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The People's Republic of Boulder

When I arrived in Boulder it was raining bikes. I couldn't believe it. They even had bikes in the window displays of shops. One of the local real estate agents had a whole rack of bikes outside its premises in its own livery so that house-hunters could cycle to their viewings. Of course, I think bikes are cool but I have never been surrounded by so many other people who agree. For a nation with such a big car culture it was impressive. However, I'm not used to being in the mainstream; how can something so common be so cool?

Boulder has been voted the third most bike-friendly city in the US. The most friendly is Minneapolis, second is Portland (OR), third comes Boulder and fourth is Seattle. However, Boulder is a much smaller city than the other three so it feels like there is a higher concentration of bikes downtown. A city like Boulder is always going to be bike-friendly as so many pro bike-racers and triathletes live here due to the mild climate and access the city has to the mountains for climbing. However, there is more to being bike-friendly than simply bike-path infrastructure. For me a bike-friendly city is one whose people embraces bike culture and advocates cycling simply because it is healthier, more environmentally friendly, cheaper and more convenient as there is no hassle parking a bike unlike a car. Most importantly the city has to feel totally safe as opposed to safe in parts. When you arrive in a city and a lot of regular people are using their bikes simply to get around then you know it is bike-friendly. Bike-path infrastructure is important to help people feel safe in making the transition from car to bike but if most people were pedal-pushing, then cyclists could legitimately be safe on the roads again as there would be far less motorists. Cyclists who drive are familiar with the issues that aggravate motorists and drivers who cycle are familiar of the dangers of cycling. When cyclists and drivers are forced to cohabit the same space this kind of awareness is crucial and reduces the antagonism that one camp has for the other. Boulder is a bike-friendly city and it has strong bike-advocacy but the problem with all American cities is that cars ultimately rule. This means parts of the city still feel frustratingly unsafe and are uncomfortable to cycle through.

Boulder has always been on my radar as it has such a great reputation for biking with long Rocky Mountain ascents to the west and the Great Plains to the east. While the metro-area accounts for about 300k people, the downtown area has only about 100k. Thus, it's a relatively small place, which makes it great for biking from your door. When I asked people about Boulder prior to conceiving any plans to travel, I was told that if you are an Olympian, a vegetarian and a democrat then Boulder is the town for you. Indeed, there are a huge number of athletes in town be they runners, climbers or bikers. Being home to both the University of Colorado and Naropa University (for thinkers) helps anchor the liberal feel of the place. University towns tend to be more open-minded as students come from all over and have very diverse backgrounds. As for the vegetarianism, well there is not a single vegetarian restaurant in town. The last one closed down due to poor trade. Of course, regular restaurants have vegetarian options but I still found the whole thing perplexing. The reason for my confusion is that Boulder has the highest concentration of Buddhists in the US. This fact is possibly borne out of the arrival of hippies to Boulder in the sixties, which likely sparked the laid-back liberal vibe that attracted other people to the town. I couldn't understand how a town with so many Buddhists failed to have a vegetarian restaurant but then I found out that American Buddhists eat meat. I couldn't stop laughing when I heard this, it sums up the country beautifully; America – the land of no sacrifice.

Downtown itself is quite nice and split between the pedestrianised Pearl Street Mall and the Hill. The Hill is located right beside campus and is dominated by students but it does have some cool bars and eateries. Pearl Street is more or less for everybody else, including the lots of tourists who caught me a little off guard. It should not have been a surprise that tourists come here as Boulder really fancies itself as some sort of utopia and naturally people will visit to see what all the fuss is about. Was it paradise for me? Well, It ticked all my boxes. It has a very talented and competitive bike community with great roads for cycling. It is very educated, this fact is not borne out just by the universities but by the industry and enterprise of the people who live here. The influence of the Beats remains strong. Indeed, Allen Ginsberg taught in CU and the creative writing masters there is quite prestigious. There is very much a literary crowd in town. There is also a strong artist community and while it mightn't be on the scale of a big city people in Boulder take their arts and culture very seriously. Another plus is that it is on the Denver bus-network, which means that I can still access all the things I like about a big city very readily. Naturally, I enjoyed the liberal vibe.

However, I sensed something quite paradoxical about Boulder and it was ultimately this which made me head towards the exit. I couldn't put my finger on it at first but I realised that without the universities Boulder would collapse. It would feel very homogenous, which led me to conclude that the town is nowhere near as liberal as it likes to think it is. If you are truly open-minded then all sorts would feel included here but without the universities this would not be the case. It is 90% white and it feels like 90% of the population are either well-to-do or are trying to be. While the town is beautifully nestled right at the foot of the Rockies it is not populated by the kind of unaffected mountain-folk I had grown fond of. It felt very east-coast and this fact bears out when you walk around town and notice the amount of Wall Street banks in situ. There is a lot I like about the east-coast but I find the A-type personality trait that predominates very one-dimensional, narrow-minded, money-oriented and predictable. Yes, they are educated but this is limited to an academic view-point. They are so competitive and so focused that they don't notice all the other good things that give colour and texture to life. This makes their arguments and outlook both predictable and uninspiring. I'm not suggesting that Boulder is east-coast in its thinking but it feels very close. The Buddhist community likely dilutes the intensity and provides some balanced thinking, without them it would be a very different place. Overall it seems like a safe-harbour for east-coast people who want to get out of the rat-race but can't totally surrender themselves to another way of being. Thus, there is an air of arrogance in Boulder that suggests that these people got one-up on New York bankers and lawyers. Of course, to view life as a race simply highlights how stuck in their ways such people really are. The amount of world-class athletes in town reinforces this mentality. Top class athletes are slaves to their own rat-race too and are so focused that they risk becoming uninteresting people.

I am so familiar with this mentality that I react to it now, this makes me a little unforgiving. However, this way of thinking does not bring me any new insight so I try to avoid it within the context of my trip. I prefer to encounter something that is different (although different is not necessarily better). I am certainly not Californian flakey either but for the time-being I need to be part of a different outlook and I am searching for something that is some sort of synthesis of the two. It is hard for me to arrive at strong convictions in just four days, I could totally have misunderstood Boulder. There is definitely something going on in Boulder but to engage it you have to contribute to it. My role as a vagabond means that I don't bring anything to the Boulder table. I think if I came here in a productive capacity that I would probably see it in a different light as I would engage the genuine enterprise and thought that people have here. For the time being I felt that I had no choice but to move on. For sure, I could spend the winter here but I was holding out for something better.

Much obliged to Ed for the wonderful hospitality in his beautiful home. His thoughtfulness, generosity and interest in people's well-being was very inspiring. 

Denver next up


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