2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 3

After lunch at the Keg, I walked around Manitou Springs for a bit trying to figure out what to do. Pike’s Peak wasn’t an option. Because it was off-season, the cog railway was on a limited schedule and the last train of the day had already left. The highway to the top was closed due to a recent snow. Kind of early in the year to go to the top of a 14,000 mountain, I suppose. So I walked around Manitou for a bit, checking out the gift shops, historical markers, and a pretty nifty penny arcade. One of the markers noted that the springs which gave Manitou its name used to be a destination for people suffering from tuberculosis. At some point in history the health-calculus must have changed, because the only other people in the penny arcade were a couple of chain smokers in their 50s, both of whom were hacking up a storm.

I walked back outside after playing some pinball and a game that sorta-kinda-not really looked like pachinko. I didn’t plan on driving into the mountains until the next morning, so I looked for something to do to kill time. Across the highway from Manitou is a park called Garden of the Gods, notable for its sandstone formations. It’s pretty enough, but after an hour or so of hiking I was losing interest. With condos and houses visible from most of the trails, the place feels vaguely like a theme park or a particularly gnarly golf course as opposed to The Great Outdoors.

Storm clouds were hopping over the mountain peaks and the sky was growing dark as I returned to my car. The plan was to head west on US-50 first thing the next morning, so I got on the interstate and headed down to Pueblo to find a place to stay for the night. Feeling good from the short hike and wanting more exercise, I checked into a motel with an indoor pool and weight room. Stretching out muscles that had gone mostly unused for 1200 miles felt wonderful. As I swam, the storm outside really began to pick up, with sustained winds of about 40 miles an hour rattling the windows and sending tumble weeds across the parking lots. Feeling refreshed, I decided to check out Pueblo. I didn’t suspect that there was much to actually see there, but I was curious about the place because as my parents almost moved there about fifteen years ago.

My dad worked for the National Weather Service which, for most of his career, was comprised of hundreds of far-flung field offices located in places that, while important at the dawn of aviation, tended to be out of the way now. In Dad’s day, the best way to get promotions was to transfer from office to office, filling desperately-needed slots and convincing enough people that you were management material. As a result, Mom and Dad moved around a lot over the years. By the time I was born, they had been to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, McGrath and St. Paul Island, Alaska, and Flint, Michigan. A promotion to management moved us from Flint to Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1985. In 1988 we moved down to Beckley, West Virginia which, for subjective reasons, is the place I consider my hometown.

I was out of the house for good by the time they moved again in 1994, this time to Nashville. They ended up moving a final time – back to Flint – in 1998. Each time they moved, the ultimate destination was only one of two or three jobs Dad had put in for. Parkersburg could just as easily have been Flagstaff, Arizona. Beckley could have been Spartanburg, South Carolina. Nashville was almost Pueblo.

Downtown was practically deserted due to the bad weather, but I found a cozy little bar where I had a couple of beers and talked to the bartender. He confirmed my initial assessment of Pueblo: on the rise after years of empty storefronts, but likely to never rise as high as the city fathers hoped it would. There was a nice new Marriott hotel/conference center and a couple of decent restaurants, but Pueblo will never be a commercial juggernaut. That said, Pueblo’s title of “the asshole of Colorado” – as stated in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation anyway – is clearly unwarranted. From what I saw of it, it’s a relatively well-kempt little town with more well-maintained older buildings than I had expected. I’ve certainly lived in worse places, and I bet my parents would have liked living there more than they liked Nashville.

I woke up at 5:30 the next morning without the aid of an alarm. I looked out the window and saw that the storms had passed, revealing a cloudless sky. It was a chilly morning, but the temperature was on its way up to the mid 60s. I was itching to get into the Rockies.

My first stop was Cañon City, just west of Pueblo on US-50. Cañon City’s claim to fame are the fourteen prison facilities in the area, including the infamous ADX Florence, the “supermax” prison with the nickname “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” You can’t exactly visit there, but you can visit the nearby Museum of Colorado Prisons. More appealing was Skyline Drive, which is a three-mile, single-lane loop high above town affording some nice views of the surrounding mountains. I drove the loop, breathed some fresh air, and took several pictures.

Next was Royal Gorge Bridge, suspended a thousand feet over the Arkansas River. Royal Gorge is surrounded by kitschy tourist traps, go kart tracks, and “authentic” wild west towns. Thankfully, most of the attractions were closed until May, and those that were in operation didn’t open until at least 10 A.M. It was 8:30 when I got to the bridge itself, and there was nobody there except me. The bridge was open to both cars and walkers. After paying my entrance fee to the ranger at the gate, I decided to ditch the car and walk across.

I was about halfway across when the planks began to bounce. I stepped to the side and looked back, seeing the ranger in his little van heading my way. He passed me, gave me a polite wave, made it to the opposite end of the bridge, turned around, and drove back. He was obviously checking on me, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he thought I was a potential suicide. I had arrived alone and left my car behind, which I suppose fits the jumper profile. Or maybe he saw my backpack and thought I was a BASE jumper. I’m neither suicidal nor an extreme athlete (assuming there’s a difference between the two), but I had to admit that Royal Gorge would be a great place to either cheat or embrace death.

After the gorge, I made the stunning 47-mile drive to Salida. Unlike roads back east which often stray miles from the rivers and trails they once followed, US-50 hangs onto the Arkansas River for dear life. I stopped several times along the way to take pictures, watch fly fisherman, and feel the cold, cold water of the Arkansas.

Salida is a cute town perched about 7,200 feet up in the mountains. Though its pool halls and saloons evoke a rough and tumble past, the newish-looking cafés and mountain bike shops give off a touristy vibe. As of 2003 the bourgeoisie hadn’t totally taken over yet, but it seemed like a couple more B&Bs would officially turn the tide. I stopped in the Cornucopia Café for some lunch, and while ordering my sandwich, I was faced with a decision I had never had to make before when I was asked if I wanted fruit or yogurt on the side. Having been in the Midwest so long, it took me a few seconds to come to grips with the fact that chips or fries were not an option. Now would probably be a good time to mention that people out west tend to be in better shape than people back east.

After lunch I walked around for an hour, enjoying the peacefulness of the quiet town and admiring the mountain views. I saw a “for rent” sign in the window of an apartment above the Victoria Bar. I stopped and looked at it, imagining myself inside with nothing but a warm bed, a shelf full of books, a thick sweater, and a cozy leather chair. I stopped daydreaming after a few moments and the image faded away. I was struck by the notion, however, that Salida would be an excellent place to go if I ever wanted to simply disappear for a while.

I still think that from time to time.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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