Spirits Of Denver

There were moments, in the historic Oxford Hotel in Denver, Colorado, when I felt like the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining. Not that I expected to see ghosts of past guests although it may be likely, if you believe in such things, as the hotel opened in 1891 and there have to be a few that never officially checked out.

On the ground floor, tucked away behind McCormick’s Fish House and Bar, is the Cruise Room, an atmospheric Art Deco masterpiece and one of the finest reasons to stay at The Oxford. It was modelled on one of the lounges of the stately passenger liner Queen Mary and opened in 1933, on the day after Prohibition was repealed in the United States.

With the indirect lighting casting an eerie pink glow, it had me thinking of Jack Torrance and all things supernatural. Luckily, the jukebox at the end of the room, despite being something of an anachronism, kept me anchored in the here and now even after a couple of seraphic martinis; the only spirits that possessed me that evening were cold and dry and created from my favourite Ketel One vodka.

Like all great hotels, The Oxford has transformed with the times. It was remodeled in Art Deco style in the 1930s and then updated, with a careful eye to regilding its heritage, in the early 1990s.

The lobby of The Oxford is a time capsule of comfy lounges and overstuffed chairs, antiques and vintage artwork. Near the check-in desk, Rocky the canary trills happily from his cage. Sherry is served in the lobby each afternoon. It was here that local newspapermen would wait in days gone by for passengers alighting from trains at the 1885 Beaux Arts-redolent Union Station just down the block, hoping for a good story.

The guestrooms, cosy with antique furniture, nod to the present with such trappings as Bose sound systems with iPod docks. The lushly carpeted hallways and the thick walls cocoon guests and don’t disturb their rest.

The Oxford Hotel is located in the LoDo or Lower Downtown district which, luckily, resisted the urban renewal that decimated the city in the 1970s. Just around the corner is the Tattered Cover bookshop, housed in a former mercantile building. With a satisfyingly well-rounded range, it has bare wooden floors and beamed ceilings, couches and easy chairs to whittle away a few hours. Free wi-fi and an obligatory coffee shop make it popular with the locals.

Across the road from The Oxford on Wazee Street is Rockmount Ranch Wear. Rockmount was founded in 1946 by Jack A. Weil, who worked every day in the store until his death in 2008 at the age of 107. He introduced the first western shirts with snap fastenings instead of buttons as well as the first commercially-manufactured bolo ties. Today, his family maintains the same traditions, creating western gear favoured by bands, celebrities and movie stars.

The original architect of The Oxford, Frank E. Edbrooke, also designed Denver’s society hotel, the Brown Palace, which opened the year after The Oxford. It’s well worth a visit with its nine-storey atrium crowned by a stained-glass skylight. Every US President since Teddy Roosevelt (with the exception of Calvin Coolidge) has either visited or stayed at the Brown Palace. Guided tours are held twice a week.

Thinking it over, though, there’s really no choice. There’s a shining at The Oxford that has nothing to do with Stephen King. And as I sit in the Cruise Room, the spirits of the past are at rest. And if there is the sense of being watched, a movement out of the corner of your eye or the waft of an unknown perfume, it’s just The Oxford letting you know you’re one of the family.

Words and photos © David Latta

Slopes For Dopes

I’d been skiing moderately, and badly, for years but it was three visits in as many years to the glorious ski fields of Colorado that really fired up my interest and had me determined to progress beyond my halting, tumble-prone snowploughs. The downhill journey was not, however, without some unexpected hazards along the way.

I suffer from altitude sickness and some bouts are far worse than others and the symptoms can be debilitating. Constant headaches, like my skull is wedged tight in a vice and stuff into a metal bucket. At night, I sleep barely more than a half hour at a time, prolonging fatigue. I’m congested and cough up blood (sorry, I should have posted a disclaimer not to read this while having breakfast or pizza or both). I’m a mess by the end of each stay but the exhilaration of traversing those perfect snowfields becomes addictive.

And this from someone with an icy disdain for the cold and the outdoors in equal measure. Yet there’s something strangely satisfying in overcoming the most basic fears of a first-timer and graduating from the beginner’s slopes to the blue runs. Not that my introduction to Vail was all that encouraging.

On the first morning, our group was outfitted with skis and equipment; I was wearing borrowed ski clothes, mismatched pants and jacket that had me resembling someone who’d turned up in fancy dress at a party to find it was formal. I’d warned everybody I was a novice who was more comfortable on a gradient no steeper than the car park. At the summit of the Eagle Bahn Gondola, where the air crackled in my lungs at a height of 3100 metres, the others skied effortlessly off while I perched uncomfortably at the edge of what seemed like a deadly vertical ascent.

Gravity is the most terrifying aspect of skiing for beginners. Being fastened to long slick slivers of carbon fibre, traversing even slicker snow, does nothing for the confidence. I pushed off in a knee-locked snowplough, searching for the safest and most accommodating route downhill.

It took me three hours to reach the village. Without a map, I later discovered I’d mistakenly ventured into the blue runs. Over dinner, the group was horrified but said I’d looked so experienced in my ski gear they didn’t think I’d have any problems. I’m still trying to work that one out.

But I kept at it. Over the course of three years, I skied at Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Winter Park, Steamboat and Copper Mountain. The snow was always fluffy, powdery and pristine; each night, the skies dumped fresh deep loads. On the early morning gondola rides, when the first skiers had carved out their elegant turns on the virgin slopes, and the mountain peaks glimmered in crisp air, the spectacular beauty made me momentarily forget my misfortunes.

The cold can be bone-numbing if you’re not prepared. I became used to donning thermals under the ski gear, and often added a balaclava and beanie under the helmet and goggles. My own mother wouldn’t have recognized me although that may say more about my family than anything else.

Most days I’d spend under the patient tutorage of instructors and a finer bunch of calm and charitable individuals could not be hoped for. Teaching me the firm fluidity of hips, knees and ankles, each working differentially to control the skis, was their ultimate goal. I made the same stupid mistakes that all beginners do but, finally, it became second nature.

And I tamed gravity, although it took enormous effort. Gravity went from being my nemesis to my friend, just as the snowploughs gracefully transformed into parallels and my agonizingly careful crisscrossing of the slopes became more determined downhill runs. There were fewer embarrassing crashes as my confidence increased. Although there’s not much I can do about the altitude sickness, I’m learning to love skiing.

One day, I may even be able to say the same for the outdoors.

Words and photos © David Latta


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