“And there in the blue air I saw for the first time, far off, the great snowy tops of the Rocky Mountains. I had to get to Denver at once.” — Jack Kerouac, “On The Road” (1957)
Although many people associate New York City, and to a lesser degree San Francisco, with the famous Beat Generation writers of the mid-20th century, Denver holds a prominent place in the Beat story. Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty in “On The Road,” was raised here. Allen Ginsberg spent time in the city, as did Kerouac himself.
Fan Tours and Resources
The City of Denver still shares a few key Beat destinations on its Visit Denver tourism site, and plenty of fans (including a dedicated graffiti artist) have done their part to thoroughly document the sites affiliated with the Beat Poets. Their tours, complete with photos and details, can be found at the links below.
• Litkicks • Pbase • “Jack Was Here”
The post-World War II Mile High City, with its Larimer Street skid row and “Harlem of the West” Five Points neighborhood, comes to life in Kerouac’s pages, as well as in Neal Cassady’s 1971 autobiography, “The First Third.” Ginsberg immortalized it in his legendary poem “Howl,” referencing what he called the best minds of his generation:
“who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver & waited in vain, who watched over Denver & brooded & loned in Denver and finally went away to find out the Time, & now Denver is lonesome for her heroes…” — Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” (1955)
Following the Beat Legends
If you do your homework and set aside some time for exploring, you can follow in their car tracks or create your own personal Denver beat tour of the landscape that, indeed, inspired some of the most creative minds of a generation.
There are numerous highlights in the Denver area. Check out our Google Map, below, to plan your trip, and print out our handy location descriptions beneath the map to take with you on the tour.
Ebert Elementary School, 410 Park Ave. W. Cassady shares his Ebert school memories in his posthumous autobiography, “The First Third.”
Sonny Lawson Park and Ballfield at 23rd and Welton, where Cassady played as a youngster. Kerouac also watched ballgames here, among “all humanity, the lot.”
Five Points, one of Denver’s oldest historic neighborhoods and the onetime heart of the city’s African American community, where legends such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole and Dizzy Gillespie once appeared. Celebrated sites include the former Rossonian Hotel at 27th and Welton and the still-grooving Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom at 2637 Welton Street. The ballroom is in the historic Casino Cabaret, an establishment that Kerouac and Cassady would have known well.
Colburn Hotel at 980 Grant Street, where Kerouac and Cassady spent time in 1947, and where Cassady met his second wife, University of Denver student Carolyn Robinson. Kerouac, Cassady, Robinson and Allen Ginsberg frequently gathered at Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill, a classic establishment that still attracts customers today.
Near the corner of 26th and Champa is a small brick building that housed Neal Cassady’s father’s barber shop; Kerouac frequently visited the establishment, which bears his likeness on the outside wall courtesy of graffiti artist Theo, the man behind “Jack Was Here”.
21st and Larimer, the heart of Denver’s old, mile-long skid row. Although it gentrified years ago, the historic architecture remains intact.
1729 E. Colfax — here, on what was once called “the longest, wickedest street in America,” is a wall that marks the location of onetime Cassady hangout The Oasis.
My Brother’s Bar at 15th and Platte, the oldest bar in Denver to still be serving drinks and meals in its original location. There’s no signage, but you’ll see the “B” on the shutters. This was Neal’s favorite bar, and he once wrote a letter to the owner to pay his tab when he was serving time in juvenile hall for stealing cars. The original letter is on the wall; if you ask, you can get a copy to take home.
6100 W. Center Ave., Lakewood: Here, in the west Denver suburbs, you’ll find the house Kerouac bought in 1949 with his advance from “The Town and the City.”
Central City: And, high in the mountains west of Denver, you’ll find an historic mining town, home to myriad casinos and the venerable Central City Opera. In 1947, Kerouac attended Beethoven’s “Fidelio” here… and visited countless saloons.
Keep the Beat: Tips for Your Trip
If you’re planning to tour a few of these sites, here are a few tips to help keep your adventure hassle-free:
Time your tour stops so you can get a drink or a bite to eat at Charlie’s or My Brother’s Bar, and maybe catch an evening performance at the Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom. Hang out in the places your heroes haunted, and absorb the atmosphere.
Although a Lakewood visit easily can be combined with a downtown tour, save Central City for a day when you have plenty of time to explore the 1859 mining community that lay at the heart of Colorado’s 19th century gold rush; in fact, this was once called “the richest square mile on Earth.” Better yet, spend the night. Stay in a local hotel, get tickets for the opera, and yes, visit a saloon or two. The Beats would approve.
“ Central City is two miles high; at first you get drunk on the altitude, then you get tired, and there’s a fever in your soul… I let out a yahoo. The night was on.” - Jack Kerouac, “On the Road” (1957)