Purple Mountain Majesties: Weeks 40 and 41

Greetings to our loyal readers who’ve followed us more than 15,000 miles across this great country and now, most of the way back. We’ve arrived at our new digs in Oklahoma City, in a state that no one can quite agree if it’s part of the south, the midwest, or the plains states. But we’ll leave that for a future blog. This one is firmly set in the mountains – or rather, along the edge of them.

America The Beautiful Park, Colorado Springs, CO – July 2022

I was a bit sad to say goodbye to Cheyenne, as I have been at nearly every stop of our journey (sorry Fresno and Mobile.) Morgan and I ended up loving the city much more than expected, and we’ve got so much more Wyoming to see. Our drive to Colorado Springs was a mercifully short one, our shortest in more than six months.

We were lucky enough to arrive just in time to celebrate Independence Day in Colorado Springs, an uber-patriotic city with a significant Air Force (and Space Force!) presence that was beautiful enough to inspire “America The Beautiful.” July 4th is just a more fun holiday when you have friends or family around for a cookout and some fireworks – this, I think, is indisputable. But our day was pretty grand in a new way for us, as we scored free tickets to the Colorado Springs Philharmonic’s annual July 4th concert. It was pure luck – we were standing in an outdoor beer garden at a somewhat underwhelming “block party” we were checking out when a guy walked by an offered us free tickets. We chugged our beers (as is the custom before seeing orchestral performances, I’m told) and made it to our (way too nice) seats just minutes before the show started.

No photos or videos allowed, of course, but you can take our word for it that it was a rousing concert.

We were once again lucky enough to host one of our friends to kick off our visit to “The Springs.” Michelle is one of my oldest friends, a friendship we coincidentally struck up on a semi-school-sponsored trip to England our freshman year of high school (for those unfamiliar, it was exactly as weird of a trip as you’d expect.) She told me she needed a change of scenery from New Jersey (something I could definitely respect as I’m currently in year 14 of such a scenery change), and we invited her out.

I picked her up in Denver, and while Morgan finished up her work for the day, we went to explore one of Colorado Springs’ top attractions, the Garden of the Gods. It’s a pretty impressive sight, objectively. It was even better to explore with someone who’s never been to Colorado before. We caught up as we strolled the mostly-paved paths around these giant red monoliths, which are extra striking because so much of the surrounding landscape is so green or grey. Just about 15 minutes from town, it’s another example of how ridiculously lucky people out in the west are to have these things just sitting in their backyards.

In the weird way that many of our stops have had attractions that oddly pair with one another, Colorado Springs is also very Olympic-focused, much like Park City. Walk around downtown, and you’ll even notice an occasional incredibly fit, healthy-looking individual, invariably wearing an American flag somewhere on their outfit. While Morgan worked, Michelle and I headed to the US Olympic and Paralympic Museum. I didn’t know much about it going in. Sure, there’s cool exhibits on the different torches and medals, and even the scoreboard from the 1980 “Miracle” game. But this is way more than a typical museum.

No, the most interesting part of the Olympic museum was the virtual chances to try out different events, from archery to skiing to something called goalball, which you play with your eyes closed or covered. There’s even a sprinting contest, where I smoked Michelle, proving my 31-year-old legs still have it, sort of. I will freely admit she kicked my ass at archery (perhaps an undiscovered talent), with most of the others fairly close, including a somewhat confusing alpine skiing simulator. The biggest thing missing from the museum? An exhibit on Bob Costas’ weird decision to stay on the air with pink eye in both eyes back in 2014.

On most days, that would be a highlight. But not today, as we had tickets to the top of Pike’s Peak, elevation 14,115 feet above sea level. It dominates the mountain skyline west of the city, and it was one of the top things we wanted to do during our visit. After Morgan wrapped up work, we headed out toward the mountain, an unusually ominous trip due to the very menacing storm clouds that may or may not have been surrounding the summit – we really couldn’t tell, which made it all the more unnerving. We arrived at the bottom of the 19-mile road to the top, and got quite a few instructions from the gate person that went beyond “drive that way.”

The road up was, to put it mildly, a bit harrowing. This is not a reflection on Morgan’s driving, but I spent a decent chunk of it imagining which cliff, exactly, we’d be plunging over to our doom. This road was quite narrow, and hugged the edges with pretty much no shoulder whatsoever. It would be a beautiful way to go, in any case. The views just didn’t even look real. Michelle, thankfully, was less consumed with a fear of death and took some great pictures on the way.

