Written by River Wharton
Images by Trevor and Sarah Ann Noel

Looking up, I understood the glass high rises stretching from Union Station to the North Side as signs of achievement. Half-empty boxes for traveling hordes of Millennials looking for a location close to the city, but not quite part of it. I no longer recall what was once there. Train tracks, warehouses, and the old viaducts? This is no longer the prairie. There are no cherry trees at the creek’s confluence. Arterials have clogged from overpopulation. The stench from the Purina dog food plant wafts through the city depending on the breeze. Amidst the grime, the pollution, and the dust, there is a sparkle. A glimmering of possibility.

I notice it in the clear waters of a high mountain stream. The sun catches some metallic mineral in the river rocks. In the space between trees, under a light canopy, in bird song, and bubbling brook, the mountains become a place to unwind. Or rewind. Or wind up for the anxieties of the week. We made a pact early on to explore every corner. Each trail is a passage away from what we can not face. The name of a friend’s album is the same way we think of the weekends: there are always second chances in the mountains. The price of travel is on the rise. I think of reasons to stay behind.

People do not stay behind here. The Queen City of the Plains: a place to rest and fill your packs before traveling West. All roads lead out of Denver. Boulder. The Rocky Mountains. Mineral County. These places are named of stone. Sitting on the jumping rock, a friend says, “Communities grow with the need to exist in close quarters.” There is no one around, his voice carries across the lake before he jumps. One down, who is next? Of all the leaps I’ve made, which one was best?

It is Spring and the city is beautiful this time of year. Two dozen irises bloom in the alley. Rains come fast and hard and cold. Tulip petals are torn away from their stem, revealing the pistil. Most mornings hang cool air to dry. My neighbor waves hello from her garden bed to every passing dogwalker. This is not New York. Not quite L.A. This is Denver. I’ve lived here thrice. Where the dust never settles, trainyards are always half full, everything continues—unsettled. Denver has again become lonesome for her heroes.

Each drop of rain is a blessing, every hailstorm? A curse. My mother is out in the worst of it, garbage pail lid held high over her head to protect from the stones. From the kitchen window, I watch as a child. She pulls plastic sheets over her crop. The suburbs are a blight on the city, but my neighbor has a sheep and a pig on their lot. Our dogs cower from the thunder. She returns with a few strawberries and turns on some music against the night. Our city sacrifice is to live amongst others. The strange and crass and obscene. A friend tells me, “People are the same everywhere.” It has to be true. They are, there are, only people. Are we alone? A friend texts, “I have been baking lemon poppyseed scones all morning while it rains. Drinking far too much coffee.” Are we just lonely?

With daffodil and tulip and poppy, with fresh cut grass, with coconut oil and budding ash, even stale beer and tequila and sidewalk vomit, the chest of the city heaves in the violent bloom of early Spring. Each day is warmer than the last. Less snow, more sandals. Fewer jackets, more bikes. Garlands from the meadow have been draped across our campsite. I would like the seasons to know we are here together. The dried, prickly pumpkin stems of Autumn fit neatly in our hand. Winter’s menace, passed out dolefully in sporadic storms, gathers us together. Summer streams are tickled by our bare feet.

The poets sing of lilacs. Leonard Cohen mentions them twice. First, famously, in Beautiful Losers, “I cannot understand why my arm is not a lilac tree.” The second instance in the popular song “So Long, Marianne” where he sings, “We met when we were almost young / deep in the green lilac park. / You held on to me like I was a crucifix, / as we went kneeling through the dark.” Interestingly, Jeff Buckley, who famously covers Cohen’s “Hallelujah” sings in drunken stupor for a lover in “Lilac Wine”.

I fell between some rows of lilacs, green and violet, flush in eros––shared between the vernal equinox and summer solstice. What remains in a lilac’s imprint? After violent scents recede, their blooms will shrivel in the sun. Summer rose bushes replace the puberty of Spring. Streets clog with nowhere cars; unknown audiences cast lots before the drama of the Rockies. Littered trails near murky water. Drinking heavily, we play games in the park. In the evening heat, I think, “Years are measured by blizzards and blooms.” Three years now.

Three years ago I had lost my voice. The nights were long and hot. Before the crowds, before the bistros and pop-ups and food trucks, I rode past old liquor stores without craft beer and paper bag bottle bus stops. Neighborhoods where no one knew our name. There in the quiet streets, under cottonwood campgrounds, and nude dips in watering holes west of the divide, there despite the dust caught in cracks of granite, I found a voice in the hidden soft earth of garden beds and less traversed trails.

A garden once existed across the alley from my first apartment. Hidden from the neighbors and the street, dandelions bloomed in hundreds before we tilled the land. Swarms of stinging bees rushed the gate at new arrivals. The tenants from our building each had a plot where squash and tomato and sweet peas grew. I took the compost there with my roommate, clearing away winter’s debris. At night we talked on the roof, her teeth bared and gleaming from the moon. She told me the names of the trees, she called them the Old Masters. I was convinced she was possessed by some unearthly creature. We watched the sun pass through animal clouds, smoked on the tar roof of the old bordello we then called home.

Leave a comment