Eastern Colorado: April 5-21, 2011

(Editor’s note: All of the pictures are thumbnails. Click on each to view it. Then be sure to click the back button to get back to the text or the next image. Don’t “close” the picture — that will cause the whole travelogue to close!)

From the prairie…to the mountains. What a contrast! From the low lying Texas Panhandle, we were suddenly thrust into the Rockies. We both did a lot of ooh’s and aah’s.

Our destination was the Denver area. Since it was almost 450 miles from Amarillo, we scheduled a stopover in Trinidad State Park, just over the border. Our route took us on a northwest diagonal through the NE corner of New Mexico and into CO.

The Colorado state park system is great for RVers. Sites aren’t cheap, but the facilities are excellent — well equipped with amenities in natural settings. One main drawback, however, is that every vehicle entering a state park must pay a user fee of $9 per day – that’s on top of the rate for your site. We opted instead for an annual pass, figuring that the breakeven was eight days.

Trinidad is the most rustic of the three parks we eventually occupied. Trinidad was a mining town on the Santa Fe Trail, and its most notable citizen is Bat Masterson who was Marshall there in the 1880’s (as was his brother after him).

The Aurora State Park is very much a “downtown” park for the city. It’s not in Denver proper, but a major rapid transit station is half a mile away, and the view is city skyline. It’s a bikers’ haven and was rural enough for a herd of up to two dozen deer to graze as close as 30 yards away nearly every morning. Teddy was very curious! We did virtually no sightseeing while we were there. I flew to New Jersey for three days for my sister’s memorial service. Nearby Boulder was the home office of the company that moved me to Virginia in 1982, so I had many friends after dozens of trips and hundreds of days out here through 1998. My former boss and dear friend Ben Gill came over for dinner, and I took a day to run up to Boulder to visit half a dozen friends in the latest iteration of my old employer.

A New Challenge

At this point, I was handicapped by two orthopedic problems, my right knee and my left hand. The middle finger was showing signs of the same “trigger finger” problem fixed last year on my other hand. In addition, my right knee was in trouble, making it hard to drive. I suspect I’d injured it while energetically walking (can’t really call it hiking) through the Palo Duro Canyon. Knowing the Pacific Northwest was where we wanted to spend most of this year, we identified an orthopedic practice in Missoula, MT with qualified people who could address both problems. I made an appointment for May 2 to get a diagnosis, book expected surgery, and plan for recuperation time.

Golden, CO

Our next stop was Golden. Yes, we did the Coors Brewery tour. But we were equally fascinated by the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. We’d seen enough great concerts televised from this beautiful outdoor scene to want to see it in person, even without the opportunity to hear its rafters ring. (Hell, we couldn’t anyway – it doesn’t have any.) But that’s not all . . .

Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave

William F. Cody’s notoriety has two dynamics. He was a renowned plainsman, and he was a renowned showman. Born in 1846 in Iowa and raised in Kansas, he left home at age 11 and became a cattle herder, wagon driver, fur trapper, gold miner and Pony Express rider by the age of 15. After the Civil War, he became a buffalo hunter, earning his lifetime appellation, and then an Army scout. He was the subject of many newspaper articles and dime novels.

The showmanship surfaced in 1872 when, after appearing in a melodrama staged by dime novelist Ned Buntline, he formed a troupe, the Buffalo Bill Combination, and performed a series of shows over the next ten years. In 1872, he conceived and began his endearing spectacle, the Wild West Show. You know its stars: Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok, Sitting Bull . . . and Short Bull, the Lakota chief who contributed the Ghost Dance and gave Cody the headdress shown below. It ran through many iterations in 1,400 cities until 1913, until a unscrupulous Denver businessman hoodwinked him out of its ownership. He was forced to combine his show with the Sells Floto Circus until he was able to extract himself.

Cody died in 1917. The big question is this: after birthing in Iowa, weaning in Kansas, traveling the entire West (and Europe) for five decades, and founding the city of Cody, Wyoming, why was he buried in Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado? Because his wife Louisa, closest friends Goldie Griffith and Johnny Baker, and the priest who administered his last rites said that was his choice. So he was laid to rest there on June 3. The citizens of Cody, Wyoming disagreed; there are stories that they attempted a grave snatching. Buffalo Bill is now buried under three feet of concrete for his own protection. Johnny Baker, Cody’s adopted son and star performer, negotiated with Colorado in the 1920’s for the museum; he put up $10k seed money for it and donated all of the artifacts he owned.

One other important issue: Buffalo Bill’s character. He promoted woman suffrage and paid his female employees in parity with men. He respected Native Americans and called them The Americans on his posters and handbills. He respected the ranch-hands he hired for his shows. He turned their image from coarse roughneck cow-boys to respected cowboys. And he loved children. Every orphanage in every town where he performed was showered with free tickets.

