After a Year in Colorado, Writer Is Still Trying to Be a Good Transplant

The drive from Los Angeles wasn't going as smoothly as planned. I had already blown out one tire somewhere in the deserts of Nevada by the time I reached the final approach to the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70. “C’mon car,” I said aloud. “Don’t quit now! You can do it!”

This was a legitimate concern, considering that my four-cylinder Kia Rio has about as much horsepower as a Go-Kart. When I’d bought the thing from a teenager named Frankie in East L.A. for a couple G’s in cash, I never anticipated that it would have to take me over the Continental Divide. Yet there I was, not a year later, moving to Denver with whatever possessions I could stuff into or strap around the shoebox of a vehicle. With the extra weight, it was moving so slowly up the mountain that big-rig trucks passed me on my left, blasting their air horns and kicking up dirty snow slush on my windshield in a barrage of irate retaliation.

I tried to focus on just making it to the tunnel. A part of me was excited for my new life up ahead in Denver. Many of my reasons for moving here will sound like a broken record among transplants: a love for the outdoors, joining friends who were already here, being part of Denver’s vibrant social scene, relatively cheap rent compared to L.A. (yes, I acknowledge that I’m part of the growing rent problem in Denver – I’m sorry!).

Another part of me was stressed; there was much uncertainty ahead. Some of it was career-oriented. But it also included the e-mail I’d received the night before in which two of my future housemates, both of whom I had not yet met, informed me that they’d kicked my friend out of the fourth room in our house because he was smoking too much weed indoors.

Suffice it to say that my buddy had not chosen the best strangers to rent a house with; it hadn’t even been two months since we’d all signed the lease. And while I’d originally been relieved that I had a place to move into and I’d sat on my ass in L.A. while they underwent a grueling house hunt, I was now en route to a place from which my friend was now apparently banished. “Safe travels!” the e-mail concluded.

It’s been nearly a year since these events of January 2015, which to me seems hard to believe. So much has happened during the first twelve months in Denver (including more housemate swaps; I ended up staying and replacing the original roomies with a friend and two Craigslist finds when our lease expired, which was surprisingly easy to do because the demand for rental housing was so high this summer).

In that time, I've learned some surprising things about myself, and more than a few surprising things about Colorado.

The first: I get the whole “Colorado Native” bumper sticker and T-shirt thing. We live in an incredible place, and no one wants transplants like me ruining things. But by the end of this piece, I hope that you’ll forgive me for — as one of our readers recently put it — "exiting the womb" in California. I've been trying my best to not only consume what this city has to offer, but to learn its history and participate in its communities, as well.

Upon arrival, though, I was most preoccupied with identifying the cultural differences between Denver and my native Los Angeles.


Where dogs get as much priority in outdoor restaurant seating as humans.


Where Nalgene bottles are a fashion accessory.


Where you can come home to find six raccoons stuck in your chimney (this happened to me).


Where Subarus are as common as Toyota Camrys in most other cities.


Where the question “What do you do?” more likely refers to the type of outdoor sport you’re into rather than your profession.

Much of this was a refreshing change from the perpetual rat race of Los Angeles, where people do carve out time to give you attention, sure, but only when they choose to. This is partly the price of ambition, though it also doesn’t help that Angelenos spend so much time isolated alone in their cars. Not to say that I hate L.A. – quite the opposite – but I didn’t realize until getting here how tightly wound I’d become in that city. If there’s anything Coloradans can teach the coastal cities, it’s how to keep things in perspective and maintain an underlying chill beneath everything they do.

I also had never been in a large U.S. city where it's so easy to meet people as Denver. I believe much of this, perhaps to the chagrin of some of those Colorado natives, is because there are so many transplants like me that moved here in the past few years – where we’ve arrived knowing a couple of friends but are far from flush with phone numbers.

Of course, my cultural observations were soon coupled with more practical lessons required to live in Colorado. I fishtailed and nearly crashed when first driving in the snow, leading me to conclude that the Kia Rio was about as effective on snow as it was getting up Loveland Pass. I learned when to avoid summertime crowds on the 14ers, that LoDo becomes fraternity row on Friday and Saturday nights, and that I’d better memorize the names of at least some of the Broncos besides Peyton Manning.

I learned that marijuana would almost always be the first thing that friends and family asked me about back home in California. And to be honest, being able to walk into a dispensary and casually pick up some green still seems as novel to me as it did when I first visited Denver in September 2014 and wrote a piece for the LA Weekly about getting stoned at Red Rocks for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s “Classically Cannabis” show.

But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that to be a good transplant, I needed to explore Denver beyond Union Station and the 16th Street Mall. If possible, I even needed to find places and scenes where I could participate or contribute something. And while some Colorado natives may continue to wish I’d go back to California, I’ve found most people in Denver to be kind and welcoming as long as I make an effort to know their city.

I'm still learning, of course, but there have been so many amazing places and events I discovered this year. A few of these highly subjective shout-outs include: Lighthouse Writers Workshop, the Narrators at Buntport Theater, Hogshead Brewery, Deerpile, Monday night jazz at the Meadowlark, Warm Cookies of the Revolution, Strange Grounds Coffee open mikes, Sexpot Comedy shows, so many fun bars like Sancho's Broken Arrow and 3 Kings Tavern and Horseshoe Lounge, Lakeside Amusement park, First Fridays in the Santa Fe Art District…

And it still feels like I've only just scratched the surface, because I have. That’s why I’m eager to dig deeper next year, as well as explore greater Colorado. Until then, I owe you a lot of thanks, Denver, for guiding me through a roller coaster 2015. I only hope that I’ve added to your city by coming here. For the most part, I also don’t want you to change.

As a follow-up, here are my New Year's resolutions and Colorado bucket-list items for 2016.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker