Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies
I love the Fourth of July, and I’m not sure there’s a better place to celebrate this holiday than Colorado Springs. Evidence of patriotism is everywhere – from the magnificent grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy, to the many flags, banners and bunting draped on houses, landscape and yes, even RVs in the park in which we are staying.
In fact, one coach parked directly behind us looked like a red, white and blue craft show gone bad. Every visible inch of the cockpit was adorned with lights, tinsel and elements of a miniature village. For the life of me, I don’t know where these people put this shit once the holiday has passed. We watched them dutifully pack it up the day after before pulling out but I never did see where they stowed the boxes. I wonder if they have similar stuff for every holiday.
As for us, we’re not really the decorating types. Except for one string of Christmas lights Scott picked up last year and a colorful pillow featuring the 50 states I bought on a recent visit to Nashville, we’re plain-Jane Airstream folk. Although I do love my vintage apron – thanks, Russ and Charity – and wear it when helping Scott prepare our meals.
But back to the Fourth … As our unofficial tour guide, I had determined we needed to see Pike’s Peak that day. Also known as “America’s Mountain,” Pike’s Peak is one of Colorado’s 53 “Fourteeners,” or mountains that rise more than 14,000 feet above sea level. (At 14,110 feet, it ranks as No. 31.)
The 19-mile two-lane highway to the top is steep, narrow and winding, with more than a few hairpin turns and white-knuckle moments. I found myself wishing more than once that the City of Colorado Springs would use more of the $12 per person entry fees it collects to install more guardrails.
In addition to the highway, there are two other ways to access Pike’s Peak. For those more in shape and inclined to test their physical condition, the Barr Trail is 12.6 miles and gains 7,510 feet in elevation as one ascends to the summit. Or, one can ride the world’s highest cog train, departing several times a day from Manitou Springs. Scott was fascinated with these trains and spent a good deal of time talking to the conductor about the fuel sources and efficiency. I was more interested in the way they clung to the track while seemingly plunging off into thin air and made a mental note to thank Scott for being willing to drive.
Pike’s Peak has an interesting history. The first documented visitors were descendants of the Ute Indians. Then in 1803, the U.S. acquired the Louisiana Purchase, including this region, and President Thomas Jefferson sent an expedition led by Zebulon Pike to explore the southern portion of the new holdings. Ironically, Pike never reached the summit that bears his name. Thinking that their journey from Missouri would take only four months, his expedition party was hardly prepared for the winter conditions of the front range of the Rockies and had to turn back. In his journal, Pike declared that “no man could ever scale this height.”
Of course, someone did. Dr. Edwin James, a naturalist with the Major Steven Long expedition out of Nebraska is recognized as the first to reach the summit. His notes from the June 1820 event revealed many plants previously unknown to botanists, including the Colorado State flower, the blue columbine.
My primary reason for wanting to visit on the Fourth was that Pike’s Peak was the inspiration for the lyrics of “America the Beautiful,” written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893. An English teacher at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Bates agreed to take a summer teaching position at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. During her 2,000-mile train trip through Illinois, Kansas and into Colorado, the 34-year old Bates became enthralled with the west and was thrilled to learn that one of the perks of teaching at the college was a carriage and burro ride up Pike’s Peak.
Shortly after her visit, Bates wrote a poem about her experience. The original four stanzas were printed on July 4, 1895 in an issue of The Congregationalist newspaper and became the lyrics of this national favorite. While Bates retained the copyright, she never sought any payment of royalties and considered the poem her personal gift to our country. The first two verses are included on a plaque at the summit.
Many thanks to the lovely people we met from Indiana who kindly snapped this photo of us together. (Unlike last year, it would be nice to feature pictures of the two of us, both here on the blog and also in the photo book I’ll create upon our return home.)
We rounded out our Fourth of July with grilled green chile cheeseburgers, baked beans, cold beer and ice cream sundaes while watching the D-backs squeak by the Mets 5-4 in 15 innings. Hope your Fourth was equally wonderful.
Note: I’ve had a few inquiries about how to better view my photos here on the blog. Click on a photo to enlarge it, then the back arrow to continue reading. Thanks for your interest!