"We come back to Denver in triumph," says Maggie Renzi, the producer of Silver City, John Sayles's new movie that premieres here on September 10. "We pulled off something pretty miraculous. We started to shoot a movie last September, and we're coming back with it in September."

Not only that, but they started to shoot a movie in Denverlast September, bringing this cinematically starved city a film project with major prestige, if not a big budget.

Oh, and about that $6 million budget. "We pulled the money out of thin air and have managed to navigate the distribution system," Renzi adds. "Not only can we show our film, but we have a fabulous distributor, Newmarket." That's the same outfit that distributed The Passion of the Christ, and on September 17, it will give Silver City, a political film noir, an impressive rollout in major markets across the country.

But first, Silver City will glitter in Denver. The day's events start with a lunchtime appearance by John Sayles at the Denver Press Club, followed by a Sayles book signing at the LoDo Tattered Cover at 3 p.m. Steve Earle will support the effort with an in-store performance of songs from The Revolution Starts Now at Twist & Shout at 5 p.m., then offer a thirty-minute set before the 7 p.m. screening of the movie at the Paramount Theatre.

Proceeds from the showing benefit the Rocky Mountain Progressive Network and Colorado Conservation Voters, and the evening features not just Sayles and Renzi, but also stars Mary Kay Place and Michael Murphy and a special appearance by Dickie Pilager, the grammatically challenged Colorado gubernatorial candidate at the heart of the Silver City mystery. (See Bill Gallo's take on the film.)

"It's always fabulous to come back and show a movie in the city where we made it," Renzi says, "but it's so exciting to come back and show it in a city where there will be so many people who were involved. Normally, it's a handful. Here, it's a hundred.

"And they'll be very proud of what they've done," she adds. "If that's not a triumph, what is?"

Ash is feeling a little bit under the weather, so I'll be taking charge." So says Shaun (Simon Pegg) to his valiant crew of appliance salespeople, but if you don't get the real meaning, you're probably not part of the target audience for Shaun of the Dead. Ash, for the benefit of readers who are woefully uncool, is the jut-jawed hero of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies, played by Bruce Campbell. By invoking his name, Shaun the character and Shaun the movie are cheekily throwing down the gauntlet, reviving the zombie-comedy genre with a distinctly British vengeance.

The sharp-eyed zombie fan may also spot subtle nods to George Romero's Dead trilogy (yes, more subtle than the film's obvious title pun), Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and possibly more, but fear not: Shaun of the Dead is its own thing and doesn't rely on a lazy pastiche of references to other films. It has Peter Jackson's seal of approval, and those of you who were fans of Peter Jackson long before such fandom had anything to do with elves and dwarves should know what that means.

Director Edgar Wright and star Pegg are familiar to British audiences from a sitcom called Spaced. Haven't seen it, but apparently Pegg's persona on that show as a slacker twenty-something is quite similar to his role as Shaun, although it has to be said that Shaun looks a wee bit older than 29, which he professes to be (Pegg is actually in his mid-thirties). With wrinkled brow, receding red hairline and goatee, he looks more than a little like comedian Louis C.K.

The social satire of Romero's Dawn of the Dead and its recent remake are amped up here, as the suburban London area in which Shaun resides is inhabited by people who already wander around in zombie-like trances, due generally to sleep deprivation, alcohol or plain boredom. Shaun spends all of his nights at a local pub called the Winchester (the social equivalent of a mall, meaning that Dawn of the Dead fans know where this is going) with his fat slob of a best friend, Ed (Nick Frost), who likes to play video games, pass gas and say things like "You know what we should do tomorrow? Keep drinking!" You might wonder what Shaun's girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), sees in her man, and indeed, so does she, which is why she breaks up with him the night before zombies start to take over the world.

Aside from the title, we've seen the signs coming. TV broadcasts in the background talk about a space probe; people flee down the street; a convenience-store fridge is covered in bloody handprints. But Shaun and friends are in too much of a stupor to notice or care; the first time they see a zombie, he and Ed think it's a drunk girl and try to play goofy pranks on her.

The zombie threat is taken seriously, for the most part, though a final coda scene crosses the line into pure camp. The humor comes from the way stereotypical North London folk might react to such an absurdly frightening situation. Shaun's mother (Penelope Wilton) is a particularly amusing case study in stiff upper lips, solving everything with a nice cup of tea and saying of a zombie encounter that "they were a bit bitey." At the other end of the social scale is Ed, whose T-shirt reads "I Got Wood" and who fights his first undead by throwing Prince records at them. When Ed and Shaun launch into an impromptu drunken singing session of Grandmaster Melle Mel's "White Lines (Don't Do It)" with a zombie inadvertently adding the harmonies, it's a classic moment, in large part because "White Lines" seems like such an odd pop-cultural reference for English slackers to begin with.

Shaun of the Dead is good, goofy fun, but given the attendant hype -- not just from Peter Jackson, but also from Harry Knowles, who's been talking it up for nearly a year now -- there may be a danger of excessively high expectations from horror fans. So let's be clear: This isn't an all-out gorefest, and Shaun is no Ash in the slapstick-caricature department. There are no running zombies, either; Wright and Pegg have gotten back to the basic slow, staggering things (although there is one in a wheelchair, which is a neat sight gag). Think low-key. Think sarcasm. This is an English film, after all.

Just one minor plot point that irks, and it probably wouldn't be bothersome at all if the filmmakers hadn't taken pains to make the threat feel real. If you're in a car, driving through streets filled with zombies, and one of the people in your car dies and turns into a zombie, is it really the best idea to get out and walk? Thwarting expectations is one thing -- and Shaun of the Dead frequently does so very well -- but guys, when there are five of you in the vehicle, why not just toss the damn zombie out the door?

It was the steak knives at the Capital Grille that really got to me. They were beautiful, utilitarian works of art with gleaming, sharp blades laser-etched with the restaurant's logo near the forte, perfect balance, full-tang handles and black grips cold-riveted with bright steel. On the table, they had the look of good Wustoffs; in the hand, the solid weight and seriousness of professional Henckels. I loved them so much I wanted to steal one, only I'd forgotten my bag and didn't like the thought of smuggling out something so sharp in my pants.

My lunch at this four-month-old steakhouse was a last-minute thing. Unprepared, I'd wandered in off the street because it was there and I was hungry. I wasn't dressed for it, hadn't done any of the research I usually do before making my first commando-style pass at a restaurant. I just walked, bumpkin-like, up to the front door, gazing slack-jawed at the pretty glass-and-steel arch over the entrance to the four-and-a-half-million-dollar building that finally filled that last ugly gap in Larimer Square, and thought, "Geez, this place is purty. Please don't let me be the only one without a tie."

I was. Well, the ladies in the crowd weren't wearing ties, and the waitresses in their oversized dun-colored jackets weren't wearing ties. But the hosts and floormen were. The bartenders had crisp, black bows around their necks. And every last man in every last booth had his silk noose cinched tight. Both men and women were dolled up in suits of significantly finer manufacture than my Old Navy chinos, and they were seated in packs like the successful predators of the New Economy they no doubt were -- capable of intelligent discussions about T-bills, variable interest rates and the like. I stood, looking at them from just inside the front door, and when the hostess asked, "One for lunch, sir?" in a tone that was nothing but polite and welcoming yet still sounded to me like "Couldn't find anyone else at the Salvation Army to dine with you, sir?," I decided that the only sensible way to handle myself in an intimidating room like this was to pretend that I belonged, to pretend that this was just a break in a day otherwise filled with terribly important, non-tie-requiring things, and then get drunk.

The plan worked wonderfully. I had a meal that was, hands down, the best lunch I've had since rolling into this town almost two years ago. I was incredibly well-treated by the staff, well-fed by the kitchen and well-watered from the cocktail list. When I retired to the bar for a smoke and a final martini (powerfully and properly made, it was nothing more than a drop of dry vermouth swimming in a small pail of top-shelf gin), I made the acquaintance of a fine young woman whom I amused by insisting that I was Irwin Fletcher, a sportswriter for the New York Post in town to cover the Kobe Bryant trial, and the man who'd first coined the term "March Madness." The fact that I know virtually nothing about basketball beyond that it involves a ball, a basket and sneaker contracts didn't slow me down one bit. And the fact that I can't now remember the young lady's name or any specific detail about her makes it a distinct possibility that I spent twenty minutes trying to romance a bar lamp. But none of that matters. Like I said, it was a very good lunch.

About halfway through, I'd decided that I needed to come back for dinner wearing my leather jacket with the big cargo pockets -- the one I use for lifting menus, the occasional really nice ashtray and, this time, that steak knife, gorgeous, heavy and sharp as a razor. By the end of lunch, the knife had become an object of truly unhealthy obsession.

Flash-forward six hours. I'm strolling down Larimer Street in leather jacket and tie, my best professional drag, hair pulled straight back off my forehead, Gordon Gecko style. I'd put about forty bucks in a meter three and a half blocks away to buy an hour and 22 minutes of time, and I had every intention of blowing into the Capital Grille in a whirlwind of hair gel and expense-account cash, having my dinner, boosting my knife and getting out of there faster than jackrabbits hump. That was the extent of my plan -- brilliant, I thought, in its bluff and simplicity.

There's this joke I like: How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.

The scene inside the Capital Grille was a madhouse of suits, silk and swank, with a smell in the air of seared meat and money. The noise level was Super Bowl-Sunday-in-a-sports-bar loud. An army of servers and bartenders and hosts and managers and floormen were working a crowd that looked like a fancy-dress singles' mixer at the Kennedy Compound after Joe lost the keys to the liquor cabinet, a Brownian nightmare of arms, legs and heads, champagne flutes, cigarette embers, smoke, designer shoes, designer shirts, designer tits cantilevered into little black party dresses, pretty necks touched with dusky perfume, and rocks glasses with neon plastic ice cubes like something out of Blade Runner. And while the woman at the hostess stand in charge of The Book was far too courteous and polite to laugh right at me when I asked (again) for a table for one, she did say, "Perhaps if you could find a table in the bar..." [page]

Sure, the kitchen would be glad to serve me in the bar. Or at the rail. Or probably standing in the street. The staff here was nothing if not endlessly, obsequiously accommodating, and I know my shunning at the hostess stand had nothing to do with me as a person, but was rather a matter of simple physics and the law of The Book. No tables meant no tables, that the restaurant was fully committed on a Wednesday night -- amazing enough these days, but the Capital Grille was also shoehorn-tight at the bar, without a chair, a breath or a square inch of space to be had in the lounge. One more Armani, one more pair of Jimmy Choos, one more lean-and-hungry day trading, loft-dwelling, whiskey-swilling carnivore crammed in among the dark wood, white linen, red leather and hunting prints of sporting dogs ready to do terrible things to the first bird they found, and the place was gonna blow.

Standing there (again) in the doorway, I felt the buff coming off my shoes, the starch draining from my collar. I had one smoke, one swallow of Jim and Coke all the way down at the service end of the bar, and then, after ten minutes, took the long walk, defeated, to the door. The knife would have to wait.

I headed up Larimer to 16th Street and made for The Palm, where the smiling host ushered me straight into a seat in the front room -- a feat that, under normal circumstances, would have impressed me, but after running the Capital Grille's gauntlet seemed somehow sad. While the Palm had a good crowd for a weeknight, it felt like there were two competing parties in town and this one was losing, the host grateful for any warm body to fill in the ranks. Around the corner, I'd had to fight my way to the bar -- it had been like a mosh pit, only better-smelling. Here, I had all the elbow room I needed; service that was dignified, competent and aloof; a good glass of wine and a decent meal. Here, among the dopey caricatures, chummy regulars and neck wattles, I was welcomed and well cared for. There, I'd been turned back at the gates of influence -- and I wanted nothing so much as to go back.

Still, I made the best of a blown night (and when ending up with a late dinner at the Palm is a blown night, that's really saying something) by turning that day's meals into an Iron Chef steakhouse battle. For lunch at the Capital Grille, I'd started with a lobster bisque -- a silky, warm and pinky-orange lobster-infused cream broth studded with big chunks of claw and backfin meat. It had been brought to my table in a deep, white bowl, my waitress standing by with a tureen of warmed, aged sherry with which to lace the soup to my taste. Without this touch of booze, the bisque had been smooth and deeply flavored with lobster's more solid, sea-green essence. With it, the meat's sweetness was brought forward and capped with the high, astringent sting of alcohol. It was fantastic: heavy, filling and only available by the bowl, which was almost too much of a good thing.

At the Palm, the lobster bisque was merely great. Smooth, creamy, tasting powerfully of sweet lobster and sherry, but without the tableside service, without the porcelain tureen and that first bitter whiff of alcohol in the spoon, without the big pieces of tender lobster meat swimming in the bowl like something special, something extra.

Service went the same way. The Palm's staff did nothing wrong, made no mistakes, never made me feel like anything less than a valued customer -- but at the Capital Grille, I'd been a guest. In that distinction lies a universe of difference. At lunch I'd been given a napkin to match the color of my pants so it wouldn't leave any off-shade lint. When I'd asked if there was maybe a paper behind the bar, they'd said of course. The Post? The News? Wall Street Journal? USA Today? And would I like today's edition or yesterday's? The Capital Grille's servers knew their menus, could suggest alternatives to anything, could tell you what was good that night and that hour and what might be a little less than perfect. [page]

And when, while having my lunch, another waitress dropped a bus-tray full of dirty dishes nearby, I watched as a dozen staff members -- servers, managers, even a bartender -- materialized from nowhere, some picking up broken pieces of plate, some scrubbing down the floor, some changing out a table setting that had been dotted with vinaigrette, one bringing salt for the floorboards, and another who just stood there for five minutes, hands folded behind his back, making sure no one soiled his shoes by walking too near the offending spot. It was a ballet, a choreographed response designed not just to clean a mess, but to eradicate it.

