This house on Pine Street was used as the setting for the TV show “Mork and Mindy.” Credit Caine Delacy for The New York Times
My cultural pilgrimage to the Rocky Mountains began more than 20 years ago, a few steps from my door in the East Village of Manhattan. The poet Allen Ginsberg was staging one of the regular readings at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, featuring his Buddhist-inspired verse. As he fielded queries after the reading, he mentioned that he was decamping to teach at something called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in, of all places, Boulder, Colo.
Poetry in Boulder? Until then, I had envisioned the town as a high-altitude boot camp, where every resident dressed in colorful spandex and went hiking, biking and climbing with grim determination. When it came to culture, it was hard to imagine anything more profound than the “Mork and Mindy” house, whose exterior is featured in the TV series. But Ginsberg insisted that Boulder was actually brimming with progressive artists, writers and musicians. It used to be called “the Athens of the West,” he enthused.
So as an Amazonian heat wave descended on New York a year ago, I decided to finally make the expedition to the Rockies to answer a question: How does culture thrive in a world of free-climbers and triathletes, who one might think are more concerned with perfectly formed abs than deeper questions of the soul? Or has Boulder’s very intimacy with the great outdoors created a cultural scene all its own?
Arriving on a hot but blissfully dry July night was a disorienting experience, and not just because of the thin alpine air. At first glance, Boulder seemed dreamily pleasant, as clean and orderly as a Swiss resort, but not exactly in bohemian ferment.
On the tidy Pearl Street Mall, crowds were gathered by burbling fountains to watch buskers, jugglers and flame-swallowers. Uplifting mountain views framed every corner. The bike lanes were so perfectly drawn they qualified as site-specific sculptures. In fact, everyone was so cheerful, healthy and fresh-faced that I had to fight the urge to flee back to Manhattan.
Instead, I checked in to the Colorado Chautauqua, an enclave of cottages that opened in 1898 at the base of the Flatirons, the dramatic foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This was the Western outpost of a national adult education movement specifically created to combine culture and the great outdoors: Gilded Age travelers flocked here to meet visiting artists, listen to lectures by mutton-chopped philosophers or hear opera sung by visiting European divas, then go hiking in the idyllic natural setting. (One fan, Teddy Roosevelt, called the Chautauqua movement “the most American thing in America.”)
The Chautauqua’s once-austere teetotaling regimen has clearly loosened up. When I arrived, the historic concert hall had been taken over by Ziggy Marley and his band. The air vents had been opened for the warm summer night, so the strains of reggae wafted from the auditorium across the landscaped grounds, accompanied by a sweet miasma of legalized marijuana from hundreds of Boulderites picnicking and sipping wine beneath the stars.
In the spirit of improving both mind and body, I went hiking the next morning with Carol Taylor, a local historian, newspaper columnist and program manager for the Chautauqua. We followed a trail into the Flatirons, soaring triangular crags that were named for their resemblance to Victorian-era clothing irons. As sweat-soaked fitness devotees jogged past lugging backpacks filled with rocks, Ms. Taylor engaged me in a mobile history lecture, explaining that Boulder’s current status as a perpetual contender for “America’s most livable town” was the result of a century and a half’s worth of efforts to imbue its idyllic setting with intellectual cachet.
Boulderites gave land and cash in the 1870s to establish the University of Colorado, then donated Chautauqua’s choice site to lure creative celebrities. In 1908, they even hired the renowned landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the designer of Central Park in New York, for aesthetic advice. He recommended they plant more trees — the mountains were barren then — and clean the refuse-strewn Boulder Creek.