting a great-aunt recently moved home to Memphis, and she directs us to Washington Park, a square mile or so of lake and park surrounded by a gentrified neighborhood of bungalow cottages that reminds us of the midtown neighborhood Lisa rented in when we first dated. The sidewalks are lined with containers of glass, plastic, and paper to be recycled. A street closed to traffic runs the perimeter of Wash Park, as the locals call it, and it’s busy with bicyclers, roller-bladers, joggers, walkers, people pushing baby carriages, and dogs of every breed imaginable on leash. We take Bonnie for a walk and she goes rigid with every fat red squirrel hanging off a tree branch, taunting her. We discover an illegal “dog party” on the far side of the small lake, a dozen or so dogs milling about off leash, sniffing one another and swimming for thrown tennis balls, while their owners compare notes.

Bonnie and Squirrel, Wash Park, Denver, 1995

Bonnie and Squirrel, Wash Park, Denver, 1995

That evening we go to the Tattered Cover, one of the largest independent book stores in the nation. The store is located a couple blocks off of Cherry Creek, a nice –sized stream that runs through downtown and empties into the South Platte. At some point gold was discovered in the creek, which led to the founding of the city. Counting the basement, there are four floors of books, each floor the size of a standard Barnes and Noble. A restaurant sits on the fifth floor. Laid back hippies sell books and dozens of people, people who look intelligent just by context, browse, read, and drink coffee. I pick out The Floater’s Guide to Colorado and a local culture magazine called 5280, after the city’s elevation. Lisa chooses The Insider’s Guide to Denver. “Research material,” she says, laughing. Later that night we snuggle into our small room in our third Motel Six of the trip, lie in bed and read, pausing every so often to share an interesting passage that we’ve found.

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