Today we bade farewell to our hotel outside Denver. Unfortunately, we departed just in time for rush hour and spent twice as long in the car as expected. We stopped for gas in the town of Castle Rock partly to let the traffic die down, partly for snacking purposes (some of us were burnt out on three straight days of the same hotel breakfast), and partly because I was amused to see a town sharing a name with a Stephen King motif, even if the town predated the setting.
When the coast was clearer, we headed south to the Colorado Springs vicinity, veered west for a return engagement with the great and powerful Rockies, and paid a visit to the Garden of the Gods, a coincidental collection of naturally occurring rock formations in unusual shapes great and large — a few monoliths, a couple shaped like animal heads, and some towering in pairs. Our favorite was Balanced Rock, a large, precariously perched roadside boulder that remains inexplicably secured. In addition to the uniquely shaped geological specimens, one other sight was new to me: Mennonite tourists using cameras much nicer than mine, tricked out with zoom lenses and tripods.
Five minutes down the road was our next attraction, the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. Over a century ago, a collection of Anasazi homes was uprooted and relocated in the side of a mountain near the town of Manitou Springs for preservation and education purposes. Visitors can enter any door or window and snake their way through the passages connecting each facade or dwelling, including one two-story, multi-family unit. That is, you can do so if you’re not in line behind a youth group on a field trip who’ve already filled all the ex-domiciles to full capacity. Fortunately for them, no ancient Anasazi fire marshals were anywhere in sight to cite the kids for overcrowding.
Alternatively, you can check out their multi-level museum and gift shop, which together occupy somewhere between two and eight stories. The layout was confusing, far from straightforward, separated me from my family at least once, and led me to two or three dead ends, each one filled with quality merchandise such as feather-shaped lollipops displayed like a war bonnet, the same pile of inseparable magnetites you can buy in every gift shop nationwide, and lethal weapons such as the “Deerslayer Boomerang”, a cardboard children’s tool that would cost one dollar if ordered from a comic book ad in the 1970s.
On the other side of US Highway 24 was downtown Manitou Springs, a tourist town comprised of numerous small businesses (including one comic book shop!) and one Subway. With limited time before our afternoon appointment, we fetched lunch at one of the restaurants nearest the public-parking area, a bar-‘n’-grill called the Keg. I wasn’t sure this was a family establishment that would serve my seventeen-year-old son, but no one broached the subject. It was his first opportunity to watch his lunch being cooked by a tattooed chef wearing a concert T-shirt in lieu of a garish fast-food uniform. Nevertheless, I can testify that my Mile-High Roast Beef sandwich was authentically meatier than any Arby’s product I’ve had to date. All the Slipknot logos in the world couldn’t have affected my enjoyment of that.
High above the town is the Pikes Peak Cog Railway station, which offers a handy train ride from Manitou Springs (elevation: 6,571 feet) to the top of Pikes Peak (elevation: 14,110 feet). Your alternatives to reach the top are: (1) a long hike, for which our family is ill suited; (2) a three-hour daredevil drive, which my wife refused to let me attempt; or (3) invent a flying machine, for which our family is also ill suited. The Cog Railway isn’t cheap, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for about the same price as admission to a bad amusement park.
Our departure was scheduled for 1:20. We began boarding at 1:00. We steeled for takeoff at 1:20. After sitting for another half-hour or so, we learned another train somewhere on the track was experiencing technical difficulties, At first they moved our train onto an alternate track so the impaired train could return to the station. Then they moved us back onto the main track. Then we returned to the alternate track again. Throughout the merry rearranging games, our cheerful conductor did her best to keep us entertained with situational updates, good-natured bad jokes, and individual anecdotes about the nearby apple tree, the nearby bench, and any other random objects we could see through our windows.
After an hour of waiting in a train that wasn’t getting any more air-conditioned, finally they moved us even further forward into their official train repair shop, had us disembark and walk back to the station so trains could be swapped around and tourism service could resume. This awkward transition allowed the Railway time to issue customer refunds if desired, resell those seats to new customers, and sell off any seats that had been previously unsold prior to our aborted departure. I can’t fault them for wanting to maximize service on what would prove to be a totally off-schedule day, but when we boarded our substitute train, it was discouraging to find that the additional elbow room we had claimed from those formerly empty seats was now revoked, leaving us more cramped than we had been before.
A full ninety minutes after our scheduled time, our journey to the Pikes Peak summit commenced at long last, The trip is roughly seventy minutes in each direction, and includes numerous sights beyond the mere breathtaking scenery — occasional rambunctious marmots; one waterfall; the ruins of a century-old shack; obsolete spigots that were necessary when steam engines ruled the Railway; trees murdered by pine bark beetles; storm clouds threatening other cities and states; and more, more, more. We also had the pleasure of company provided by a family from Tennessee sitting next to us, to whom my wife did most of the talking because the train engine drowned out their conversation too thoroughly for my poor hearing to catch consistently.
The top of Pikes Peak was a greater place than I could have imagined. We could see clouds drifing below us. We could view other states from afar. We could venture onto one of several outcroppings and have our photos taken by relatives terrified for our lives. We could warm up inside the Pikes Peak Summit House, a gift shop whose offerings includes hot coffee and renowned fried cake donuts that were fresh, crisp, and tender, not doughy and stale like Dolly Madison shelf-cloggers.
The top of Pikes Peak was also a more painful place than I could have imagined. In our rush to finish lunch and board the train on time (all that hurrying in vain, in retrospect), we forgot our jackets in the car, The summit is a few dozen degrees colder than the base of the mountains, and made for some discomfort among us older folks, (My son thrives in winter temps and was unfazed by his surroundings.) Despite drinking plenty of water all day and during the ride, I still found myself light-headed for the first several minutes up high in the thinner reaches of the atmosphere. (Donuts and decaf seemed to help cure that, or perhaps it was mere acclimatization.)
Despite borrowing chewing gum from our Tennessee companions (a necessary defense according to some sites), I also encountered troubles with my ears popping multiple times during our ascent, then stuffing themselves shut during the descent. I was practically deaf throughout said descent, as the noises of the world were buried under the incessant drone of train-engine combustion, muffled even further by altitude maladjustment, with occasional interruptions from the conductor’s intercom instructions and from half-conversation excerpts as spoken to others by my wife sitting next to me. I didn’t enjoy the isolation.
We returned to the station richer for the experience in general, yet not quite whole. By the time we adjourned to our hotel in Colorado Springs, the stuffiness had subsided somewhat, but whenever we weren’t in the presence of machinery or background music, everything around me sounded as though I were listening to the world through a seashell ocean-sound filter. This isn’t my first experience with a temporary hearing issue (see also: a Metallica concert I attended in 1992, one super-amped They Might Be Giants gig a few years ago), so my tentative plan is to sleep on it and see what happens. Sometimes these things fade. If it’s my hearing that fades instead, we’ll escalate the issue to the next level,
Thus endeth the adventure of the American who went up a mountain but came down a wreck. This bout of pain and suffering naturally called for an obvious dinner choice tonight: Smashburger second encore!
We rightly assumed that Colorado Springs also has a few locations, After tonight’s above-average meal I’m now officially sick of them, but I acquiesced to the majority vote with the knowledge that this may be our last Smashburger visit until either they reach Indianapolis or we conveniently schedule a future road trip in one of their present states of operation. Maybe by then I won’t be tired of their awesomeness anymore,