A sense of place and space

May 18, 2013
photo - Aerial photo of The Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak March 17, 2010. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette.
Aerial photo of The Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak March 17, 2010. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette. 

When a friend from Florida visited this winter, I tried to prepare him for my western lifestyle.

First, I told him that he had to wear boots - I own six pair, and they are the only way to get around. Second, I warned him that in my modest household, I rise early to bake bread and usually chop wood for the fireplace. I offered to bake the bread, if he would chop the wood.

He was game. He also believed me.

I've spent my life shuttling between coasts, and as a born-and-raised New Mexican, I've had to combat my fair share of quaint western stereotypes. For instance, no, I am not a hippie. Yes, I own six pair of cowboy boots, but most were acquired in non-western locales. And yes, I consider the mountains to be a key element to my happiness - they've got redemptive power, I like to say.

Yet no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to shatter my friends' rosy images of western life - we go on hikes before work, keep stacks of firewood and suffer through May snowstorms.

Nonetheless, for years, I have been luring my twenty-something friends to Colorado or New Mexico with one convincing line from journalist Horace Greeley:

"Go west, young man, go west and grow up with the country."

I give them my version of Colorado - open skies, big landscapes, a sprawling city with pockets of character that we can discover together.

High on my list is instilling non-westerners with a sense of place and space. Most live their lives boxed in by dense clouds and cloying greenery; how refreshing an endless horizon must be! In Colorado, the sky is half the world, and the best way to show it is to get out - on the road, on the trail.

I've driven friends up Pikes Peak - with great hilarity they marvel in standing on the actual Purple Mountain Majesty. With one friend, I hiked the peak's back route, an excellent but grueling trek that involved a mad sprint from a thunderstorm that cost me both of my big toenails.

With my East Coast friends, I am forever questing for good food in Colorado Springs - a tricky ticket in a city that often falls short of what Denver has to offer. El Taco Rey, 330 E. Colorado Ave., works like magic every time. I first discovered its healing powers when a friend, a New Yorker, flew up the Manitou Incline and came down shaking and in shock. Chile-drowned burritos were just the thing to restore his caloric levels.

Convincing my friends that Colorado Springs has character has become an obsession. Two years ago, when a friend from Alaska visited, we went tooling through the Old North End on bikes. We dipped down onto the Pikes Peak Greenway and cruised past Colorado College and the old railroad station.

Not all visitors are up for a bike ride, but I subject nearly everyone to some sort of road trip. Last summer, a friend from Chicago and I drove to San Luis for a wedding, and we stopped in Walsenburg for lunch. (I let her drive while I wrote an article, and she nearly ran us off the road in her excitement at seeing a deer.)

Alaskans are far harder to impress with mountain-scapes than Floridians, but I did manage to astound my Alaskan friend with a fall trip down the "Highway of Legends" between Walsenburg and Trinidad.

Next month, I expect a visitor from Washington D.C., a college friend who, outside of once developing a mad crush on a Vail ski instructor, knows nothing of Colorado.

Although she mostly wants to jet down to New Mexico, I already am planning our route with as many pit stops as possible. We might stop in Walsenburg for lunch at a greasy spoon. Heading down the "Highway of Legends" is a must, and so is a stop at a certain La Veta gas station with bathroom doors that don't lock. Once we get to Trinidad, I want to drive her by the New Elk coal mine and make her walk at least one block of the red brick streets downtown.

It might not be D.C., New York, Chicago, Anchorage or Tampa, but it's my Colorado, a mostly majestic but often odd place that never fails to surprise me. And my friends always leave feeling like they've tasted the true west.


Handy is a general assignment reporter for The Gazette. She's lived in Colorado Springs since 2011.

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