At 11:45 a.m. on Monday, I started down the long and winding road to the Democratic National Convention at the Pepsi Center.
I walked to the RTD shuttle on Lincoln, about a 10-minute trek from the IJN. Nearby in Civic Center Park, I noticed various encampments and heard voices blaring through microphones.
Allowing myself a two-hour window of opportunity find the Pepsi Center, investigate a bit, return to the office I focused on the task at hand. The protesters would have to wait.
I accelerated my pace, causing the press credentials around my neck to flap like birds in the humid air, until I arrived at the shuttle stop.
The people pouring inside dutifully waiting buses seemed inquisitive, excited, calm, confused.
Put me in the latter category.
How do I get to the convention? I asked an off-duty driver waiting by the door.
Go to Stout and turn left.
No, thats not right.
I repeated the question.
Go to Stout and turn left!
He means the convention center, a young man smirked. He turned in another direction and pressed closer to an open window.
The woman sitting on my left held two heavy bags and a camera. Aha! A kindred spirit! She surveyed my press credentials. Ask that other guy, she suggested. He looks like he knows what hes doing.
Sure enough, the man smiled and told us to ride down to Wazee, disembark, hang a left, ignore the dead end, continue walking for half a mile and wed run smack into the Pepsi Center.
Whoa, the woman sighed. Lets walk with each other, OK?
The crowds and curious sights increased as the shuttle neared its destination. Life-size Barack Obama cutouts. Stilt-like Uncle Sams. One man carried a large poster announcing The Iraq War: The Musical.
Does he sing and dance? asked my amused fellow journalist.
When we got off at Wazee, a veritable posse of journalists magically blended into the flow.
The well-dressed, perfectly coiffed ones belonged to the on-air variety.
Others wore comfortable clothes and shoes; their make-up evaporated, hair falling every which way. They were print journalists.
Put me in this category.
I learned that Heather, who accompanied me, was a senior correspondent for RadioFreeEurope. She was based in DC.
The Pepsi Center seemed to move further into the background with each advancing step.
What is this? Heather quipped. The Bataan Death March?
After a long hot while, we arrived outside the security entrance.
I told Heather that my insulin pump would probably set off all the electronic bells and whistles.
Better tell them, she advised.
But what really surprised me was the Pepsi Cola incident.
I always carry a bottle of Pepsi to prevent my sugar from going too low.
When I approached the security system, a man asked whether Id be taking the drink inside.
Is that OK?
Sure. Just take a drink before you go through the monitor.
Oh, so you want to see if Ill drop dead!
I was kidding.
He was serious.
I held up the bottle, put it to my lips and swallowed.
Hey, I beamed, Im still alive!
He wasnt impressed.
Then I was released into the enormous, undefined, uncharted territory known as the Democratic National Convention.
The first thing I observed was a brewery occupied by the entire CNN news crew. I asked a security guard whether I could take a peek inside.
A bunch of people relaxed in the adjoining patio. Instead of Wolf Blitzer or Anderson Cooper, I encountered a sea of blue t-shirts emblazoned with a deft description.
I have to admit that Ive never been to the Pepsi Center.
The place has several entrances.
A woman attired in a snappy suit tugged angrily at her credentials and cameraman.
How do we get in here? she snapped.
There it is. Press entrance, on the left.
Once inside, a shot of cold air blew over me.
Then I inhaled the unmistakable scent of popcorn ghosts of games past.
Press credentials are sacrosanct at any massive event, but especially at the DNC.
There are separate passes for the perimeter (the grounds surrounding the Pepsi Center), the hall (the upper balcony of the convention area), the floor (where the action is), backstage (more action) and a few other designations.
I wore two back-to-back passes, for the perimeter and hall respectively. Wherever I went, guards tossed and turned my credentials. No, youre not allowed inside here. Wait, yeah, youre OK.
I rode the escalator to the third floor and prowled around for the convention center.
After a few locked doors, I found an open passage. A man peered at my credentials and gestured. Take a look.
Suddenly, I stood high above the heart of the DNC.
It was enormous, breathtaking history in the making, the future awaiting its birth.
The delegates were at lunch. Rows and rows of unoccupied chairs encircled the main area.
I scanned the upper balconies.
CNN. NBC. BBC. ABC. CBS. C-SPAN. Al Jazeera.
The booths were empty.
A light went off in my brain.
How do I get to Al Jazeera, I asked a man in a suit.
He examined my credentials.
You dont. Sorry.
I returned to my perch in the higher heavens.
A song wafted up from the stage.
I searched below for the source.
At first I only noticed the singer, dressed in a black shirt and black jeans. Then I saw a crowd of flashing cameras in front of him.
Unfazed, his song soared into the otherwise empty arena.
We are looking for the world to change . . .
An African-American woman came around the corner and nudged me.
Thats John Legend, she cried.
John Legend? I teetered in mild shock. She helped me regain my balance.
Yes, thats him.
I listened for as long as possible, imagining the impact of his voice on the convention later that night. It was going to be incredible.
By now, my watch told me to get back to the IJN. On my way to the escalator, I saw a man talking to some VIPs or their assistants.
Whats happening? I asked a nice gentleman wearing a DNC nametag.
Oh, thats Mayor Daleys team, he said. Ive seen a lot of important people come through here. Madeleine Albright was here a few minutes ago. You just missed her. And Caroline Kennedy rehearsed her speech on the stage earlier. I heard someone singing Sweet Caroline right before she spoke.
I retraced my footsteps: past the people (political and press); sweeping by the now vacated CNN patio (the Runners must be off running); the security entrance (no poison test, just a friendly farewell).
Delegates wearing bright orange, red or green t-shirts were returning from lunch. Elegant black cars moved stealthily along the road. Darkened windows prevented a revealing glimpse.
I caught the RTD at the Wazee station, glanced at my watch and relaxed. I had plenty of time.
So I thought.
A few streets later, between Stout and Champa, police cars started encircling16th Street. Sirens screamed. Lights roared. Policemen sprang to action and fanned out.
The entire 16th Street Mall and all the buses trying to crisscross it came to a dead stop.
It was too hot to remain on the shuttle, so I leaped off and began walking very quickly.
The police pulled their helmets down tight. They held long sticks and ordered all pedestrians to back away.
At first I could only see a few protest signs, their hateful sentiments veering on the repulsive.
Then I heard an incessant drumming.
The demonstrators moved closer.
It was a right-wing religious protest an anti-just-about-everything outcry.
Most of the posters are not fit for our readers consumption.
I recall one exception: Repent your unbelief!
I took a brief eye count and estimated that about 10 demonstrators were responsible for this havoc.
A couple walking behind me expressed their discontent in no uncertain terms.
I cant believe a handful of people are causing such trouble! Disgusting.
I cut across to Bannock, lugging my exhaustion and thirst.
How was it? everyone greeted me as I entered the office. Was it fun?
Crazy, I said. Some idiot protesters shut down the 16th Street Mall!
As I ruminate at my computer, a subtle realization revives me.
True, I didnt catch any big politicos or snag a decisive interview.
From a journalistic perspective the trek was a bust.
Then I see the people.
Regardless of their various agendas, methods, moods, perspectives and hopes, they all share a protective umbrella called freedom.
They are free to criticize, condemn, uplift, inspire, lead and, yes, even protest.
Free to shut down that long and winding road, or part the waters.
The choice is theirs.