›› Next time you hop into the car for a daytrip you could follow the other lemmings west to Colorado’s cookie-cutter mountain towns that all have the same main street, sell the same bald eagle-, turquoise-infested “western art,” hawk the same “Colorado-style” pizza, and misrepresent the same idea that their antique and quaint downtowns are “authentic” Colorado, not tourist traps where local workers can’t even afford rent.
But if you want real Colorado, old-school Colorado, the direction to drive from Aurora is north – welcome to Greality.
Yeah, I know, you’ve probably heard about Greeley: It smells like manure. It’s a dying town on the plains, fighting a 21st-Century battle to keep a grip on its agricultural roots while finding a way to embrace a high-tech future. Large economic inequities remain between its large Latino population (nearly 40 percent of its nearly 100,000 residents) and whites. Whispers of a gang problem have turned into a full-blown conversation.
Yet you should also know about Greeley’s University of Northern Colorado, a thriving school with nationally renowned colleges of business, music and education. You should read about re-energized downtown Greeley, a place that only years ago was so desolate after dark that golden-armed John Elway — who spent each of his 16 professional seasons at Denver Broncos’ training camp in Greeley — could throw a football in any direction and not endanger a soul
All of these things are true about Greeley, which makes this town on the eastern plains a true paradox and a true representation of rural Colorado’s past and future. It’s a place where a noticeably large percentage of residents on a recent Friday afternoon were proudly wearing myriad American-flag themed shirts tucked into their Levi’s while walking downtown — more than a month before the Fourth of July. Equally noticeable in the same block was Greeley’s thriving first-generation Muslim population, most originally drawn to town by meatpacking jobs who have since decided it is the place they want to call home.
This is Greeley — or Greality, as many of the locals call it. Just an hour’s drive north of Aurora on state Highway 85, downtown Greeley is a trip back in time. The town’s iconic central plaza and courthouse make me feel like I am in the fictional town square of Hill Valley on the set of Back to the Future – and even though its revitalized downtown area is a busy place on a weekday afternoon, there’s a clear sense that life moves much more slowly in this town than in Aurora, and that’s a good thing.
But just underneath Greeley’s rust are some golden treasures worth the drive. First off, Greeley sits on the end game of the Cache La Poudre River on the plains. This meandering prize offers a 21-mile paved bike trail that offers stunning views of the Rocky Mountains, rolling plains and other sleepy summer views. Combining a bike ride or walk along some or all of the trail to Windsor is a rewarding plan.
In Greeley, look for some unique museums and antique stores, many filled with retro and pre-war goodies that area farmsteads held onto for generations. Most interesting is Centennial Village, a seven-acre living history museum open summers Tuesdays through Sundays. In town, the Greeley History Museum offers an in-depth look at life on the plains from inside an old beaux-arts newspaper building.
Greeley also boasts a long list of mom-and-pop Mexican food restaurants offering authentic spicy plates prepared by some of the area’s Mexican transplants.
At the south end of downtown is Roma Restaurant, a classic pizza joint serving solid pies for 25 years. The walls are covered with original concert posters — many autographed — collected by music-enthusiast owner Jonathan Shaw. The artists — Phish, The Killers, James Brown, Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, Lee Scratch Perry — are as eclectic as the restaurant’s bustling lunch clientele. Like the town itself, Roma is a mix of old school, with a clear premium on customer service and fresh ingredients, and new school, with many gluten-free items and a wide array of craft beer. Greeley has two local breweries right now, Crabtree and Pitchers. Crabtree offers $3 pints on Tuesdays and boasts award winning brews like its oatmeal stout and Berliner weisse ale.
In the heart of downtown, the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant serves as the epicenter for the city’s new and popular “Friday Fest” party each Friday night through September, with several stages of live music. It’s Dublin style, encouraging folks to wander with drinks in hand. The retooled Moxi Theater on the same block regularly secures national music acts. Staying with the new-and-old paradox, nearby is The Kress Cinema and Lounge, a refurbished art deco movie house that shows both new and classic movies – and has a full bar.
And don’t overlook the university as a source of entertainment. University of Northern Colorado has nationally acclaimed jazz, orchestral, theater and other performing arts programs that offer shows year round. The Little Theatre of the Rockies, in its 79th year of professional summer stock productions, includes “Escandaba In Da Moonlight” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Famous New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley, the town’s namesake, is famous for writing in the 19th century, “Go west, young man.” In Aurora, going west is old news. If you want something different, go north.