…or bust

When I got off the plane in Denver on the evening of November 11, the thermometer read seven degrees above zero. During the night, it plummeted to minus four. Which made me exceedingly glad that on this trip to see daughter Meg, who is five months pregnant and taking it easy, we wouldn’t be doing either of the things we did the last couple of times I visited.

We wouldn’t ski at Copper Mountain (or anyplace else) as we did last winter. And we wouldn’t ride the Cog Railway to the top of Pike’s Peak, which we did last July.

Summiting Pike’s Peak has been on my bucket list ever since I was in grammar school and learned about the intrepid Zebulon Pike who, while exploring the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, spotted the massive peak on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains and vowed to scale it. On November 15, 1806 he and his fellow climbers were turned back by waist-deep snow long before they reached the top of the mountain. Zeb declared that it might never be climbed.

He was wrong.

Pike’s Peak, which Zebulon Pike never visited again even though it bore his name, was first summited in 1820. By 1852, a crude trail existed to the top. In 1889, grading for a “cog railway” began. Cog railways climb steep mountain grades using a gear-like wheel (the cog) to engage teeth in a center rail. The first-ever cog railway scaled New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington in 1869. A train travelled to the top of Pike’s Peak for the first time in 1891. The Manitou and Pike’s Peak Cog Railway, the highest in the world, reaches 14,110 feet at the summit and–at 7,500 feet–has the largest elevation gain. In 1915, the Pikes Peak Highway, a 19-mile long toll road that encompasses more than 150 hairpin turns on its way to the top, was built.

There was no doubt in my mind that I wasn’t brave enough to travel up Pike’s Peak in a car. Or on a motorcycle. I’d just as soon hike it in waist-deep November snow.

So we boarded an old-timey wooden rail car in the charming little town of Manitou Springs (Colorado’s answer to Gatlinburg) to chug, chug, chug our way up the mountain. Our tour guide pointed out that our rail car had heat and air—“lower the windows if you’re hot, raise them if you’re cold” he said, and we all chuckled appreciatively.

As expected, temperatures at the base of the mountain felt like summer. But the higher we climbed, the colder it got. We began to spot patches of snow. By the time we reached 10,000 feet, I was exceedingly glad to have brought along a coat along. Despite my sometimes-irrational fear of heights, the ride wasn’t at all scary. The only times I felt nervous were when I caught a glimpse of the no-guardrail highway twisting and turning its way toward the sky.

At those times, I tried hard to concentrate on the flora and fauna, which included spruce, pine, and aspen groves and such diverse wildlife as black squirrels, yellow-bellied marmots,  mule deer and—yes!—a small herd of bighorn sheep who paid no attention at all to our train.

Were the views at the top worth the trip? You bet. So spectacular that it was easy to understand why, in 1891, Katherine Lee Bates wrote the poem “America the Beautiful” while standing at the top of Pike’s Peak. Spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.

It’s all right there for anyone lucky enough to travel to the top of the most famous and most visited mountain in North America.

(November 30, 2014)

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