2012 Road Trip Photos #13: Denver’s 16th Street Mall, with Good Money After Bad

After our extended lunch at the Buckhorn Exchange, we spent the late afternoon of Day Four in and around the 16th Street Mall, a 1¼-mile-long stretch of street tiled over for use exclusively by pedestrians and free shuttle buses. This sounded like a novel concept to us, but in person it wasn’t too different from the “lifestyle centers” (the new euphemism for outdoor malls) that we have back home in Indy, despite being four times their size. The constant (and free!) shuttle buses were a wonderful touch, though.

16th Street Mall, Denver, Colorado

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2012 Road Trip Notes on the Go, Day 4: Dallying in Downtown Denver

After our big day up in the mountains, a day down in the city seemed an appropriate counterbalance.

As all Denver tourists are required to do, we checked in at the west side of their gold Capitol Dome, where one of the steps allows visitors to experience the sensation of standing exactly one mile (5,280 feet) above sea level. It’s not an impressive height compared to the mountains, the nearby skyscrapers, or even the several steps above that step. What makes it special is that moment when you know you’ve achieved math-geek precision in physical form. Unless you hate math or measuring, in which case it’s just an ordinary stair-step with a large label on it.

Our first indoor activity was a tour of the Molly Brown House, former home of a two-time boat disaster survivor. The century-old brick exterior blends in with the other houses compacted into the same block, but the interior was, for its time, a forward-thinking modern marvel of electrical wiring, indoor plumbing, and exotic-artifact-based decor. While feasting our eyes on her collection of unusual items (my favorite was a genuine bearskin rug, just like in cartoons), we also learned about her crucial involvement in the early development of the juvenile justice system, and in the creation of the Dumb Friends League (a common-knowledge name in Denver, far more amusing to us foreigners from other states).

We also saw the second floor, which has a wide space where Mrs. Brown would invite bands to come play, opening the window so their music could waft out the window for the neighborhood to share, or for large outdoor parties to enjoy. This same window offered a gorgeous view of the Rocky Mountains and the Capitol Dome before office buildings were inconsiderately built across the street in later years and ruined everything.

As her husband’s eventually considerable earnings afforded her the opportunity for private tutelage and intellectual pursuits, she also amassed quite the book collection. I managed to note the names on her large collections of Dickens, Thackeray, O. Henry, Balzac, Bret Harte, and Memoirs of the Courts of Europe before I dropped my pen and watched in horror as it rolled against the wall behind an antique plant holder. Fortunately the docent was gracious enough to help me navigate a path to it without contaminating anything priceless. She very nicely overlooked my faux pas, as did the other tour-group members — a mother and daughter from Austria, and two men from Bloomington, in our very own home state of Indiana. This isn’t our first what-a-small-world vacation moment, but they’re always one of our favorite kinds of surprise joy.

The tour ends with the obligatory backroom of Titanic commemoration. One interactive portion allows children to write down their answers to the question, “What do you think we can learn from the disaster of the Titanic?” The most sensible answer I read was, “To make more life boats.”

The gift shop is expectedly well-stocked with all imaginable Titanic books (including one fictionalized trilogy!), Titanic merchandise, Titanic documentaries, and several copies of Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. If they had copies of that one James Cameron flick on hand, I overlooked them.

From there we headed several blocks due west to the Denver Art Museum. With limited time at our disposal, each of us picked one section for the entire group to visit. My son, fan of all things Japanese because of how much more awesome they are about everything they have ever done in every field in all of existence compared to us losers from any other nation, predictably selected the Asian section. Highlights included various hand-painted screens, ridiculously intricate bamboo carvings, and line-art pieces by 19th-century artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi that reminded me faintly of the delicate works of early Frank Miller.

I picked the Pacific Northwest Native American section, because all museums east of the Mississippi seem to feature arts and crafts by the same five or ten tribes, and I was curious to see what else is out there. I wasn’t disappointed as I beheld totem poles, argillite tools, unique masks, and other samples from tribes such as the Tlingit, the Haida, the Inupiaq, and the Kwakwaka’wakw, which I dearly, truly hope isn’t pronounced “wocka-wocka-wocka”.

My wife randomly chose the pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art section — again, not sections we typically run across in our usual stomping grounds. Much of what I perused was all about Catholic imagery, but I had to raise an excited eyebrow at one room that positioned paintings of Christ next to Mexican paintings about chocolate. This was one of my new favorite museum rooms of all time.

We had to leave the museum early for a lunch reservation at the world-famous Buckhorn Exchange, century-old establishment, proud possessor of State of Colorado Liquor License #1, servers of exotic game dishes, and displayers of numerous stuffed animal heads. Restaurants like the Buckhorn, with or without grand taxidermy, are several levels above my pay grade under normal living conditions, but we decided to splurge just this once. Speaking only for my own meal, I can say that quail was a delicious main dish, especially in its pear/apricot glaze; the game tips in a sort of Stroganoff sauce were an appealing appetizer; and our server was courteous and very engaging. By and large, I personally was content. Outnumbered by those who agreed to disagree, but content.

The remainder of our afternoon was spent wandering Denver’s downtown 16th Street Mall. Basically, it’s a downtown just like any other large city’s, except several areas are zoned off for pedestrians only, and shuttle buses carry shoppers from one end of the mile to the other, with impressive frequency and for no charge. The shoppers themselves were a gratifyingly wide variety of all possible demographics racial, social, economic, or otherwise distinctly categorical — tattoos next to ties, business suits next to nightclub wear, and mohawks on all ages from six to sixty. We’re more accustomed to The Way Things Are in Indianapolis, where particular malls and shopping districts tend to be more about birds-of-a-feather than about all-just-getting-along. On the other hand, I’ve never witnessed an actual arrest in one of our shopping strips back home, but I’d like to think the high young man we saw being accosted by four officers next to a waiting ambulance was an aberrant exception.

The stores didn’t look radically different from back home, unless Japanese fast food or Filipino stands count. The only two buildings we entered were a Colorado gift shop, at which my wife fulfilled most of her souvenirs-for-relatives checklist; and the free tour at the Federal Reserve Branch Bank, which requires a thorough security exam before you can enter and view three minutes’ worth of exhibits. At least they were nice enough to offer visitors free bags of shredded out-of-circulation money. I was thinking they might make great pillow-filling, but my wife was thinking further ahead to their potential as Christmas stocking stuffers for our nephews.

After our legs were once again worn down to nubs, we returned briefly to the hotel, relaxed and regrouped, and then ended our tourism day with a crowd-pleaser of a dinner best summed up in two words: Smashburger encore! Having discovered their fine product on Day 1 in St. Charles, MO, by popular demand I searched online for more locations for the benefit of those who’d experienced lunchtime issues earlier. Imagine our surprise to discover Denver is the Smashburger’s hometown.

And they all ate happily ever after.

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