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Take an end-of-the-summer road trip down Colorado, Denver's boulevard of dreams

Colfax may be America's longest main street, but Colorado Boulevard has it beat by miles. It's a highway through the heart of the country, missing beats here and there where development detoured the straight lines envisioned by the pioneers who staked out the West — pioneers like Casper Hartman, who platted Park Hill in 1871 and named Colorado Boulevard.

Today, Colorado gets its start up north, where Weld County Route 13 — which cuts through fields of sunflowers and drilling rigs and hopeful real-estate signs offering up old farms for future subdivisions — is prettified into a boulevard, heading south past the fancy lighting and median plantings in Frederick and the folksy community bulletin board and covenant-restricted communities of Thornton before suddenly being swallowed up by E-470 and the belching factories of Commerce City. But Colorado Boulevard makes a comeback — and how — in north Denver, passing warehouses and golf courses and museums, then rushing into a mad mash of old stores and strip malls and even a strip club. And at Denver's southern line, it leaves commerce behind, threading through golf courses and churches and more covenant-controlled subdivisions before disappearing again at the High Line Canal.

Even then, though, Colorado Boulevard does not give up. It re-emerges as a country lane, picking up speed and turning into a busy four-lane boulevard before plunging past C-470 and into the anonymity of Highlands Ranch — where it finally hits the end of the road.

As the summer season draws to a close, we've taken our annual road trip, this time along Colorado Boulevard, a stretch that Jack Kerouac traveled in his own epic road trip decades ago, when Colorado was as colorful as any stretch of asphalt in this state. For our previous trips — along Colfax, Broadway, Federal, Sheridan and Alameda — cruise here.

6:22 a.m. 1595 South Colorado Boulevard

I used to come to this address a lot, used to spend many late-night hours drinking coffee, reading spy novels and scribbling in notebooks at what was once an all-night Village Inn. I was a regular here, because not only was this place open all night, but it was a great spot for collecting stories. Not the kind that make it into print, necessarily, but stories just the same.

This Village Inn was where the dancers from Shotgun Willie's up the road would come when they got done humping the pole — looking for coffee and pancakes and a place to unwind. Some Diamond Cabaret dancers frequented the place, too, as well as girls from a couple of the other, less savory clubs around town. Like night-shift cops and C-shift ambulance crews, these ladies knew each other; it's a small sorority. Bounty hunters, skip tracers, bikers and drunks, they were all regulars. College kids studying, club kids getting weird with the sugar packets and shiny silverware, lonely old men who would filter in during the dark hours looking for a little warm glow of humanity. It was like one of those watering holes in the jungle — the ones where all the animals come together in wary peace to drink after the sun goes down, predators and prey standing shoulder to shoulder and flank to flank, keeping one eye on the water, one eye on each other in a fragile tranquility. One sharp movement, and everyone would scatter.

But as long as the peace held, it was a great place — a weird place, sometimes a dark place, always a vivid place where even a blind man could've seen the sparks that jump from rubbing worlds together. I'd been there so many times I probably could've found it with my own eyes closed.

Until, of course, it was no longer there. I actually drive clean by the address on the first pass — have to pull a U-turn on the quiet street and come back around again before finding the familiar lot and my familiar place in it. My Village Inn is gone, replaced three months ago by an IHOP. I would chalk this up to just another bit of scrambling Colorado Boulevard gentrification but for the fact that gentrification generally involves the improvement of an existing neighborhood, and the opening of an IHOP has never improved anything save, perhaps, one of those bump-on-the-highway towns in central Missouri where even the bumps come dear. An IHOP could open in the middle of the Marrakesh night market and it would be, hands down, the most boring square footage in all of Morocco.

Inside, everything is bright light and polished fixtures — an eternal morning full of exhausted, forced smiles from the bored night servers, sickly sweet boysenberry syrup and Rooty Tooty Fresh 'N Fruity breakfast plates. I sit in the booth that used to be my regular observation post. I order coffee just like I used to, pull out an old paperback spy novel just like I used to. Through the spotless windows I can see the parking lot outside, my car the only one in it, and Colorado Boulevard beyond. From my seat, I count the cars, watching the street starting to come alive as a true dawn breaks in the face of the false one burning all around me. Jason Sheehan

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