Boulder's favorite symbol—the Flatirons.
Boulder's favorite symbol—the Flatirons. (Photo: beklaus/iStock)

The Gore-Tex Vortex

Think life in America's favorite outdoor mecca would be dreamy? Careful what you wish for.

The Boulder Flatirons at sunrise.


Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

So you want to move to Boulder, Colorado, the perennial best town in America for (circle one or all depending upon your level of outsideness) roadies, rock jocks, organic consumers, backcountry skiers, mountain bikers, trail runners, ultrarunners, whitewater boaters, alpinists, credit-card environmentalists, New Agers, sellers of waterproof-breathable canine accessories, and those who support prairie dog emancipation at the expense of baseball fields. It's a great place to live, because everyone looks and thinks exactly like you.*

Except they're better than you. Get that straight and you'll fit in. But you'll matriculate quicker if you come with some attitude. Pose if you must. It's the best town in America, for Christ's/Buddha's/Ganesh's/Chris Carmichael's sake. Step up.

But what's it like to live here? Well, Boulder exudes a unique blend of over-the-top liberalism and extreme fitness. How to describe it . . . If Lance Armstrong and Amy Goodman had a love child, the prodigy would drive his Audi A4 to Boulder, buy a Maverick to decorate the roof rack, and then not ride the $5,000 bike because he didn't want to encroach upon mountain lion habitat. Are you feeling the zeitgeist? Some more Boulder color might help:

A Buddhist monk moved into our condo complex. Shaved head, full regalia, real deal. He drives a 30-cylinder pickup truck named after a subarctic ecosystem where trees don't grow and frost lingers.

Two strangers have said the word excelente to me in the past four months.

My barista (Oh, dear Lord, what's happening to me?) to a fellow barista: “Cuba is, like, this paradise. Nothing has changed since, like, the fifties. They drive these old cars and play this great music.” Me: “Cuba? They put AIDS patients in concentration camps and throw journalists in jail for printing the truth.” Barista: “Uh, yeah, but the people are so happy down there. Who had the tall rice-milk latte?”

If Lance Armstrong and Amy Goodman had a love child, the prodigy would drive his Audi A4 to Boulder, buy a Maverick to decorate the roof rack, and then not ride the $5,000 bike because he didn't want to encroach upon mountain lion habitat.

Need more telling details? The Dunkin' Donuts went out of business, but the oxygen bar next door to the gay-and-lesbian bookstore seems to be doing well. The panhandlers on the Pearl Street Mall sport $70 sandals and pull in upwards of 25 bucks an hour. Did anybody mention that the median sale price of a home here is $525,000? That's $302,000 more than the national figure. The best don't come cheap. If that's too pricey for you, maybe you should check out Burlington or Santa Fe. Oh, right: bad sushi.

OK, that's all lifestyle stuff that comes with living in a town that has a large contingent of soft-palmed check-of-the-month-clubbers. Could just as easily be Marin County. Buy a meditation table, slap a GO VEGAN! sticker on your roof box, and you'll blend. You're here for the fitness pursuits anyway.

Except that's where Boulder gets weird. In most American towns, outdoor-sports aficionados are part of an elite counterculture minority. Mountain bikers and climbers have cachet. Not so in Boulder. Recreating outdoors is the norm here, and it's in your face. There's always some horse-toothed mountain-town equivalent of Laird Hamilton ready to kick your athletic pride through the dirt. Remember the 2005 Tour, when T-Mobile kept attacking Discovery, trying to break Lance? That's what a casual bike ride is like in Boulder. Strangers attack. Old guys with gray beards and steel bikes attack. Reach for a shot of Gu and even your friends attack. And women: Women always attack—they're the worst.

Even slow guys like me attack. The other day I was reeling in a pro cyclist on a brutal local climb. My heart rate was near its max, but I was feeling good. I was in the zone. Maybe four years of living in Boulder have paid some fitness dividends, I thought.

Then I figured it out: He's between intervals, and once his heart rate drops below 65 bpm, he's gone. At least he said “No offense” before he accelerated.

It doesn't matter what sport you do; you will suffer similar humiliation. Go nordic skiing in North Boulder Park and two Olympians shout “Track!” from a meter back. Climb the Flatirons only to learn that someone once ascended in Rollerblades. Get Maytagged in a hole while paddling Boulder Creek and a World Cup champion slalom kayaker will toss you a rope bag. Running? Not me, not in Boulder. Boulderites run like gazelles. Fancy yourself a mountaineer? The waiters at Sherpa's have summited Everest. But at least those guys are nice. If Reinhold Messner himself walked into south Boulder's mountaineering shop to buy a carabiner, the sales staff would give him attitude. It's enough to make you revolt against the blue sky (300 sunny days a year), pull down the blinds, and watch NASCAR.

I know what you're thinking. If you don't like it, why don't you get the hell out? I'll tell you why: It's pretty damn nice here, actually. I just bought a German automobile—gonna chip it. My four-year-old has attended two birthday parties in climbing gyms—little dude will be free-soloing soon. Maybe it's the endorphin equivalent of a contact high, but I've never been in better shape. The sun is shining. The prairie dogs in the infield are chirping. One more round of whitening strips and my choppers will be gleaming. Everything's, like, most excelente.

* If your teeth are pearly white and your resting heart rate is below 45 bpm.

Lead Photo: beklaus/iStock