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The Hometown Tourist: Boulder, Colorado

A writer rekindles her love for her city by adopting a tourist's mind-set

By Robyn Griggs Lawrence | August 27, 2012

I’m standing in the doorway of a new local farmhouse pub, checking out the small plats du jour: a chilled roasted turnip, smoked mulefoot pork, buffalo sweetbreads and a duck liver mousse pate doughnut. Should I go in? The food will be delicious, but this menu and the West Elm décor bore me. I’ve eaten enough house-cured charcuterie, and I won’t touch another piece of kale, even if it’s fried.
 
Clearly, I’ve lived in Boulder too long.
 
This epicurean wonderland lays claim to a lot of mosts per capita, including Ph.D.s, Olympic athletes, used bookstores and Buddhists. Another “per capita” boast I’d be willing to bet on is that we’re second only to New York City in restaurants. Eateries multiply here as quickly as rabbits — locally raised, of course, and found on so many menus. Named one of U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Healthy Places to Retire,” Boulder consistently tops lists of happiest and healthiest cities.
  
Bon Appetit named Boulder “America’s Foodiest Town” in 2010. This year Gallup declared it the nation’s skinniest city. That should tell you all you need to know about this place. We take food and exercise equally seriously. And we’ve mastered the art of extreme balance.
 
Paradise Under a Cloud of Smug
 
This town of 100,000 people and 95,000 bicycles offers access to the finest of everything. In the mid-19th century, explorer Isabella Bird wrote, “The climate of Colorado is considered the finest in North America, and consumptives, asthmatics, dyspeptics, and sufferers from nervous diseases live here in the hundreds of thousands.”
 
Today, with the imposing Flatirons as a movie-perfect backdrop and 300 days of unadulterated sunshine a year, we have nine award-winning microbreweries, 19 bike shops, a 79,000-square-foot Whole Foods with several satellites, 41 yoga studios and, curiously, the same number of medical marijuana dispensaries. (The latter are open to anyone with a state-approved “mmj” card, which has spawned an unlikely population cluster of young men with chronic pain.)
 
Music here rocks. We have the Boulder Theater, the Fox, Red Rocks Amphitheater and the wooden auditorium at Chautauqua Park, which Melissa Etheridge has described as “like playing inside a guitar.” Jazz and bluegrass bands regularly perform in coffeehouses, and Boulder Baked serves the best cupcakes (in a town that’s now full of them) until 2 a.m. (Insider tip: They deliver.) We have miles of trails to hike and bike and a creek that’s fun as hell to tube down.

Life is good in Boulder. As for those people who call our town “25 square miles surrounded by reality,” they would do well to remember who enacted the first indoor-smoking ban, in 1996.

(MORE: If I Could Live Anywhere, Where Would I Go?)

How I Wound Up in Boulder
 
I came here two years before the ban, to study with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. (Yes, that is really its name — you can’t make this stuff up.) Ginsberg died, I got pregnant (and quickly discovered that Boulder Baked delivers), and instead of becoming a poet I took a job editing a magazine about green homes. (No surprise: They’re big here.)
 
My kids went to a Waldorf-based arts-integrated public school where they listened to Michael Franti and called their teachers by their first names. I traveled the continent, shooting houses in some of the coolest and crunchiest cities, but I never found a place I’d rather live in.
 
Still, 18 years is a long time. I’m not as excited about the Pearl Street Mall, our main drag, on a summer night as I once was. I hardly ever drive up Flagstaff Mountain to catch sunsets or hike the Mesa Trail anymore. I feel like I go to the same places, see the same people and have the same conversations about yoga instructors and genetically modified food. I make snarky comments about kale.
 
I need to rekindle my passion. So I decided to spend a full day and night playing tourist in my adopted hometown and experiencing the place with fresh and open eyes — with the “beginner’s mind” that befits a Naropa dropout.
 
Cheap Lunches and Inner Critics
 
What more auspicious start to my reawakening tour than Tibet Kitchen, a hole in the wall across from my would-have-been alma mater that came up when I Googled “cheapest lunch in Boulder.” I order curried chicken and fried rice ($5.37) and feel pretty good about the bargain. A photographer who’s there shooting for the Daily Camera declares the momos (Tibetan dumplings) the best in town.
 
Down the street, at the Boulder Public Library, I look for but can’t find an exhibition about water conservation that I read about online. I check out a hallway exhibit of ceramic finger puppets titled “The Inner Critic by 27 Local Artists.” I sense that I need to see this display more than I need to learn about water. I guess it is true that all who wander are not lost.
 
I find a labyrinth carved into a sunny field just west of the library, near the pavilion that’s popular with Boulder’s transients. It sits next to Boulder Creek, where a one-legged man is sitting in the shade and throwing a ball for his dog and a woman is splashing with her naked toddler. I feel a little silly about walking the labyrinth, but do it anyway (because it’s there).
 
