It was great to be back in the United States again and we were ready for another adventure. Staying near to Colorado Springs, our first port of call was Pikes Peak, reputed to be the most visited mountain in North America. At 14,115 foot it is the 31st highest of Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot-plus mountain summits or “fourteeners”. Its snow-capped peak dominates the landscape here and is one of the main attractions.
We arrived early at Pikes Peak and there was already a small queue forming at the entrance.
We were told that, due to snow and ice near the summit, we would only be able to reach mile 16 of the 19 mile trail to the summit. However, the snow ploughs were out and there was a glimmer of hope that the summit would open at some point. After spending a couple of hours exploring and walking at the lower levels we heard that the summit had indeed opened, so we began the slow climb to the top. We didn’t really believe that summit conditions would be that bad as, although it was overcast and cool down below, the weather looked pretty good.
How wrong we were! As the beautiful broad-leaf trees gave way to hardier sub-alpines the temperature dropped and dropped until, with only a mile or so to the summit, we hit one degree Celsius and snow blew in gusts across the road and cloud drifted in, obscuring the views, which had been magnificent for most of the journey.
Apparently, you can see 5 states from the summit: Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Kansas but not today. The most we could see as we approached the summit was the stretch of road ahead of us. My hands ached due to gripping the steering wheel so tightly and we were both feeling a little disoriented and sick to the stomach. It was only as we reached the top and stepped out of the car that we realised that we were suffering from altitude sickness. It was the feeling you get after drinking a large glass of red too quickly on an empty stomach: when I moved my head, the world followed half a second later. Rachel thought she was going to fall over as we stood in line to get a snack but It’s amazing how much better you feel after warm donuts and hot coffee. The snow was thick at the summit and hundreds of people stood around waiting for their tour buses to pick them up.
We avoided the gift shop, which sold over-priced trinkets and, as we could see absolutely nothing of the five American states on offer, we decided to make the journey back down. We were still dizzy from the altitude but managed to drive at crawling pace, leaving the snow behind and, to our relief, the sun came out and the vast surrounding landscape reappeared and our dizziness receded. We stopped for some photos along the way.
Later we drove to Colorado Springs, another lovely American city: clean and neat with very few high-rise buildings. As usual, we found the American people to be kind, pleasant and endlessly polite. We spent much of our time in Acacia Park where children played at running through fountains of water and getting soaked to the skin while parents looked on. People sat around playing board games in the hot sun, cyclists went to and fro and friends shared pizza under the trees. A not-so-young couple ‘made out’ on a park bench across from us and I couldn’t help thinking that a room was required. They later wandered off to find one.
We had drinks in a lovely roadside restaurant and watched the world go by.
This was a quiet, laid back city and everyone seemed to move with slow, deliberate precision in and out of boutiques, coffee houses and book shops.
But, as with every city, there was another side that became more evident as the afternoon wore on. We would see the occasional vagrant sitting on a street corner or shuffling along the sidewalk. One guy in particular shook hands with people who stopped to offer money or conversation and compared his ample, yet well groomed, beard with a very cool-looking Harley Davidson rider who had stopped at the traffic lights near by. Later, while Rachel was buying some frozen custard from a quirky little deli, I noticed a man arrive nearby and, sitting himself down on the sidewalk, proceeded to display some very strange behaviour. He looked dishevelled and carried with him a piece of cardboard with the words ‘Help Needed’ written on it. After sitting, he took a paper towel or napkin out of his pocket and in a very theatrical manner, holding it delicately between his thumb and forefinger with his little fingers raised as if about to sip from a china tea cup, he carefully folded it and tucked it neatly into the breast pocket of his shirt. As he did so, his head lolled about and with eyebrows raised, his lips moved in response to the conversations going on inside his head. He was a country gent preparing his napkin for dinner or so it appeard to me. He reminded me of Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame, playing a part in a silent comedy and as he once again took out his napkin, he proceeded to politely wipe the corners of his mouth before pretending to blow his nose with it and shoved it quickly into his pocket. His hands continued to twitch, his lips moved and his head rolled about from side to side. His audience were not laughing and there was no silent movie – just an unfortunate soul with a makeshift cardboard sign, sitting in the street, ignored by all.
We spent the rest of the day in Colorado Springs and played draughts on an oversized game-board in the park.
Later we found a bustling sports bar in which to eat salad and drink beer before heading a little out of town, as the sun was going down, to a balloon festival in Memorial Park. After dark, the balloons, clustered around each other and tethered to the ground, lit up the sky to music while the crowds looked on.
It was a cheerful end to our first full day in Colorado.