Last summer my wife and I spent four nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There was something unexpectedly special that I discovered in Cambridge. I can see why my wife is enamored with the Boston area as a retirement area, despite the impression I get that most Bostonians are anxious to retire from Boston.
I spent Monday night having dinner with colleagues at the Table Mountain Cantina in Golden, Colorado. I spend two weeks a year near Golden at the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, and this is my second week this year to hang out here. When looking at dinner options, nearby Golden is an obvious choice, as it is just a few miles to the west. And so there we were again in downtown Golden, except this time choosing to dine at the excellent but affordable Table Mountain Cantina, rather than at Woody’s Pizza across the street, with its terrific all you can eat specialty pizza, salad bar and beer cheese soup buffet (only $10.23).
So I have slowly become more acquainted with Golden over the years. Each visit leaves me more intrigued by this small city of just 19,000 people. It’s much like Buffalo, Wyoming would be if it grew up. In fact, my attraction is becoming more than casual. I feel the need to rent a room for a week or so just to amble around the city to see if my instincts are right. Could Golden, Colorado by my ideal retirement community?
Golden often gets overlooked because twenty miles to the north is the more famous city of Boulder. My brother lives there. It seems to be a haven for liberals (particularly the physically fit ones). Golden may have more history than Boulder, as it was first founded by gold prospectors in the 1850s. Clear Creek runs through the middle of Golden. It briskly carries rains and snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, which it sits right next to. Clear Creek feels more like a river than a creek, particularly during the snow melt season. It is undeniably pretty, cascading downhill at an impressive velocity and full of abundant and clear mountain water. It was no wonder that in 1873 Adolph Coors decided it was an ideal location for a brewery. The Coors brewery is still there, and gets it its water directly out of Clear Creek. The brewery forms a small industrial side of Golden. If there is an area of Golden to dislike, the brewery area would probably be it.
Mainly though Golden feels like a 21st century anachronism of a small mid-20th century town. It feels vibrant, healthy and whole. It sits close to Denver but it feels a world apart. To its west loom the Rocky Mountains. To its east is a tall mesa that hides the Denver skyline, making it feel like it is in a valley of its own. It is a city that feels isolated from the Denver metropolitan area but really is not. In fact, light rail is coming into Golden. In a few years it will be possible to take light rail all the way from Golden to Denver International Airport far northeast of Denver.
Golden’s downtown is just lovely. There is simply no other way to describe it. It is incredibly clean and modern and feels as safe as I suspect it is. There are a few chain stores in the city, but no Wal-Marts to be found, at least inside the city itself. Mostly you have hosts of independent businesses lining Washington Avenue and neighboring streets: restaurants, boutiques, antique and coffee shops. Golden has a vibrant main street that forms the center of the community. Ambling down Washington Avenue is a joy. It is hard not to spend long minutes perched on the bridge over Clear Creek mesmerized by the constant rush of clear falling water. On Monday night it was running briskly, but not so briskly that some residents were not out on the rocks dipping their legs into the creek. A cool and clean mountain breeze funneled over the bridge, cascading into my nostrils and making me feel invigorated and glad to be alive.
Everyone has their idea of what a retirement community should look like. For me it does not involve ugly track houses in Arizona or Florida, or shuffleboard at a seniors’ center, but being part of a real and vibrant community. Golden has a university, the Colorado School of Mines, so it has a strong and enduring educational presence, borne out by the many young people walking around. Ethnically, no getting around it: it is overwhelmingly white, but there is a modest Oriental community. The housing in Golden is a mixture of new condos along Clear Creek and historic, Victorian-style houses, all seemingly well maintained. Parks and bike paths abound. For the athlete, a brisk run or bike ride to the top of Lookout Mountain is close and invigorating. At the summit on a clear day you can see the airport more than thirty miles away. There you can also find the museum and grave of Buffalo Bill.
Golden is a city but has a small town village feeling, and yet it is connected to the Denver metropolitan area. Being close to a cosmopolitan area is important to me. Granted, Denver is hardly the most impressive metropolitan area I could pick, but it would definitely do. It has all the things one looks for in major cities: museums, sports teams, concert halls and major universities. As I noted before, the whole Denver area has a progressive feeling to it, epitomized by Denver’s emerging light rail system.
Yet Golden is close to lots of attractions of its own. Red Rocks outdoor amphitheater is just a few miles away, and it regularly draws major performers. Its biggest attractions are the looming Rocky Mountains which it sits next to. It is literally a gateway to the continental divide since it is the last exit before I-70 climbs toward points west. I’ve never tried skiing, but I might be inspired to try since skiing is abundant in Colorado and close by. If not skiing there is so much more outdoorsy stuff: hiking, nature watching, biking, rock climbing and camping. Golden is ideally located at the nexus between nature and the city.
I also want an active retirement. I currently teach as an adjunct at a community college. Right next to Red Rocks Amphitheater is Red Rocks Community College. Potentially I could teach part time there, and it would be an easy commute. I could bike there without much difficulty.
While I haven’t looked at real estate prices, I suspect Golden is much more affordable than snooty Boulder to its north. Colorado also gets real winters, something near and dear to my wife, although she might find the light, powdery snow offensive to her eastern sensibilities. The mile high dry air might take some getting used to, but I am here so often I don’t notice it anymore. I do know that I appreciate dry air, which Colorado has in abundance, along with plenty of sunny days. Most of the year you can live comfortably and without an air conditioner. Just open the windows.
What’s not to like about Golden? It would take some time in the city to figure out if there are downsides worse than the Coors Brewery. I do know how it feels. To me, it feels comfortable, snug and has a strong, hometown gravitas. I suspect I could spend the last (hopefully) thirty years of my life quite comfortably in a condo overlooking Clear Creek in downtown Golden. If I can convince my wife to do it, I’d like to spend a week or two in Golden and find out.