I could see the Rockies as I biked to work. They loomed on the horizon, peeking over Denver’s trees and storefronts. It was a great view—one I didn’t have out East. But sometimes I worried that until I had seen Colorado from the side of a mountain, I hadn’t seen the state at all. “If you want to really see Colorado,” my friends told me, “you’re going to need a car.” My bike-seat view wasn’t going to cut it.
Denver, the Mile-High City, may be known for its altitude, but it’s a horizontal place too. The Rocky Mountains line the western horizon, exerting a kind of gravity that draws you up toward the sky and into the distance. My first view outside of the airport was of the pink silhouette of a Rocky sunset. My second view—from the inside of a SuperShuttle—was of the highway slicing the plains on its way toward the city and the mountains. Denver rolls out into miles of flat suburbs, hugged between highway 470 and the Rockies’ foothills.
It took 45 minutes to get from the airport to Washington Park, the neighborhood that would be my home until Election Day. My hosts, Jon and Mary Dreger, were empty nesters who cared about Democratic politics, but had more than done their time door-knocking and making phone calls. That was my job.
They liked baseball and Tanqueray, and had biting senses of East Coast humor, which made me feel at home. After our respective dinners, we convened in the living room to watch the Colorado Rockies play, and usually lose. Jon complained about the team’s owner. “The man couldn’t recognize pitching talent if he was hit in the jaw with a 95-mile-an-hour fastball,” he said once. Mary complained about my varying ability to find their dishwasher. By August we were making each other gin and tonics.
The Dreger’s house was just south of downtown Denver, just outside of walking distance from my job. I was too cash-strapped for a car so I bought a bike. It had thick tires and a sturdy red frame. The man who sold it to me installed the kickstand for free, but only when I asked him to. It cost $50, (or $80 because it didn’t come with a lock) and after two weeks the foam seat’s front had begun to peel off, leaving my crotch unpadded. I didn’t mind. The same thing happened to the seat of my old bike. I knew how to shift weight onto my butt or to stand forward, balancing on my feet. The bike wasn’t svelte enough to steal, and no one in Wash Park would have tried, anyway.
It was a quiet neighborhood. Every sidewalk was lined with a dozen trees. The Whole Foods and the original Chipotle were within biking distance. The café, the yoga studio, and the farmer’s market were too. After months of weaving back and forth I came to know Wash Park better than my neighborhood back home. I memorized the names of every street while gravity taught me their slopes. The sidewalk taught me its contour with the unabsorbed shocks that jumped through my calves. I began to avoid the leaf piles that accumulated on the streets because of the little spines hiding underneath them. (New tires cost $13 at Joe’s Bicycle Shop.) I knew when I had to feather my brakes at the Alameda Avenue intersection and when I had enough space to burst through, just ahead of the passing cars. I biked the same way to work nearly 100 times, falling into a rhythm: always the same way there and never the same way home. It was my little groove in a city where everything was wide.
Walking began to make me impatient. Sitting in cars left me cramped. My bike wasn’t glamorous, but by late June it had become a creaky extension of my body, responding to shifts in my weight and the force of my pedaling. By July I had mastered riding without handlebars. It occurred to me once to give the bike a name. I thought of a few, but they all felt forced. My bike was less a companion than a part of me.
Most of the time, I thought my friends were wrong. I didn’t need a car—everything I needed was within biking distance. But sometimes when I looked up at the Rockies I imagined the view looking down. Colorado is proud of its mountains, and the pride is contagious. One Monday morning, a few of my co-workers were showing off the pictures they took that Saturday at the summit of a fourteen-er, one of the numerous 14,000-foot-tall mountains that surround Denver. They scrolled through their photos, all of which showed them with grins and thumbs-up that were practically accusatory: “You haven’t seen Colorado like this.”
I hadn’t. But that weekend, Mary didn’t need her car and encouraged me to go on a day trip. “You’ve got to see the mountains as the leaves change,” she said. “Wake up early. You don’t want to rush.” So by 9:00 a.m. that Sunday, I found myself in her red Mini-Cooper, with the windows down and the driver’s seat slid back a foot, hurtling down I-70 West towards the Rocky Mountains. I didn’t feel rushed, but everything else was rushing by me.
