Out West: An Unforgettable Road Trip Through Six States and Several National Parks

by Jason Heidemann
Out West Road Trip Opening Photo

I’m on an ambitious Wild West road trip that will swing through six states and include visits to several National Parks, three big cities, and a plethora of small towns and roadside attractions.

Everything is perfect at this charming eatery where the flicker of candles makes me feel like I’m mid-ballad at a Springsteen concert. The watermelon and feta salad pairs perfectly with my light and fizzy end of summer cocktail. Whipped mascarpone over shortbread and berries with a sprig of mint and a drizzle of honey offers a satisfying end to a weekend of good eats.

Thanks to COVID, it’s been months since I’ve put thirsty moves on another guy, months since I’ve slid a dollar bill into a stripper’s thong, and months since I’ve been rudely awakened by last call, so I barely mind the long queue at The Sun Trapp, a queer bar open only for table seating. It feels like the line is never going to move, but I have to admit it feels pretty great to be inside a gay bar again, even if I am seated exactly six feet from the next patron, and even if the disco ball twinkles above an empty dance floor. The main attraction tonight is the drag show, but for me it’s a bust since I’m not seated within sight of the stage. After two drinks, I call it a night.

I’m a big believer that all road trips should happen along scenic byways and state highways. The only reason to take the interstate is if you’re in a hurry, and today I need to get to Denver by day’s end, so I press my foot down hard on the gas pedal and speed along I-80 with the mission of making it to the Mile High City by dusk. Wyoming is dreary this afternoon, and in one half-hour stretch I get rain that turns to sleet and then snow. It’s around this point that I swing off the interstate and onto the University of Wyoming campus in sleepy Laramie where I pay tribute to Matthew Shepard, the out student who was murdered in 1998. The Matthew Shepard Bench is slightly hard to find among the many scattered about, but once upon it, I spend a couple minutes in quiet contemplation. Depressingly, the bench sits within Dick and Liz Cheney Plaza, not the best place to honor Shepard.

Out West Road Trip: Great Basin National Park in Ely, Utah

Great Basin National Park
Photo: Dominic Gentilcore

Big cities are a road tripper’s oasis, a respite from gas station coffee and hardscrabble landscapes, and it’s great to be back in Denver even if I can see my breath while slurping French onion soup and awkwardly prying snails out of their shell at Bistro Vendome, a charming eatery that sits in the heart of historic Larimer Square.

An hour later I’m at gay bar Trade, and honestly there’s not much of it here tonight. COVID is partly to blame (the bar is open with reduced capacity and table seating only), but so is the fact that it’s unseasonably cold and a Monday. I remember that Denver used to have an Eagle bar and that on my last visit five years ago I nearly got thrown out for ducking into a stall with another guy and swapping jock straps during an underwear party.

My hotel is The Curtis Park Club, a small inn and bed and breakfast hybrid featuring themed rooms like Pinky’s Palace and the Captivating Cowgirl. Even better, it’s smack in the middle of the River North Arts District (aka RiNo), a hub of breweries, bars and burger joints strung along Larimer Street.

I start my morning at Denver Central Market, a sprawling food hall and adjacent courtyard lined with murals where I stumble upon the ultimate breakfast trifecta: morning coffee at Crema, a bagel sandwich at Culture and the Colorado queen pastry from Izzio’s. (The pastry’s cream filling ends up all over my face, foreshadowing events to come.)

Denver is mine today! The sun is shining, temps have risen, and pedestrians are few and far between thanks to all the worker bees clicking away from the comfort of their hives. I hop on an electric scooter and hit the streets. Beginning in hip Highland, I race across Commons Park, swing through the Dairy Block (a complex of shops and restaurants and a boutique hotel connected via an alleyway strung up in decorative lights shaped like milk bottles) and duck into Denver Union Station, which five years ago underwent an enviable facelift and now bustles with upmarket eateries, hip retailers and a hotel. I grab a juice at Pigtrain Coffee Co. before continuing onward.

Out West Road Trip: Denver Union Station in Denver, Colorado

Denver Union Station
Photo: Jay Yuan

It’s noon and I am throwing elbow bumping protocol aside and giving my bear friend Chad a bear hug. He and I met in Chicago 20 years ago and he has since settled in Denver with husband Toby to enjoy fresh mountain air while still being in relative proximity to family in the Midwest. Chad takes me to lunch at Edgewater Public Market. This particular food emporium is further afield, but worth the drive thanks to its setting on pretty Sloan Lake which offers pristine skyline views. Afterward, we stroll down South Broadway, a hub of queer nightlife including bars like Triangles, Boyztown, and Li’l Devil’s Lounge. I can’t tell if bars are shuttered because of the pandemic, but nevertheless Chad and I do encounter some sweet action, literally. Sweet Action is a small batch, locally sourced ice creamery specializing in exotic flavors like cherry jalepeño and whiskey brickle. Afterward, we cruise around Cheesman Park like a couple of horny teenagers straight out of American Graffiti. Our sole intension is to admire shirtless runners, of which there are many. We cap off the day with margaritas and fancy street taco trios at Uno Mas.

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