Littleton, Colorado

This is going to be a long one because, to be honest, and to my total surprise, I really loved Littleton.

There’s not a whole lot to the place at first glance. The RTD light rail that goes there hardly announces the area when it passes through. Littleton is simply defined by its ‘Downtown’ and ‘Mineral’ stops. It’s pretty much as suburb-y as you can get but once you really get into it, you’ll see that Littleton is a treasure trove of American life. It’s full of colour, whimsical stores tacked onto homes and old architecture. If I had to compare it to anywhere it would be to Stars Hollow (hello, Gilmore Girl fans) and then some.

There were a few reasons why I wanted to visit Littleton. It is typically quite a wealthy town in an already quite wealthy Denver suburbs, its popularity heightened during the Gold Rush and later the Space Race due to its proximity to the factories that created the Titan Rocket. It’s just a typical middle-class American town with white picket fences and unnecessary SUVs and not something I’d had a chance to experience in the bustling cities of San Francisco, New York or DC.

The other reason why I went to Littleton was that I wanted to visit Columbine (you may have seen this on my 101 in 1001 list). The Columbine High School Massacre – as morbid as it sounds – is a topic I’ve read extensively around. The reality of how and the psychology of why has always interested me – no one has ever really come to a conclusion but several theories have been put forward. Was it peer pressure, pure hatred, or mental health related? Regardless, the fact that it was a catalyst for so many horrific events around the world and still is some twenty years later is something I, and others, have continuously tried to get our heads around. Mental health is something that played a much bigger role in Columbine than anyone realised even at the time and as you probably know, mental health is something I am quite passionate about.

I also went because I felt compelled to pay my respects to one victim in particular whose journals have had a deep impact in my life. Rachel Scott was a typical seventeen-year-old in a rather religious society (Littleton has an enormous amount of churches and religious centres).  She struggled with life, peer pressure and boundaries just like the rest of us and the journals and writings she left behind are a good foundation for living your best life. I’m not religious (not at all) and Rachel’s writings aren’t religion-heavy but more centred around being a good person, reaching out to everybody no matter what race, creed, sexuality, ability or social status and just being yourself. I’ve tried to be a bit more like Rachel in my day-to-day life and it’s helped me become a better person. So, I guess I wanted to go to Columbine to say thank you.

What I found in Littleton was something so much better than I thought, a strong sense of community, a town that had successfully risen above the tragedy that had once defined it to the world and a very warm welcome.

But first, let me tell you about the best breakfast place in (probably) all of Colorado.

Toast is a family owned diner-restaurant off of West Bowles and South Santa Fe Drive. There is no better word in the world to describe it other than ‘cosy’ because when I got in, it was packed to the rafters (and for a Monday morning, that looked quite promising).

I was given a nice seat in the corner (thank God) and asked a bit about how I came across the place, I think I was one of the few people who had stumbled across the place on foot. I wasn’t given a spiel about the place which I was glad of because I was already pretty sold on it but I did hear the waiter tell the couple beside me all about the history of the restaurant and how their pancakes were voted into USA Today’s Top 50 in the country. So I went for the ‘Nutty’ which was a stack of banana and Nutella pancakes (with nuts on top) and it. was. incredible. I had been so used to the half-hearted attempts from other brunch places I had tried in the Bay Area so this was phenomenal. There was nothing half-hearted about it.

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But let me tell you about the coffee. It was served and refilled in the largest mug any restaurant had given me on my travels so far. In Ireland, I was so used to coffee being served in paper cups or white porcelain clinical cups. In the States, you were given mugs akin to what you’d find in your grandmother’s cupboard. You were continuously fed tubs of milk – all kinds of milk – and were offered paper cups if you couldn’t finish what you were served.  I instantly fell in love.

The service was fantastic, the server himself being one of the original owners,  and the sense of community spirit is with you even on your way to the restrooms – you’re treated to children’s artwork on the walls. And when I saw they were hiring servers, I was tempted for just a second to quit my job and move out.

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Littleton itself is a cute (and I hope they don’t mind me saying, quintessential American town). The streets are lined with white picket fences and remnants of a bye-gone era of late 1980s and early 1990s

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When I was there, it was small and peaceful. It was also ridiculously early so hardly anything was open but it was nice to experience the town before everyone else woke up.

The other great asset that Littleton has is its people. People had a habit of saying hello to you when you passed by, shop owners made a point of making small talk whether or not you were going to buy something. The best experience I had of this was when I was waiting at the bus stop outside the light rail station to go to Clement Park, the park where the Columbine Memorial is situated. A tall, unkempt man approached and sat down opposite me. This was common in the US, strangers striking up conversations with other strangers. I felt a little uncomfortable but I knew I had nowhere else really to go to avoid him so I buried my head in my guidebook and hoped he wouldn’t make conversation. But he did.