Coors Brewery

I’ve always been a Miller fan; it was the first Lite. In fact, to preserve its trademark, it’s officially Lite Beer From Miller. I’ve visited the Clydesdales in St. Looie, but I’ve never been a Bud fan, even when they were real Americans. But now that I’ve been down on Adolf-Land, I could be a convert. Mind you, I prefer a number of “heartier” beers. But when I’m really feeling guilty about calories, like, say, when I’m having a double burger with French fries and onion rings, I’m now specifying Coors. Of course, since the two have married their marketing (as MillerCoors) I can go for the better taste of that spring water without any guilt!

We parked and got a bus ride through the gates to the front door. After the formalities, like proving our age (guffaw) and having our picture taken (sales gimmick), we walked by a series of tableaux that spoke mostly to what Coors did during Prohibition — near beer and malted milk. Then we got hands-on with a collection of beer ingredients and a got a primer in Coors brands. From there, we went through a tour of the fermenting tanks and learned how beer becomes wort before it becomes drinkable, and on to the research and testing lab.

The Coors story is a tale of entrepreneurial success; it remains in the hands of the family with the exception of one outsider who’s climbed to the top of the management ladder. The invention of the aluminum beer can by Bill Coors in 1959 is a major highlight. The joint venture with Miller leaves both companies essentially intact; it’s a strategy to compete with Anheuser-Busch.

The tasting room was super. We could have up to three good-sized glasses of numerous brews. We stopped at two!

Red Rocks Amphitheatre

We drove up Red Rocks Drive on a Saturday morning through surprisingly heavy traffic. Thanks to my handicapped tag (for my back), we got a spot at the top. The majority of the crowd was not sightseers but part of the extensive workout movement that pervades the area. There were both individuals and groups participating; all bent on maintaining health through fitness, much like the raft of bicyclists that ride through the streets and parks in abundance.

After the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, developer and Cosmopolitan magazine founder John Brisben Walker bought Red Rocks and the surrounding land in 1906. He actually held performances in the undeveloped location, with audiences brought there on his cable railway. Then George Cranmer, Denver’s director of parks and improvement, led the city’s effort to purchase Red Rocks Park, and he succeeded in 1927. After a visit to Sicily the following year where he studied a Greek amphitheater, Cranmer spearheaded the development. As we have discovered in so many other circumstances, the construction was carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Too bad we can’t have a CCC today.)

We did spend some time to view videos and the year-by-year schedule of performances. It’s hard to come up with a name that hasn’t performed there at least once.

Colorado Railroad Museum

You might call this a railroad junkyard, but by the time you spend enough time walking around the Colorado Railroad Museum, you recognize it for what it is: a love affair. One is at the mercy of wandering, sometimes aimlessly, through a major collection of track equipment of every imaginable type. But there are many focal points, both in the yard and in the old depot that serves as its museum. Here’s a few examples . . .

An outdoor exhibit of G-scale model trains sponsored by the Denver Garden Railway Society.

A real, full sized working roundhouse with turntable.

An HO gauge model setup by the Denver HO Model Railroad Club, housed downstairs in the museum building, an old depot.

The effort of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad to stay afloat during the Great Depression. They built a rail car out of an automobile and a boxcar. Seven Galloping Geese were built, three using Buicks and four using Pierce Arrows. #1 is gone, three of the balance are at this museum. I got a tour around the park on restored #7 (left, below).

Snow fighting trains to keep transit going through the mountains.

There was also an exhibit of the talent of August Kuhler. Kuhler was an engineer who moonlighted as a commercial artist, a painter and industrial designer. He is responsible for bringing Art Deco to railroad design, revolutionizing the style of railroads like the B&O, Lehigh Valley, Milwaukee Road and numerous others.

Stop me before I load the dozens of other pics I took.

Colorado Springs, CO

Then it was on to Colorado Springs. Cheyenne Mountain was our third State Park experience, and our favorite. Beneath the surface of the area is NORAD; in fact most of the exits nearby warned against commerce without reason to be there. No installation was visible from the highway. Across from the park entrance is Fort Carson, large enough to be in three counties. It’s home to eight military units and over 10,000 people. Our campground was vertically about 700 feet above it, with a “mixed” view for many miles.

Pike’s Peak

This is a picture of Pike’s Peak. I took it. But it’s as close as we got to “climbing” it. We decided to take the railroad tour to the top. Dot decided she couldn’t go because her breathing capacity is too compromised for thin air at 14,000 feet. So I made a reservation for one. On the evening of my trip, the forecast for the peak was temperatures in the teens, high winds, wind chills below zero and very little visibility. Having difficulty even finding long pants, socks and closed shoes, much less putting them on, I bagged it. We saw the mountain, and we drove to the base where the train departs. That was close enough for us! The engine pictured is from the RR museum in Golden, used up until the mid-thirties to push the passenger car up the steep grade using a cog (rack) system. Today’s train looks more like a trolley.

Air Force Academy

Our tour of the Air Force Academy was cut short by a sudden hailstorm. When we walked into the Visitors’ Center, the weather was partly cloudy and about 60. When we walked out, the temp was 31 and hailstones up to lima bean size were pounding the ground. Here’s the fun part: I was wearing shorts, a tee shirt and sandals.

