What have you been doing lately? Chances are, not much at all. Between COVID-19, social distancing protocols, unbreathable smoke-and-ozone-laden air and unrelenting heat without Water World, you might be sitting at home, feeling extra glad if you have Netflix and/or A/C.
But idea guys Chris Getzan and Andrew Novick have cooked up something that will get you out of the house safely, in collaboration with History Colorado: The Lost Book of Astrid Lee: A Physically-Distanced Mystery Quest, a month-long immersive scavenger hunt based on what might be the best fiction of 2020. (The hunt runs from August 28 to September 30; register in advance at the History Colorado website.)
Lee, Getzan begins, “came from an old Denver family. Her grandfather, who was a gambler, was one of the people who bankrolled Robert Speer at the turn of the last century. Her father was a professor at the University of Denver, and her mom was a nurse at Denver General. Lee grew up in the late ’50s and ’60s, when the city was going through convulsions of change.
“She fell in love with history when she read Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station , which was all about socialism,” Getzan continues. Astrid left the country for a few years, mostly to South America, and then came back as a grad student and adjunct at DU. She started writing a book about democracy based on what she had observed in Denver, including the activities of her own family. She had very definite ideas about democracy, and called the book Always Something There to Remind Me.
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“In the early ’70s, Astrid set down her book,” Getzan says, “and she never picked it back up again. There were a bunch of different reasons, theories and rumors as to why.” He conjectures that perhaps the Denver Red Squad— Denver police who gathered secret files on dissenters — stole it. Some people surmised that a UFO fanatic ran away with the manuscript — thinking it revealed secrets of outer space. But no one really knows.
“She was depressed,” Getzan adds. “In 1973, the revelation of the bombing of Cambodia left her with no hope for democracy. Astrid Lee disappeared in 2018. She got on a train and never got off again. Then in the last year or so, a building got knocked down off of Bannock Street, and a manuscript was found in a footlocker in the building. Researchers say the book is absolutely remarkable — what Astrid wrote in the ’70s was predicting issues that we have now.”
But, Getzan notes, four chapters were missing — "Democracy in the Workplace," "Current Forms of Democracy," "The History of Organizing in Unions and Other Movements" and "The Democracy of Movement and Migration" — according to an index found with other pieces of the book.
That's the origin story of what Getzan and Novick are turning into an interactive game. “Andrew is the history buff, and I love a good mystery,” says Getzan, exuding the cheerful hope that others will want to sleuth their way through a combination of both to find the missing chapters.
“We are putting out a call at end of August — at noon sharp, Friday, August 28,” he explains. “People can pick up a dossier containing Astrid’s backstory and clues as to where these missing chapters are at only three Denver locations: History Colorado, the Whittier Cafe and Fifty-Two 80’s.”
Getzan is careful to note that the chosen quest will unfold in a leisurely way. “It’s not a thing you blow through in one weekend.” Rather, it unravels over a period of weeks. “People will be directed via clues to different locations all over Denver.”
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Along the way, would-be detectives will find original art by participating local artists, discover special Denver businesses and nonprofits, and observe beehives, pro wrestlers and other unexpected fun. Most important: Folks will learn something about democracy — the hidden point of the whole exercise (and a nod to History Colorado, where the Smithsonian exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith opens on September 12, just in time for a big election season).
Remarkably, safety is built into the hunt for clues, Novick adds. “One key thing to note is that this can be done in an isolated way. You go get your dossier with companions from within your own safe bubble, and then you can go and research and sleuth all these things without having to interact with anyone else.” And it’s not a race, he reminds us. “It’s open to as many people as possible. Everything is by timed reservation, and you don’t even have to start at the beginning. You can skip a week if you need to.” Plus, there will be prizes on many levels: “The discovery process is a prize. When you solve one puzzle, you learn something you didn't know. And there will be physical takeaways along the way, too. The things people find and see and watch will be interesting and entertaining.”
“Part of this seeing the city with new eyes is seeing possibility again, with people getting together and taking corrective action," Getzan adds. "Because of COVID, everything — what we thought would be cool in the course of history — has gone away this summer. One day, people who search for Astrid Lee's book will say, ‘2020 really stunk, but I got some cool art on one weekend. Everything was weird and different, but I got something — I got the toy at the bottom of the cereal box.'”
The Lost Book of Astrid Lee, a self-guided, socially distanced, episodic mystery quest hosted by History Colorado, runs August 28 through September 30 at various Denver locations, with weekly clues leading to the next pursuit. Participants can start with the first week for the complete experience or join in along the way. Participation is free and begins with registration in advance at History Colorado's website.