He asked me if I was a native of Colorado, I said no. Was I native of the U.S.? No. Was I Canadian? Nope. English? God no. Then where was I from?

Ireland, I said.

His eyes lit up. He told me that he used to love watching professional cycling in high school and that Sean Kelly, the professional Irish racer was a personal hero of his. I looked at him funny: Are you serious? I asked.

Pretty much. He then told me all about the different parts of Ireland he had seen on TV and in films and books. He told me all about his family in Bakersfield, California and how much they wanted him to move out to the West Coast and how much he loved Colorado too much to ever leave. The more I got talking to him, the more he became a fountain of knowledge of politics, Colorado life and professional cycling. Who I wrongly assumed to be another homeless black man (which is rather rare in itself in Colorado), was actually just an old veteran chilling around Littleton, enjoying retirement.

We were joined then by another scruffed up man whom neither of us knew nor what to make of. He was a strong left-wing activist, told us about how he grew up in Puerto Rico, was thrown into jail after avoiding the draft during Vietnam and now created natural coffins for people who didn’t want to be “pumped up with chemicals” after they died (he nicknamed them ‘The Grateful Dead’). My first friend was a bit sceptical of all he was saying and regardless of whether or not it was true, it was pretty damn interesting. I got a rundown on American foreign policy the way he saw it with a side lecture on the currency market. I was both grateful and sad when my bus arrived, it was probably the most entertaining conversation I had had in months.

I then headed on to the main reason for my visit.

The Columbine memorial is only a couple of hundred yards away from the school itself, in a 60 acre area called Robert F. Clement Park which gives is home to geese, many prairie dogs and a beautiful view of the Denver foothills and the Rockies in the distance. The park is huge and hosts many outdoor festivals throughout the year but the day I went, it was very, very quiet. To access it you need to take the RTD to Littleton and the 59 bus route through West Bowles Ave (and it’s not wholly eventful).

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Two of the many very loud friends I made

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The view from the Johnson Reservoir.

The Memorial is situated more or less bang in the middle of the park, a gorgeous oval-shaped red brick dug out with six small waterfalls, trees and columbines, the State flower, dotted among the plaques. On the surrounding wall are stone tablets with quotes, observations and facts about the event. In the middle is a circle of memorial plaques of the thirteen, twelve students and one teacher, who were killed in 1999 along with beautiful flowers and mementoes. The area is very exposed and on that particular day, the sun was unforgiving but I managed to find one bench underneath the shade of a tree and just sat. The park is lined with freeways and boulevards but the space that Jefferson County had created was beautifully peaceful.

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I refrained from taking an enormous amount photos (I don’t think I even touched my Nikon that day) and those I did take, apart from the one above, I will not post here. This isn’t a tourist attraction, and the school have commented many times on their frustration at people treating it as such (think tour buses, etc – yes, genuinely). It is simply an open space to reflect and be at peace, and certainly, in the midst of all that is going on in the U.S. regarding gun-control, it is the perfect place to think about all that has yet to be done.

I walked the perimeter of the park – it takes approximately an hour – and ends at Columbine High School. There are many batting cages and football pitches in the park and one baseball field in particular was hosting the school and an opposing high school team in what looked like a pretty fierce game of baseball (athletics is pretty big among the Jefferson County schools). The school itself, which you pass on your way out, was already busy preparing for the next school year – students were already parking, signs were up alerting them to get their parking passes and ID photos for the year. Of course, I didn’t dare cross the boundary into the school – as I said, this is not a tourist sight.

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I found a large Barnes and Noble near the school where I could get out of the sun and sit down for a bit. One of the booksellers struck up a conversation with me and when I remarked about how friendly people were, she said that was exactly why she’d moved here.

When I returned to Denver, the server in the restaurant I had dinner in (he and I had struck up a kind of rapport) asked where I’d been that day.  When I told him I’d just spent the day in Littleton, he scrunched up his nose asked why. I just told him to go there for himself.

If I had all the money and time in the world, I would rent an Airbnb right here for one month to explore the surrounding area and maybe write a novel. I can see why many people, especially Colorado natives, might find this side of Denver boring – yes, there are plenty of strip malls and large complexes only accessible by car, there’s a lot of dust (especially during a drought), there’s dry heat in the summer and weird and wonderful wildlife but believe me, the people are what makes Littleton so unique and worth visiting.

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