At the Palm, I watched a woman half a dining room away spill the rocks out of her empty water glass and onto the floor. Her server called the busboy. There was nothing wrong with that, but still...

Next up on the table was a steak, a ten-ounce filet cooked rare, side of mashed potatoes, side of béarnaise -- same as I'd ordered at the Capital Grille. According to the Palm's menu, its meat is "prime aged" -- which means nothing, as far as I know. It's just another meaningless bit of menu-speak. I do know that the Palm does some of the best steaks in town, and that this one was good. But the Capital Grille's was better. It dry-ages its steaks, making for incredibly tender, smoky, flavor-dense cuts of meat. Both béarnaise sauces were freshly made, rich and eggy, peppery, almost minty with fresh tarragon. At the Grille, it had come in another small tureen, brought separately by my waitress and placed close at hand. At the Palm, it came in a monkey dish with a spoon.

All night, as I sat at the Palm, I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to be at the good party. I wanted a table at the Capital Grille. It had out-Palmed the Palm with its food, out Del Frisco'd Del Frisco with its steakhouse decor, and Mortoned the shit out of Morton's with its service. So I, as Chairman Kaga minus the ermine robes, declared the Capital Grille the winner and stalked back out into the night, determined to try again tomorrow. On my car was a parking ticket. Dinner, with all the comings and goings, had taken about twice the time I'd paid for.

I'd finally get my dinner at the Capital Grille, and another lunch as well. I'd never find the right opportunity to pocket one of those beautiful knives, but I'd get to sample the lobster -- sold by the pound, from two to five and beyond, and more delicious if only by a degree than the Nova Scotia beauties sold for sixty bucks and up at the Palm -- and two more steaks: a fourteen-ounce sirloin cooked a perfect rare and left alone, and a delicately handled au poivre, done medium on the button and napped with a Courvoisier cream that represented the last gasp of classic Continental steakhouse fare in the best possible way.

I would make reservations like a gentleman, arrive promptly, and be treated with excellent, affectionate care while eating shrimp cocktails -- the shellfish boiled and served on a platter of ice -- and huge, whole roasted chicken with mashed red-skin potatoes. The chicken was cooked tenderly, just barely to the bone, and spiced with salt and pepper, paprika, garlic and lemon for a simple flavor that worked wonderfully in surroundings so fresh they're still dripping money.

Finally, I would have everything I wanted: great food in elegant surroundings, doting service with attention to every little detail -- from lights to silver, from rounding down the change on the bills when you pay with cash to padding every table so that the plates don't clink when they're set down -- and a spot at the good party that was worth the wait.

I'll be back another night for my knife. Because the Capital Grille has done what I would have considered the impossible before my meals there: found customers -- enough customers -- for a steakhouse in a town already overrun with steakhouses. And all it had to do to fill The Book was be better than everyone else in every possible way.

Capitol Hill Books will celebrate more than just the arrival of a new year on January 1. The independent used-book store will be marking its 24th year in business by serving up ten delicious homemade soups and breads at its annual New Year's Day Open House.

"The day is not about making money; it's about thanking our customers for their support," says store owner Valarie Abney. "The celebration has grown bigger and bigger every year. This year we decided to make double batches of the different soups so we don't run out early, like we did last year."

Abney is expecting hundreds of bibliophiles and literary regulars to visit and shake off their hangovers by perusing Capitol Hill's thousands of gently loved tomes while listening to Celtic guitarist Jerry Barlow and Thoreau readings by Mary Jo Bucci. "If you're not into sports -- and a lot of my regular customers are not -- there isn't much else to do on New Year's Day," Abney says. "What better New Year's remedy is there than homemade soup?"

And while saying merci beacoup, the shop is using the event to unveil its new travel-book section. "In spite of everything that is going on with our country, more and more people are traveling, especially the baby-boomers," says Abney. "Looking around, I realized that none of the other used-book stores had a large travel section, so I decided to do it.

"We've already got thousands of books published in the past few years at half price or less, and I plan to keep building," she adds. "Interestingly enough, I have lots of people coming in looking for information on Cuba, Vietnam and Thailand. But traveling here in Colorado is always very popular, too."

The shelves will be filled with more than just budget-travel guides and maps; Abney is adding cultural gems into the mix, too. "In the Paris section, we have French cookbooks and literature by French writers," she explains. "We want to help people really focus on the culture of all these different places."

Book discounts will be handed out during the open house, and one lucky reader will win a trip to Steinbeck country, thanks to a partnership with Denver's Master Travel. That could make for a very happy new year, indeed.

Can a burrito change lives?

Yes, if you're talking about the rice-and-bean monstrosities from Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Just ask Todd Galloway, Ryan Kohland and Andrew Kohari, college buddies who recently launched chipotlelovers.com, a website devoted to the fast-casual chain that has turned a smoked, dried jalapeño into a bona fide cultural phenomenon.

"I would say that we're a cult," Galloway explains. "But in the most positive sense."

The trio's first place of worship was the Chipotle outpost in Dayton, Ohio, which had opened across the street from Kohland and Kohari's apartment.

"We could see it from our window," Kohland says. "It was like it was always calling to us."

But their time of plenty was not to last. After the friends graduated from the University of Dayton in 2002, they all moved east, where they were devastated to discover that there were no Potles -- that's slang for Chipotle -- located in their new towns of Norwalk, Connecticut, and Boston. Faced with such deprivation, the three soon found their desire for foil-wrapped burritos bordering on obsession.

"We found that we were talking about Chipotle all the time, more than was natural," Kohari says.

"We started wondering if there were people that were as obsessed as we were," Galloway adds. "We felt like there must be a larger community out there."

After a year and a half of compulsive cravings, they went live with the chipotlelovers.com website in early January, calling it an "online community for lovers of the finest burritos in the world." In the first six months, more than 400 fellow fans registered as members, hungrily digesting all things Chipotle, from the chain's history and factoids to pictures, new locations and even a dictionary of terms:

Chomp v. - To eat a burrito, as in Are you ready to chomp?

The Baby n. - Slang for a full-sized barbacoa burrito. Name derives from the burrito's large size and its resemblance to a second-trimester fetus, as in Does anyone wanna get a baby for lunch?

Fake Potle n. - A competing burrito establishment with quality far less than Chipotle, as in I had fake Potle. It was foul.

Chipotlelovers.com also has online polls, which ask visitors to answer such questions as, "What's the longest you've ever traveled solely for a Chipotle burrito?" The longest the site's founding fathers have ever driven for some Potle is two hours, but Kohland and Kohari regularly make the 100-mile round trip into Manhattan to visit the closest Chipotle to Norwalk.

There is also the "Guac the Vote 2004" poll, which allows the website's more than 500 weekly visitors to vote on the next Chipotle market. The trio plans to tabulate the poll results in November and send them to Chipotle, but right now Raytown, Missouri, a Kansas City suburb of about 30,000 people, is in the lead with more than 40 percent of the votes; Philadelphia trails at just over 20 percent.

"I would go there everyday because all the other Chipotles are 20 min. away!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! PLEASE RAYTOWN VOTE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It will change our lives," writes one chipotlelover.

"I am a transplanted Texan who is used to at least 2 burritos a week," writes another, voting for Boston. "I could quite possibly die soon without one."

Beware the roasted chile-corn salsa: The cult of Chipotle is taking over the world.

1965-1988: The Beginning

Steve Ells is the man behind the big-ass burritos. The person responsible for sending relatively sane people off the deep end for his spicy barbacoa, zesty chiles and oversized tortillas. The man Chipotle lovers hero-worship.

But this local boy is no cult of personality. He's modest and self-deprecating. "There is no big story here," he says. "We got into the business of making burritos and tacos. People seemed to like it, so we built more restaurants. It's a pretty basic operation."

Ells is an unlikely candidate for creating the Next Big Thing in Mexican food -- well, in burritos, anyway. He didn't grow up in Texas or New Mexico or even California. He doesn't come from chef lineage. He didn't even study business in college. No, Ells is a 38-year-old white-bread boy from Colorado, born and raised in Boulder, a graduate of both Boulder High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"Certainly, in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do," says the extremely private Ells. "I studied art history and had a great time, but I didn't have any sort of career aspirations."

So after graduation, he decided to stick with the long-held tradition of floundering undergraduates everywhere: stay in school. There would be no master's degree in thirteenth-century painting techniques, however. Instead, he headed to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. "I was always interested in cooking; it was always a hobby of mine," he remembers. "When I was a little kid, I used to watch cooking shows instead of cartoons. Julia Child was probably the biggest influence." [page]

Ells was notorious for his cooking in college, where he often used his friends as lab rats for his culinary experiments.

"One time he made this chile that was so hot it made my forehead sweat," says Joe Stupp, who met Ellis in a high school German class and went to work for Chipotle six months after the first store opened. "He's always enjoyed his food, for sure, and had a talent for it. But I never thought that he was going to go into the food business. He did it for fun."

Early 1990s: Flour Power

After graduating from culinary school in 1990, Ells headed to the left coast to be the line chef under Jeremiah Tower at San Francisco's renowned Stars Restaurant.

"I went to Stars thinking, 'I'm an aspiring chef, and this is a great place to continue my education,'" Ells says. "And it was. It was a really exciting place to be. I think that is where I really learned how to cook and really learned how to taste."

But his future didn't lie at Stars or other fine-dining establishments. It would come from the food he bought in the Mission taquerías and off the streets near his house in the Upper Haight. "There were a bunch of taquerías in the Mission where I used to eat; there was even a really good one in the back of a convenience store by the airport. They were all over the place," Ells says. "And they all used a giant flour tortilla, wrapped everything up on the inside and then wrapped it up in foil. That was the inspiration -- the inspiration was the packaging."

As he stirred and chopped through his days, Ells's mind kept wandering to the possibilities. "We were cooking great food at Stars," he says. "But all I was thinking was how cool would it be to have these really great quality raw ingredients with my own twist -- use some authentic ingredients like chipotle peppers and things like that, but then put a twist on it with things like cilantro-lime rice, really lighten it up."

So he packed his bags and moved to the Mile High City.

July 1992: Coming Home

When Ells got back, he hit up his father, Bob Ells, for $80,000 to launch his burrito stand.

"It was a little bit of a shock to him," Ells remembers. "He did not think it was the greatest idea; he didn't understand it. I think he said something along the lines of, 'I don't understand why after going to one of the best cooking schools in the country and working at one of the top restaurants, now you want to go sling burritos?'

"And I said, 'Well, it's not really like that. It's actually elevating the fast-food experience.' I argued that just because it's fast doesn't mean that it has to be fast food. I wanted to redefine that whole thing."

Bob decided to humor his son, and the former pharmaceutical executive became Chipotle's first -- and, at that time, only -- investor.

"My father is very supportive of anything that his kids want to do. We've tried a lot different stuff," says Ells, who is the oldest of four children. "This wasn't a huge investment, so I don't think he saw it as a huge risk."

July 1993: 1644 East Evans Avenue

Ells took his dad's money and went shopping for a location, finally settling on the former Dolly Madison ice cream shop just a few blocks from the University of Denver campus. It was a space that Starbucks had passed on, not thinking the neighborhood was ready for five-dollar coffee.

"I was so terrified that the business would not do well and that there would be no way that I would be in a position to pay my dad back this $80,000," Ells says. "At Stars, as a line cook, I think that I was making $10 or $12 an hour. So $80,000, to have to pay that back was incomprehensible."

Ells decided to keep things simple by creating a menu with only two basic choices: burritos or tacos filled with rice and beans. Customers could then customize with their choice of pork, shredded beef, chicken, steak or sauteed veggies, with four salsas, cheese and guacamole. [page]

He also kept the architecture simple, designing an industrial-chic decor with friend and artist Bruce Gueswel.

"If you look at our food, it's made up of high-quality yet pretty simple ingredients: beans, rice, tomatoes, corn. It's the use of great cooking techniques and things like fresh herbs and seasoning with citrus that can elevate it to something more extraordinary," Ells says. "I think you can say the same of the building materials. They are simple -- plywood, steel pipe, exposed conduit and ductwork -- but we've brought architectural value to those things through the creative use of those materials."

With the menu ready and the store built out, the first Chipotle opened on July 13, 1993, at 6 p.m.

"I think that first day, we did $400," Ells says. "The next day might have been a little bit more than that. But I think it was on a run rate to do over $1 million by the end of the first year, out of only 850 square feet."

Apparently the neighborhood was ready; Starbucks eventually opened a location just a few blocks away.

1995: A Star Is Born

Ells quickly discovered that he wasn't satisfied with just one twenty-seat restaurant, so in early 1995 he opened a second location, at Colorado Boulevard and Eighth Avenue. This was a critical point in Chipotle history, because the assembly line was introduced. Initially the open-air prep area was incorporated because it was the best way to configure the space, but customers reacted so positively that it became a Chipotle standard.

"What you see is what you get," Ells says. "The customers can see the food being made; they know that it's fresh. They can see that the chicken and steak have never been frozen. They see fresh tomatoes, cilantro being chopped up, avocados being mashed. I think that gives people comfort that they're whole, unprocessed foods."