The temperature change was profound, to say the least. It was in the 90s when we left Colorado Springs. By the time reached the summit, it had dropped to the 50s! Thankfully, our car also operates as a jacket/clothes storage locker, so we’re prepared for all weather these days. On the downside, this may also be why people occasionally seem to think we’re living in our car.

The scene at the summit was pretty dramatic. To the west and south, it was as gorgeous as could be, with clear skies other than occasional little showers. We could see mountain lakes thousands of feet below us, and dozens of miles beyond the Front Range toward the Sange De Cristo Mountains. In the opposite direction, it basically looked like the end of the world. You could hardly see across the parking lot as thick grey clouds billowed right past you, at “ground” level. And have you ever looked down on a rainbow?

Our first stop, which was the subject of much excited discussion on the way up, was the cafeteria at the visitor center. If you read tourist literature about Pike’s Peak, you’ll almost certainly see some of the hype about the famous donuts, supposedly only able to be cooked at the high-altitudes of the summit. This is the kind of thing that makes me sad as a gluten-free man, but I was excited to live vicariously through them. The verdict? Good, but not great. I, personally, was crushed, because not only were they overhyped, but I didn’t even get to have that overhyped donut.

The ultimate insult to injury came after we safely descended (despite a concerning mandatory checkpoint for a brake heat inspection.) According to Morgan, they’re not even any different at lower elevation, either!

Low elevation taste test. Manitou Springs, CO – July 2022

This was a fitting semi-finale to what was a great visit from an old friend. We spent the next day in Denver, dropping Michelle off for her flight back to the real world of the east coast. PS – if any of you are still planning to meet up with us on the road, time is running out.

One of the biggest draws to Colorado Springs is the Air Force Academy, set up against the mountains on the north side of town. I’d heard this was one of the must-see things here, and I was excited to learn that not only could you explore the campus, but they also had hiking trails as well. I drove up to check things out, spending about a third of my half-hour drive just winding through the enormous campus. There’s a nice visitor center that’s mostly a gift shop, but also includes a reconstruction of a typical Academy dorm room, and a documentary following a class of cadets through their first year. Overall, the room was a lot bigger than mine in college (and I lived in a triple!), but the general amount of rules and seriousness wouldn’t have worked out well for me.

I was particularly excited to see the Cadet Chapel, which looked like an absolute architectural masterpiece in the photos I’ve seen. Just look at that:

Unfortunately, this is not what I saw. What I got to see was this:

This major tourist attraction, and more importantly a central piece of campus life, is apparently under renovation until 2027. If you think about it, that means an entire Academy class will pass through the school without ever seeing it. As a consolation, it is kind of cool that they built a giant, climate-controlled box around it to be able to work on it during the colder months.

My other plan for my time at the Academy involved some hiking. My goal was Eagle Peak, along a trail that’s supposedly a rite of passage for USAF cadets. In various places, it’s described as “hard,” “strenuous,” “very challenging.” Perhaps I’ve gotten a bit overconfident about my physical abilities (especially at high altitude), but at 3.6 miles round trip, I figured I’d be fine.

As I was beginning the trail, I noticed what looked to be a very shiny rock that was marked up. My mind immediately went into Indiana Jones mode, but this was not some lost Native American artifact. It was a rock with the word “integrity” carved into it. As I bent down to inspect it, I noticed another, and then another. All in all, there may have been a dozen or so of these rocks along the initial portion of the trail. I’ve yet to find any real explanation or purpose for this, but if you know, let me know.

It is this very same rock that compels me to admit that I did not actually make it to the top. This was somewhat unexpected. I had cleared more than a mile of the 1.8-mile ascent, and I was feeling practically cocky. It was at that point I checked my hiking app and noticed I’d only climbed about 600 feet so far – with 1,400 left to go in the next three-quarters of a mile. I figured there was no way this could possibly be correct, so I ventured onward.

It was correct. After hauling my ass up another 400 or so feet over the next quarter-mile, I paused for a moment and did the math. The remaining portion was even steeper than any portion I’d done yet, which nearly killed me. Plus, the skies had unexpectedly turned dark, and I heard a few distant rumbles of thunder. After a few minutes of deliberation that involved literally walking a few steps up and down the trail, I decided to turn around.

Sound on if you want to hear my out-of-breath narration.

