Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mile-High Walk Part 1 - Moving Mountains

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016
15.5 miles / 10:00 – 19:00

Part 1

For hundreds of years, Colorado has been the edge of the frontier.  With endless plains on its eastern edge to jagged mountains in the west, Colorado is one of the most geographically and culturally dynamic states in the U.S., and as such, it offers an enormous variety of experiences for locals and travelers alike.  It’s always been one of my favorite states in the Union, and I’ve been there several times in my life both for business and pleasure.

It’s hard to see it all, even in a lifetime, but what could I see in a day?

When you see photos like this one, it’s hard to not like Denver, Colorado’s largest city.  Denver has a storied history being the base of frontiersman, prospectors, farmers, ranchers, businessmen, and explorers.  Denver was a city built on the hopes of the future, with the promise of gold, land, and independence.  It’s a centralized city designed to give people the footing they need to explore.  But don’t you worry; Denver itself has plenty to see.

When I started Miles by Foot in 2014, I made an initial list of all the cities I’d like to walk in the United States.  Denver was the third city on that list, but it took me a while to get there on a walk.  Between school, life, work, family, and other, more demanding hobbies, I had trouble making time for walks like I used to, but the burning urge to explore was still smoldering.  I knew Beth would love Colorado, so she and I went there in October 2015 for an anniversary getaway and we had a great time, staying in a little apartment in Capitol Hill and exploring the city and its environs, including Colorado Springs and Boulder.  When we flew back to Kentucky, I knew I needed to strike Denver off my list and do the solo walk I’d always wanted to. 

The last full-distance walk I’d done, at least officially, was Chicago, in March 2015, nearly two years ago.  Chicago is an easy target for us here in Louisville; it’s the cheapest destination by air, it’s close, and it has multiple airports, so every major airline offers a route to the Windy City, so trips there are pliable. 

Using my trip to Chicago as a template, I would try to walk the city of Denver in one day, flying out in the morning and flying back that same night. 

There is a short list of realistic one-day destinations from Louisville by air, and Denver isn’t one of them.  Denver is four times as far away as Chicago, meaning that nonstop flights, while they do exist, are far less common and more inconveniently timed, which can cut deeply into the time I have to walk the city. 

Only two carriers fly to DEN nonstop from SDF: Southwest and United.  Even with as open-ended a window as possible combining both carriers, you’re only looking at about seven hours from the time the outbound lands in Denver until the return flight to Kentucky takes off.  That’s not including transit through the airport and to Denver itself, airport security, and other biological and travel machinations that you must factor into an accurate timeline.  Taking this into account, you’re looking at four hours or so “on the ground,” which is far too little time for hassle and the cost, which easily broke $350.00.  Staying overnight confounds the purpose and novelty of a one-day trip while considerably increasing the cost.  Still, Denver has enough to offer for me to consider creative alternatives.
Denver is on the edge of the frontier, so maybe their aptly-named hometown airline could provide the connection I needed.  Although Frontier doesn’t fly out of Louisville, they do fly out from most of our nearest urban neighbors, including Cincinnati and Nashville.  The most attractive option, however, flies out of Indianapolis.

Indianapolis is about a two-hour drive up the road from Louisville, a little less than halfway to Chicago, and the drive is as simple and straightforward as it gets: hop on I-65 North and keep driving until you see the Chase Tower’s distinctive two-pronged profile against the sky.  Hang a left to get to the airport on I-70 West, and voila!  Besides being a close alternative, Indianapolis has a world-class airport that I’ve never flown through, providing additional incentives to cross into the Hoosier State.

As opposed to a mid-morning outbound flight and an early evening return offered by flying out of Louisville, Frontier’s flight out of Indianapolis is exceptionally early in the morning, and its return is very late the following evening, giving an enormous gap of time to see and experience both airports and Denver at a leisurely pace.  This would require an even earlier start, as I’d have to drive from Louisville to their airport, IND.  Still, this is how I like to do things; besides, for busy people who still love to travel, this is often the only way you can make these kinds of things happen at all. 

From the time I got in my car the morning of my Chicago walk to the time I trudged back in was about seventeen hours.  This would push that number to about twenty-nine­ active hours, all without much sleep except for the minute amounts I could grab in transit.  This would, like Chicago, require careful, close-knit planning to fully realize such an intense, circuitous route through Denver to catch all the sights that make it such a great city to visit.

