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As we fly over the Rockies, the view is crags and glistening peaks pushing up through thick snow. The mountains give way, and we come out to the vastness that Jack Kerouac called the great sea-plain of Denver. We are heading for a poetry therapy conference, and to see how the mile high city plays with the imagination.
The first day is a threshold ritual in the form a group tour. It's good to get oriented to the landscape and invite new imagery into the creative space. The jostling busload of kindred spirits heads up to Lookout Mountain, high above the city. We wander among ponderosa pines in their winter splendor. Pristine flurries seem to come from the heavens. As we hike toward the vista point, our feet make a gully through the light powder. The reward for our trek is a steep canyon panorama with rock face beaming through a white frame. We are a gaggle of poets on an outing. We have come to open ourselves to nature, and let its vitality seep through our fingers and pens.
In the lodge, an old-timer holds up a large bullsnake. It wraps around his arm and looks right at me. A long tongue darts out in full serpentine flare. The snake is the charmer this time. We are mesmerized by this slithery shaman who can pass between the seen and unseen worlds. Is he inviting us to taste some new forbidden fruit that will reveal yet more knowledge of the mysteries?
The next stop is the Red Rocks Ampitheater. The venue is a confabulation of massive sandstone formations showing off for the ages, and a place for fleeting songs that touch our hearts. The blending of the ancient and current can engrave itself on memory. A concert lasts a few hours, but the experience lodges itself in some inner archive.
But we are not here for a performance. The audience today is just rows of snow-covered benches. I step out on stage and sing a few notes to check out the acoustics. I am standing where the Beatles belted out, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. Wonder what John Lennon thought of the illuminated boulders surrounding the proceedings? Of course, John is gone now, as is George. For that matter, Paul and Ringo will not last forever. But the rocks will be here. Stone doesn't much notice bands or travelers. If you have been around to see dinosaurs come and go, you might not be all that impressed with what a great beat Ringo lays down.
It's a bonding experience to go sightseeing with old friends. When we get back to the conference center, the larger event formally begins. Memories surface from attending these gatherings over the years. This is our scholarly tribe. It is not just a symposium, it is a homecoming. The colleagues are a kindly bunch. It is always affirming to be with good souls who appreciate the inner life. I treasure people who can describe heartbreak so well it reveals an essential elegance.
As usual, our parallel agenda is to see literary sites. Jack Kerouac liked Denver. We track down the grave of his close friend Neal Cassady, better known as Dean Moriarty in On the Road. The still unmarked spot is in the big old Catholic Cemetery. I lie down on the plot to commune with his rowdy energy. Being amidst all the marble angels reminds me of Kerouac's comment that the classic Beat novel is... really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found Him.
Well, Kerouac found the novel in Denver. It was in a local park, watching a baseball game that he wrote down the notes that became On the Road. The tale of travels begins with his alter ego Sal Paradise heading for Denver. And there in the blue air I saw for the first time, far off, the great snowy tops of the Rocky Mountains. I had to get to Denver at once. Neal's hometown became the hub for quests in search of the soul of America. Kerouac's stream of conscious style came from the long rambling conversations he had with Cassady on the highways and in the bars.
As I write these words, we are waiting for our food at their favorite watering hole. The joint is at the corner of 15th and Platte. It's a survivor of saloons from the boisterous days when mining wealth built the frontier city. There are pictures, letters, and articles about the famed wanderers on the back wall. The waiter is nice enough to give me a copy of a missive Cassady wrote from prison asking a friend to pay his small tab at the bar. Neal was even hustling while doing time.
It's in Denver that Jack and Neal listened to bebop with Allen Ginsberg. The account of hanging out with unemployed cowboys and drifters is infused with a bouyant sense of adventure. Mostly, On the Road is a report on friendship. I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was Wow!
We check out Writer Square downtown, named in honor of the Beats. The fine Victorian buildings on nearby Larimer Square have now become a fashionable cluster of cafes and boutique shops. This area was skid row where Kerouac and friends played pool with locals. I walked around the sad honkytonks of Curtis Street; young kids in jeans and red shirts; peanut shells, movie marquees, shooting parlors. Beyond the glittering street was darkness, and beyond the darkness the West.