Fast burritos that weren't drenched in cheese and chile were a revelation to Tex-Mex Denver, and people clamored to check out the Chipotle experience.

"I remember paying back my dad's loan in just a few months," Ells says with a smile. "It was designed to be paid back over years, but business was good. They liked what I had to offer.

"My intention was not to create a chain," he adds. "I wanted to have one restaurant and have it be able to support my efforts to start a 'real' restaurant, whatever that may be. I never got around to that real restaurant. As it turns out, Chipotle is pretty real. I'm satisfied."

Ells may not have known his concept was destined for the big time, but Denver restaurant consultant John Imbergamo did. "I think that Steven knew from the day that he opened the first one that he was going to have many restaurants," says Imbergamo, president of the Imbergamo Group. "The whole concept and system, in my opinion, was designed to be replicated."

As it turns out, so was the marketing campaign. Chipotle has always relied on word of mouth more than advertising, but early on, the company did experiment with several different branding ideas. They all fell flat until Ells and then-marketing consultant/now-full-time "Keeper of the Faith" Dan Fogarty realized that simplicity -- like everything else at Chipotle -- was what resonated. So the foundation of Chipotle's image became a big, foil-wrapped burrito.

"You just look at it, and it's big," Fogarty says. "Now a lot of people recognize the image and associate it with Chipotle."

Of course, the big-burrito campaign wouldn't be complete without its signature irreverent messages, such as "Usually when something is this good, it's illegal," "Foil shizzle" and "The gourmet restaurant where you eat with your hands."

"What we try to do is just have fun with certain aspects of Chipotle and try to tell something about our culture or our brand," Ells says. "We try to say something about the Chipotle experience. We don't ever want to say we have the best burrito."

"My personal favorite is 'They beep when they back up,'" Fogarty says, laughing.

1998: Super-Size It

By 1998, the big-ass burrito craze had taken over Denver, and Ells began wondering if he could conquer the rest of the country. He decided to try Kansas City as a test market -- and was a success.

"I think we had maybe a dozen stores in Colorado when we decided to go to Kansas City and really prove that this wasn't a Denver phenomenon," Ells says. "And then we went to Minneapolis. Then we started to get into the coasts -- Washington, D.C., California..." [page]

He had a little help from fast-food behemoth McDonald's, which provided the cash infusion for this growth just as Chipotle was considering a Kansas City restaurant. "We got involved with Chipotle at a very early stage and helped them to grow," says Mats Lederhausen, managing director of McDonald's Ventures, the division that manages the non-McDonald's brands of Chipotle and Boston Market. "We have a great partnership; it works really well. They run their business very much independently."

"McDonald's lets us operate autonomously," says Ells, who sold them 90 percent of Chipotle. "They've funded our growth now for the past six years, and we continue to run Chipotle out of Denver."

But as sales sagged at McDonald's in the past few years, rumors swirled that they were shopping Chipotle around.

"We never said that we would sell Chipotle," says Lederhausen, who is also chairman of Chipotle's board of directors. "We never engaged in that, because we love Chipotle; it's hard not to. I think that they're doing a lot of things -- if not everything -- right."

Chicago food-industry consulting firm Technomic estimates that Chipotle's 2003 sales were $321 million, up from $225 million in 2002 and $145 million in 2001. And Smith Barney estimates that Chipotle's same-store sales rose by 24.5 percent in 2003, helping the non-McDonald's brands to post $700,000 in operating profits in the first quarter of this year compared to an operating loss of $12.9 million in the first quarter of 2003.

"McDonald's has been investing in the non-McDonald's brands for five or six years now, and we've learned a lot," Lederhausen says. "We learned what worked, what didn't work.

"I think it's very important not to confuse size with success," he continues. "We want to grow Chipotle by being better instead of being bigger. The goal is to make Chipotle great. It's almost great now, but everything can be better. The world would be a better place if Chipotle is a success. Which is what it is really all about."

July 2001: Hog Heaven

One of Ells's favorite phrases is "Food with integrity."

That concept came to him in 2001, when Chipotle began buying pork from Niman Ranch, an Oakland, California-based company that sells only free-range, naturally raised pork from independently owned farms.

When Chipotle became a customer three years ago, the Niman Ranch co-op worked with only a handful of family farms across the country. Today that number is almost 400. "Because of them, we've been able to add a couple hundred family farms. Just keeping up with their demand is a full-time job," says Bill Niman, CEO of Niman Ranch. "Steve is so committed to this. They are the key ingredient to our growth."

Consumers have been committed, too, requiring Niman Ranch to provide more than 2,200 pigs per week just for Chipotle. "Customers love it," Ells says of the carnitas burrito. "I think that a lot of people are pleased that it's from family farmers, raised the old-fashioned way."

This year, Ells also began serving chicken from Bell & Evans, a Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania-based farm that prides itself on raising chickens without growth-stimulating hormones or antibiotics. "We want to have the very best available," Ells says. "It's not just about fresh; fresh is not enough anymore. You also have to have the kind of raw ingredients that you can be proud of. That's our direction."

And he isn't just talking meat. About 10 percent of Chipotle's more than 350 stores currently sell organic beans -- a number that is expected to rise to 25 percent next year.

Using these high-end ingredients has affected the price, however: Carnitas went up $1 when Chipotle started serving Niman Ranch pork, and the cost of chicken rose by a quarter at the approximately fifty restaurants serving Bell & Evans chicken. The organic beans, however, did not raise prices, leaving the average burrito price about $6. But with the add-ons -- extra cheese, organic beef, guacamole, etc. -- and a drink, the average ticket price is $8.

Other than these price increases and the introduction of the Burrito Bol, which was rolled out in January to feed the low-carb craze, Chipotle's menu has not changed much over the years. "We could add fish, we could add desserts, we could add coffee, we could add chimichangas, breakfast and late-night," Ells says. "But we're going to stay focused on what we do well. And hopefully, we'll continue with these outrageous same-store sales. I think that the changes that customers really want are already in place at Chipotle -- and that is that year after year, we'll continue to have better raw ingredients. We think that the customer cares about what they are putting into their bodies." [page]

June 2004: The Present

In just eleven years, Chipotle has gone from one store to approximately 9,000 employees, and Ells expects to hire another 3,000 to staff the 100 stores being opened this year.

"There is still huge opportunity here in the United States," Ells says. "We've cracked the code in the U.S. in terms of real estate, demographics. And there continues to be consumer demand. There has always been more demand than supply at Chipotle."

But that doesn't mean Ells isn't considering following his parent company across the pond, introducing fajita burritos to Cape Town and barbacoa tacos to Tokyo. "Certainly we have looked at international expansion," he says. "I don't think that the timing was right a couple of years ago; I don't think that it's necessarily right today. But in the future, we'll definitely try some international markets."

Before that happens, Galloway, Kohland and Kohari would like to see a Chipotle in Boston and Norfolk. They're planning a road trip here to plead their case, pay homage to their king and visit the birthplace of their obsession.

"Who knows where this is all going, but we're hoping that someday Chipotle will give us 'Burrito Ambassador' status, which means free burritos for life," Kohari says. "We have gotten a good deal of free lunches out of it so far, which is pretty cool."

A burrito can change lives.

New York-style pizza is a tricky thing. In the places where it's done properly -- on the island of Manhattan, in one of the boroughs or, with rapidly declining rightness, in any of the cities that make up the outer estates of the Pizza Kingdom -- it's not even called New York-style pizza. It's just pizza -- 'za, a pie, a slice. You might find a joint selling Chicago deep-dish pizza or New England charcoal-fired pies, but these will always be labeled as such, because they are essentially foreign foods. And by the unwritten code of the pizza man, if you are hawking such one-offs in Bensonhurst, Rochester, Buffalo, Camden or Philly, you'd damn well better let people know before they even walk into your shop. Otherwise there could be confusion, angry words, possibly bloodshed.

Because in these places, real pizza always means a thin crust; means a proper, sweet red sauce; means a big, greasy slice wide enough to fold and hold cupped against the heel of your hand. This isn't the "New York" way of doing it, it's just The Way. And the Tao of the pizza man is understanding that within these strict parameters, there are infinite possibilities. As with sushi, the art to New York pizza-making is finding perfection in tiny adjustments to a simple product. And Chicago deep-dish has about as much in common with real pizza as a Mrs. Paul's fish stick does with a high-grade toro hand roll.

But as you travel a certain distance from the Pizza Kingdom -- say, west of the Ohio border, north of Syracuse or fifty miles south of South Philly -- the pies begin to require labels. At this point, the labels also become meaningless. Getting a "New York-style" slice in Winnipeg, Atlanta or Mooseface, Wisconsin, is eating a lie. Outside of the tri-state area, the best you can hope for is a good forgery to stick in your face -- a pie made in the image of true greatness but destined to come up short.

Still, restaurateurs outside of the charmed territory persist in copying the work of the Big Apple masters. Here in Colorado, Anthony's Pizza and Pasta has been growing its mini-empire for nearly twenty years, from its first location at 1550 California Street in 1984 to a tenth outpost that soon will open in Highlands Ranch. Most of them resemble Anthony's small, strip-mall location on East Iliff in Aurora, which is cast from the ex-pat mold, with Yankees, Mets and Giants pennants on the walls, a smudged TV in the corner by the door and a few tables lining the perimeter. The kitchen is open, more or less, and busy all the time; these guys take their work seriously. You have to wait for your food here, and Anthony's makes no apologies for that. Customers must suffer a certain amount of hunger and deprivation while the kitchen goes about its business. I like to think of the delay as a necessary purification of the spirit, but it's really just a slow torture of sights and smells as other people's plates and pies are paraded past.

Anthony's calls its 'zas by their proper names. There's a "traditional New York thin" only parenthetically referred to as a "Neapolitan round," and a fat, full-bodied Sicilian that the menu warns can take upwards of two hours to prepare. There are also pastas, heroes and an array of toppings to put on them and the pies, a grab bag of interchangeable elements that's both artful and spare -- no more than you'd expect from a place that looks and smells the part of a busy neighborhood pizzeria, but no less than anything you could want.

And on my first visit, what I want is a little bit of everything. I want to jump the counter and stalk through the coolers, taking a finger-full of red sauce here, a mound of mozzarella there, then stuff my pockets with meatballs for the ride home. But I am restrained by the need to concentrate, first and foremost, on my pie -- a traditional New York thin. When it arrives, it's steaming beautifully. The color is that perfect, mottled, creamy reddish-pink and yellow-orange -- shades that could only be called "pizza" in the big box of culinary Crayolas. And the smell -- all yeasty, sweet and saucy with just a hint of bitter oregano -- is like home to me. The slices are cut large, meant for folding, and the mild sauce is properly understated. Most pizza places west of the Mississippi reflexively kick up their reds with crushed red-pepper flakes or, occasionally, pepperoncini brine to give them a bite that I find as grating as nails on a chalkboard. But not Anthony's.

The crust is wonderful, too: stiff and solid, but with enough developed gluten so that it bends without cracking. I pick up a slice, fold it, cup it, wait for the point to sag, then bite. The cheese is mellow with whole milk and just a little funky, well-matched to the sweet sauce; the dough is nearly flavorless, acting only as an architectural support for the flourish of good ingredients. In fact, everything is as it should be except for one thing: There's no orange grease. The slices are greasy, no doubt about that. They're well-lubricated by what little water cooks out of the sauce and the oils squeezed from the cheese by the heat of the oven, but those liquids never congeal into that magical stuff that's supposed to ooze into the fold of the slice and then run out across the back of your hand. [page]

On my next visit, I take a tasting tour through the other side of Anthony's menu. I try stuffed shells and ravioli in a solid, chunkier version of the house red -- almost a rustica with fat, soft chunks of tomato concasse, missing only the deep bass note that a little pork stock or finely ground espresso would have added. The pasta is nicely cooked, al dente enough to hold form under the weight of the sauce and the thick cap of melted mozzarella, and both fillings are heavy with good-quality fresh ricotta, parmesan, romano, what-have-you.

The meatball hero is a two-hander, fat and loaded with meat, and ladled with just enough sweet red sauce to wet the center of the bread without compromising the structural integrity of the crust. The chicken parmigiana sandwich comes so packed with big, tender slabs of breaded chicken breast that they hang out the sides. Both sandwiches would collapse under the weight of their own ingredients if it weren't for the life preserver of melted mozz that keeps everything glued together. And after a few bites, even that isn't enough for the chicken parm. Like a good barbecue sandwich, it requires a fork or fingers to finish, and there's a reason the to-go version comes wrapped in foil.

At Lil' Ricci's, which has been hanging around Tamarac Square for more than a decade, the meatball sandwiches come wrapped in foil, too -- which is handy, but not because the foil makes it easier to eat them. No, the foil makes it easier to throw them away after one bite. And you'll want to.

If the forgery of New York-style street-corner cooking is an art -- carefully and diligently practiced in some kitchens, not so much in others -- then the guys at Anthony's are expert counterfeiters and the slack-jawed goofs working the ovens at Ricci's are the Franklin Mint, banging out commemorative Elvis plates and shoddy Civil War chess sets for suckers who mistakenly think they're buying objets d'art for three easy payments of $49.99. Ricci's meatball hero might just as well be soup served in a plywood trench. The sauce is watery, bitter and chunky with sour tomatoes. The meatballs taste like bouillon-flavored wads of papier-mâché. The hoagie roll is squishy, damp and pasty on the inside, stale on the outside. And the whole thing comes capped with a smear of rubbery cheese, stiff to the touch, with all the flavor of a milk carton.

