After an Upside-Down Year, Denver Blossoms at Elitch Gardens

Elitch Gardens is back in action.
Elitch Gardens is back in action. Brandon Marshall.
On Saturday, May 22, tornadoes touched down east of Denver and warnings of thunderstorms and hail dinged on my phone. I didn’t blink when I read the news. Danger? Who cares? It was my first day back at Elitch Gardens with my kid, who had been grumping through the pandemic that the park was closed, and twisters and torrents were the last things on our minds. What’s a little bad weather during a plague?

But as clouds came in and lightning struck somewhere not too far away, the rides closed for a while and the throngs scrambled for turkey legs and soft pretzels the size of a pig's head. Me and my kid? We had our first Dippin’ Dots in nearly two years and sat on a bird-shit-stained concrete bench, watching all the people who'd spent the past year fearing we were on the brink of a civil war come together for a day at the park.

Yeah, an insurrection happened. And riots. And mass death from this disease. But for those who could manage to scrape themselves from their screens, Elitch Gardens offered a spot to engage in a consumerist frenzy as American as apple pie. And to simply enjoy, which we did as the warnings lifted.
click to enlarge Life's been upside down, but Elitch Gardens is back. - PHOTO BY KATE RUSSELL, COURTESY OF MEOW WOLF. ART BY KENZIE SITTERUD.
Life's been upside down, but Elitch Gardens is back.
Photo by Kate Russell, courtesy of Meow Wolf. Art by Kenzie Sitterud.
A man with a “Red White and Pew Pew Pew” gun-lovin’ T-shirt stepped in line for Meow Wolf’s Kaleidoscape, the psychedelic ride that still smells like wet paint from the brushes of all the DIY artists commissioned to create it. A woman with a Black Lives Matter bag had two children in tow: one who wanted to go home and another who wanted to stay all day. They struck an agreement to stick it out.

Christians with crosses dangling over their chests and Muslims wearing hijabs tried to keep their straying broods in order. Whatever Jews were there weren't being particularly observant; it was Shabbat, after all. But a few of us were playing hooky from days of rest to whirl around in nauseating circles, a type of ecstatic prayer unto itself.

And then there were the goths with upside-down crosses and gang teens with sagging pants and crisply ironed red or blue shirts and cosplaying adolescents dressed like anime characters and tank-topped sports fans from warring teams and the teenagers, fit as pro boxers, bouncing between sparring and making out.

Cultural and ideological differences — the kinds that boil on social media, rip families apart and, we’re told, could destroy us altogether — disappeared in a melting pot of sorts, a fryer of fun and fear and grease that fixes us all together.

Whole families were having reunions — strained conversations in sluggish lines, cousins impatient to shriek together. “Where’s Uncle?” one kid asked. “He had to work," said his aunt. The kid frowned and then went back to tinkering with the paint on a rail dividing the lines.

The ride operator of the Spider had a cackle that scared the bejeezus out of tween girls ready for a spin. “You look nervous,” he said. “Why do you look nervous?” They giggled and looked away, hating every moment of conversation.

click to enlarge People arrive at the park, eager for a day of lines. - KYLE HARRIS
People arrive at the park, eager for a day of lines.
Kyle Harris
Screams echoed through the park, from roller-coaster riders trembling in joyful terror and stroller-bound babies wailing at the noise of the rides.

Everybody waited in lines. Everybody talked about waiting in lines. And at the end of each line, we’d get rewarded with something sweet or a ride, and then we’d go stand in another line, moving on to the next delicious experience to consume.

Stomachs ached from pizza and funnel cakes, the drained brains and erased minds, and the swirl of spinning teapots. One woman held her hand to her mouth, struggling not to spew.

Teens snuck puffs of weed, hiding their pipes in oversized jackets before hopping on a stallion on the carousel. One tiny kid fell off, hit his head, stood up and darted off to play — never mind a possible concussion or shattered skull. Injuries hardly matter when you're having a good time.

Children carried stuffies twice their size that their parents had won for them. Parents held sleeping toddlers like Pietàs, tots drunk on corn syrup, limbs dangling like dead Jesus.

Every now and then, someone would take a squirt of hand sanitizer, mercifully devoid of scent but oddly sticky, like lube. Social distancing wasn’t much of a thing, despite plenty of signage, but some people wore masks...most half-heartedly under their chins.

The last year has been a wild, painful ride. But it hasn’t ripped us apart entirely. At Elitch Gardens, all the very different people who make up this community of Colorado were in full bloom.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris