Colorado Travelogue

(an email to friends, September '00)

Howdy, all —

I've just returned from Colorado Springs and I thought I'd share some of my experiences with you.

First off, sorry, no photos. It's a beautiful area, but I really didn't want to haul my $800 'photographically-compliant computer' (AKA "digital camera") all over the place.  Just picture amazing rock formations and incredible vistas and you've got it.

There are few places on the globe where you can actually see the curve of the planet.  You can't see it from sea level.  You and I would see it, out on the ocean, because we know the Earth is round, but it would just be an illusion.  Hold a straightedge up and it's flat as flat can be.  You need two somewhat unique things lined up next to each other, a fairly rare occurrence.

You (1) need an extremely wide, vast plain, flat as a pancake, and (2) a fairly high (10,000 feet-plus) mountain perched right on the edge of aforementioned pancake.

I give you Kansas and Pike's Peak.

Most high mountains are in the middle of mountain ranges.  I know that sounds crazy, but it's true.  As such, the horizon is very irregular.  But Pike's Peak is right on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, looking out across flat, flat, flat, Kansas.

You see the curve.

Your first thought is,

They were right!  It is round.

Maybe you already knew it, but it's always nice to have it confirmed.

My next stop was a natural history museum.  You know those big dinosaur birds, the pterodactyls, the ones with the big nasty talons on the front edges of their leathery wings?  Now take a vicious, snarling, full-sized red fox and put the leathery pterodactyl wings on it, talons and all.

I give you the South American Fox Bat.

My first thought was, I wish I'd brought my camera.

This thing must have been three feet across.  Throw in the snarling, fox-like sharp teeth and wing talons and you've got one serious piece of work.  It would take about six of them to carry away a cow.  If these things ever get their act together, South American farmers are in a heap of trouble.

Picture a half a mile.  It's probably much further than you're picturing.  It's a pretty fair distance, way beyond hearing and focused eyesight.

There's a South American butterfly the size of your hand that is so iridescent it can be seen from over half a mile.  There's a South American cicada that's so loud it can be heard from over half a mile.  Blinded by day, can't sleep at night for all the noise — no wonder those South Americans are always so grumpy and have all those revolutions!

I don't think I'll describe the world's largest beetle.  Just picture your worst bug nightmare multiplied by infinity.

We were with a family from Texas and the kids took delight in pointing out some of the nasty bugs on display that roam the Texan wilds.  My Kansas cousins did likewise.  In abject embarrassment, I, the Californian, had nothing to add.  The one Black Widow spider on display was so small it was humiliating.  I think it was in the "Least Poisonous of All Poisonous Insects (aka 'Real Bug Wimps')" section.  Feeling an urge to regain my pride, I plan to start importing South American Fox Bats to California just as soon as I can get up the capital.  We don't grow many cows here, so I don't foresee any problems.

Picture the side of a steep forested mountain.  Take chain link fence, wall off sections, cut down a few trees.  Fill in sections with wild animals.

Now take a day and hike the mountain.

You don't see the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, you do the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.  The waitress at the hotel warned me beforehand.  "Eat your Wheaties", quoth she.  I'm happy to report that I ate said Wheaties (in the form of a delicious hamburger) and covered every square inch.

Quick: Name an animal whose tail is twice as long as its body.

I saw a striped lemur that I actually had to do a double-take on, it looked so unreal.  The body size was about that of a large cat; the tail looked like it was almost two yards long.

Like a lot of people, I'm torn about zoos.  While I feel for the animals and wish they could be free, it's wonderful to look at them right before your eyes.  An intangible beauty is lost when translated to the screen, big or little.

I'd also like to report that if you ever see a cute little iridescent blue frog hopping about, don't pick it up or you'll be dead before you can remember that you were once warned not to pick it up.

I think we all agree that Bald Eagles, our national symbol, look pretty cool soaring in the sky.

Try from five feet away.

It was one of those moments when you fall back in love with America.  The spot where Katharine Lee Bates wrote "America The Beautiful" is close nearby.  The red mountains burn to a deep purple majesty in the sunset.  You look down from six thousand feet upon the heart of the continent, the great food belt from Kansas to the Mississippi; the fruited plain.  The Bald Eagle, king of birds, soars above it all.  He lands, and with a great rustling of feathers from his huge wingspan, settles down in front of you.  All the power and wisdom and strength of America is right there before you.

You blink your eyes a few times, and move on.

The spots on the giraffes (they're really more like triangles) are so finely articulated that I glanced at the other giraffes, just to see if they had the exact same stencil pattern.  You never can be too sure with Hollywood around.

When you really stand back from a giraffe and look at it objectively, with that horse's body and horse's head, and that unbelievably long neck, only three words spring to mind:

Nature run amok.

Zebras are also like that.  Just some specialized gene that went too far.  A few stripes slashed across the body are 100% effective camouflage in the bush.  The sharp definition of a zebra's stripes almost make it stand out like a beacon.  It just seems odd, since animals that turn into breakfast for other animals usually don't like standing out like beacons.

Maybe nature wanted to make it tough on the lions, but not too tough.  I cannot say.

