Manitou Springs Detour

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 9.21.18 PMA spin of my favorite travel tool, the serendipifier, has found me this afternoon in Manitou Springs, for only the second time in probably 40 years. The previous time was yesterday, on my way down from Denver to visit old friends Brian and Gretchen in Southern Colorado.

By Devon’s kind graces, I had a couple of days to roam once I was done with USAP orientation. I spent one last night in Denver seeing old friends from my first deployment – some serious OAEs (e.g. a couple of them have mountains in Antarctica named after them!), then pointed my nose south to Walsenburg.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a glorious day on I-25, and with Pike’s Peak tearing a 14,000′ hole in the western sky, I couldn’t help but reminisce back to my days at the J-Bar-Double-C Ranch Camp. The older campers at the J-Bar-Double-C (JCC – get it?) traditionally capped off their summer with a three day backpacking trip attempting to climb Zebulon Pike’s ostensibly unclimbable mountain. Out of four summer attempts, my cabin managed to disprove Mr. Pike twice. Once, we were just too tuckered to make it, and the other time, our group was struck by lightning, necessitating heli-vac rescue of a couple of cabin-mates. That, of course, is a whole other story.

The approach to Pike’s Peak goes through the town of Manitou Springs. As a callow youth, I was insufficiently clear on the distinction between “manitou” and “manatee,” and as a result was always intrigued by the town and its implied promise of encountering one of these enormous marine mammals so far up into the mountains. But they never would stop the bus to let us get out and explore, and my curiosity remained unquenched through my long and eventful career as a JCC summer camper.

So yesterday, when Exit 145 off the highway promised passage to Manitou Springs and the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, it took very little convincing to veer off for a look.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI remembered the cog railway – ruefully – from my youth. Those two times we managed to reach the top of the mountain, drained, drenched and damn near defeated, we found ourselves surrounded by t-shirt clad tourists congratulating themselves on having survived the harrowing hour-long sitdown it took them to ride the railway up. We stood much too close behind them in line for hot chocolate and donuts at the summit restaurant, hoping our unwashed sweat would waft off and ruin their undeserved enjoyment of the moment. We were (perhaps a little justifiably) spiteful kids.

But hey – buoyed by the excuse that I’m now a decrepit 52 years old and no one in their right mind would be climbing the mountain in late October, I bellied up to the ticket office for the railway and bought myself a seat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was great fun. The lovely ladies who had the misfortune of sharing a bench seat with me for the hour-long ride were a captive audience for my honest-to-god, when-I-was-a-kid stories about the mountain. One, I think, feigned altitude sickness just to medicate herself out of having to listen.

The excursion did take up most of the afternoon, though, and I was expected in Walsenburg by dinner time, so I had to skedaddle south as soon as the train got back down, again without the opportunity to investigate the town. But… I knew I’d have another day to burn on my way back up, and hey, Manitou Springs is just about halfway between Walsenburg and the Denver airport. How could I say no?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo… how to describe Manitou Springs? Imagine a funky little Colorado mountain town. Like, maybe Breckenridge or Aspen were 30 years ago. You know, a trinket shop or two. A couple of bars, a tiny city park and weatherbeaten post office. Zombies, sexy vampires, clone troopers, lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) and more princesses than you can shake a crystal slipper at. You know, that sort of thing. Oh – it’s Halloween. Right.

The entire town was out on the street trick or treating. Grownups, kids, dogs – you name it. The buskers were even having a good time of it – kids were walking by not sure whether to drop candy in their guitar cases or take a piece as they went by.


spider-posterThat being said, once the sun went down, Manitou Springs pretty much rolled up the sidewalks. The only thing on offer this evening was, appropriately enough, Horror Movie Night at the appropriately funky Manitou Springs Heritage Center. Now, you all know I’m not one for horror movies, but who could resist a classic like Horrors of Spider Island? (Quick review: Watch the trailer over at and then ask me: is it really that bad? Well, you know how sometimes you can just tell that the only good parts of the movie are the parts in the trailer? This is one of those movies. Yes, those were the good parts.) In short, in the realm of movies that are so bad they’re good, this one is absofragilistically awesome. Popcorn flying everywhere. I understand that Plan 9 From Outer Space is universally considered the worst movie ever made, but damned if this doesn’t give it a run for the money. If only there were a Horrors of Spider Island drinking game…

Anyhow. If I’d been here last weekend, I could have participated in, or at least watched, the annual Emma Crawford Coffin Race, commemorating when dear departed Emma’s coffin, buried on the mountainside, apparently dislodged itself in a rainstorm and came barreling down the hill towards town (without, the legend says, Emma inside it. Woooooooo).

Believe it or not, the town does have non-spooky attractions, too. It’s just down the bend from the fabulous Cave of the Winds and around the corner from the always-inspiring Garden of the Gods. And, if you get really bored, you can always lace up your boots and have a go at Mr. Pike’s mountain.


4 responses to “Manitou Springs Detour

  1. Hey David,

    The one and only time that I have summited Pike’s Peak was on a rented Harley-Davidson, with Kris on the back. Unfortunately, it was only four hours after I had left sea level Seattle, so I had about fifteen minutes at the top before I knew I needed to descend. Since I was riding a motorcycle, two up, on a rutted dirt road, I thought that perhaps a clear head would be a good idea.

    Do you will remember our hyperbaric chamber exercise at Whidby Island NAS, so many years ago? I was the first one to suffer the effects of hypoxia. I never thought that training would help me as a biker.



    • Heh – if you were first to go blue on the altitude chamber that day, I was a close second. I remember being good for about 15 seconds before the flight nurse decided that it was time to put me on oxygen. I also fondly remember Heidi Mytinger fighting off the flight nurse, insisting that really, she could finish the test, if only she could figure out how to get the pencil to stay in contact with the paper…


  2. You also forgot about my humble little abode on the West side of Colorado Springs, mere minutes from Manitou and Garden of the Gods. I worked on the summit for 8 years and then worked at the Cog Railway as the retail buyer for three. When I started in Antarctica I worked as a conductor on the train when home:) Next time you’re in town (or Denver) look me up!


    • So sad I didn’t know before now! Sounds like complete awesomeness. You would have been the envy of my entire 2nd grade class, back when we all wanted to be train conductors. Will definitely look you up next time I’m along the front range. (And great to hear from you, by the way!)


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