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Fear and Loathing in Denver

Beatnik nostalgia.

Denver to me meant Hunter S. Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. It existed in books alone, as brief home of the Beats, and tantalisingly close to Woody Creek, once the ‘fortified compound’ of Doctor Gonzo. I had no real idea of what Denver would be like, except that temperatures would be well below zero, the air thinner than an anorexic’s waist, and that I was invited to the premiere of Wayne Ewing’s The Outsiders of New Orleans.

So, armed with that knowledge, I rolled into Denver at midnight, with no place to stay, having stumbled off a train after a forty hour journey from San Luis Obispo, having freaked the shit out of many a passenger by telling them the two painful truths of my trip: that I was travelling a thousand miles to catch a movie, and that I had been living in a barn for the last few months… Oh well, some folks just don’t get the luxury of barns, sleeping crooked-necked on Amtraks, and subsisting on a diet of dehydrated cranberries…

Denver was not cold at midnight in the middle of November. Not any colder than Central California had been, anyway, and nothing like a brisk winter chill back home in sunny Scotland. I had gone out in preparation and bought a World War II trench warfare jacket, as used by the troops training in the Rockies in the dead of winter… And I was wearing it over a t-shirt, a jersey, and another warm jacket. I also had on a hat, a scarf and a pair of gloves. Below freezing? I was fucking roasted alive as I walked past the Coors stadium, a piece of paper with the address of a hostel in my hand.

I knew fine well that hostels closed before midnight across the world, but I still hoped maybe I wouldn’t end up sleeping in the gutter in Denver, getting sodomised by some angry homeless man. Indeed, I was right to worry, for as in any American city, I seemed to draw an outrageous amount of attention from the vagrant population, who watched me and followed me and talked about me, and so I was constantly driven to keep my head down and walk quickly and purposefully.

Which is not an easy thing to do when all you really know is that you’re looking for a number of a building on a street that stretches for over a mile, and none of the buildings seem to have numbers, so you just keep walking back and forth until it get to about two am and you finally find the place locked… I looked about, seriously considering a night on a park bench or in some soft gutter, but instead just hammered away at the door, afraid of trespassing on someone else’s gutter-spot.

“Where are you from?” a gruff voice boomed down from the second floor window. It emanated from the head of an old man who appeared to be tied into some kind of breathing apparatus. I was surprised even from my vantage point to hear such a loud voice.

“Scotland.” I replied, quietly, as I could see the locals beginning to stare and ponder whether or not they could have their way with me before my predicament was resolved.

“Where are you from?” he asked again, and again and again and again until eventually he gave up not hearing me and buzzed me in.

I pushed the gated metal door open and received a massive electric shock for my efforts. I thought it was some kind of joke, but later found that everything in the hostel had an electric current running wildly through it, and I became used to receiving brutal jolts of blue magic.

I signed into the hostel in the old man’s bedroom, sitting silently with his wife as he wheeled his breathing machine around and wheezed and struggled to talk. I guessed the effort of shouting down had utterly worn him out, for his voice was now no more than a harsh whisper. I gave him the money for one night stay, plus a deposit I would never get back. I knew that then and I didn’t give a fuck, but a dump like this was enough to tide me over and I’d have paid anything for not receiving a street-bumming and losing my laptop to some homie.

I crashed for the night in an electric room, exhausted after my forty hour sitting session and brief stroll through the streets of ‘whores with hearts of cheap gold’.

I woke and realised that the night had been acceptable: I’d slept and that was all I’d wanted. After spending half an hour on the internet, I realised that there was no way out of Denver I could get after attending the premiere, so I had to book another electrifying night in the Melbourne. I ran into town and found an ATM, then ran back in time for the ten am check-out time, and booked another night.

Then I walked back into town, determined to have a good day, and knowing from my online research that I’d be getting the six am bus out of Denver the following morning. It would be a short stay, and I wanted to pack as much in as possible. This was the stomping ground of Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg, and Doctor Gonzo had spent more than a few nights in the city, too. I had a list of Beat sites to see, but I never intended on a structured program of touring. In San Francisco, I’d made firm plans and stuck to them, and I’d seen what I’d wanted to see, but suffered brutally for my efforts. That trip had been a bit of a disaster, but Denver would be short and sweet and spontaneous.

I stopped for coffee at Caribou, and then walked down the 16th Street shopping mall, digging it in its morning-quiet state of intrigue. The Christmas decorations were up and the shops were ones I’d mostly never seen before: Colorado chains and tourist traps. I walked to the end of the mall and sat in the park between the Capitol Building and the State and County Building, watching squirrels and hobos bask in the sun, and writing crude poems in my little notebook. The city was stunning from where I sat, and I was more relaxed than I’d ever been in San Fran. And sitting there, I knew I was where Kerouac had watched bats and Ginsberg had contemplated madness.