On a personal note, I helped fix a car again.  You all think I'm just a computer nerd.  Hah!  I actually know what a pliers looks like!  At the previous family reunion, one of the cousins locked his keys in the car.  I heard about it, promptly walked from store to store until I found a pliers, grabbed a coat hanger, bent it 'just so', and snagged the lock button on the first try, much to the amazement of the gawking crowd.

My father later said he was of mixed emotions.  On one hand, he was certainly proud that his son had saved the day.  On the other hand, he was a little embarrassed that his son possessed such exceptional burglary skills.

This time, the same cousin's SUV was running rough, something that occurred as they were coming down some bumpy road.  In truth, it wasn't as exciting as the locked door, it was just a loose distributor wire.  But the fact that I even knew what a distributor wire looked like raised my esteem in the family immensely.

Take a big empty building.  Mark off decades along the walls.  1910.  1920.  1930, up to the present.  Each has its own floor section.  Now take a tall mountain like Pike's Peak and run a winding, harrowing road up to the top.  Have a race there every year since 1911.  Now place one or two winning cars from each decade alongside each other.  These are official 'race cars', and race cars always have the latest and greatest automotive technology on display.

Start with that square, un-aerodynamic thing from 1911 that's so boxy and clunky it looks like a miniature train engine.  Examine it closely, look at the tiny motor.  Walk through the years, looking at each car as improvements are made.  Note how certain key elements are added along the way.  A battery.  Electric starter.  Windshield.  Suspension.  Wheels instead of spokes.  All wonderfully fascinating from a mecho-evolutionary point of view.

Suddenly, aerodynamics.  A pointed nose cone is added.  Bodies become contoured.  Everything becomes faster, sleeker, longer, sharper.

And, at the very end, an official NASCAR race car, fresh off the track.  I reached out and touched it, then swore I'd never wash that hand again.  Compared to the 'hot cars' you see on the street, this thing looked like a space ship.

They don't do diddly in the actual race, though, they just look good sitting there.  These days, the races are won by some imp-mobile with a big wind-up key sticking out the back.  One of those huge spoilers on top that's bigger than the actual car.  Tires the size of Denmark.  Engine by NASA.  Aerodynamics are out.  Power and downdraft are everything.

Kinda looks like a miniature train engine, oddly enough.

Picture a road going up a real steep mountain.  The road goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, winding its long way up.

Pretty boring, eh?  It certainly seems much easier to simply go straight up the mountain.

So, build some train tracks straight up the mountain.  This works fine until, uh-oh, some mischievous kids put some oil on the tracks and the train slides a-l-l-l-l-l the way back down to the bottom!

No, no, just kidding.  If the Pike's Peak train ever lost its grip, it would be approaching the speed of light by the time it hit the bottom.  This is the steepest train track in the world.

So, put a big toothed gear in between the tracks and a corresponding cog wheel under the steam engine.  The gears mesh and up you go!  Whoo-oo whoooo!

The year is 1901.

The original steam engines and passenger cars were pitched way forward, so that they'd actually be level while traipsing up the steep climb.  We took this great big modern, flashy red thing with tilted seats.  The guide had a wonderful spiel going and I sensed a certain timelessness in the quips.  One of them mentioned "toupees", rather than the more-modern "hairpiece".  I asked her about it later and she readily confessed that 99% of her spiel was scripted, and that some of the comments about the local flora, fauna and geology dated as far back as anyone in the business could remember.

In a way, Colorado is a picture of living history.

On a sad note, I only got to hear one sentence in computerspeak during the whole week I was there.  I'm comforted, though, in that the one sentence I heard was one of the most beautiful sentences of all.

One of my niece-in-laws (or is that second cousin?) got married a while back to a computer sharpie who brought his laptop.  When I asked him if he wanted to go tour something, he replied,

"Nah, I think I'll just log on and hang out."

I sighed.  One of our own.

You pull out of the hotel's driveway, which is right near the highway, and you start looking for the "South" entrance ramp sign.  You don't see it, so you keep driving and end up going over the highway.  Damn!  You try to turn around, but the road suddenly veers off to the right.  Trying to fight your way back, you wheel off down a side street.

"NO OUTLET" reads the sign, and just as you're starting to wonder if they mean an electrical outlet or a water outlet, you realize they mean pavement.  "ONE WAY" (the wrong way, of course) reads the next sign, speaking the universal language.  You finally get headed in the right direction.

You pull up to a stoplight.  You're the first one in your lane.

You cannot see the stoplight.

You scrunch way down.  The light poles are in the middle of the intersection, not at the far end, so they're above the windshield line.

Your neck begins to ache as you wait and wait.  You finally hobble back to the highway, get on, breathe a sigh of relief, and start looking for your exit.

Little do you know that your adventure has just begun.

You looked at the brochure beforehand and noted the name of the street exiting off the highway, "Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Road".  That sounds easy enough.

"EXIT 128", reads the sign.

Unable to just blithely turn off, knowing that you must have misread the map, you continue on.

"EXIT 129", reads the next sign.

