Monday, July 6, 2009

Going to the extremes

Friday morning, the Halls loaded a newly acquired hired vehicle with all manner of maps and tour books. It was time to part company from the comfortable confines of Master Erick's in Denver and move on to parts unknown. Before they left, Erick invited them to tour the facility where he worked: the ultra modern offices of Jeppesen Sanderson outside of Denver in Englewood. Jeppesen is responsible for dispatching military planes around the world, including even Air Force One. His office in particular, having the courses of multi-modal military operations, was highly secure, so no photographs were taken of his desk-but the public spaces of the facility were very inviting indeed. After a terrific walkaround and a quick bite to eat, it was hugs all around. Time to hit the open road!
First on the flight plan was the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Hauntingly beautiful in its stark geometric lines and clean mathematical architecture, the academy lays in the valley below the foothills near Pikes Peak. Interestingly enough, the former academy had previously been located at the old Lowry AFB that they had visited the other day; now the new vision lay before them. Designed by the crackerjack architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (well-known to most Chicagoans), it was controversial when first presented, but now stands as a classic example of mid century modernism. Rising like a rocket out of the horizonal lines of the sculpture garden is the steeple of the church- or rather, churches. Several denominations have separate portions of this striking building, though the larger nave is primarily for Protestant ceremonies. The Halls had timed their visit well; the church was to be closed off to the public that afternoon for a wedding, and there was considerable scurrying about to make final preparations. A small cadre of nuns scampered around the grounds,craning their heads and generally rubbernecking with the best of them. They were dressed all in white save for some sun bonnets and sensible walking shoes.
Denver is of course, referred to as the "Mile High City" because it rests at approximately 5, 280 feet, but Colorado Springs was slightly higher. The first few days after arrival, the Halls took their time instead of spritely bounding up staircases and running to keep up with the younger set, but by now they were better acclimated to the altitude, and lengthy walks and stairs seemed less of a chore. This was a good thing, as their next stop was the Garden of the Gods, very close to the AF academy.
Born of outcroppings of red and grey sandstone and limestone, the mountains and figures in the Garden stand, (or more accurately, lean precipitously) as mute testimony to long gone ancient seas and primordial creatures. Mrs. Hall could not help but remark that their destinations were ones of complete contrast; from the stark geometric austerity of the USAFA, laid out with mathematical precision, to the ruggedly random organic mounds of the sandstone formations in the garden. It was like going from one world to another.
Bearing such charming names as "Kissing Camels" and "The Three Graces", the park is popular with hikers, tourists and the occasional climber- weather permiting and with the permission of park authorities. One such climber was in attendance the day the Halls were there; despite a toasty 89 degrees, he managed to scale to the top of one of the dangerously slim slivers of rock and remained perched there for some time. (He can be observed as the tiny dot at the top of the right mountain in the second picture.) As the Halls got in their car, the little nuns all in white were just pouring out of their van, eager to make the loop through the garden as well. Their flight plan seemed to follow the Halls' quite closely, and they were seen everywhere that day!
It was nearly 90 degrees when the Halls slid back into their car; they had purchased a cooler and filled it full of water and ice, so as to be prepared for the dry mountain air and high temps. "Where to next?" inquired Mrs. Hall, but Mr. H. just pointed upwards. Rising above all their day's events had been the quiet majesty of Pikes Peak, and that was where they were headed next.
The Halls drove past Balanced Rock, which was balancing as it had for many years, despite being overrun with t-shirt clan tourists snapping pictures of each other, cunningly posed so as to appear to be holding it up. Straight on up the mountain they drove, to nearby Manitou Springs and the Cog Railway Depot. Previously warned that the next leg of their journey would take them to less comfortable climes, Mrs. H. purchased a fleecy jacket and joined Mr. Hall in line. Ever the early planner, Mr. H. had made reservations on this very train as early as April, and it was a good thing, too- several folks were waiting outside the depot anxiously on standby, hoping to get a seat to what was clearly a very popular destination. The line was still there as the train lurched and began its nerve racking ascent.
Most railways climb at a rate of no more than 4- 6 %, sometimes reaching 9%. Cog railways can acheive a vertical ascent rate of over 25 percent and that makes for an exciting, if not heart pounding adventure to the top. The view was breathtaking, and the weather could not have been more cooperative. Sunny and bright most of the way to the top, some clouds appeared at the top and for a brief moment, even settled on the summit itself. But then, the blue reappeared, and the clouds, the storm and even some lightning stikes, were visible in the valleys and peaks below. Pikes Peak is not the highest of the range; as mountains go, it is ranked around 32nd in the "14's" (peaks higher than 14, 000 feet). But it was the highest Mrs. Hall had even been and it could not have been lovelier.
After watching the children scamper in the snow (it was windy and cold there- about 49 degrees) and the older folks sit and try to catch their breath, it was time to go back down. The Halls could barely bring themselves to go- they could have stayed and watched the everchanging vistas spanning over five states for days- but if they missed the train, their only resort would have been to hike the way back down, and as that probably would have made them late for cocktails, they opted to hop the last ride back. (A brief scare on the way back- the train bumped a bit about two-thirds of the way down, and stopped. While the passengers waited anxiously, the conducter was overheard to say that they had hit "something" (?!) and they were investigating the matter. By leaning well out of her window, Mrs. H. was able to see the conductor reach under the rails, yank out a large rock and heave it to the side. A mountain squirrel, watching (maliciously, perhaps?) from a nearby stump, chattered disgustingly; the little train started with a jerk and proceeded down the hill.) As the Halls disembarked and removed their cold weather gear, they could see the little nuns gathering themselves for the next trip.
Next episode: Leaving Las Vegas (New Mexico, that is...) Stay tuned!

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