Beer heaven: New Belgium's cask room.

Road trip: Fort Collins

hibachi group
Bonding at my birthday dinner in Fort Collins

Last month, I was on the phone with Eric (who owns the cabin I’m staying in), talking about driving up to Fort Collins to visit him and his fiancée Sarah. When I told him my birthday was Aug. 10, he said “Hell yeah, you gotta come up here for your birthday. We’ll take care of you.”

I did, and they did.

For all the time I’ve spent in Colorado, I haven’t seen much of the state outside of the Pagosa Springs-Durango corner. So last Thursday I packed the car and headed north to see what I’ve been missing.

A lot, it turns out.

The drive across Colorado was its own reward. I spent hours winding along highway 285, a two-lane strip of pavement that threads through the Rockies, past soaring rock cliffs and rock-strewn mountain streams and vast valleys lush from summer rains. Every twist in the road brings a new wonder. It’s the kind of drive where you stay below the speed limit to stretch out the scenery just a little longer.

My first stop was Longmont, just north of Denver, to pay a visit to Eric’s parents (who own the condo I’ve used for occasional showers and to ride out bad thunderstorms). They took me to eat at Oskar Blues, the craft brewery based in Longmont that also features a restaurant (the food is as good as the beer). Larry and Sandy are wonderful people, they’ve basically adopted me – in the same way my parents adopted Eric when he was going to college with my brother Chris at Texas A&M-Galveston in the early ’90s. I couldn’t pass by Longmont without stopping in. And of course, they fed me.

Forty-five minutes later I was pulling into the driveway of Eric and Sarah’s new house on the edge of Fort Collins. I couldn’t believe this place, it’s three times the size of my house in Austin. On a lake. With mountain views. Eric’s doing quite well, it seems. They gave me the tour of this beautiful house – the rooms never seemed to end – then we settled on the big back balcony to have a drink and gaze at the lake.

It was just a bit surreal – and not just for me. Eric’s had a breakthrough year. He sold his company to a major corporation and got engaged to Sarah, who he’s known for 20 years (and they’re a great match. She’s a keeper). He said they still walk around this big house thinking someone’s going to knock on the big oak door and kick them out. You’ve had your fun, now back where you belong.

I’ve known Eric since he was a 19-year-old with floppy blonde surfer hair (which drew plenty of attention when he and Chris spent a weekend with me in McAllen and I gave them their first taste of a Mexican border town). Eric’s always been the struggling mad scientist. He’s an engineer, works with carbon fiber. He invents stuff, most of which goes way over my head. He’s spent the past 20 years overworking himself with this frantic, relentless energy that would put me in a coma in about a week. He’s the kind of guy you see on YouTube with a jet pack strapped to his back, hovering over the surface of a lake, then plunging into the water like a flying dolphin. Work hard, play hard. That’s Eric.

After all those tough years of sleeping in his shop and teetering on the edge of financial collapse, he’s gotten his reward. Nobody I know has worked harder for it.

And of course, he and Sarah were going to share their bounty while I was in town. They gave me the king’s treatment: a big dinner at Fort Collins’ best seafood restaurant, long rides on his new speedboat (“a floating Ferrari” is how he describes it. After a few runs behind it on a tube, I can vouch for that. Picture a dead fish being dragged behind a cigarette boat). And a private tour of the New Belgium brewery.

Beer heaven: New Belgium's cask room.
Beer heaven: New Belgium’s cask room.

Eric is friends with Matt Furlong, New Belgium’s sales project manager, who met us on his afternoon off and graciously showed me around the place that brews some of my favorite beers (thanks Matt, you’re a hell of an ambassador).

I also got to wander around downtown Fort Collins for an afternoon. Loved the town. It’s like a miniature Portland: neat-as-a-pin, tree-lined downtown streets lined with historic buildings that house all sorts of little shops and restaurants and brewpubs. Oh, and a thriving little independent bookstore, where I picked up a few books as a birthday present to myself (Hemingway, Vonnegut, T.C. Boyle). It has the energy of a college town (Colorado State) and the relaxed vibe of a small town. I was thoroughly impressed. I could live there.

The climax of the weekend was Sunday. Eric and Sarah took me and their friend Aaron to one of those Benihana-type places where a knife-twirling chef cooks your meal in front of you. Eric proceeded to order rounds of drinks and shots (three of them were sake bombs, which involves plopping a sake shot into a beer and downing it in one gulp), and we proceeded to start mixing it up with party of six seated with us around the big cooktop. It was a local family celebrating their daughter’s 17th birthday. She had a couple of high school friends along. The mom was a bit of a smartass, we liked her immediately.

Long story short, over the next four hours we drank too much, ate too much, became best friends with the party of six and most of the restaurant staff (Eric bought them shots too), took a big group photo to commemorate the evening, then staggered into a taxi and fell asleep by 10. I drove 350 miles back to Pagosa on Monday nursing a birthday hangover.

And it was worth every mile.

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