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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Friday, May 18, 2007

Pike's Peak in Colorado

The curvy route to the 14,110-foot apex of Pike’s Peak is 19 miles. Each mile is represented by an animal that lives at that elevation. The animals are pictured on the mile markers. Mark and I bet on what animal would represent the final mile. I take mountain goats and all things similar. Mark goes with small rodents.

The representative for mile 19 is a pika—not a rodent but close. It’s in the same family as hares and rabbits. Mark wins the bet.Snow is on the ground this early September weekend though the warm sun is melting it to mud. At the top, Mark and I hop out and change into hiking boots, which are in the trunk of our rental. Dressed in shorts and sweatshirts, we step lively over to one side of the Peak for a look, scramble past the tourists to the other side, snap some photos and hightail it back to the car. Whew, is it ever cold.
Though Mark won the 19th mile bet, I have other bets I’d rather win. We are on our way to Cripple Creek, Colorado and black jack.

In Cripple Creek we gamble for a couple hours and only lose $10.50 before we head to our stop for the night in Canon City, Colorado in the middle of the state.

The next morning we drive west to Salida to the cemetery to hunt for my great-grandpa’s grave, but the graveyard is so big, we never find it, but I’m glad we stop in Salida. Downtown is north of Route 50 and is the only town for miles around, so if you’re near Salida and mealtime is approaching, stop in.

We fill up our tank and tummies and turn south on 285, which turns to 17, to the alligator farm/fish hatchery. The place is a working hatchery but has become commercialized due to the novelty of alligators in Colorado. Because of the natural springs, the water stays a certain temperature year round, warm enough for alligators. They were originally brought here to eat the fish guts that hatcheries naturally produce.
For $5 apiece Mark and I enter and see snakes, geckos, caimans and alligators. As a money-making ploy, an employee literally shoves a baby alligator at Mark and takes his picture. We don’t buy though.
Outside is a show. An alligator wrangler ropes one of the large reptiles, none of which is eager to participate, and he drags it up to land and sits on its back and demonstrates how to get the mouth open. And some fool people sit on the animal’s back and open its mouth, and their wives or friends take pictures for posterity. I consider myself a risk taker, but no, thank you.

After our fill of the fishery, we aim south toward Mosca and the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, one of 10 National Parks we plan to visit this trip.

The dunes appear out of nothing and nowhere. They are one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in the way of scenery. These are so much more than the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes in Michigan. Those dunes are nice yet spread out while the Great Sand Dunes in Mosca, Colorado are enormous dune upon dune upon dune upon dune.

I have so much to say about them, I don’t have room here. Check next column for the follow up.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Colorado Springs

A roadside sign read “Welcome to Quinter, Kansas,” from United Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic churches. The last on the list is the “Drunkard Brethren.” Mark and I think it’s a joke. We don’t stop in Quinter, just drive through on I-70 on our way to Colorado Springs, the true beginning of our western dream trip.
The Olympic Training Center is our first stop in Colorado Springs. We kill time in the gift shop while waiting for the next tour. I buy a reasonably priced red knit T-shirt. On the front in loopy script is “U.S. Olympic” and printed beneath is “training center.”

The tour begins with a short film on past champions and current athletes-in-training. When the lights come up, our guide speaks, but we can hardly hear due to rain pounding the roof. Our group leaves the theater and sees that it’s hailing, hard. Because a significant part of the tour is outside, it is canceled.

Not sure if the bad weather would ever let up, we leave for our next stop: the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. On our way, we have to pull over—partway under a tree—due to hail.

Lights are out and streets are awash, but we make it without too much delay. I enjoy the Rodeo museum. Besides displays of riders, other notables get their billing, including announcers, promoters, clowns and bulls. I am not particularly interested in museum art, but the pictures, paintings and sculptures in the Hall of Fame are tasteful and well placed.

After more than an hour in the Hall of Fame we find it is raining harder than ever as we started towards the Air Force Academy. It’s Parents’ Weekend, and everything is crowded. We stop at the bookstore, which is more than a bookstore. It’s a museum giving information on duties of cadets and upperclassmen, on what life on campus is like and on the history of the Academy. We thought we would eat at the cafeteria on campus for a cheap meal, but then remember that it will most likely be crowded due to Parents’ Weekend. We decide to check into our motel, then go to dinner.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-25 south is slow to stopped. On the radio we hear that the exit closest to our motel is closed due to flooding. We exit the highway earlier; we have a good map of downtown.

The outskirts of town aren’t that well mapped though. We want to drive through Garden of the Gods but can’t find it, so give up and drive on to our lodging and dinner.

Determined to see Garden of the Gods, we set out early the next morning. The sun is up and the birds are singing though we never expected such nice weather after yesterday’s torrents.
To get to the Garden, the map indicates a right turn at the crossroads just beyond the high school. Since it didn’t work either of the times we tried it the day before, we take a left instead and come across the park entrance. Entrance is free, and we drive through twice because the Garden is so spectacular with its red rock formations. We hike a little, but just a little because we are on a schedule.
We had just 15 and a half days left to explore the rest of Colorado and four other states. Pike’s Peak, just up the road, is our next intended stop.
On the way to Pike’s Peak we see signs for Manitou Hot Springs and so stop for a self-guided tour.

Manitou doesn’t offer much. Dwellings carved out of the mountain side are open for touring through, and we aren’t sure if they’re original, but we doubt it. The requisite gift shop is on site—with a small information center/museum.

Manitou Hot Springs is worth a stop but not much time. We have reservations in the center of the state for this evening and so have to keep moving.