Photo collage: The view from my hotel room. No mountains visible this morning.

I took a trip to Denver recently to meet with a client. A few inches of snow fell the night after I arrived, and the temperature dropped somewhere below 10F. But then the sun returned, with some gusty winds, for the rest of the week.

Funny thing: in Baltimore it’s super humid, more or less all the time, thanks to the Chesapeake Bay. In Denver, it’s dry. I had to keep chapstick in my pocket and reapply it almost hourly. I used the whole tube of lotion the hotel provided, coating myself every day in protective ooze like a hibernating frog.

The upside of the dry air, though, is that the cold doesn’t bite as bad. 20F air in Denver is a different story than 20F air in Baltimore. That was, at least, one vaguely impressive claim I could make about the weather back home, while I shivered under all my layers, wheezed in the thin air, quailed at the steep cliffs, and embalmed my chapped face.

Photo collage: I could see the mountains again once the snowstorm passed.

The topography of the area is fascinating. I’d never seen the Rockies before, and I’d kind of assumed they’d be bigger versions of the Appalachians I grew up in. Rolling foothills and hollers that rise to high ridges.

But no: Denver, Boulder, and the surrounding area is mostly flat prairie. If you stand on a street in Boulder, facing south, there’s endless plains to your left and a 15,000 foot wall of rock to your right. It feels like you could walk west and, if you didn't watch your step, you could stub your toe on the mountains.

A topo map of North America seems to tell a similar story. The East Coast rises gently from the water, then the Appalachians form a speed bump in front of a low plateau. From there, the Great Plains stretch across the continent until they’re suddenly interrupted by the Rockies. How did that happen, exactly? Is there a fault running along the border between the high plains and the mountains? I thought the continental plate stretched from the East coast to the San Andreas fault further West, but maybe I have that wrong.

Something got the sheets all rumpled out there, but I don’t know what. In John McPhee’s amazing Annals of the Former World, there’s a section on the Rockies and the Midwest that I should probably reread.

Photo collage: a train crosses a bridge with a grassy field and lumberyard in the foreground

On the last day of my trip, I had no meetings and an evening flight, so I had some free time to wander around Denver. My hotel was in the “RiNo” neighborhood, short for River North Arts District. I mostly walked around there; lots of shops, restaurants, and beautiful murals.

My friend Taylor, who lives in Denver, told me that the surrounding neighborhood, called Five Points, had been a working-class, industrial, and historically Black community — nicknamed the “Harlem of the West.” Around 2005 the city decided to rename a chunk of it, using the “Arts District” phrasing, I suppose, as a kind of lure for developers. Many existing residents were pushed out thanks to the soaring rents that followed. Here’s a nice writeup that digs a bit deeper into the history of RiNo and Five Points.

The neighborhood reminds me of the Station North district in Baltimore, which has a similar industrial-modern look and a similar history of gentrification and red-lining.

Photo of a mural on the side of a building in Denver's RiNo neighborhood

Beautiful murals all over town.

All in all, I really enjoyed my time in Denver and would love to go back sometime. My one disappointment was that I didn’t get to see a moose in the wild. That’s on my bucket list. Maybe next time.

Getting a ride to Boulder

Getting a ride to Boulder