Frontier Airlines is an ultra-low-cost-carrier, or ULCC, a relatively new designation to the commercial airline industry, especially in the U.S.; Europe and Asia have been featured ULCCs for years, but we’re just catching up over here.  Since 9/11, every airline around the world has changed the way they structure their services, developing increasingly segmented offerings from full-service to bare bones.  Many consumers see this striation as a way to nickel and dime them, charging them for every little thing they expect to be included in their ticket price.  That’s less the case now, and from an industry perspective, this makes sense.  Charging consumers for specific services they use is, well, how a service business works, and letting people elect those parts of the ticket they want tells the industry, using the dollars-and-cents vernacular in which they have become fluent, what actually matters to their customers.  It also allows people who wouldn’t have needed all the “extras” offered in a standard ticket a chance to get on a plane at what could be seen as a discount, which brings new business to the industry.  Some complain about airlines like Frontier and their ilk, but as long as you know what you’re getting into, you only have yourself to blame in the majority of instances.

Frontier would be my first experience on a ULCC, and as weird as it is to admit, I was looking forward to it.  I’d heard horror stories about missed connections, delays, and poor service, but I had faith.  Denver’s a great city; hopefully, their airline would deliver me there in a safe, timely, and novel manner.

When it came to pulling the trigger and booking the flight, I found a narrow window in September where the price was low, the one-day return was possible, and the weather would still likely be good.  Booking mid-week helped tremendously, so I planned for Tuesday, September 27th, 2016, slightly less than a year after Beth and I went.  I booked less than a month out, on Labor Day, but even as close as it was, the base ticket price was hilariously inexpensive: $43.10 each way.  That’s $86.20 for a round-trip flight covering 2,000 miles in a combined five hours.  Driving 2,000 miles in an efficient car would still put you at around $125.00 just for gas, not to mention the thirty hours of time spent driving, the exhaustion that comes with that, and the cost of parking your car in a major city.  This was the way to go.

That price was amazing, but after buying the base ticket, everything else cost money.  Want to check a bag?  Costs some money.  Want to print off your ticket at our kiosk?  Five dollars.  Oh, hey, are you bringing a backpack and a camera bag?  More expensive than that checked bag.  That’s right; you only get one item for free, and it’s a small, personal item at that.  On most “full-service” airlines these days, you’ll get both a sizable carry-on bag and a personal item for free.  Not here, though.  To add to the challenge, I’d have to carry my camera bag alone.  My small, trusty backpack was too big to fit their restrictive size parameters for a personal item: 8” x 8” x 14”.  As is, my camera bag would barely fit.  Time to bust out the cargo shorts to carry everything else.

The only upgrade I chose was selecting my seat, and it wasn’t even for a higher-quality seat or more legroom.  I always like a window seat, so I paid $19 on my outbound for the farthest forward window seat I could get.  My return window seat was much cheaper at only $8.  Still, this put my entire flight cost, taxes and all, at a paltry $113.20.  I’d print off my boarding passes before I’d go, or I could bring it up on my phone, so this was still an exceptional deal, perfect for a trip like this.

I could drive to Indianapolis, but once I land in Denver, I’d have to get from the airport all the way downtown, which is no short distance.  Thankfully, Denver just opened a direct rail link from the airport to their central business district within the last few months.  Beth and I had seen the signs of the last steps of construction of the rail line when we were there in October.  Good timing!  This would also give me an anchoring starting and ending point for my walk: Denver’s Union Station in Lower Downtown (LoDo).

So where do I walk in Denver?  Chicago is full of recognizable landmarks, like the Willis Tower, Wrigley Field, and Michigan Avenue, all places I passed on my walk in March 2015.  Denver doesn’t have the landmark recognition level of Chicago and, to be fair, few cities do.  Instead, I recalled the details of the trip Beth and I took to plot out those places I thought would be worth experiencing on foot.  When we were there together, we had a car, but I had a feeling Denver would feel much different on foot.  I did some research on the city and its landmarks, nailed down a solid circuit, and surveyed its distance, coming up with around fifteen miles of walking in Denver proper, this time with a planned stop for lunch.

This trip already involved a frighteningly early start, a moonlit drive, a tiny luggage allowance, a lengthy, uncomfortable flight on a budget carrier, a train ride, a formidable walk in the Mile-High City, a train ride back to the airport, and an overnight flight back to Indiana, where I’d then have to drive two more hours after walking a marathon.

Yep, that sounds about right!  Pretty good use of a Tuesday if you ask me.

Next week, we’ll start the trip.  Make sure to swing by, and remember, keep going!

- Matt

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