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2012 Road Trip Photo #18: Coming Down from Pikes Peak, Physically and Emotionally

With only forty-five minutes to enjoy the top of Pikes Peak as much as possible, we tried to savor the view, the thin air (for the uniqueness of the experience, not because we liked gasping), and the near-freezing temperatures that perfectly counteracted the summertime heat that had been hammering us at ground level. Alas, forty-five minutes flew by in about ten minutes flat.

One last shot for the road, then:

Pikes Peak

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2012 Road Trip Photos #2: Truman’s Grave, Bobo’s Drive-In, and Our Intro to Smashburger

Day One continued onward from Vandalia, out of Illinois and into Missouri. We’ve seen bits and pieces of St. Louis in the past, so we didn’t schedule a stop within city limits. Instead we headed west to St. Charles, where we stopped for lunch at a chain unfamiliar to us called Smashburger. It took us a few minutes to discern their road sign from afar because it looked like a GameStop. When we noticed that the strip mall had two such logos, we looked more closely and realized only one of them was a GameStop.

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2012 Road Trip Notes on the Go, Day 5: Beauty and Breakdowns

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,

2012 Road Trip Notes on the Go, Day 4: Dallying in Downtown Denver

After our big day up in the mountains, a day down in the city seemed an appropriate counterbalance.

As all Denver tourists are required to do, we checked in at the west side of their gold Capitol Dome, where one of the steps allows visitors to experience the sensation of standing exactly one mile (5,280 feet) above sea level. It’s not an impressive height compared to the mountains, the nearby skyscrapers, or even the several steps above that step. What makes it special is that moment when you know you’ve achieved math-geek precision in physical form. Unless you hate math or measuring, in which case it’s just an ordinary stair-step with a large label on it.

Our first indoor activity was a tour of the Molly Brown House, former home of a two-time boat disaster survivor. The century-old brick exterior blends in with the other houses compacted into the same block, but the interior was, for its time, a forward-thinking modern marvel of electrical wiring, indoor plumbing, and exotic-artifact-based decor. While feasting our eyes on her collection of unusual items (my favorite was a genuine bearskin rug, just like in cartoons), we also learned about her crucial involvement in the early development of the juvenile justice system, and in the creation of the Dumb Friends League (a common-knowledge name in Denver, far more amusing to us foreigners from other states).

We also saw the second floor, which has a wide space where Mrs. Brown would invite bands to come play, opening the window so their music could waft out the window for the neighborhood to share, or for large outdoor parties to enjoy. This same window offered a gorgeous view of the Rocky Mountains and the Capitol Dome before office buildings were inconsiderately built across the street in later years and ruined everything.

As her husband’s eventually considerable earnings afforded her the opportunity for private tutelage and intellectual pursuits, she also amassed quite the book collection. I managed to note the names on her large collections of Dickens, Thackeray, O. Henry, Balzac, Bret Harte, and Memoirs of the Courts of Europe before I dropped my pen and watched in horror as it rolled against the wall behind an antique plant holder. Fortunately the docent was gracious enough to help me navigate a path to it without contaminating anything priceless. She very nicely overlooked my faux pas, as did the other tour-group members — a mother and daughter from Austria, and two men from Bloomington, in our very own home state of Indiana. This isn’t our first what-a-small-world vacation moment, but they’re always one of our favorite kinds of surprise joy.

The tour ends with the obligatory backroom of Titanic commemoration. One interactive portion allows children to write down their answers to the question, “What do you think we can learn from the disaster of the Titanic?” The most sensible answer I read was, “To make more life boats.”

The gift shop is expectedly well-stocked with all imaginable Titanic books (including one fictionalized trilogy!), Titanic merchandise, Titanic documentaries, and several copies of Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. If they had copies of that one James Cameron flick on hand, I overlooked them.

From there we headed several blocks due west to the Denver Art Museum. With limited time at our disposal, each of us picked one section for the entire group to visit. My son, fan of all things Japanese because of how much more awesome they are about everything they have ever done in every field in all of existence compared to us losers from any other nation, predictably selected the Asian section. Highlights included various hand-painted screens, ridiculously intricate bamboo carvings, and line-art pieces by 19th-century artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi that reminded me faintly of the delicate works of early Frank Miller.

I picked the Pacific Northwest Native American section, because all museums east of the Mississippi seem to feature arts and crafts by the same five or ten tribes, and I was curious to see what else is out there. I wasn’t disappointed as I beheld totem poles, argillite tools, unique masks, and other samples from tribes such as the Tlingit, the Haida, the Inupiaq, and the Kwakwaka’wakw, which I dearly, truly hope isn’t pronounced “wocka-wocka-wocka”.

My wife randomly chose the pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art section — again, not sections we typically run across in our usual stomping grounds. Much of what I perused was all about Catholic imagery, but I had to raise an excited eyebrow at one room that positioned paintings of Christ next to Mexican paintings about chocolate. This was one of my new favorite museum rooms of all time.

We had to leave the museum early for a lunch reservation at the world-famous Buckhorn Exchange, century-old establishment, proud possessor of State of Colorado Liquor License #1, servers of exotic game dishes, and displayers of numerous stuffed animal heads. Restaurants like the Buckhorn, with or without grand taxidermy, are several levels above my pay grade under normal living conditions, but we decided to splurge just this once. Speaking only for my own meal, I can say that quail was a delicious main dish, especially in its pear/apricot glaze; the game tips in a sort of Stroganoff sauce were an appealing appetizer; and our server was courteous and very engaging. By and large, I personally was content. Outnumbered by those who agreed to disagree, but content.