Turning back was, all things considered, surprisingly painful. I had only given up once a hike on this trip – including persevering through extensive spiderwebs, up the side of a steep, giant rock, through multiple actual deserts, and so on. The only thing that had stopped me was the literal rising of the ocean along my path in Georgia.

Then again, it was thundering pretty loudly now, and I judged the storm was going to be pretty intense when it arrived. Walking down was nearly as difficult as walking up; I won’t disclose the number of relatively close calls involving loose gravel. If I hadn’t brought both of my trekking poles, I would have spent half the time on my hands and knees or my butt. Luckily, I tumbled my way back down the mountain just before the skies began to open up – a relatively perfectly timed return.

This was the result of a hard-learned lesson that both Morgan and I had demonstrated for us the previous evening. After a relaxing Sunday around the house, we headed out a bit before sunset for a visit to the little-known but very beautiful Paint Mines Interpretive Park. We were looking for something like this:

Photo via El Paso County Community Services

We hoped to get Morgan another chance to use her camera, which has, unfortunately, most often been remembered about 15 minutes after leaving home. When we arrived, storm clouds were easily visible to the west. That’s one of the biggest benefits of being on the plains – you can see weather far off. Still, Morgan and I looked at the radar and figured it would likely miss us.

And for a while, it was great. There was a nice cool breeze after a day in the 90s, the sky was looking cool, and the hiking was easy and beautiful.

The formations themselves are pretty stunning and otherworldly, sitting out here just beneath the surface of the endless plains. Morgan was taking some great pictures, and I was taking some great pictures of Morgan taking great pictures.

We were having such a great time we neglected to notice the now rapidly approaching thunderstorm until it was too late. A loud rumble of thunder sent us back toward the parking lot, but before a minute had passed, we were in the middle of an absolute deluge. With my rain jacket protecting Morgan’s camera, we were absolutely, positively soaked. Walking up hill at 6,000 feet of elevation is hard enough – now try doing it quickly, with strong winds and giant raindrops blowing right in your face. All in all, we were lucky we didn’t get struck by lightning or blown away. It was a valuable lesson we both considered as we slowly dried off on the drive back. Our reward for this unexpected outdoor shower? Two of the best rainbows we’ve ever seen. We considered trying to find the end, but decided against pressing our luck.

We’ve come to love a lot of things about the west, but rodeos and cowboy culture are one of the top contenders. As we obviously didn’t get enough in Cheyenne, I headed over to the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, another of the many illustrious (and not so illustrious) organizations based in Colorado Springs. It had a small museum filled with western memorabilia, barbed wire (always barbed wire, for some reason), and exhibits on the history of boot and hat styles.

The real attraction here – if you’re very into rodeos, which I’m not really – is the Hall of Fame itself. It’s a cavernous space that goes on and on and on, filled with dozens of exhibits on former rodeo luminaries. Some of these stories are really interesting. But if I tried to read even half of them, I’d have spent the entire day wandering the facility. I did, however, appreciate the section dedicated specifically to horse and bull members of the Hall.

I went to this museum alone, as I often do while Morgan is working. The latter part of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame made her regret missing it, for once. There’s a livestock exhibit out back, where I met some very sweet horses and their foals. Morgan practically died when I told her I got to pet their noses. See, folks – going to museums is full of surprises!

For our first day trip outside the Colorado Springs area, Morgan and I headed south to Cañon City, the site of the famous Royal Gorge. Sidenote – there are a lot of prisons in this area, including the infamous “Supermax” prison ADX Florence, home to a variety of unsavory characters from spies, to mafia members, to a number of bombers and terrorists. Frankly, if you really want to punish these people, I’d house them in Fresno, but I digress.

There are two ways to see Royal Gorge, from above or from below. After some consideration, we decided the below route would be preferable – hopping aboard the Royal Gorge Route Railroad for a fancy lunch and some sightseeing.

We had seats in a gorgeous domed observation car, which was perfect for checking out the soaring canyon walls above us. The only problem? It was approximately the temperature of the surface of the sun. It was hot outside for sure, but sitting in what’s essentially a greenhouse with (what turned out to be) malfunctioning air conditioning had us sweating pretty fast. Luckily, the train included a few open-air cars where we could head outside and enjoy the incredible views as we snaked along the inartfully named Arkansas River.

It was a stunningly beautiful ride, including when we went underneath the Royal Gorge Bridge (the “over” method we decided against in favor of the train.) Before we knew it, our meals had arrived – a delicious chicken dish for Morgan, and pork Osso Bucco for myself. Mercifully, we were eventually relocated to a car with a working air conditioner to avoid our sauna-like conditions.