It had been five months since I had driven a car, and on my bike I had grown accustomed to either pushing against gravity or gliding with it. Mary’s Mini-Cooper, however, scooted up and down hills with the same tap of a foot. My departure was not elegant. Unsure of which path to take, I pulled into the wedge of some interstate fork, offering rapid apologies to cars that couldn’t hear me as I consulted Google maps. Once I untangled myself from the mess of highways, the road began to rise.
As the air grew thinner I could hear my breaths grow deeper. When I opened the windows, I could feel my lips chap and my ears pop. Aspen trees turn yellow in the fall, and as I drove along the mountainsides I saw veins of gold snaking through the forests below. For the stretches where there was nothing between the car and the valley, I hugged the road’s winding double yellow line. “We have mountains out east too,” I had told Jon that morning. “The Catskills, the Adirondacks.” “Oh those little hills?” he’d replied. “I suppose so.”
Most towns I passed had intersections but no stoplights. I didn’t linger at Jenny’s, the breakfast place with a wooden saloon bar and a radio playing Taylor Swift. Guzzling my coffee and grabbing my breakfast sandwich, I headed back to the car. The last buildings I saw in town were the Silver Mountain Antique shop and the Serene Wellness marijuana dispensary.
Two hours and 77 miles later I shelled out $20 to get into Rocky Mountain National Park. I spent the rest of the afternoon there, thumbing through tchotchkes at the visitor center (a postcard for 65¢; a bumper sticker for $1.75) and rubbernecking in hopes of spotting some moose. About a mile from the park exit, a caravan of parked cars straddled the side of the road. Their drivers were snapping photos of an elk herd twenty yards off. All their license plates were from out of state: Iowa, Texas, Michigan. The Ladybug had Colorado plates, but I stopped and snapped some photos, too.
I planned to stop for dinner at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. Mary said it was “very nice.” It’s certainly a spectacle of a place; its balconies are spacious and its roof is a deep red. Inside, men in blazers pace the lobby’s polished wooden floors, glancing at floral arrangements, while women in sleek dresses stop to admire the hotel’s high ceilings before walking up the grand staircase. Parking was $5, the cheapest beers were $4, and the cheapest entrée was $13. I skipped dinner and nursed a Dale’s Pale Ale at the bar outside instead, watching the Bronco’s game and listening to a drunken couple next to me start fighting. Other hotel patrons sipped gin and tonics while their kids sipped Shirley Temples. The longer I sat, the more restless I felt. In a few months, nobody would still be here. I finished my beer and immediately wanted to go home.
I tried to really see Colorado in an afternoon. It wasn’t enough time and it wasn’t the right way. Years from now, the memories will fade and all I’ll remember will be glimpses of stop-lightless towns and flashes of aspen ravines. I wove up and down the mountains, but the car did all the work, absorbing the shocks and bumps of the road and not letting the mountains in. The views were stunning but so short. Most of the time I got only glimpses through window. I’ll always have the photos and the tchotchkes, but the feeling you get looking down a mountain begins to fade when you’re no longer at altitude.
It’s not that way on a bike. On two wheels, you get a different, heightened sense of place. Pedaling by pedestrians and zipping through curb space and crosswalk, you attune to the traffic around you. You’re more aware of how bodies pace and cars lurch: in transit, in tandem—like threads in a fabric en route. It’s nearness unobstructed by windshields or walls. It’s attention undiverted by screens. On two wheels, you’re in the midst.
I will always remember my way to work. The bridge over Cherry Creek. The construction site on Logan Street that became a Trader Joe’s. Colfax avenue, with the liquor stores, dispensaries and homeless people, all in the shadow of the State Capitol building and the cathedral. You remember a place better when you’re not just seeing it, but when it’s part of your way home.
The air is thinner a mile above the world. Plummeting down the 7th Avenue hill, I could feel the air catch in my throat, crisp and cold. I would glide through the green light below, accompanied by the familiar sting and shriek of wind on a windless night. Zipping by the corpulent cars waiting at the crosswalk, I’d turn my head to look at them—their red eyes glowering. For a moment, with my ears perpendicular to the wind, the gusts would quiet down and I could hear the panting and creaking of my body and my bike sending me forth into Denver’s dark and leafy streets.
Nathan Kohrman is spending this winter in Rochester, Minnesota, donning long johns and earning the indoors. Every weekday at 4:30 p.m., he watches Jeopardy with his grandfather. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.