But Ricci's looks right, with its scattering of tables and deep booths, a mural of the Manhattan skyline (King Kong included) covering one entire wall and a mix of young kids, old folks and cops all tucking into their food under the warm lights. The service is quick and friendly, the dining room is clean, and the place even smells like a Brooklyn pizzeria should, with the mingled odors of yeasty starter, garlic and onions, cooking tomatoes, the acrid tang of degreaser and the infernal heat of several stone-footed ovens going full blast. But since that's where the similarities end, I wonder if the owner somehow manages to buy the smell bottled and just sprays it in the air once or twice a day like room freshener.

If the meatball hero is a disaster, the pasta is worse. With one bite, you can tell it's wrong in every fundamental way. The flavorless pasta is limp and mushy like wet newspaper. The manicotti filling is made of some kind of wretchedly cheap, coarse and grainy ricotta that tastes of milk on the edge of going sour. And the sauce is an ugly, beaten mess -- bitter and acidic and horribly sugar-sweet and chemical, as though someone in the kitchen accidentally knocked a shaker of NutraSweet into the pot and just left it to steep. But that's not all. The sauce is also watery from not being properly reduced, and so slick with oil that I could use what's left at the bottom of my plate to lube my car. [page]

Ricci's pizza is its only saving grace. And even that isn't actually good, but it does remind me of a certain class of New York pie joints -- the kind that never deliver; that are open only around the ragged edges of sketchy neighborhoods, usually in locations that were formerly dry cleaners' shops or ethnic bodegas catering to a nationality that no one but retired cartographers and geography teachers have ever heard of; and that serve the sort of pizza you'd make if you were trying to re-create it from a magazine picture with no recipe and no knowledge of what the final product was supposed to taste like. These are the places people end up at around 2:30 in the morning, always accidentally, and usually too drunk to decide that maybe Basques, Turks, Magyars or Laotian immigrants aren't the first guys you want to go to when you're in the mood for a slice.

Still, these places try hard. And what they come up with while they're flailing around blindly, attempting to assemble something that at least looks like a pizza, isn't always bad. But for anyone brought up in the American public-school system, the taste of rubbery cheese on a crust like single-ply cardboard immediately brings back memories of pizza in the cafeteria every Thursday.

Let's give credit where it's due, though. In this one case, Ricci's forgery is perfect. I've never tasted a bad pie done better.

The first time through, you might dismiss Coffee and Cigarettes as a filmmaker's recess -- playtime before the serious business of making a real feature. Jim Jarmusch never intended this new movie -- a collection of eleven shorts made over the last two decades -- to be a movie at all. It began as a one-shot in 1986, when he filmed Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright sharing coffee and smokes in a cafe that looked as though it had been bombed in 1944 and never rebuilt. The gag, which initially aired on Saturday Night Live, was a brilliant one, pairing the deadpan Wright with the jittery Benigni, who gladly takes the comedian's dentist appointment for no reason other than he has nothing better to do. The short recalls the wonderful sparring scenes between Groucho and Chico Marx from the brothers' later, more desperate movies; Benigni, having just made Down by Law with Jarmusch, was a real-life Chico who spoke English as though he'd learned it that afternoon.

Jarmusch would continue to make the shorts, filming them during the making of other movies or during occasional breaks; the one with Steve Buscemi as a waiter serving twins Joie and Cinqué Lee was shot in Memphis during the making of Mystery Train. One with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits was shot in 1993; many more -- with Cate Blanchett and Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan and the White Stripes and the Wu-Tang Clan and Bill Murray -- were made only last year, when Jarmusch decided to ditch a troublesome feature in favor of completing a long movie made of many short ones. So, yes, you could dismiss it as a time-killing lark, but you would be wrong to do so.

It is possible that some won't completely enjoy Coffee and Cigarettes the first time through; they'll be thrown by the gag, distracted by the joke-and-punchline setup of some segments and the absence of even the joke in others, maybe confused by the abrupt endings to all of the shorts. It's like trying to digest a whole concept album -- all four sides of a gate-folded two-fer, the kind stoners used to use to sort their seeds and roll their joints -- in a single sitting. You're not totally there when you initially drop the needle on the vinyl; you're overwhelmed by the thrill of hearing The New Thing for The First Time. You have to revisit that record time after time to appreciate the concept, to figure it out, to admire it, to groove on it, to get it. Only over time does the concept jell, usually when you discover the details that reveal themselves with each new revolution of the record.

Coffee and Cigarettes is really a collection of great pop songs: "Cousins," performed by Cate Blanchett (and Cate Blanchett), "Somewhere in California," by Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, "Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil," by the White Stripes, and "Delirium," by RZA and GZA, featuring Bill Murray. They're bound by the obvious -- in nearly every segment, the stars share a pack of smokes and a pot of joe -- but also by the subtle. They share verses, lines of dialogue that appear in one short and reappear in a different context later on; they share riffs, including pictures of famous dead actors that hover over scenes; and they share themes, because it's a movie in which famous people, or the nearly famous, play variations of themselves and misunderstand nearly everything the person across the table says. It's a movie about discomfort and distance, like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Larry Sanders Show shot in deadpan black and white.

They're all somehow connected, even if it's just having Iggy Pop act in one short and having him perform "Down on the Street" with the Stooges in the background in another; in fact, it's two concept albums in one, with an eclectic soundtrack (Funkadelic, Modern Jazz Quartet, the Skatalites, Waits and C-Side) filling in the awkward pauses left by the actors. Jarmusch may have made these on a whim, but he's so clever that he convinces you otherwise. Some of the shorts are better than others, easily: Blanchett as herself and her bitter, grunged-out cousin Shelly offers a bittersweet chuckle; RZA and GZA referring to an on-the-lam Bill Murray only as "Billmurray" is a gas; Pop and Waits as wary and defensive strangers is gleefully discomfiting. (It's almost wondrous to hear Pop tell Waits, "You can call me Jim, Jimmy, Iggy, Jiggy.") But best of all is "Cousins?," in which Coogan belittles and flat-out rejects Molina's invitation to be friends (perhaps even family) till the 24 Hour Party People star realizes, too late, that he may be lower on the celebrity food chain after all; the giddy "gotcha" look in Molina's eyes is a priceless coda.

But even the lesser shorts will get your toes tapping, chiefly the final one, "Champagne," in which Andy Warhol veteran Taylor Mead and his old collaborator Bill Rice pretend their sour coffee is actually champagne and that their lunch break in a dilapidated armory is really an afternoon spent on the Seine in the 1920s. It ends the film on a soft note, sung in the lonesome key of Mahler's "I Have Lost Track of the World." If only you could pick up the needle and play the whole thing over again. And again.

The belt buckles on the dance floor at Tequila Rosa's shine as brightly as the mirrored ball that hangs overhead, sending fractured prisms of light onto the couples dancing to Mexican disco. Two men spin in mad concentric circles, around and around and around the floor, now and then tilting their heads to the side to kiss, bumping the brims of their colored cowboy hats.

Throughout much of the week, Tequila Rosa's is as deserted as the industrial complexes that stretch in all directions from its front door on Brighton Boulevard. But on Saturday night, it's where Denver's gay Latinos come to drink, to dance, to check each other out. Outside in the dusty parking lot, tricked-out cars and banged-up trucks are parked at erratic angles, left by owners anxious to get inside.

When he first arrives wearing a tight gray T-shirt, his blue-black hair shiny with product, Chris Medina looks like he's wandered into the wrong place. About 5'2", with a round, full face and onyx eyes, he looks small compared to the mustachioed vaqueros crowded around tables in tight, high-waisted jeans, their legs crossed to reveal pointy, fluorescent boots. And yet, as he makes his way to a back table, he stops to say hello to the doorman, the security guard and several customers, greeting them in both English and Spanish. When someone offers to buy him a drink, he orders a Coke.

"I have to remember when I'm out that I'm supposed to be a role model," he says, shaking his shoulders to the Tejano beat pounding up from the dance floor. "That's one of the hard things about my job: You never really leave it. It never really stops."

Medina is the director of El Futuro Community Center, the first program in the state dedicated to providing service and support to gay and bisexual Latino men. When the center opened in February, it vaulted Medina into a position as a leader of the Latino gay community. Like him, some of his clients are young and urban, born in the United States and more likely to hang out in hip gay clubs like Serengeti and Club Dream. Others, like many of the men at Tequila Rosa's, are immigrants and Spanish speakers, drawn across the border by promises of economic opportunity and personal freedom.

Tonight, Medina knows about a quarter of the people in the room: drag queens, cowboys, a couple of buttoned-down guys who sit at a table nursing a pitcher of draft beer. Eventually, he hopes, he'll know them all. Medina considers all Latinos to be his people, wherever they're from. And right now, his people face a very real threat of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

For Benigno Velasquez, the closet is a long, dark corridor leading all the way from Denver to Oaxaca City, Mexico, where he lived before immigrating to the United States in 1991. He's never come out to his family, not even when he was diagnosed with HIV a decade ago.

"We didn't talk about sex with our parents, our families," Benigno says. "In Mexico, people might even know something like that is going on. But it's just never spoken of. It's just not part of what families do."

Velasquez himself wasn't sure that he was gay until he crossed the border into a new world, first landing in Los Angeles. Before that, he was aware of a certain difference that set him apart from the other men in his life. They seemed aware of the difference, too. His father, a farmer, would tell him to stay home with his mother when he took Velasquez's two brothers to work the fields. His brothers teased him, called him a faggot because he liked to match his clothes and style his hair. It wasn't until he got to California that he knew what they meant.

"In Oaxaca, I never saw gay people," he says. "I didn't know what it was. But when I got to L.A., I knew some friends there who took me out to the bars. They were gay bars, dance clubs, and I saw men together. I saw that and I said, 'This is what I am.'"

Velasquez had come to America to join his friends in California, who said that the States were more fun and more free than home, with plenty of chances to make a living, if not get rich. But in 1994, Benigno moved to Denver, a city that reminded him of home: It was at a similar elevation, a broad valley bordered by mountains, and had four distinct seasons, unlike the eternal sunshine of Los Angeles. He didn't know the language very well, but he got a job doing food prep for under-the-table wages at a downtown restaurant. He had no friends, no family and no papers. And six months later, he found out that he had tested positive for HIV. [page]

"I didn't know anything about AIDS in Mexico," says Velasquez, who graduated from high school in Oaxaca City and attended college before quitting to help the family. "AIDS was never taught in our school. I didn't even know the meaning of the word. I remember someone once said a woman in a town in Oaxaca had AIDS. It was like, 'What's that? Like cancer?'"

Velasquez is one of more than a thousand Latinos living with HIV infection and AIDS in Colorado. For Latinos -- an often-splintered amalgamation of Mexican-born immigrants, U.S.-born Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Latin Americans, monolingual Spanish speakers, illegals, immigrants and naturalized citizens -- overall rates of HIV infection have risen over the past few years to higher than the national average. The state's Spanish-speaking population has more than quadrupled since 1990, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic has swelled with it.

"When I found out, I was first in shock, then I was scared," Velasquez says. "I thought about moving back to L.A., where my friends were. But then I said, 'No, I'll stay. I'm a hard, tough person. I'll wait here and see what happens.'

"I went to some support groups through the Colorado AIDS Project, but I didn't like them," he continues. "I didn't feel like I fit. I would sit in the corner and just watch and listen. It wasn't because it was white people, but I wanted to be around people like me who'd been through this. I wanted to find them."

Twice a month for the past ten years, Velasquez has attended Grupa Palanca, a support group for Latino men effected by HIV/AIDS. Currently, all ten of the group's members are living with the disease. When the group first formed in 1994, it was loose and mobile; meetings would be held in people's houses and apartments, at art studios and restaurants in northwest Denver. But since the El Futuro Community Center opened in a ground-level brick building in Denver's Golden Triangle neighborhood, Grupa Palanca has had a comfortable, safe and, for now, permanent home.

"The point of El Futuro was that it was not going to be like an office or a clinic," says Chris Medina. "It's supposed to feel like a Latino living room, like somebody's kitchen. The groups are comfortable here. They can do whatever they want. Turn on the radio. Turn on the TV. Whatever. There's no boss here.

"We're not going to bring them in and say, 'This is what you've got to do,'" he adds. "We're not going to preach to the choir or anybody else. The whole thing is about communication and trust. If we are open-minded and easy to connect with, then we can get the job done. No matter your color, religion, spirituality or language, it all comes down to communication."

Most weeks, the Grupa Palanca members spread around on couches in the center of the room, sipping punch and coffee, talking about all kinds of stuff. New medications and new movies. They talk about God, art, their moms, their jobs, their T-cell counts. They laugh, cry, get pissed off, eat and learn. Sometimes they go out, have barbecues. They help each other weigh the good days against the bad and get through both -- just like a family.

"When I was first sick, I didn't always know how to talk to my doctor, to understand what was happening and the things that he would tell me about HIV," Velasquez says. "The group helped me figure out my meds; they answered all the questions that I had. All of these guys, we've all been living with this for ten years. Everyone's infected, but we're all healthy. We're still living."

It's unseasonably warm for a late October day, and the cruise is on in Cheesman Park. A lime-colored convertible zings by blasting Britney. A dark-haired guy with a tight mustache walks a tiny, stick-like dog through the center of the green, checking out a small group of well-toned men playing Frisbee with their shirts off.