During our final few days in Colorado, I decided to take a little trip into the mountains, which, presumably, we won’t be seeing for a while. My destination was the former mining town now turned small-town gambling and history destination, Cripple Creek, located at 9,494 feet above sea level.

Cripple Creek, CO – July 2022

I cannot stress enough how much of this town consists entirely of casinos and museums, to the detriment of literally anything else. There aren’t even many souvenir stores, or stores of any kind. By my count, there are two restaurants in the entire town not part of a casino. As a side note, the one of these I went to was actually very good. I was not expecting such a delicious open-faced gluten-free bison burger topped with elk chili from an otherwise struggling food scene.

There’s a burger under all that, I promise. Cripple Creek, CO – July 2022

But people do not come to Cripple Creek to eat. They either come here for a mostly-wholesome gold rush history experience, or they come here to gamble in the saddest manner I’ve ever encountered – and I’m an Atlantic City regular, and recently went to Biloxi too. The casinos themselves aren’t bad in any egregious way. The machines are a little older, and the table games are fewer, but some are actually pretty nice looking!

The problem, dear reader, is the vibes. Dead does not even begin to cover it. And it wasn’t just a lack of customers – it was a lack of employees, too. I lost count of how many times I went up to a bar looking for a drink and found the place seemingly abandoned, as if perhaps I’d slipped into one of those Twilight Zone episodes where everything is the same, except everyone has disappeared.

As profitable as casinos are, it’s still not the industry that put Cripple Creek on the map. That would be mining, a fact the town is very proud of, calling itself “The World’s Greatest Gold Camp.” In its heyday between 1890 and 1910, the area produced a frankly ridiculous 22 million ounces of gold, worth more than $37 billion in today’s dollars. You know that old trope told to immigrants about America’s streets being paved with gold? That’s literally the case in Cripple Creek, where gold ore that wouldn’t have been profitable to process was crushed and used to build the town’s streets. As a side note, today’s processing methods and gold prices would make that ore worth keeping – though I didn’t see anyone tearing up the city streets.

The town has an undeniably cool and weird look, thanks to the two-level main street (to compensate for the hill the town’s built on) and the nearly all-brick downtown. That’s an artifact of the community’s ridiculously bad luck in 1896, when it was struck by a devastating fire caused by a couple fighting at one of the many brothels, followed a week later by a second devastating grease fire that nearly finished off the rest of the town. From then on, it was brick only, and the extent of the fire means just about everything is dated to 1896 or shortly after.

I got quite the history education here, first at the free and excellent Cripple Creek Heritage Center, which provided a great overview of the town, along with a scale model of the still-operating gold mine just across the road, where tours were available. Being 1,000 feet underground is not my thing, so this was something I skipped. It also put the height of Pike’s Peak, which sort of kicked all of our asses, in context to the other mountains of the world. I enjoy a good adventure, but I wouldn’t count on seeing me on anything higher (maybe Kilimanjaro or Everest base camp, someday.)

This was not the only museum I went to in my short visit. When I told Morgan I’d be going to a brothel while I was there, she reacted predictably, but it’s true – I did go to a brothel, albeit one that hasn’t operated in 120 years or so. Everyone told me the Old Homestead House was a must-see, so I walked the few blocks over to Myers Avenue, once the city’s red light district and home to literally dozens of brothels at the city’s peak. Most of them were either destroyed in various fires or demolished for casino parking lots, but the Old Homestead was saved. This was for good reason – it was by far the nicest place of its kind in town. Men who wanted to uh, schedule an appointment, had to fill out an application that included bank records and references. Those who were approved had the honor of paying the equivalent of $9,000 for an evening of, uh, conversation with one of the girls who lived there.

All in all, the rooms looked pretty nice – it was definitely a high-class place in its time. But don’t come looking for anything remotely even PG-rated; the tour was mostly two very enthusiastic older women describing in sometimes excrutiating detail the origin of almost every piece of wallpaper, furniture, and preserved clothing in the rooms.

Because my pre-fatherhood Dad Type is apparently Train Guy, I also decided to hop aboard Cripple Creek’s short-gauge railroad for the ride around the town’s mining district. This was somewhere in between our ride in Royal Gorge and the one at the Terry Bison Ranch in Cheyenne. The narrow gauge definitely felt a little kids amusement park-ish, but this wasn’t some push-button job – this guy was actually shoveling coal into the train, opening and closing valve, and all sorts of old engineer stuff.