In my teens, I sat around coffee houses and jazz clubs reading Kerouac. In those years of trying to find myself, there was comfort in the sorrow that runs through the beat canon. Like many young seekers, I felt some kinship with these lost souls. It seemed profound at the time. They railed against the deadness of the culture, while fighting their own demons. Of course, there was a great haze of drugs and booze involved. Through it all, Kerouac managed to see his friends and random barflies as gallant figures. Cassady and Ginsberg weren't just pals, they were intrepid explorers of unseen worlds.
Anne and I are both grateful Allen Ginsberg was so kind to us. We got to know him late in his life. He was doing a series of writer's retreats for Pacifica. We helped coordinate the events, and got to study with him. He set one of Anne's poems to music. It came out as a blues song.
In Howl, Ginsberg went on about the best minds of his generation... who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver & waited in vain, who watched over Denver & brooded & loned in Denver and finally went away to find out the Time, & now Denver is lonesome for her heroes.
We take in some other local sights. We have lunch at an outdoor gear shop the size of a city block. It's like a theme park for backwoods explorers. Hanging out with the handsome creatures evokes the big mountains. I have mixed feelings about animal neighbors becoming trophies, but the displays do let us glimpse the magnificent beasts up close.
The big cat hovering on the upper ledge reminds Anne of the mountain lion she saw walking down her street late one night. She was walking home from her car. She wanted to stop and stare, but thought it wiser to continue quietly on her way. Apparently, the visitor was looking for smaller prey. Santa Barbara nestles up against big foothills, so we are very aware of our animal neighbors.
On one of our excursions, we stop by the Victorian mansion of the Unsinkable Molly Brown. She survived many hardships, including the Titanic disaster. The impressive lion greets us exuding the kind of confidence that characterized the lady of the house. Just being around the exuberance seems to be catching. The home is a temple to the vitality of the Wild West. America is still energized by the ambition of those who came to make new lives in this wide open landscape.
Maybe Molly Brown is still stirring up the place. We talk to famous local psychic Dennis Huff, who insists the house hosts significant paranormal energies. I tend to think in more metaphorical terms, but can imagine lively events in the old days. Mostly, I find myself missing Debbie Reynolds and revisiting her star turn in the musical film of Unsinkable.
Late at night we check out the majestic Union Station. This massive terminal is where many of the settlers arrived from back East. Trendy eateries have replaced the Harvey House Restaurant from the early days, but the old globe lights still show off the period decor. Major train stations are glorious shrines to travel.
As with a pilgrimage, outer movement can encourage inner discoveries. I usually find out the real reason I have gone to a place about a week after returning. This time, it is to be reminded that the imagination is not the private property of places thought of as the sources of great art. Creativity is where you are.
Our final big adventure is a trek back up Lookout Mountain to visit the Buffalo Bill gravesite and museum. My mentor, Joseph Campbell was profoundly influenced as a boy by attending the Wild West Show when it came to Madison Square Garden. The demonstration of an Indian encampment fascinated him. This was where Campbell got interested in mythology. His studies of Native American lore began a life of scholarship. Sometimes an event meant as entertainment provides inspiration that changes a life.
The museum has treasures from the spectacular touring company. We relished the displays about Annie Oakley and her exhibition shooting. She was one of the first women to become an international celebrity. In the 1950s, a television series about her was popular. We were both fans of the show as children. The fictionalized adventures had a big impact. For Anne who shares the name with the Western heroine, she became an exemplar. In real life, Annie Oakley held her own and would not be dismissed as a woman in a tough profession. Born in a log cabin, she personified pioneer virtues, like courage, skill, and tenacity.
On our last night, we go dancing at the fabulous Mercury Café. The regulars are friendly. We do our favorite swing dance moves to the hot big band. The lights are a festival of stars. It is a goodbye party worthy of our quest.