The scene distracts a few of the people meeting inside the Tears McFarland Mansion, a community center just off the park's northern entrance. Around a large table in a room perfumed with the smell of intermingling colognes, twelve Latino men are learning about what AIDS can do to the human body -- and how to avoid ever having to find out for themselves.

Standing before a computer projection of what looks like a hairy lima bean, Elizabeth Connick, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, demonstrates how human cells degenerate and change inside an HIV-positive "host." In Spanish, she explains how the virus can render a body utterly defenseless to fight off even the most trivial infections. A hefty, forty-something Mexican guy wearing a turquoise Western shirt raises his hand, picking up a Coke can to punctuate his question: Can he get AIDS from drinking after someone? [page]

No, Connick responds. Only from blood. Semen. Breast Milk.

Si, the man says, nodding. Sangre, semen, leche de la mujer.

Tonight's meeting is part of a series of Spanish-language outreach programs sponsored by El Futuro, the Colorado Aids Project and Proyecto Nosotros, another Denver community program that does HIV prevention for the Latino population. Several of the men who've shown up for Connick's lecture receive services from one or all of those organizations. Some found out about the event during outreach sessions, from fliers given to them in bars. Others have been drawn by a promise of free food. They seem, on the surface, like a mismatched group. A young guy wears a baggy hip-hop shirt and a baseball cap; another sports chic alligator lace-ups and perfectly plucked eyebrows. A huge, sparkly wedding band flashes on the hand of the Mexican man who asked Connick about the Coke. Not all of them consider themselves to be gay. Some have girlfriends or wives. But they all belong to a group that the Centers for Disease Control consider to be at the highest risk of contracting HIV: men who have sex with other men.

A honey-skinned Chicano in jeans and a sport coat, who'd shown up not knowing the event was in Spanish, tries to keep up with Connick's PowerPoint presentation, but mostly gazes out the window. After about thirty minutes, he excuses himself and disappears into the park.

Cheesman Park has been a hot zone for AIDS outreach since the '80s, when the disease developed from a shadowy phenomenon to an all-out epidemic. Beginning in 1983, the all-volunteer Colorado AIDS Project flourished as a grassroots campaign to prevent infection and support those living with the virus. In the field, CAP activists distributed both condoms and information to at-risk groups, primarily gay men. Capitol Hill has always been at the heart of the effort.

To date, more than 5,000 people have died from AIDS in Colorado. But there has been reason, at times, to believe that the state was turning a corner on the epidemic. In 1987, there were 586 cases of new HIV infection reported, according to the Colorado Department of Health and Planning's HIV Surveillance Program. By 1999, that number had plunged to 212 new infections. And as new drugs rendered AIDS a livable condition, death rates showed promising declines as well.

The news was better for some than others. Activists stressed that AIDS does not discriminate between white, black, brown, gay or straight; everyone was at risk. But white people have overwhelmingly enjoyed the most notable reductions. African-Americans currently account for nearly 20 percent of Colorado's new cases, though they represent less than 4 percent of the population. Hispanics, who claim about 13 percent of the population, account for 20 percent. The death rate from AIDS among African-Americans is still three times that of whites; AIDS is twice as likely to kill Hispanics as Caucasians.

"It's discouraging for us, because we're seeing a second generation of many of the same problems that we had twenty years ago," says Terry Tiller-Taylor, STD/HIV section chief of Coloradans Working Together to Fight HIV, a planning committee that determines the state's yearly program for HIV prevention. "HIV/AIDS is as much of an issue now as it ever was. It's just shifted to a different population."

But while data from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment indicates that African-Americans are slowly chipping away at their numbers, the rates of HIV infection in the Latino community have gone in retrograde, leaping by 30 percent over the past five years. Statistically, Latinos are less likely to access services, or to be tested in the first place. And by the time many enter the public health-care system, they're already in the throes of the full-blown AIDS virus -- very sick, but at a loss, or unwilling, to explain how they got that way.

"Latinos have a lot of reasons why they don't trust the system," says Maria Lopez, who does case management and client advocacy through Servicios de la Raza, a northwest Denver community organization that helps Spanish-speaking men and women navigate life in the United States. "I have one client who wouldn't get tested for HIV because she thought the doctors would call INS on her. But what keeps many of them from getting tested is that they don't want to have to deal with it. It's less the fear of the illness than the fear of having to tell people. There's a tremendous fear of being disconnected from their families or communities if they admit how they got it. [page]

"I had a client who swore he got it from a cut on his hand; another said it was from some brown thing on the sink in the bathroom," Lopez adds. "Even when it's obvious to both of us, some of the men just won't acknowledge that they've had sex with another man. It's just not something that is talked about or accepted in the culture."

That refusal is putting many women at risk. Although they accounted for only 2 percent of cases in the first wave of HIV in the '80s, women have seen their rates double since 1990. And nearly 40 percent of them report contracting the virus through heterosexual sex with their husbands or boyfriends, presumably men who have sex with other men but who deny being gay (see story).

It's hard to protect people who don't realize they may be in danger. Language, a lack of education, and cultural barriers such as religion and homophobia can create a formidable trifecta of risk to Latinos, especially gay and bisexual men from rural areas in northern Mexico who arrive with a vague awareness of HIV or AIDS.

"I feel like I'm reliving the '80s all over again," says Jorge del Mazo, who directs the Colorado Aids Project's prevention program. "The services to this community are still in their infancy. HIV will continue to be a massive problem if we don't address some of the misinformation, fear and machismo that is preventing us from reaching this community.

"We are a community in denial," adds del Mazo. "We haven't made a dent in changing norms to support the epidemic. You're talking about thousands of years of believing certain things. Those cultural beliefs are embedded. But unless we affect social norms, we could be facing a catastrophe."

HIV/AIDS is just one measure of a catastrophe already ripping through communities of color across the state, which experience vastly disproportionate rates of injury, disability and disease -- including cancer, diabetes and communicable diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia. In Colorado, quality of life and health care differ radically from one ethnic group to the next. This spring, the state health department established the Office of Health Disparity to address these gaps and find culturally appropriate ways to close them.

"HIV is not the only burden of disease in these communities," says Jean Finn, manager of program support for Coloradans Working Together to Fight HIV. "We can't compartmentalize it. Part of what we're trying to do is to address multiple epidemics occurring at any one time among various populations. And it's critical that we have programs within the communities that they're intended to serve, and it's just as critically important that they're embedded in, and from, the community."

When it comes to HIV, public-health agencies have learned that, before anyone can help the Latino demographic, they have to recognize that the prevention models that had been so successful for whites simply don't fit. Within this population, change will come one conversation at a time.

"In the '80s, the gay white population was hungry for information," says CAP's del Mazo. "They would engage in every kind of outreach and program. But those same methods don't work with Latinos. You can't come from a model of barking out information. You have to engage and exchange information and validate that person. You don't just stand there and say, 'This is what you do, and this is what you don't do.' Latinos have real trouble with that."

El Futuro itself is the result of a focused statewide effort to figure out what kinds of HIV prevention would work with Latinos.

Three years ago, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment contracted with the Denver-based Latin American Research and Service Agency to produce a comprehensive survey of groups at the highest risk of contracting AIDS: men who have sex with men, and users of intravenous drugs. When it was completed -- one year and scores of interviews later -- the Latino Community Identification Project painted an explicit picture of a population whose social and economic circumstances were well outside the experience of the gay white population.

Some said that they were so desperate for sexual release that they pursued men because they couldn't afford female prostitutes, who were plentiful and cheap in Mexico. Even when describing orgiastic scenes at gay bathhouses and encounters with strangers, some didn't identify as being homosexual. Even if you had gay sex, you weren't gay. You were desperate. You were drunk. You were caught up in a moment. [page]

"That's always the pretext that we offer: We were drunk. Always, always the person says, 'No, I didn't know what I was doing.' But the truth is that, yes, the person does know that they're doing," said one respondent. Others described encounters with heterosexual men, some of whom returned home to wives and girlfriends after having unprotected sex with another man. "A lot of men are bisexual, and they are out doing their thing with Mexicans or Chicanos or whomever, and then they are going home with their wives," a response reads. "I think 'real Mexicans,' 'machos,' they are all checking me out. I look at them and I am thinking, 'Buddy, you are married.'"

"The stigma around being gay is so negative within the Latino community, you have a number who live a dual life because of that internalized self-homophobia," says M.E. Morreo, executive director of the ECCOS Family Center, El Futuro's parent organization. "Even some who are out as having male partners, not all of them are gay-identifying. The stigma is so strong that even though you have a partner, you're living with this person, in the words of one of the members, 'I don't know what you would call me. I like to have sex with men. But I am not gay.'

"I really feel for the gay or bisexual immigrant that comes to the United States," Morreo continues. "It's similar to the streets-are-paved-with-gold idea, when people used to leave their home countries to pursue religious freedom and things like that. But when they get here, they find it's harder than they thought. They're foreigners; they may not speak the language; there's racism. They have a right to live the life that they wish to live, but there's so much machismo, so many barriers to tackle."

Most of the men who shaped the Latino Community Identification Project said that, above all, they'd like a place of their own -- a safe place where they could be open about their sexuality and feel the support of a community. A simple place where they could get together with other gay men -- not a bar or a nightclub, not in a bathhouse or in Cheesman Park -- and just talk, get help and be themselves.

"There are so many strengths within communities," says Coloradans Working Together's Jean Finn. "They tend to help themselves solve many of these problems. A place of safety, where someone can go and talk openly and honestly with someone who can help them and work with them -- they have proven to be effective. People need that feeling of safety and community."

In 2002, with money from the Centers for Disease Control, the state health department approved a three-year grant for the development of El Futuro, a community center that would provide HIV prevention and outreach, mental-health services, HIV testing and a non-threatening group dynamic for gay and bisexual Latino men. The grant seeded the center with an annual budget of nearly $125,000 -- enough for two full-time employees and a smattering of contract workers.

The money was minimal, but it was a start -- and a near miracle, considering that this year, Colorado cut funding for HIV prevention programs by 12 percent. Medina has bolstered the center's coffers through fundraising -- his team generated almost $2,000 during this year's AIDS Walk -- and the kindness of friends and strangers. The center works with about a dozen volunteers and has received donations from across the state.

"In Colorado's history, the gay population of color has never received this much attention," Medina says. "The grant was something that was in process for a long time, and it took the efforts of a lot of dedicated people to bring it about. We told them we could prove that this thing could work, and now we have to prove it: This center is something that is needed in Denver, Colorado, right now."

Now it is up to Medina to make sure the community gets the message.

Freddie Krueger is serving strong cocktails to the crowd at Broadway's, a gay dive bar where a Halloween party is just starting to find some drunken forward momentum. A few groups on the dance floor -- women and men in pairs of two -- are shakin' to "Turn the Beat Around," spun by a phantom DJ. The peripatetic disco beat makes ice pulse in empty glasses abandoned on tables all around the room.

Justin McCarthy scans the scene, looking for fresh meat. The crowd is mostly older, mostly white; some men at the bar are more interested in the Red Sox game playing silently on TV ("Johnny Damon, come to Daddy!" says one guy, whose friend makes catcalls at the screen) than in the action on the floor. Finally, McCarthy spots a guy he wants to talk to: a beefy, brown-skinned man, his silk shirt opened to the middle of his hairy chest. At 22, McCarthy is trim and adorable, with bright, shiny dark eyes, fine-boned cheeks and a closely shaved head hidden beneath a baseball cap. As he approaches, the man's eyes light up a little. [page]

McCarthy reaches into his bag and produces lube, condoms and fliers like a gay Mary Poppins. The guy takes some of each, then stops to examine an invitation for an El Futuro orientation.

"Will you come?" McCarthy says coyly.

"I don't know," the guy responds. "I'll see what my friend says. I never heard of this before. It sounds a little weird."

As an outreach worker for El Futuro, McCarthy visits clubs, bars, parks and other places where gay men congregate, looking for Latinos who might be open to learning more about the place. He is seeking out a group that doesn't always want to be found -- and isn't always in the mood, or frame of mind, to listen. He prefers to approach individuals or couples. Large groups intimidate him: At a bar like this, people are out to have a good time, not think about a downer like HIV.

"I don't just go up to them and say, 'You! You should get tested for HIV!'" McCarthy says. "I try to sell them on El Futuro in a general way. Like, 't's a cool place to come and hang out and meet people. And, hey, everybody could use some counseling.'

"The drunker and drunker people get, the harder it is to talk to them," he adds. "And I have to be careful sometimes. Some guys can get the wrong idea if you come up to them waving a condom."

Still, McCarthy does better in gay bars -- where everyone is, at least for the night, open about their sexuality -- than in parks. In the years that he's been doing outreach (as a teenager, he worked with young people through the health-awareness program the Phoenix Project), he's developed a sense of whom to approach and whom to leave alone. "Some people will look at the flier and say, 'What? That's not for me. This place isn't for me. I'm not gay,'" he says. "They can get really offended. But it's like, 'Well, excuse me, but you are cruising Cheesman Park.'"

The next Thursday, one of the guys McCarthy met at Broadway's shows up for orientation at El Futuro. In the room, he and six other men chat while they fill out forms, including a seventeen-page questionnaire about their sexual habits, a rather intrusive piece of paperwork required by the state. On page four, they're asked to enumerate the number of times they have, for example, had "insertive anal intercourse with ejaculation." "You fuck him; you cum up his ass," it clarifies.