The scenery was pretty incredible too, as the train snaked along a mountainside peppered with dozens of mines, ruins of former homes, and lots and lots of gold ore waste. See the mountain in the pictures below? That’s almost entirely manmade, constructed of piles of potential gold ore. This still-operating mine works by spraying the debris with an arsenic solution that extracts the gold, which is collected as the water runs down the mountain. As far as I’m concerned, this is basically black magic, and I also didn’t like the idea of a fine arsenic mist drifting through the air anyway.

I spent the rest of the evening doing some gambling and thankfully not losing too much before turning in relatively early. After all, I was pretty much the only person in most of these casinos, so it wasn’t the liveliest scene, to begin with. I headed out bright and early the next day (the senior citizens were already gambling by 9) for one more stop before returning to Colorado Springs. Down the road about 20 minutes is one of the country’s most prolific paleontological sites, known as the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

The park sits at the bottom of what was once an ancient lake, which was buried over and over with ash from nearby volcanic eruptions. That’s precisely why the fossils are so well-preserved, and so plentiful! It’s also the site of some of the most petrified wood outside of Petrified Forest National Park. These are the stumps of giant Redwoods which grew along the lakeside millions of years ago, transformed into stone over time. The stump on the top right in the photos below was so impressive that they tried to cut it up to put it on display back easy, but couldn’t do it – those dark spots midway through are the broken saw blades when they gave up.

While I was tempted to grab a bit as a souvenir, I will always remember the people convinced they’ve gotten bad luck from stealing a piece of Petrified Forest National Park – there’s even a book about it!

We capped off our time in Colorado with an absolutely amazing experience that was actually not too far from Florissant, though this trip came several days later and with Morgan. We were headed for the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center, where we had been lured like prey by billboards advertising wolf tours.

We almost didn’t make it, as a bizarre, torrential downpour unleashed on us as we arrived. We’re talking biblical amounts of rain, plus a good deal of hail that had Morgan stressing about her new car. Like a miracle, the skies cleared just in time for our tour, which was naturally all outdoors. It began with some very sobering information on just how few wild wolves remain in the United States, and how frequently they’re still killed. Frankly, I can’t imagine a more cruel, unfair, and debased way to hunt than luring wolves out of Yellowstone to shoot them, as the governor of a neighboring state is so fond of.

At points, it was hard to concentrate on the presentation because right behind us were these two beautiful red foxes, living their best lives in their two-story home, naturally including a connection to a skybridge over the entrance to the center.

From here, we headed out through the beautiful facility and got to meet the stars of the show. Just look at these guys! It’s hard to convey how powerful they seemed, but still how sweet they acted. I’ve seen more menacing dogs in yards around DC.

They even had a singing dog (the brown one in the pictures above) and a whole mess of coyotes, for whom I have a particular appreciation. The whole group also joined in for some howling at points, which was amazing for the adults, and adorable for the pups. Between the wildlife, the wild weather, and the mountain views, it was a perfect way to wrap up our time in the mountains.

Look at those paws. Colorado Wolf Center, Woodland Park, CO – July 2022

We’re back on Central Time here in Oklahoma City, and the feeling of returning back to the “real world” is becoming palpable. Living on Mountain Time (and especially Pacific Time) while most people you know, your job, and your life are all on Eastern Time, as we have over the past six months, is a little disorienting. I’m going to be calculating what time it is “at home” long after we’ve returned to the east.

From here, there’s no more crossing mountains and deserts – we’ve only got the plains left before returning to the familiar geography of the southeast. We’re now less than a day’s drive (that is, 24 hours) from wherever home will be for the foreseeable future. Surprisingly (or not, depending on your perspective), Oklahoma City has been a huge hit so far – even if we nearly melted earlier this week. More on that to come, if we survive this heat wave.

Nick and Morgan

2 thoughts on “Purple Mountain Majesties: Weeks 40 and 41

  1. I loved COS too. We were there for a 4th of July as well. Saw a parade and then a rodeo. Were those “rescued” wolves? From where? Not able to be released back into their home territory?

  2. Spectacular pictures! I definitely get wanderlust reading your blogs. I know you’ll miss the mountains,definitely not something you’ll see in Florida. Enjoy every minute of what’s left of your adventure. As always,travel safe.❤

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