The remainder of our afternoon was spent wandering Denver’s downtown 16th Street Mall. Basically, it’s a downtown just like any other large city’s, except several areas are zoned off for pedestrians only, and shuttle buses carry shoppers from one end of the mile to the other, with impressive frequency and for no charge. The shoppers themselves were a gratifyingly wide variety of all possible demographics racial, social, economic, or otherwise distinctly categorical — tattoos next to ties, business suits next to nightclub wear, and mohawks on all ages from six to sixty. We’re more accustomed to The Way Things Are in Indianapolis, where particular malls and shopping districts tend to be more about birds-of-a-feather than about all-just-getting-along. On the other hand, I’ve never witnessed an actual arrest in one of our shopping strips back home, but I’d like to think the high young man we saw being accosted by four officers next to a waiting ambulance was an aberrant exception.

The stores didn’t look radically different from back home, unless Japanese fast food or Filipino stands count. The only two buildings we entered were a Colorado gift shop, at which my wife fulfilled most of her souvenirs-for-relatives checklist; and the free tour at the Federal Reserve Branch Bank, which requires a thorough security exam before you can enter and view three minutes’ worth of exhibits. At least they were nice enough to offer visitors free bags of shredded out-of-circulation money. I was thinking they might make great pillow-filling, but my wife was thinking further ahead to their potential as Christmas stocking stuffers for our nephews.

After our legs were once again worn down to nubs, we returned briefly to the hotel, relaxed and regrouped, and then ended our tourism day with a crowd-pleaser of a dinner best summed up in two words: Smashburger encore! Having discovered their fine product on Day 1 in St. Charles, MO, by popular demand I searched online for more locations for the benefit of those who’d experienced lunchtime issues earlier. Imagine our surprise to discover Denver is the Smashburger’s hometown.

And they all ate happily ever after.

2012 Road Trip Notes on the Go, Day 1: Trumans and Burgers

[The next nine days’ entries will be typed on the fly with minimal copy-editing or rewriting as time, energy, and hotel wi-fi access permit. Our photos, of which there are typically too many each year, will be uploaded and posted sometime after our return home.]

After driving 570+ miles from Indianapolis we’ve arrived safely in Topeka for the evening at a six-story hotel with only one working elevator, a short-handed staff, a passkey that worked exactly once before malfunctioning, and a wi-fi network with an easily guessed password, for which I’m grateful so I don’t have to add one more phone call to the staff’s burdens.

Today’s drive was planned as a nine-hour burn-through rather than a series of sightseeing escapades. Our ultimate goal is Colorado, for which Kansas is our way station. That’s not to say Kansas won’t have its share of highlights, but most of those weren’t planned for today. Despite construction sites the first leg of the journey through west Indiana and all of Illinois went smoothly until we entered Missouri and had to compete with aggressive St. Louis drivers in their natural element. In Illinois we stopped once at its former capital Vandalia to see their Madonna of the Trail — one of several such monuments nationwide — and to lament the disrepair of what once must have been their former main street, too common a sight in formerly bustling small towns.

Lunch was in St. Charles at a small national chain we don’t have in Indiana called Smashburger, which specializes in cooked-to-order burgers on four different types of buns (including wheat and pretzel). My St. Louis Burger was just fine, and the Smashfries (topped with olive oil, rosemary, and garlic) were above-average for a burger joint. In a shocking turn of events, my finicky son declared their non-greasy fare the best burger he’s ever had. We relished this moment of positivity for all it was worth.

The second leg of the trip was marred by an I-70 accident in Columbia, MO, that bottlenecked traffic for a while and somehow ended with a delivery truck lying on one side and having its other side torn off. We pray no one was seriously injured in what must have been one horrific action sequence. We exited for a while and avoided the blockage momentarily, searching in vain for a roadside attraction whose directions were apparently obsolete. When we returned to the interstate, several more minutes of patient sitting were necessary until drivers resumed inching forward. We whiled away the minutes by watching a small girl in the van in front of us tearing tiny handfuls of stuffing out of her poor scapegoated dolly and tossing them out the window, letting them drift away like so much unwanted dandelion seed.

Fortunately Missouri allowed us one successful sightseeing stop in Independence at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. The obstructions in Columbia delayed our arrival until fifteen minutes before closing time, but the staff, going above and beyond in the name of courtesy, allowed us access to the central courtyard — burial site of President and Mrs. Truman, as well as their daughter and son-in-law — free of charge. I would’ve bought something from their gift shop in gratitude, but they didn’t seem to have a single “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” mock newspaper anywhere in stock.

Dinner in Topeka was at Bobo’s Drive-In, as seen on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Despite their brief TV fame, I was surprised that a Saturday night found only three other cars in the lot. Their sandwiches were acceptable and affordably priced, though we had to forgive them for forgetting one of our burger topping requests. Half my onion rings had fused in the fryer into one unified mega-ring. My son, already taken aback at the concept of eating dinner in a car like primitive cultures of the distant 1960s, began having unhappy flashbacks when he realized their side dishes were held in the same paper food baskets as his school lunches. I was fine with my own experience in general, but it was a far cry from the sky-high bar set by our own beloved Mug-‘n’-Bun Drive-In back in Indianapolis.

Today’s most irrelevant note: the Missouri Department of Transportation is abbreviated “MoDOT”. As a Marvel fan, I couldn’t help imagining an alt-universe version of MODOK whose sinister plans involved world domination through infinite road construction and the ability to blast killer potholes in any flat surface.

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