Medina knows the paperwork can scare people off, so he creates a diversion, a "let's get to know each other" game that starts with a simple question: "If you could come back in another life, would you come back gay or straight?"

The men think about it for a second, look at each other. Seizing on the pause, Medina throws his hands in the air. "I would be gay!" he exclaims. "I like being gay. I have fun being gay. I am gay. And you know, I think the longer we go on, the easier it's going to get for our little brothers and sisters."

For the next hour and a half, Medina tells the guys about El Futuro. He describes it as a home, a rec room, an environment that's meant to be as casual and unstructured as possible. The men -- three Chicanos, two Mexicanos, one white guy -- share war stories, coming-out stories. One, a Denver native, reveals that he's never come out to his family even though he sees them every weekend.

"It's nice to be here to hang out and just listen to other people," he says. "I may look at it differently after having these discussions. Or I may decide I'm doing the right thing by not coming out. I don't want to be ostracized for three months or anything like that. But it's kind of like, by listening to other people's experience, you learn how to deal with your own."

By 8 p.m., the room radiates with that warm, buzzy feeling of people who are now a little bit closer than they were when the night began. One guy suggests holding a family night. They make plans for their next gathering. Medina offers one more question to the group: Is it easy or hard to be Latino and gay in Denver? [page]

They all agree it's hard. And they all agree it's getting easier.

This is the kind of moment that Lorenzo Ramirez lives for.

"El Futuro is shaping up exactly the way we pictured it," says Ramirez, who has hosted the Grupa Palanca support group since it started in 1994.

"And it has so much more potential to take off in the future. It's a safe space, devoid of alcohol and everything else you see in places where gay men usually come together. We want to respect how they were brought up, to be conscious of who they are. There's no drama, which gay men are famous for creating."

Considered the most influential Latino HIV activist in Denver, Ramirez began dreaming of a place like El Futuro years ago. An artist and dancer from Wyoming, the son of Mexican-born parents, he was first drawn to Denver in the '70s by street-level political movements like the Crusade for Justice and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. In 1995, with some support from the Colorado Aids Project, Ramirez launched his own grassroots project through Servicios de la Raza, where he'd worked since the late '80s: It was an HIV outreach and prevention program called La Gente. La Gente marked the first time that anyone had launched an organized attack against the advance of HIV into the Latino community -- an idea that initially met with some resistance.

"Some of the straight Chicano men just didn't want to deal with it, to get into the homophobia," Ramirez says. "They said, 'There are others who will do it.' And it led to a lot of soul-searching.

"Finally they realized that gay men are part of our community," he adds, "and the question was: Do we embrace them or reject them? And if we reject them, what does that say about us?"

Ramirez himself was diagnosed with HIV in January 1993, a fact he kept from his friends and family for two years. At the time, TV ads warned communities of color about their high risk of contracting HIV, but up until that point, there were few messages that humanized the threat to brown people. It was still thought of as a gay problem, a white problem, a big-city problem. White folks had Rock Hudson. African-Americans had Magic Johnson. Within his community, Ramirez became the face of HIV. He spoke at schools, businesses and community centers, urging other Latinos to protect themselves.

"The closet is a very lonely place to be. There's sadness, isolation," he says. "When I came out about my status, I saw the power of that disclosure. What I was learning about the virus was helping me personally, and I wasn't afraid to get in front of people."

Ramirez has seen tremendous changes in both HIV and the gay community in Denver over the past two decades, and he agrees that while it's still hard to be gay in Denver, it's getting easier, especially for Chicanos. That's good news, of course, but it makes it all the more vital that a proactive HIV-prevention message get through. Rates of infection for young men of all races have gone up, accounting for 32 percent of new infections over the past five years.

"I lost 36 friends in the late '80s and early '90s," Ramirez says. "I think the younger guys haven't experienced that kind of cycle; the shock value isn't there to motivate them. They see the ads; the guys look so healthy and happy. People are letting their guard down. They say, 'Oh, if I get it, I'll just do the medications. Look at you.'"

Still, Ramirez is heartened by what he sees as a slow erosion of the cultural barriers -- that gulch between the old and new worlds -- that have quelled meaningful dialogue about real-life risk. Through the activism of a new generation, he hopes to eventually slough off the belief that to be gay is somehow to be less of a Latino.

"Some of these young guys didn't have to go through what I went through when I was closeted. It's a nice breath of fresh air," Ramirez says. "A lot of young gay Latino men are very open, very focused on what they want to do with their lives. I wish I had been where they are when I was that age.

"We paved the way for them, and they recognize that," Ramirez says. "We give them some positive reinforcement, some role models. My generation didn't have that. The discussions that are created at El Futuro, I would have killed for that." [page]

There's sleeting rain pouring down at dusk on Friday, and El Futuro has taken a morbid turn. Alfonso Maldonado, the center's project specialist, is making sugar skulls at a table just inside the door. In the main room, a fold-out table normally used to display pamphlets and sign-in sheets has been transformed into an elaborate shrine.

Today is National Latin American AIDS Awareness Day and the start of Día de los Muertos celebrations in the Latino world. Dangling from a display rack near the couches are handmade memorials to people whose lives have been claimed by the disease. On pieces of colored paper, affixed with stickers and photographs, loved ones remember their tíos, hermanos, amores.

The mood is festive though reverent as Chris Medina welcomes a handful of El Futuro members who've shown up for the event. Beyond the rituals and dedications, he knows that's a good way to get them in the door. Because it was a special night, Medina splurged, spending $100 of El Futuro's meager budget on snacks and drinks.

"We've always needed to be very creative in the way that we spend our money and the way that we reach out to people," Medina says. "Throwing away paper, paper clips and rubber bands is definitely not part of how we operate. And sometimes we'll trim on things that some people might consider luxuries but are really things that we need -- like art supplies, office equipment and HIV materials. Things like condoms: Condoms aren't cheap.

"But I've always said, 'If you serve food, they will come,'" he adds, fanning his hand toward the table full of goodies.

So far, getting people in the door hasn't been as much of a challenge as getting them to stay.

"The major obstacle, I think, is that men on the whole are not used to asking for help," Medina says. "They don't go to doctors when they have an ailment. They'll just wait until it goes away. They could be on their deathbed. So it becomes a challenge to help them in a way where maybe they don't even realize they're being helped."

But Medina's got to keep them coming back if El Futuro is to have a future. In the year that he's been open, the center has gained about 150 members, but in February, its grant from the state expires. He's in the process of applying for more money, and through La Voz y Furza, a consortium of health-based nonprofits that work with the Latino community, he's working to pool resources and find funding -- from the state, from the Centers for Disease Control, from private foundations. Since it opened, El Futuro has worked to distinguish itself from other groups doing work in the field of HIV. In Colorado, they run the gamut -- from huge nonprofits like the Colorado AIDS Project and the Empowerment Program to older, community-based organizations like Proyecto Nosotros, which works with Latinos living with HIV/AIDS, and Sisters of Color United for Education, a two-woman outreach organization that began in the '80s in the back of a car. Medina's challenge has been to prove El Futuro's value, even when it doesn't always turn up on paper.

"It can be challenging and disappointing at the same time, because you can look at the numbers, and they don't tell the full story of what goes in a program like this," Medina says. "Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not happening. When we send our reports in, that's all they see. They don't see the grassroots, they just see the numbers.

"Now that we have this space, I just hope we get the chance to really develop ourselves," he continues. "To show that this is something that really works, not something that needs to stay in the closet."

For Benigno Velasquez, El Futuro has provided a place where he can develop not only his knowledge, but his confidence and his friendships. Eventually, he says, he may even work up the courage to tell his family in Mexico that he's living with HIV. In the meantime, he's trying to get friends to come to the center, to see for themselves what it's all about -- and to make sure they're okay.

"I've told some of my friends to come to El Futuro to get tested, but I think they didn't want to find out," he says. "But even if they came here and they did turn up positive, then right away they would have support. Right away they'd be surrounded by this community of people who could help them.

"I tell them, 'Don't wait until you're dying and it's too late,'" he continues. "I say, 'Look at my case. I'm not selling anything to you. I just don't want you to go through the same thing that I went through. Listen to me.'"

Devil's Food Cookery
Cassandra Kotnik
For nearly half my life, I watched no TV. When I tell people that, a squint of fundamental distrust screws up their faces, and they look at me like I've got lobsters crawling out of my ears. They always treat me differently afterward -- as though I've just admitted to being the second gunman on the grassy knoll or wandered too far from the short bus without my helmet.

Even though saying I watched no TV isn't entirely accurate, I say it anyway because I love the reaction, the horror of the cathode-ray addict. In this modern world, saying I lived without the succor of the glass tit is like saying I'd held my breath for fifteen years or was a virgin on my wedding night -- an impossible feat of pointless self-deprivation that makes me not a better man, but rather one of questionable mental fitness who might at any moment pull some literature out of my bag and begin talking about my personal relationship with Jesus.

The truth is, for about a decade I watched no prime-time TV. I missed anything that was on the gogglebox before, say, midnight, and I had virtually no conception of what I was missing, because nobody I knew was watching, either. This is one of those easy, unspoken sacrifices that chefs make to their work: The hours they keep prevent them from participating in the simple American ritual of the Tuesday-night lineup or any version of Must-See TV. This helps explains why cooks watch so many movies, why The Simpsons has so many fans among the culinary community -- because it airs on Sunday, the one night most have off. I never saw an episode of Seinfeld in its first-run time slot, never saw Friends or Frasier until I left the kitchens.

Since packing up my kit, though, I've become an inveterate junkie for yesterday's pop culture. I can tell time by reruns now. I watch everything, all jumbled up and out of order, while slowly reintegrating myself into that weird kind of syndicated longing for imaginary places that seizes those who watch far too much artificial life unfolding on the telly. My uncle used to live in the real Providence, Rhode Island. Shortly after an imaginary Providence began its TV run on Providence -- all those tree-shaded neighborhoods, the flaming October foliage, the old stone churches and climbing ivy -- he sold his house for almost three times what he'd paid a few years before. The city, he told me, was almost entirely overrun with people chasing after that phosphene dream of idyllic New England life. Many of Providence's original residents were more than willing to indulge this fantasy, so they sold high, packed their things and moved into huge houses one town over.

It's powerful stuff, this virtual homesickness, this desire to find a town just like the Cicely, Alaska, of Northern Exposure, to have a White House populated by the sort of fiercely smart characters created by Aaron Sorkin for the West Wing, or to hang out in a coffee shop like the one on Friends, in a mythical East Village in a mythical New York -- and I am as infected with it as anyone, not yet hardened to the inevitable disappointment, perhaps because I got started so late. I once thought I found a Cicely in Madrid, New Mexico, and came close to opening a restaurant there before heading north to Denver instead. The White House? Well, we're shit out of luck on that one; Scott McClellan is no C.J. Cregg.

But now I have that coffee shop -- that idealized, comfortable, broken-in neighborhood spot as friendly as Studio City, as easy as the Thursday-night routine. It's Devil's Food Bakery, a patisserie and java joint that's been operating without much fanfare on Old South Gaylord since 1999.

Make no mistake, though: This is a dangerous place firmly dedicated to enabling those with a weakness for the venal wrongs of gluttony to pave their way to hell with pastry. With real lemon curd, with Devonshire cream, fondant, butter cream and mousse. Profiteroles with handmade banana ice cream and banana-caramel sauce. And doughnuts, especially the signature Devil's Food doughnut: as big as the spare tire on a clown car, as dark as a black hole and with the same kind of inescapable gravity for those who venture too close, enough to tempt a saint to sinning with its skin of gleaming chocolate and dark chocolate lace covering squishy devil's food cake. It's a soft pastry, one that really requires a fork, but not everyone bothers with such social niceties. There's an undeniable joy to ripping into it with your bare hands, licking chocolate off your fingers, chasing such decadence with a two-fisted hit of warm cafe au lait, then going back in for more. It's pure indulgence, this doughnut -- what dances through the fever dreams of squirrelly Atkins dieters, what your inner fat kid screams for after too many green salads and rice cakes. And because I have suffered from a lifelong lack of any reasonable impulse control, I had two for breakfast on my first visit to Devil's Food, washing them down with bittersweet espresso, and spent the entire afternoon chittering away like a monkey before slipping down into a twelve-hour sugar coma as black as baking chocolate. [page]

I've been looking a long time for a place like Devil's Food. A culinary home base. A reflex choice where the wife and I can go on Sunday afternoons without having to think about where we're going. A lazy spot where lingering is appreciated as an art form, with couches in front and an eclectic dining room in back, with the silver kept in thrift-store dressers; an eatery where we can settle in at eleven in the morning and make fun of other restaurants while drinking DazBog coffee and Limonata from the can, eating apple-and-brie sandwiches or flatiron-cut steak and frites with a passable Dijon mustard sauce and a haystack of tangled, crispy shoestring potatoes as thin as angel hair.

Somewhere with homemade drop scones behind the nose-smudged glass of the bakery case, good music on the pipes, tea served in individual samovars from a list as dense as any wine bible, and servers who are excited about the menu, always ready with a suggestion for a personal favorite dish, happy to rewrite checks for tables (like mine) that order seconds or thirds or want to add thirty bucks' worth of take-away pastries at the last minute.

