Freckled Face and Eats No Meat are here to meet me off my British Airways plane. The airport walls are draped with framed pictures of the first settlers of the Rocky Mountains and their kinsmen and women.
I climb through the terminal, a mile high, and rising fast. I wasn’t expecting this.
But this is Denver, and this is Colorado where the Father of the West, Buffalo Bill, is remembered and buried, looking out from Lookout Mountain onto the Great Plains.
Yes, that Buffalo Bill who brought the Wild West to Europe with his troupe, the Congress of the Rough Riders of the World. Big claim, big man, big history.
And I will immerse myself in it and the pioneering and free-spirited peoples of this gateway city high up in the Rockies.
How high? A mile high.
There is a rarefied feel to life up here, closer to the skies, the mountains and the sun. You quite literally have to catch your breath.
And if that means drinking only half the booze you normally would and twice the water, then so be it. As our guide points out, it’s a cheap date.
Not that thin air slows Denveronians or Coloradans down – exactly the opposite.
Athletes converge on the Rockies to train so that they can be twice as effective when they come back down to sea level.
And the locals like nothing better than spending their days rock climbing, free-hand in some cases, riding the waters, cycling town and mountain tracks, and skiing, both winter and summer. I witnessed one enthusiast skiing beside the road, unperturbed by the lack of snow.
And when they’re not doing that, they’re running their own organic restaurants or developing a new craft beer.
They’re invariably vested, often with a tattoo sleeve, a trendy beard and a man bun. Yes, Denver, is hipsterville, but that also means it’s laid-back, easy-going. And their city symbol is only a big 40ft Blue Bear sculpture who leans onto the Convention Center. This place is seriously funky.
So, where to start in Denver? Where the West started…. with the railroad.
Denver’s Union Station was built in 1891 (the early pioneers were drawn here by the prospect of gold in them thar hills) but the station burned down after a fire in the ladies’ restrooms (no comment).
Union Station, on 17th and Wynkoop Streets, has gone through many iterations since, but the current one dates to only a few years ago and achieves a flavour of the Old West, particularly with its frontage and its bold and stylistic bronze-coloured sign: ‘Union Station Travel by Train, as well as it plush interior of boutique shops and restaurants and its elegant Crawford Hotel.
A charming welcome for any visitor, as is 16th Street Mall and its free tram which is a Godsend to any traveller, weighed down by luggage, and uncomfortable with the vagaries of Uber and out of whack because of jet lag.
I’ll ride this tram with all the excitement of of a child hopping on and off an escalator over the few days I’m here.
I’ll stop intermittently to hang a right and check out the arterial street Wazee with the impressive Coors Field stadium nearby on Blake Street, home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team, ten years old this year. I’ll also check out Wynkoop Street where I pass a sports bar one night where they were playing volleyball in the outside area.
And I’ll always use the Daniels & Fisher Tower, at 350ft, the highest tower west of the Mississippi at the time of its building in 1910, as my anchor.
Built in the image of St Mark’s Campanile in Venice, it is topped off by a four-faced clock from where you get the best view of the city and the surrounding mountains, although you have to book to get to the top.
With time short, I was lucky enough to enjoy a vista of my own from the top of my hotel, the Sheraton Denver, off 16th Street Mall, while the view is not bad either a couple of floors down from the heated outdoor swimming pool.
The best view in Colorado though is the one Buffalo Bill enjoys from atop Lookout Mountain over the Great Plains. If you only have one day to spend out of Denver, and make sure you do, head for Buffalo Bill’s museum and graveyard in Golden, Jefferson County, before taking in a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
The first thing to say is that, yes, you have come to the right place. Probably!
There is a right old territorial ding-dong still raging today, well worthy of the Wild West between the good citizens of Cody, Wyoming, the town Bill founded, and Golden, Colorado, near to Denver, where he died (and we know that for certain).
The Wyoming folk claim Bill had always wanted to be buried among them but that the Coloradans bribed and cheated them into getting Bill’s body – while the Coloradans claim that Bill’s family fulfilled his dying wish to be buried in their stage where he could look out onto the Plains.
Whichever story you believe, it gets dafter when you hear the Wyoming claim that they pinched him back and replaced him with a vagrant.
As large as Buffalo Bill looms in death, it was nothing compared to his reach in life.
It is no exaggeration to say that Bill was the biggest celebrity of his day.
He took Russian royalty on a hunting trip, had Queen Victoria dip her hat to him when he toured England, the first time a monarch had acknowledged the Stars and the Stripes since the Colonies had broken away 100 years before, and on his death in 1917 had King George V, Kaiser Wilhem and President Woodrow Wilson pay tribute.
But the best tribute to him came – as it generally does – from those who play and those who pay.
Buffalo Bill was a prodigious performer and his Wild West show coming to town was the event of the year, and he took his retinue up and down the length and breadth of the UK and northern Europe, though regrettably not Ireland.
And it was no small thing, hauling around cowboys, Indians, Irish lancers, gauchos, Mongols, Arabs as well as herds of cattle and buffalo and stage sets to re-enact great battle and buffalo shoots.
But he did, and he loved it, both those who worked for him and those who came out to watch him.
And that would include the women, the celebrated Annie Oakley among them, whom he insisted were paid the same as the men (wonder if that’ll ever catch on).
And the Indians who never held an objection to being referred to as such. Like all of us, they were more worried about just being treated equally and with respect, earning what they were worth, and being allowed to live in peace and protect their homes and family.
Sitting Bull, the greatest of them all, said it best.
He explained: ‘And when there was peace he was our best friend. Did he not talk to the Great White Spirit in Washington and help us? Did he not get food for us when we were starving? Did he not give us money from his own hands that we might live? No, Pahaska (Buffalo Bill) has not been our enemy. He has been our friend.’
And still is.
It started as an Indiana tradition, to throw a nickel coin engraved with the head of Bill’s friend Iron Tail onto his grave, and now we all do it.
With half a million visiting every year, it’s a lot of coin.
I do the same and stunt up for a picture with my head on Bill’s body (and Annie Oakley’s too).
I have channeled my inner Buffalo Bill, and now it’s time to gt out on the range for real.
How to get there: Jim flew Are Lingus Dublin-London return and British Airways London-Denver return. Try €1,461.72 as a paired economy ticket for sample dates of July 12-19 (subject to fluctuation). Irish airports allow you pre-clearance from customers before you land.
Where to stay: Sheraton Denver, 1550 Court Place. King bed pp. per night is $229. Visit http://www.sheratondenverdowntown.com.
Eat/drink: Denver is haven for lovers of food and beer (and whiskey and wine, though not together!). VisitLarmier Square. Try the buffalo and the craft beers. Face Down Brown Ale does what it says on the tin.
This article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail in June 2018.
And look out for A night at Red Rocks… and Jim rides off into the sunset in Colorado.