BOULDER, Colo. — Boulder brags about its 300 days of sunshine each year, which is why I felt vaguely alarmed one afternoon last July. As a passenger in an airport van snaking its way up from Denver International Airport into the Front Range of the Rockies to this hippest of hip college towns, I saw storm clouds gathering.
By the time the driver had maneuvered through the 40,000 breathtaking acres of preserved open space surrounding the city, which is nestled in a bowl 6,000 feet above sea level, and had dropped off three more passengers, the black skies had erupted into a ferocious rainstorm with booming thunder and crackles of lightning. Two passengers later, though, things had quieted down and by the time I — the last passenger to be dropped off that day in a quiet neighborhood a few blocks north of downtown where one of my twentysomething daughters had just moved — the sky again was a majestic blue and the sun was shining.
“Oh, don’t worry about the weather, Mom,” said my daughter over a pasta dinner that night in one of the Pearl Street Mall’s trendy restaurants. “They call that the monsoon. It happens a lot in summer. Late afternoon. Then it’s over.”
Summer was never a season I associated with visiting Boulder — or spring or fall for that matter. As a Bostonian, I always thought Boulder was a place to go to in winter, because you wanted to ski. But my trip there was a revelation and Boulder — in summer, spring, or fall — offers the nonskiing traveler not only breathtaking scenery and miles of hiking and biking trails, but also fine food, three bookstores, hip night life, one of the oldest Chautauqua cultural communities in the United States, historic sites related to mining and the settling of the West, great shopping, a Buddhist university, and concerts, art exhibits, lectures, and a Shakespeare festival at the University of Colorado’s 20,000-student campus. It’s also the most laid-back of sophisticated places — inhabited by aging hippies, young hipsters, college students, and, as it becomes a technology innovation zone, an increasing number of technology companies and software professionals moving there for “lifestyle reasons.”
The first day, my daughter, an avid hiker and marathon runner, suggested we climb Mount Sanitas, which is — literally — around the corner from her house and a short walk through her cozy neighborhood of single-family and duplex houses set into pretty gardens. If you turn left out her front door and walk a few blocks, you arrive at the trailhead of a substantial mountain. But what I found particularly great about Boulder is that if you walk out the front door, and turn right, within a few blocks, you also find some of the comforts of civilization — a great Italian restaurant, an organic supermarket, a bakery with delicious croissants and café au lait, and an Irish pub with local craft beer.
Our hike took about four hours and although there were, for me, some moments of huffing and puffing, the exertion was within reason and the payoff at the top was jaw-dropping: mighty, snow-covered mountains as far as the eye could see, the Rockies, not the Front Range anymore.
What you learn after a few days in Boulder is that this is, as one health magazine deemed it, among the healthiest towns in America. It seems as if everyone here is on the move.
Along Boulder Creek, which runs through the center of town, there is a scenic path for walking and in summer, adults and children can be seen tubing through town. Surrounding Boulder are miles of running and biking trails and farther afield there is rock climbing and horseback riding.
Pearl Street Mall, a pedestrian-only center of town, opened in 1977, the same year Boulder adopted the so-called Danish Plan, the most powerful of many longstanding local laws adopted to protect views of the mountains and preserve open space. Extending nine blocks, it is a treasure trove of great shops and restaurants, without urban noise or honking horns. With parks in the center and children running through waterfalls and sculpture gardens and street musicians and outdoor yoga, it pays homage to the late 1960s, when Boulder was the destination of choice for many pot-smoking hippies from the East. Yet Pearl Street Mall today has visitors from all over the world.
One of my last days in Boulder, I joined my daughter and her fiance at the 41st annual RockyGrass Festival, an annual bluegrass festival held in a canyon, beside a flowing stream, in the neighboring town of Lyons. From Boulder, I felt we had driven — in 10 miles — to the wild West. A lot of people wore cowboy hats and boots and the festival drew people from all over the West, with acres of lots parked with tents and RVs and camping sites decorated with laundry drying. We sat for hours on the ground, drinking a few craft beers and swaying to the vibe. Folks were tubing down the river and the canyon was struck red by the setting sun. Some of the folks my age, I wondered if I had seen them before, maybe in1968 in Harvard Square. It was a time when a lot of young people moved to Boulder and they never came back. Suddenly I understood why.