Devil's Food is the fantasy coffee shop of my dreams and then some, since chef/owner Gerald Shorey recently expanded his spot to offer a full board of breakfast, lunch and dinner. A Scottsdale C-school grad, Shorey is a veteran of the pastry departments at Mel's, Tante Louise and the Brown Palace. His kitchen cooks seasonally, sometimes organically, and always with carefully sourced ingredients. There's real maple syrup -- thin, nutty and sweet with raw sugars -- served with the Belgian waffles at breakfast; real whipped cream, whipped sweet butter. The eggs Benny are mounted over salty French ham and topped with scratch hollandaise. The French onion soup is dark and woody-sweet and comes in a mug plugged with a Gruyère-topped crouton rather than some nasty cap of melted, oily Swiss.

For dinner, the offerings are kinked to the clatter of the fax machine and change constantly depending on the availability of good product and the whims of the chef and his crew. On a Saturday night, the menu listed crabcakes with caper tartar sauce; a sea-scallop app; seared arctic char over wilted spinach with grapefruit salsa; roasted duck with cranberry/apple-cider brown butter; and pork tenderloin with autumn veggies and sweet-potato gnocchi. By Sunday at seven, the duck was sold out, the last order of pork was going out the door, the scallop app had moved up to entree status, and the leftover cranberries had turned into a dessert sorbet.

That kind of menu -- that seat-of-the-pants, make-it-up-as-you-go, instinctive, ever-shifting board of fare -- is as much a fantasy arrangement for any chef as finding a place like Devil's Food is fulfillment for me. But the workaday reality is not always so neat. Shorey is a patissiere by trade -- not a linesman, not a cook -- and he's still adjusting to life on the line. That showed with the scallops, which I had after their promotion to entree. They sat like perfectly pan-seared marshmallows, lovely and brown, atop a ribboned nest of limp pappardelle noodles in a muddy broth that smelled great, looked like dirty dishwater and tasted like old tin. I understood the intent -- the tarn of broth sauce, the powerful herbs, the attempt to get a fragrant, earthy liquid to infuse the meat of the scallops without just making a soup -- but broth sauces on pasta are tough. They have to retain a certain viscosity to work, a silky stickiness neither too thick nor too thin, and they have to do it without breaking under heat, without becoming oily, while still remaining an unmounted liquid. Broth sauces look great on paper and in cookbooks, but they are graduate-level culinary chemistry, much easier to bungle than to bang out right, and this one was pure rookie inelegance.

The devil's in the details, as they say, and the scallops weren't Shorey's only problem. For breakfast, I tried a stuffed French toast that wasn't so much stuffed as it was a layer of sliced, glazed and roasted apples sandwiched between two bias-cut spears of the house's fantastic challah, Frenched and grilled. A compound honey-almond butter was supposed to kick up the apples -- but you know what happens to butter when it's introduced to two slices of hot bread? It melts, leaving you with damp apples and bread swimming in almond-butter soup. A good almond soup, maybe, but not right. On a previous menu, this French-toast sandwich was stuffed with honeyed mascarpone and grilled peaches, which worked better because mascarpone is thicker and can take the heat. The compound butter required a stuffed French toast that was actually stuffed -- a thick slice of challah with the apples and iced butter tucked into a pocket cut into the center -- so that the butter could slowly melt down into the guts of the bread while the outside was toasted on the flat grill. [page]

On the lunch menu, there's a chicken paillard that isn't -- a paillard being a thin slice of chicken or veal, pounded and generally breaded, then quickly fried or sautéed like a scaloppine, not just a baked, seasoned chicken breast, as presented here. Even called by the wrong name, though, the chicken was fantastic. It came sided with a pearly garlic couscous so tender and powerful and delicious that halfway through my first helping, I was already sad that it soon would be gone and started thinking about ordering a second plate to go.

Shorey is the devil's own when it comes to cooking -- a guy who's still in the process of making that rare jump from the science of pastry to the gut-level instincts of line cooking. But once he gets it, once he hits his stride on the hot side, he'll be truly dangerous, a double threat in a business where there aren't many who can work one side of the kitchen consistently well, let alone both. And the signs are good that he will make it, because aside from the truly awful scallops, there was no mistake at Devil's Food so egregious that I actually stopped eating anything that was put in front of me. More important, there was nothing that will keep me from going back again. And again. After a long search, I've found my spot -- my Cicely, my Providence, my Friends coffeehouse. While not everything is perfect, it's close.

And in the real world -- off the sound stage and working without a script -- close to perfect is good enough for me.


On this damp summer morning, the question beams out from bulletin boards and bathhouse doors all over Shambhala Mountain Center. It's a rhetorical question, of course -- a Xeroxed Zen koan. Because right now, no one is talking much at all: The bumper stickers on cars in the parking lot are more expressive than many of the Buddhists and master meditators at the center today. On a bench beneath a large pine tree, two guys in suits play mute chess. In the dining hall, a breezy white tent filled with casually ominous warnings (BEARS have been taking from the refrigerator! If this happens to you, please be understanding!), a woman greets a friend by nodding benevolently and pointing to a button pinned to her shirt: SILENCE.

People come from all over the world to shut up at Shambhala -- from Australia, South America, New York, Greeley -- and methodically cut out the mental chitchat of their lives. A vast, leafy Buddhist mecca in the green-fuzz hills near Red Feather Lakes, the center sits on 600 acres of mostly undeveloped wilderness. Army-tent encampments lie in shanty-style neighborhoods across the land, which is carpeted with wildflowers and overrun by squirrels. Many spend months on this mountaintop with limited contact with the outside world, keeping it zipped through rituals, prayers, meals and meditations.

I plan to start with a more reasonable increment of time for my self-imposed vow of silence: five minutes. Inside one of Shambhala's many meditation tents, I take a spot on the floor, surrounded by about thirty people -- adults, teenagers, and a few kids who look as young as four. They've all got their legs folded and are staring softly ahead, toward a small statue of Buddha flanked by flowers. It's as if they're tuned into the same invisible movie screen, a spiritual drive-in. Aside from the occasional cough or sniffle, there's just a slight hum in the room -- a collective human frequency radiating from measured breath and focused concentration.

Suddenly, I want very badly to join the hum, so I run over the tip given to me by Barb, the friendly Shambhalan I met over breakfast: If you find your mind wandering, just repeat the word "thinking." Then stop thinking.

Turns out that this is much easier said than done. My first minute on the mat goes something like this:

Hm-mm. (Clear throat.) Okay. All right. Check me out! I'm meditating!


If the bears can open a refrigerator, surely they can find their way into the tent I'll be sleeping in?


Don't Buddhists believe in respect for all sentient creatures? Does that mean I can't swat at the swarm of canary-sized mosquitoes buzzing in my ears?


Seriously, what about West Nile? Is my cat going to pee on my bed while I'm gone? Why is "Addicted to Love" looping in my head?

Thinking, thinking, thinking.

After a few minutes, I might as well face it: I am a sucky meditator.

When I report this to Daniel Hessey, a Shambhala teacher who helped establish the center almost thirty years ago, he doesn't attempt to hide his amusement. Sitting at a picnic table near the meditation tent, he strums a guitar and smiles, emanating the sunny charm of someone who's spent a good portion of his life in the lotus position.

"That's an old Buddhist joke: 'I tried to meditate and nothing happened,'" he says, chuckling. "The point is about developing a healthy approach to developing your mind -- the way that you would do yoga or work at the gym. It's not meant to be some esoteric thing. It's not meant to revolutionize your life overnight. Like any genuine training, it's a gradual process. If nothing happens, you're on the right track."

In fact, Hessey explains, nothing much is meant to happen at Shambhala Mountain Center at all. That's the point: The place is a minimalist's amusement park, where the Matterhorn is in your mind.

But in its quiet way, Shambhala Mountain Center is one of the most happening places in Colorado -- a sacred site in a Western Buddhist community that germinated in Boulder and has exploded nationally over the past three decades.

There's plenty of energy in the stillness. It's just that people don't talk about it too much.

If Shambhala Mountain Center is Buddha's summer camp, Boulder is most certainly his adopted home town.

The guy's big here, like some kind of cosmic mascot. His gently smiling face is stuck to flagpoles and SUV bumpers across the University of Colorado campus. Two Tibetan gift shops on the Pearl Street Mall are flush with paintings and statues of him: He comes small or large, made of bronze, silver, marble or clay. Along 13th Street, Japanese, Chinese and Indian Buddhas peer out from shop and restaurant windows. Sometimes he's pot-bellied and mischievous; other times, he's slender and serene. [page]

How did this austere avatar become such a celebrity in a landlocked, Western mountain town founded by rugged Christian miners and farmers? How did he get from the bodhi tree to the Flatirons?

According to Shambhala International, the umbrella organization that operates Shambhala Mountain Center, he arrived draped in the gold-and-burgundy robes of an enigmatic monk named Chgyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a reincarnated descendant of the Trungpu Tulkus school of Buddhism in Tibet. One of the first lamas to translate Tibetan works into English, Chgyam Trungpa brought Buddhism to the West when he moved to Boulder in the early '70s. During his more than ten years here, he flew around in helicopters, drank heavily and once punched the poet W.S. Merwin at a Halloween party. He also founded the Naropa Institute, launched a wildly successful worldwide meditation movement, and introduced Buddhism to millions.

Today, Chgyam Trungpa's influence lingers in Boulder like musk from an incense cone. Copies of his many books line the shelves in the Boulder Book Store. His portrait hangs in the hallway of the Boulder Shambhala Center, one of hundreds of urban meditation centers he opened as part of the Shambhala International network. It's estimated that a quarter of the four million Buddhists practicing in the United States are affiliated with Shambhala. In the Tibetan Buddhist world, and particularly in Boulder, Chgyam Trungpa is as beloved as the Buddha himself.

"Chgyam Trungpa was an extremely magnetic person, and many, many people moved to Boulder just to be around him," says Judith Simmer-Brown, a professor of religious studies at Naropa who studied with Chgyam Trungpa in the '70s. "Boulder was a university town with a kind of new-age curiosity about it. The pursuit of happiness is, and was, really very strong here. In 1974, the first summer of Naropa, that was very much the environment.

"Boulder is, of course, yuppified now," she adds. "It's more unreal now than it was then, in the sense that people who are here are in many ways less diverse now, particularly economically. But Boulder is a mecca for many Tibetan Buddhist teachers who see it as a place where there's really a Buddhist culture; they view it as an important pilgrimage point. A large amount of credit for that is due directly to Chgyam Trungpa himself."

Wild, worldly and eccentric, Chgyam Trungpa hung with hippies and Beats in a scene shaped equally by intellectualism and hallucinogens. His close friend, Allen Ginsberg, helped start the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics as a literary ancillary to Naropa, which opened in a one-room building on the Pearl Street Mall. The guru loved drink, Western culture and women: He was known to hold special sessions with young female students who showed special promise. It's possible that a large portion of his divinely inspired vision of Shambhala Training -- a non-religious path to mindfulness, open to people of all faiths -- was colored by copious amounts of sake.

But he was also a brilliant teacher who found a loving, receptive audience in Boulder. The town swelled with students and seekers drawn to the mystery of Eastern traditions, who were understanding it for the first time under his instruction.

"Chgyam Trungpa recognized that there is a lot of inherent wisdom in the West. He wasn't a Tibetan chauvinist," says Daniel Hessey, who studied and worked with Chgyam Trungpa for more than a decade before the latter's death in 1987. "He wanted to bring out the wisdom that's inherent in each person's cultural inheritance. There was a very exciting element of cultural give-and-take that was happening."

"He was not culturally limited," adds Simmer-Brown. "He was not merely a Tibetan; he had a delight in Western culture, and he was very interested in relating to people who had no particular desire to become Buddhists. He had lots of students who were Christians or Jewish or what have you."

With Chgyam Trungpa at the spiritual helm, Tibetan Buddhism boomed in Boulder. And it's still booming. In theory, a Buddhist Boulderite can practice contemplation from before birth until death: Prenatal yoga classes are abundant, and the area is home to two Buddhist hospices. More than fifteen meditation centers, countless discussion groups and small sanghas, Zen gardens and shrines are staggered throughout the city. Yoga, calligraphy and flower-arranging are practiced widely -- by stragglers on the Pearl Street Mall, little kids, old people, even convicts: The Shambhala Prison Community and the Prison Dharma Network both have headquarters in Boulder. [page]

"I would imagine that if you set up something like Naropa or Shambhala in Salt Lake City or Provo or Colorado Springs, you'd have more trouble getting people in the door," says Mark Silk, who directs the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Connecticut's Trinity College.

"In Boulder, there seems to be, in the grand metaphysical scheme of things, a sense that place and landscape have a kind of very powerful religious significance," Silk adds. "Where is religion in Boulder? Well, look up: It's up on the Flatirons. It is an awesome landscape, and it's no great surprise that it should inspire awe and a kind of religious state that sometimes transcends consciousness."

Chgyam Trungpa's own consciousness extended far beyond the university town. In the late '70s, he began articulating plans for his own world -- a meditation oasis set in the wilderness near the tiny town of Red Feather Lakes, Colorado.

"Chgyam Trungpa had a vision that Shambhala Mountain Center would grow into being one of the largest of its kind and be a resource for a lot of traditions," says Hessey. "I spent a lot of time trying to convince him not to do something so bold, because it would be more work for me. We were trying to make ends meet with a peashooter budget. But he was consistently unconvinced by my hesitation. I'd say, 'I understand the big vision, but it's really not practical.' "He'd just look at me and say, 'I think we should build a bigger one.'"