We did, however, get to drive through much of the campus and see the Chapel’s exterior. And it turns out that our main focus before the storm was on a secondary attraction: Doolittle Hall. It’s on a 24 acre site and is the home of the Academy’s Association of Graduates. It is also the location of the intake for all cadets upon their initial arrival at the Academy. It’s a beautiful building, and it is the site of many events, both connected to and separate from the Academy.

We were drawn in by the statue of Pegasus that graces the entry park. A gift to the Academy from the Italian Government in 1959, the year of the initial graduating class, it was originally located adjacent to Arnold Hall, the student social center. It was moved to its current location in 1994. The statue is the gateway not only the building but to the Challenge Bridge and Heritage Trail. Before heading for Cadet Hall, all new appointees cross the Bridge and witness the history of those who’ve gone before, with emphasis on the approximately 200 who have given their lives to the pursuit of freedom.

Heroic stories abound, including that of General Jimmy himself who, as a Lt. Col. in April, 1942, led a squadron of 80 volunteers in 16 B-25’s, on a daring raid on the Honshu homeland. Japan had convinced its people that it was invulnerable, and the surprise attack, while not inflicting major physical damage, upset the Japan psyche and led, among other things, to the withdrawal of a major carrier from the battlefront. The fully loaded land-based planes were launched from a carrier – another of Doolittle’s “calculated risks” – and they were to land at a base in China. No plane made it back, though the net loss of personnel was this: 11 killed or captured in the raid; a total of 7 dead in the raid and subsequently in prisoner of war camps. The morale boost for America was huge – finally a retaliation for the raid on Pearl.

A painting depicted another amazing feat of derring-do. On March 10, 1967, Capt. Earl Aman and Capt. Bob Pardo were bombing a steel mill near Hanoi in their F-4’s. Aman’s plane was severely hit by ack-ack, and it was certain that he and his back-seater would have to bail over North Vietnam. Pardo would not let this happen; he asked his comrade to lower his tailhook and literally pushed Aman’s Phantom toward Laos where both pilots and crewmembers catapulted and landed in safe jungles.

One more story. Capt. Lance Sijan, ’65, was the first Academy graduate to receive the Medal of Honor. Ejecting over the North in 1967, he eluded discovery for six weeks and escaped once from his captors. He was tortured to delirium and died in the care of a fellow inmate, never divulging a single piece of information.

There were two planes of note on the edge of the training airfield. One was a Northrup T-38 supersonic trainer, the plane flown by the Air Force Thunderbirds from 1974 until 1982. Another was the Fairchild A-10A Thunderbolt II – the “Chopper Popper” – that scored the first air-to-air downing of a helicopter over Iraq in 1991.

And on the way out was Diamond Lil, the humongous B-52 #083 that flew over 200 missions and 15,000 hours during its career. Participating in the carpet bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, it took to the air on Christmas Eve and headed for its targets. B-52’s are not expected to defend themselves; they have only a tail gunner and generally their fate is sealed if their squadron can’t keep the enemy at a safe distance. But a MiG 21 got through and into the sights of tail gunner, A-1C Albert Moore, who illuminated it and blew it from the sky. It was one of only 2 kills by the behemoths during the war.

Garden of the Gods

The Garden of the Gods is an exquisite collection of sandstone formations and other minerals that create a symphony of colors. Deposits were made horizontally but rose with the power that built Pike’s Peak eons ago. The cragged formations throughout the park are embedded with fossils, and many are named, including the Kissing Camels and the Balanced Rock. The name Colorado is derived from the sandstone; it meand red colored in Spanish.

Manitou Cliff Dwellings

The town of Manitou Springs has lots to offer. First, it is quaint as you could ever want to visit. It’s the embarkation point of the Cog Railway that lifts many thousands to the summit of Pike’s Peak annually. And it’s home to the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. As red as the sandstone cliffs that surround them, the dwellings are an interlocking series of structures, built under a protective ledge, that housed the Anasazi , the Ancient Ones, a people who preceded the Pueblo in history.

But they’re “fake.” That is to say, they are authentic reproductions of the homes of the Ancient Ones in Mesa Verde, Colorado. It would take pages to enlighten (bore) you with the reason why they exist here. But suffice it to say, while being forewarned, and intending to eventually see the original homeland of these people, we were curious enough to visit them anyway. The three story museum was a god opportunity to witness and experience something of this impressive people. Their website is similarly dedicated to responsibly and accurately educating visitors about the Ancient Ones and, perhaps, stimulating some to explore this vanished culture more deeply.

So far, we’ve given Colorado short shrift. But we’ll be able to visit a lot of the west slope either later this year or the next. We have about ten days left to get to Missoula, and we want to see at least a sampling of eastern Wyoming on the way. And since I’m the only driver when we’re towing, we favor short legs (pun intended) for this part of the journey to rest my knee.

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