Rocky Mountain Spirit

Once you find your way to Boulder, Colo., residents say, it's difficult to leave.


A newspaper described it as "the little town nestled between the mountains and reality," so it's hardly a surprise that folks here have a pretty offbeat definition of what's normal and what isn't.

Take Amy Ash, a 30-something entrepreneur originally from Baltimore who for the past four years has run Crazy Amy's, a funky secondhand store on Pearl Street. One of the many Boulderites who have come here from someplace else, she was calling her business "Boulder Consignment" until one creative staffer drew a caricature of her on a signboard out front.

"I'm actually quite sane," says Ash, a Catonsville native who moved here for good after living in Atlanta for a couple of congested years. The staffer wrote "Crazy Amy's" on the sign as a joke.

"Pretty soon people were stopping by, buying stuff," Ash says. "They wanted to meet the nutty owner. The name stuck."

If that's lunacy, it's the kind that long ago made Boulder, a medium-sized city at the base of the Rocky Mountains' Front Range, one of the region's thriving cities and tourist destinations.

A university town that boasts 30 art galleries, 362 miles of bike trails and 37,000 acres of protected land, it's appealing for more than just jaw-dropping scenery, outdoor sports and its proximity to Denver 30 miles to the southeast. Boulder is a place where the eccentric and the practical embrace.

Walking down Pearl Street, the lively shopping district, on a sun-drenched autumn day, it's hard to imagine the snowfalls that will soon turn this former mining town into a winter sports paradise that draws skiers and snowboarders to nearby 10,000-foot peaks.

An outside-the-box mind-set is alive and well in the names of shops like Zen and Now (timepieces), Bliss (gifts) and Foolish Craig's (burritos and burgers). Dodging skateboarders, hacky-sackers and fortune-tellers along the way is no easy task on Pearl Street.

Above the rooftops, the upper reaches of the massive, rust-colored mountains the locals call the Flatirons - just a quarter-mile from town - look like coppery fingertips enwrapping the modest skyline.

Boulder, Ash says, is like no other place, in large part due to the natives' quirky elan. Denver, just 40 minutes down the road, might as well be another world. "They have a problem with us there, you know," she says. "They think, `Oh, all those granola-eating freaks.' It's just jealousy talking. Come stay a while. See if you can leave."

Chief Niwot's curse

Such fondness for Boulder goes back nearly a century and a half, if legend is to be believed. It was 1858 when white settlers came to the mouth of what is now called Boulder Canyon and encountered the Arapahos, the native people who lived there.

Their leader, Chief Niwot, greeted them warmly, speaking in English. He shared a peace pipe and cigars.

Five years later, he and some of his tribe were slaughtered by the Third Colorado Cavalry in an infamous ambush called the Sand Creek Massacre.

Before he died, Chief Niwot is said to have uttered a curse: "Whoever sees the beauty of this valley will always want to come back. And their coming back will, in the end, destroy that beauty."

For generations, the chief's words hardly seemed a curse. In 1874, Boulder, a mining-supply outpost, became home to the University of Colorado, which would become its biggest employer. In 1909, the first hotel, the Boulderado, went up; the landmark is still in operation. Between 1957 and 1972, the population tripled, incorporating "back-to-the-landers" who paid cheap rent and skied at the big resorts an hour and a half away by car.

Progressive lawmakers limited growth, added open lands and encouraged eco-friendliness. Today, when CU's 25,000 students are in residence, about 123,000 people live here.

When Ash first came to town, she recalls, she thought the place was too small and moved to Georgia. After several years, she regretted the choice.

"I missed the outdoors," she says. "I missed the clean air. I missed the safety. I missed the winters, where it can snow in the morning, then get so warm and sunny by the afternoon that you can put on a T-shirt."

Such moments come courtesy of the altitude, which at nearly 5,400 feet is slightly more dizzying than Denver's mile-high status.

Ash returned to Boulder, another "victim" of Chief Niwot's curse.

Land of Ginsberg

Tucked in the foothills, Boulder sits on a spot where rolling flatlands meet the Rockies. It's within an hour's drive of Denver International Airport, the Eldora Ski Resort west of town, and the Rocky Mountain National Park.

A quick trip up Broadway, the main north-south thoroughfare, reveals the main CU campus, with its red sandstone architecture. Nearby is the Hill, a historic neighborhood of Victorian homes and restaurants that abuts fraternity row in the shadows of the Flatirons. Cross busy Canyon Boulevard and you'll see the leafy Mapleton section, which once served as a backdrop for the Mork and Mindy TV series.

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