After a while I stood and walked into town again for lunch in a cafĂ© next to the big town clock. I used their WiFi to check Google Maps, confirming where I was going next: The Tivoli at Denver University. It didn’t seem too hard to find.

And it wasn’t. I found it, waited around outside, and then watched The Outsiders of New Orleans in a room full of guys in Hunter S Thompson get-up, drinking Bloody Marys and clutching grapefruits. After the film I talked to Wayne Ewing and arranged a tour of Thompson’s home for the next day. I also agreed to go to a directors’ party in the evening.

My purpose for the visit complete, I took a walk back into town, up Larimer and dug Cassady’s street in all its modern nothingness. Now it was somewhere between poverty and affluence, and utterly without character, but back in the hazy Beat street days of Denver delinquency, it was skid-row all the way from top to bottom. It was once nothing but bars, pool halls and pawn shops, and was now bars, but somewhere between classy and faux-classy reminiscence.

I walked back across the city and into the Colorado Natural History Museum, where I conversed with an Iranian security guard after hours about the state of America. I loved it, he loathed it; but we could both agree that things were rather fucked up. I hesitated to ask him why he had come here if he didn’t like America or Americans, or even why he’d stayed for five years, and why he thought he had the right to complain so aggressively if the country had accommodated him for five long years… But instead I listened as he told about his learning Japanese in order to move to Japan and start a new life in a friendlier country. As I left, he drew me a map of places not to go after dark in Denver, and I bid him farewell.

Somewhere and at sometime during the day, my phone had died. The battery was dead and I was a bit screwed. I needed the phone because it had all my phone numbers stored in its memory, and it also served as an alarm clock, which I needed for getting up at five in the morning. Luckily, I had Wayne Ewing’s business card, so I would able to call him from a phone box in a sketchy little park.

But the phone wouldn’t work, and kept giving me bullshit directions on how to operate it, but my knowledge of US area codes and phone operation was not up to scratch. I decided to walk into town and try another. I needed to call him to get the address of the party. No luck. There are few public phones these days, and the ones that do exist are generally broken and pissed on by a weird and depraved breed of Americans.

I headed back to the hostel, intending to get dinner later, on my way to the party. But when I used the hostel phone, all I got was his answer phone. Shit. I was tired from having walked around the city all day, and starting to think that maybe going to a party was not such a tempting idea. It seemed a waste to have travelled a thousand miles and not go, but tomorrow would be an eventful day…

The problem for tomorrow lay in the fact that it hinged on my contacting Wayne Ewing and arranging to get to Woody Creek. I did a spot of online research and could find no way of getting there on my own, and if I did manage to get there, I could see no place I could stay. I couldn’t risk getting trapped out in the mountains, but if I waited until the light of day to get plans hammered out, then I might be forced to spend another night in Denver. It wasn’t a bad city, but I was done. Next up was Woody Creek or something else.

I could hardly afford the trip, either. The whole thing was mounting in cost with every passing hour, and one thing I’d learned was that travelling could save money in sleeping, for if done right you could combine the two and avoid paying for accommodation.

I phoned Wayne a few more times and kept getting the answer phone, so I thought ‘Fuck it,” and decided to take the first train out of Denver the next day. I wasn’t about to get lost in the middle of nowhere with no money and no phone. So I made up my mind and thought about dinner.

I sat in the kitchen of the Melbourne hostel and debated my options until a pretty Australian girl appeared and made me dinner. She knocked up bacon rolls and green tea and we sat and talked about America and the years it turned out she’d spent in Glasgow. Eventually, the subject came around that she was going to Aspen in three days, but that she wasn’t really sure how to get there. She reckoned she’d probably have to pay for a private ride out, which had certainly seemed to me to be the only realistic way of getting there.

After a few hours she went to bed, and I kept sitting around until a Chinese guy came through and we got thoroughly wasted on a crate of Corona he’d bought. We talked about computers and business, and he told me that he’d come to Denver to work a minimum wage job, even though he had a degree in Computer Programming. Poor bastard, I thought, but good luck to him.

I went to bed and slept in two minute sessions, on and off, until four in the morning. It was ridiculous, trying to use my own body as an alarm clock in the absence of my phone. The bald fuck-head across from me was snoring like an asshole, too, and I kept falling asleep and dreaming of murdering him, and then waking and hearing him and regretting that it was only a dream and that I didn’t have the balls to actually kill the fucker… What would it matter, anyway, as I was fleeing the city in a few sweet hours?

I woke when I woke and went to Caribou for some more strong, black coffee, and talked to the young black guy behind the counter about life and Christmas. He was a damn fine gent of a man, and I left with a smile on my face, a coffee in my hand, and a newspaper under my shoulder, deciding that I’d go to Arizona and see what the craic was…

David Wills

David Wills is the editor of Beatdom magazine, literary journal devoted to the Beat Generation.