Finally, you see a familiar exit name, which you remember as way below your destination when you looked at the map.  But, in relief at seeing something — anything! — recognizable, you turn off and stop.  You haul out the official street map, grab your 3000X electron microscope and see this infinitesimal little "128" by the exit you wanted.  You jump back on the highway.  This time you find your exit.

You're going to the zoo.  It's a pretty simple task, really, according to the little map on the back of the brochure.  You're going to the largest zoo within 200 miles, after all.  All you have to do is stay on winding little Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Road and you can't miss it.

There are about ten "Y's" in the road along the way.

I only made two wrong turns and felt lucky, at that.  And I only had to stop once to reconnoiter.  A compass would have helped, but I had my Boy Scout training and the sun's position to work with.

Thankfully, after my visit to the zoo, I only made one tiny wrong turn on the way back and only had to spend a mere fifteen minutes looking for the highway.

Welcome To Colorado, says the sign.

If you can find it.

"Look!  It's a cute gift shop!  And look, next door is a store full of beautiful hats and hand-made purses!  And look!  Next door is a bead shop, full of lots of beautiful beads!  And look, look!  A jewelry store full of exotic Indian crafts!  And look, another cute gift shop, must be just full of cute things!  And look, a purse and belt store!  And another bead store!  Hey, some more beautiful, exotic Indian crafts!  And look!  It's a cute gift shop with a Dutch theme!  And look, some real cute hats and-"

Welcome to Manitou Springs.

It was actually a gorgeous little nook in the mountains; it was just amusing the way the cutsie stores repeated themselves over and over again.  On the other hand, you don't often see a lot of dulcimer shops around.

The bead stores were a little disappointing, though, at least compared to the ones we have out here in California.  Ours not only have a nice selection of beads but also rare, expensive crystals to cure our physical ills, and copper amulets to help us think better.  Nor did I see any Tarot cards or I-Ching sticks while I was there, essential tools in any smart business decision.

It's obvious that California is still way ahead of Colorado in many important ways.

Look at that big rock up there.

"Uh, okay."

Look at the big crack in the rock, over to the right.

"Uh, okay."

Pretend it's an Indian's head, facing left.

"Uh, okay."

Now see that big broken rock to the left?  Pretend that's his nose.

"Uh, okay."

Now see that small bush in the middle?  Pretend that's his eye.

"Uh, okay."

In the winter, water collects in a bowl below the eye, and later runs down his cheek and makes the Indian look like he's crying.

"Uh, okay."

You're looking at famous Weeping Indian Rock!


And welcome to the Garden of the Gods National Monument.

I suggested that, while guided tour buses are usually kind of corny, perhaps this one time, because of the — shall we say — somewhat esoteric nature of the named rock formations, a tour bus might be useful in helping us to identify them.

Was I ever right about that.

Sorry, don't mean to sound cynical.  It was amusing, in a way, looking at some of the named formations.  At the time, I said, "Oh, I get it!  It's an imagination test!"  I'm happy to report that I scored rather high.

On the other hand, "Slab Rock" was pretty clear, as was "Triangle Rock".  At least, if you're viewing them from that exact particular compass point on the globe.  From a different angle, it might look like your great-grandfather's corn still.  Beautiful land, though.  Huge mountainous spikes of rock thrust skyward out of smooth, rolling earth.  All due to tectonic plate action, for those of you scoring at home.

When Mother Earth says "Buckle up", she means it.

You're in a castle made out of hand-hewn granite.  On the wall are a bunch of old black & white photographs depicting life in the early 1900's.  Miners, businessmen, immigrants, laborers, kids, the whole bunch.  There are probably 300 males in view, from ages 10 to 90.

Every single one of them is wearing a hat.  Every single one.

It looked like it was on the same level as, "What, go outside without my pants on??"  And yet, nowadays, it's virtually nonexistent.  Sports people wear hats to keep the sun off their faces.  Kids wear baseball caps, but as part of a fad.  But, culturally, it's as if it never existed.  The hat rack at Nordstrom's, where I was the other day, only had about eight hats on it, most of them golf hats.

Next to the hat rack were about three thousand neckties.

On a small health note, they say that 70% of the caloric heat that escapes the human body goes out through the head, and all good health books recommend wearing a hat to retain this valuable caloric energy.

On the other hand, being choked at the neck doesn't sound like it would be good for any living creature.

I didn't see it, but according to my cousins there's an Olympic Training Center that's totally computerized, right down to the kitchen.  Punch in the exact number of calories, proteins, carbohydrates, etc, you want and the computer spits it right out.  Well, since we're talking about your breakfast, perhaps spits is the wrong word.  One of the wrestlers there was trying to go up to a higher weight class and was eating eight huge meals a day.

Me, I can't shed an ounce.  It certainly is an odd world.

NORAD, which is inside Cheyenne Mountain, was closed to the public, just in case you were wondering about its omission from this report.  I'm guessing they finally got tired of all the people who had seen the movie "WarGames" asking, "Yeah, but where's all the good stuff?"

Colorado Springs is in a beautiful, natural basin surrounded by true purple mountain majesty.  As in the song.