As I head back past the pavilion, two guys are yelling about settling things with knives. Their loud, angry voices are alarming. Setting aside the Jon Benet incident, we just don’t have much crime here. What makes headlines are controversies over displacing prairie dog colonies. But I guess even Boulder has a seamy underbelly.

(MORE: Road Trip: Finding America's Heart Driving Cross-Country on Route 6)
 
Hidden History: Mork & Mindy, Moonshine, Medical Marijuana
 
I’ve wanted to ride on Banjo Billy’s Bus, sided with reclaimed fencing and topped with a pitched tin roof, ever since I watched Billy fabricate it out of a school bus on a street near my house in 2005. His 90-minute tour promises to reveal things I don’t know about Boulder, so I shell out $23 for a ticket, even though I think I know it all.  
 
Turns out I don’t. I didn’t know, for instance, that Scott Carpenter, the astronaut who went to the moon as part of the Apollo 7 mission, grew up on the corner of Aurora Avenue and 7th Street. Or that a single block across from the University of Colorado was home to 12 medical marijuana dispensaries before the state passed a law banning pot shops within 1,000 feet of schools last year. (Now students pedal into town to their choice of 41.)

Also news to me was that the former president of the Boulder’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union was arrested for selling moonshine to university students in 1930. (I think I know what she'd be selling them today.)
 
I ask our tour guide, Chris “the Preacher” Johnson, why the bus doesn’t swing by Mork and Mindy’s house on Pine Street, a Boulder landmark. He says too few riders these days know who Mork and Mindy are. Unconsciously, I clutch my heart.
 
So Boulder: Farm-to-Truck Comfort Food
 
My friend Katrina has been asking me to do a Soul Sweat class at Alchemy of Movement for ages, and this seems the perfect excuse to give it a try. I’m clumsy in the dance class, but we work up a good sweat. We deserve a (healthy) treat. And I know just the place.
 
I had found the Heirloom Mobile Food Truck when I was Googling cheap lunches. Run by John Campbell, a friendly chef who worked at Nora’s (the country’s first certified-organic restaurant) in Washington, D.C., Heirloom serves “farm-to-truck” street food like lamb sliders and goat cheese gnocchi. Tonight is extra-lucky, because the truck is parked at Upslope Brewery
 
We order pork belly banh mi, soba noodle salad and chocolate cake, which we enjoy with pale ales in the brewery’s lively Tap Room. Before he drives the truck away, Campbell pops in to chat. Next week he’ll be serving bratwurst topped with macaroni and cheese, he announces. It’s someone’s birthday, and the whole place erupts into song.
 
Chocolate, Tea and Shaved Kale
 
There are still things to do and see, so I invite Katrina to join me for a second day of touring. At the Boulder History Museum, a stone mansion near the university campus, we learn about Niwot (Left Hand), the Southern Arapaho chief whose name is on a lot of Boulder landmarks. Niwot lost the land that is now Boulder to the “spider people” who came to mine gold, coal and tungsten. He was killed in the Sand Creek Massacre.
 
After that, we drive down the hill to the Boulder Farmers’ Market, one of the country’s biggest and best. You can buy anything from pickled eggs to soap made from tea here. Today peaches and kale are wilting in the hot, hot sun, and everyone’s looking for shade. Katrina and I score two seats under a shelter, where we listen to the band and eat vegetable dumplings in lime-soy sauce from the Sisters Pantry booth. 
 
At Piece, Love & Chocolate on the west end of Pearl Street, we savor salted dark chocolate caramels with gooey centers and talk to the owner, Sarah Amore, while she populates a mountain-shaped wedding cake with skiers, hikers and bikers in the boutique’s open kitchen. I reject the temptation of a molten chocolate with espresso (too hot out!) and consider buying a bottle of chocolate balsamic vinaigrette — but not at $20.
 
As we continue our wanderings, we have a most serendipitous moment: We discover that the Dushanbe Teahouse, a downtown landmark, is holding its 14th annual Rocky Mountain Tea Festival. A gift to Boulder from our sister city in Tajikistan, the elaborate teahouse sat in boxes for eight years while locals figured out where and how to build it. Now it’s a thriving restaurant with a sommelier-worthy tea selection just south of the Pearl Street Mall. Katrina and I join a workshop on mixing cocktails with tea, and sips of Tangerine Bourbon Sours and Orange Blossom Mojitos whet our appetites.  
  
We head up the street to Oak at Fourteenth, which consistently tops Forbes’ and Food & Wine’s “best bars” lists. As we watch bartenders in bow ties carve ice balls for purple and pastel drinks that are artful masterpieces, we scan the appetizer menu. I can’t talk Katrina into the wood oven–roasted beef marrow with anchovy chimichurri and Easter Egg radish, so we settle on tomato-braised meatballs with Anson Mills grits.
 
Katrina asks the bartender for a recommendation. He says the shaved apple and kale salad is very good.
 
I love this town.
 
Robyn Griggs Lawrence is the author of Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House and co-author of 7 Steps to a Safe, Nurturing Nursery. Every once in a while she writes a poem and thinks of Allen Ginsberg.