Early progress was slow on the land, which had been occupied by a ramshackle community of hippie craftsmen who wove, smoked weed and built expressive cabins with heart-shaped floors and ying-yang roofs. The building that currently houses Shambhala Mountain Center's kitchen, as well as a shrine and yoga studio, was once used to manufacture hash pipes. Over time, Hessey and a team of volunteers built cabins, raised money, planted gardens and bought water rights to secure luxuries like running water.

"It was an enormous challenge just to get the place so it could work at all," Hessey says. "And Chgyam Trungpa didn't particularly attract the easiest bunch to work with. People kind of had to fight their way into the community; we were a rough, grouchy bunch. But there was a tremendous amount of willingness to deal with difficulty."

Today, clusters of solitary cabins are nestled into valleys and groves all over the mountains. Tattered prayer flags hang from the aspen and pine trees that grow thick on the land. There's a sense that nature, though far from tamed, is cooperating: Everywhere there are plots for future gardens, new trees and native plants ready to go into the ground.

"The beauty of the land has been there all along," says Simmer-Brown. "But if you were spending time up there in the early days, you had to be rugged physically. Because of the elements, you really felt like you were a pioneer. Now you can stand up in your tent, go for a hike. Enjoy it. It's really become a place where there's the possibility of living with some dignity."

In 1986, Chgyam Trungpa split Boulder for Halifax, Nova Scotia, taking a sizable number of followers with him. Shambhalans contend that the guru was simply moving the movement's center in order to broaden its reach; indeed, centers in Europe and South America opened after his relocation to Canada. But others say he'd grown weary of the very spiritual zealousness that shaped the early Shambhala practice. Some in the community had begun to treat their proximity to Chgyam Trungpa and other high lamas as a credential: Buddhism in Boulder had become a kind of brand name.

"Chgyam Trungpa was averse to the notion of spirituality as a possession as opposed to a tool that's quite ordinary," says Hessey, "and he magnified that kind of energy, as every spiritual teacher did.

"He didn't want to create a sort of walled society like Tibet," he adds. "He wanted to take a bunch of shlemiels, help train us as people so that we could become educated in this tradition. But it wasn't our little piece of personal property. The Buddha did not get enlightened for the sake of the white guys in Boulder. That wasn't the fruition of his dream."

Chgyam Trungpa didn't live to see the fruition of his dream. In 1987, he died in Halifax at the age of 47, from a heart condition compounded by drinking. But in the Buddhist view of death and reincarnation -- where every sentient being is destined to live out untold cycles of lifetimes -- he'll probably be back at Shambhala Mountain Center, in some form, before long. [page]

"A lot of things he did at the time didn't always make sense in the short term," Hessey says. "But now the vision is happening. There's this alchemy of things coming together. It's really becoming something that's a lot more 3-D."

"I can't see Buddha, Mama," says a three-year-old girl who's sliding around on the tile floor, using a meditation cushion as a magic carpet.

"Well, Buddha can see you, so let's be quiet and practice peacefulness," her mother says. "People in here are trying to pray."

More than 2,500 people attended the consecration of the Great Stupa in August 2001: students, yogis, members of the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce, monks from India and Tibet. Also there was Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Chgyam Trungpa's son, who now leads Shambhala International. In one of the Stupa's chambers, his father's skull is preserved alongside several thousand other sacred objects. The Stupa is considered one of the most important Buddhist monuments in the United States; since it opened to the public, it's drawn thousands to Shambhala Mountain Center.

But the Great Stupa, like the rest of the center, is far from finished. Much of the work is done by volunteers: At Shambhala, day-to-day labor -- whether it's scooping out lentils, doing dishes or pulling weeds and painting mandalas -- is all part of the path to enlightenment. During the summer, many of the volunteers are yoga-toned twenty-somethings weaned on Buddhism by parents who studied with Chgyam Trungpa.

"I think we're working on a second generation," says Patricia Rackas, a longtime Shambhalan who helps lead an advanced-studies seminary at the center. "There are kids who've been coming up here all their lives. But there are also new people: Buddhism has been around in America for thirty years, so everyone knows a little. That leads to a certain curiosity and an openness in American culture that more people are actually pursuing, especially young people."

The entire place is utopia in progress -- a truly alternate, mostly functional, largely impermanent world. Increasingly, it's also a successful world. A few years ago, director Jeff Waltcher, a Harvard-educated MBA, boosted Shambhala's bottom line through fundraising and expanded marketing efforts, reaching out to non-Buddhists and the "Nones" -- people who don't claim any religious affiliation. In Colorado, Nones account for a quarter of the population. That percentage is even higher in Boulder, which remains a major feeding source for the center.

Waltcher's strategy is working. In 2000, just over 2,000 people visited Shambhala Mountain Center; in 2003, the site logged more than 15,000 visitors. The center is currently in the midst of the busiest summer in its history. The place is crowded; lines in the dining hall and the bathhouses move at tai-chi speed. Extra tents have been flown in from across the country to accommodate all of the overnight visitors, and the staff has had to refuse reservations because of a lack of space.

"Shambhala Mountain Center was really just a summer camp when I got there," Waltcher says. "Our catalogue was an 8 x 11 Xerox copy. We had maybe fifteen or twenty programs that targeted a small community of people who practiced in a Buddhist tradition, many of them from Boulder. The Stupa was only half built, so there really was no public destination. In six years, we've come from that level and developed our program, seeing what people like and what they don't. We wanted to discover ways to bring the basic discipline into a relationship with the passions of people who live in our neighborhood."

Waltcher has expanded facilities and programming while keeping content relatively cheap: Prices range from about ten dollars for a day visit to a thousand or more for month-long programs. Overnight guests are fed three meals a day, and daily yoga classes are free. A percentage of the center's income is used to finance scholarship funds.

Waltcher says he expects revenues to keep going up -- a mixed blessing from a spiritualist's point of view, since the increased interest in the center coincides with increased concern over current events. "We've seen a real increase in aggression, in hatred of the United States," he notes. "There's a terrible amount of tension, and that has an impact on our world. In a way, we have to view that as being good for our quote-unquote business, because people seem more and more concerned about what's important to them, finding meaning in their lives." [page]

"[Shambhala Mountain Center] has learned from Naropa, and they've realized that there are many people who would like to be there and study meditation there but aren't interested in pursuing Buddhism," says Simmer-Brown. "There are just more people who know about the place, and they feel welcome without having to feel like they're joining something."

"We've had people call up the center and sign up for a program because they've seen a picture of the teacher and they felt they had a connection with that teacher," says Alex Grimes, who schedules visitors to the mountain center through the Boulder Shambhala Center. "It used to be that you'd know everyone, through your parents, just from coming up here. But a lot has changed. Now there are people here from all over the world.

"The majority are looking for a place to go to quiet their lives down," she adds. "It's hard to stop and recognize that you need to slow down. They'll call and say, ŒI work so hard, I just need to relax and quiet my mind.'"

Patricia Rackas has been coming to Shambhala every summer for years. This time she's here with her two young children, who spend most of the day at the Shotoku Children's Center, a dharma-centered daycare. It's definitely not the kind of vacation package that shows up on Travelocity. Showers are taken in shared spaces. Canvas tents are the common form of lodging. Most days, the most exciting moment comes when a gong signals mealtimes, when everyone shuffles in for buffet-style spreads -- feasts of fish, tempeh and organic vegetables grown on-site in a huge geodesic greenhouse that resembles a gigantic plastic locust at rest.

Rackas loves the simplicity, the lack of options.

"I wouldn't choose to be anywhere else," she says. "In the outside world, there are so many pulls: You've gotta be there, you've got to do this. There's a joy that comes from the opportunity to make space in the mind. You don't always realize that until you take yourself out of it. It's not a deprivation; it's an inner luxury."

It's easy to lose track of time in the wordless world of Shambhala Mountain Center, where the most popular activity is sitting on your duff and staring into space, honing the art of emptiness. Clocks are few at 8,000 feet. Newspapers and magazines strewn about the dining hall are no help: There are dog-eared volumes of the Buddhist journals Tricycle and Shambhala Sun dating from the '90s, food-smeared sections from a week-old edition of the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

This lack of connection to the outside doesn't bother Bella one bit.

Bella is about three and a half feet tall, with slightly mussed chin-length hair and a mushy reservoir of banana goo pooled in the left corner of her mouth. She is nine years old and a much better meditator than I am. Like a lot of other kids at the center, her parents have a shrine room in their home, and when she gets back there, she intends to start using it. Meditation, she's learned, is a handy trick to mellow a nine-year-old mind.

"If you're feeling frustrated or angry, it can help calm you down," she says, brushing hair off her round face. "If the meditation is making you angry or tired or something, then you probably just don't understand what meditation is all about."

This year, Bella is one of eighteen children enrolled in Shambhala's Rites of Passage program, a week-long camp where kids under ten learn about the art of quietude through meditation, haiku, Japanese archery and other contemplative, Buddhist-based concepts. For the past ten years, the program's been led by Kerry Lee MacLean, a Boulder author and former student of Chgyam Trungpa. In the spring, MacLean works with kids at the Boulder Shambhala Center. But in the wild of Red Feather Lakes, Rites of Passage takes on a primitive quality, using the natural environment to help kids get in touch with Buddha.

"The program was developed to help our society create more sane adults," MacLean says. "We do it at an age when kids naturally begin separating from their parents. In primitive cultures, kids are expected to help and pull their weight. But in our culture, kids have become whiny little brats. We give them the opportunity to participate in something that they can feel good about. In many cases, they go home and start playing a more active role in their homes -- cleaning toilets and cooking and things like that." [page]

MacLean recently published The Family Meditation Book, which posits that ten minutes of family sitting help keep families closely connected. The formula has worked in her own family, she says: MacLean's children were raised with meditation, and all three of her daughters completed the Rites of Passage program. This year, her seventeen-year-old daughter, Kelly, is helping teach Rites of Passage.

"When Kelly was in kindergarten, she'd sit on the playground and meditate," MacLean remembers. "She'd try to teach her friends. She said, 'If you don't, you can't be my friend.' That's not really the attitude you should take to meditation, but it is pretty telling."

Sitting on a giant boulder surrounded by eight youngsters, MacLean reads through a book about the young Buddha before leading the troops to their home base for bananas and milk. Then they all head over to a meditation tent, where many of them join their parents. Once a year, Shambhala opens for family camp, where moms, dads and kids meditate, sleep, eat, hike and hang out together.

"This is a place where the main value is openness and good communication, and that's something every family can benefit from," says Bryan Kemler, an attorney from Boulder at Shambhala with his wife and eleven-year-old daughter, Marley. "This is a kind of vacation from vacation. Normally we'll travel to another country or do something very involved. This is a different experience. The whole goal is just to be gentle with yourself."

Siri Hustad came to family camp with her ten-year-old daughter, Skye, who's one of MacLean's students in Rites of Passage. The two drove to Colorado from Minnesota, where Hustad is a youth minister in the Episcopalian Church. On a visit to Laramie last year, she found a copy of the Shambhala brochure. She and her daughter decided to make the trip this year, partly to step inside another faith.

"I'm always struggling to come up with ways to teach children to meditate or to pray," she says. "From my perspective as a Christian, I knew that Buddhism was based on respect, peace and love. I thought, 'What better way to teach yourself and your child than to immerse yourself?'

"At first I felt a little like, 'I shouldn't be here. I'm not a Buddhist,'" she continues. "But I don't believe that people should be so compartmentalized. I'm learning things here that I'll be using in my own ministry and my own family: When we get home, we've got to teach her dad and brother how to meditate."

In the meditation tent, the kids take their places next to their parents. Most of them sit quietly for a full ten minutes. There are a few twitches here and there, and one discernible yawn. For the most part, though, it's a miraculously still group. Afterward, MacLean gathers them in a circle to ask them how they liked it.

"I wanted to fall asleep," one girl says.

"Sometimes I'm really bored," says another.

"Well, sometimes when you're meditating, you're supposed to be bored," MacLean says. "It's because your mind isn't used to the peace. That's a new thing we're learning in America -- that we can stop and rest."

"I get bugged by bugs," says a little boy in a green shirt.

"Well, don't think about them," offers the girl next to him, plaintively.

"I can't help it. I think about them a lot. They bother me."

"That's the whole point of doing it," says another girl, sucking on a lock of blond hair. "You learn how to not let things bother you so much. You're just like, 'Oh. Yeah. Well, okay. Goodbye, dumb thought.'"

Just before lunchtime, MacLean has the kids do one more exercise. They're to write haiku based on this morning's journey to the maitri building, where the kids sat in rainbow-hued rooms and attempted to absorb the energy of color. After about ten minutes of Crayola scrawling, they stand and recite their poems, one by one. Later, Bella gives me a copy of hers. It goes like this:

Stairing up at the sealing

Swearling downwerd but staying still

blue just Blue

There's very little light in my Army tent, thanks to the dollar-store batteries in my flashlight. Shambhala Mountain Center is so quiet tonight, I feel completely out of touch with one of my senses: I zip the tent door open just to hear a sound.

Sitting on my foam-padded cot, I'm determined to give meditation one more go. I cross my legs, look straight ahead, try to settle my mind.

Hello, dumb thought. [page]

I can't do it. After two days among the yogis and the budding bodhisattvas, in the lingering patina of Chgyam Trungpa's teachings and a light summer rain that fell all afternoon, my mind is everywhere but in the tent with me. I'm thinking about how much gas I've got for the ride home and whether my cell phone died while I was up here. I try to center on images of the Great Stupa, but instead come back with pictures of my apartment on fire.

Fortunately, I've got several hundred lifetimes to figure it out.

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