HUERFANO COUNTY - From Interstate 25, it's as impossible to miss as the wind turbines that break the view of the mighty twin peaks: a 300-foot mound of what looks like black rubble, a miniature volcano in a field of yucca, cactuses and cow pies.
Huerfano Butte is but one "volcanic cone" spotting the plains of Spanish Peaks country, as described in Ross B. Johnson's 1968 report for the U.S. Department of the Interior. The geology, he wrote, "has inspired men for untold centuries," long before the 1869 expedition of pioneer Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden.
The surveyor was the first known to closely study this land "penetrated with dikes" - the miraculously shaped rock walls that, like the buttes, rose from the Earth. The slender, soaring slabs weave along the mountainsides, as if Mother Nature tatted some masterful lacework.
After Hayden came frontier mapper Frederick Miller Endlich, who wrote: "Among all the mountains that have come under my observation, none has been fraught with the absorbing interest presented by the Spanish Peaks."
The dikes and buttes arose in an unimaginable age, during south-central Colorado's mountainous evolution. Subterranean forces had pushed up the Spanish Peaks. Still underground, magma was flowing into fissures of rock that would jut through the surface. The rock would shed, revealing the crystallized magma that millions of years later would astonish civilization, from Indians who believed their gods settled here, to Spanish explorers, to coal miners, to passersby cruising the Highway of Legends.
Then there's Brian Penn. He pulls off I-25 onto a dirt road in his Ford Ranger, which bears the logo of a hail damage repair company.
"Igneous petrology doesn't pay well," Penn says.
That's the study of volcanic intrusions, and these have been Penn's focus before and after he got his Ph.D. from the Colorado School of Mines. To see the world-class formations, the Geological Society of America has looked to him for days-long trips around Walsenburg and the outskirts of La Veta.
Every year for his presentations at nearby state parks, locals come "curious about the world around them," Penn says. "That's what's cool."
He prefers that to teaching. "Largely, people are not motivated," he says, and knowledge isn't gained in a classroom anyway.
"It's out here," he says beside Huerfano Butte.
He almost has to shout over the interstate rush as he picks up shales and says they're from the Cretaceous period - much older than even the estimated 25 million-year-old butte.
Huerfano means orphan. "So," Penn says, "Huerfano is an orphan that sits out here as the world goes by."
A mythical land
Penn lives between Guffey and Cripple Creek, at the edge of his current muse: the Thirtynine Mile volcanic field, left by the eruption that covered several regions with ash some 35 million years ago.
But he still frequents these backroads, these fields of silvery sage and rocks that stirred a boy's imagination.
"I just like the rocks," he says, heading west toward Colorado 12, the Highway of Legends. "My formative years were in this very area, so you resonate with them. I don't know how else to put it."
How, he asks, could one not be amazed by that in the distance? It's Goemmer Butte, poking like a thumb from the verdant floor. It stands between the slopes of the failed Cuchara Ski Area and the most ancient of all the mountains in sight, Silver Mountain.
Penn stops to take in the view. The shimmering Cucharra River, which gave sustenance and saw war, braids on. The Spanish Peaks, which the Utes knew as "the breasts of the world," still dominate. And at the center of it all, the 500-foot rock that was said to be a giant warrior left to keep watch over the prized valley. Today, Goemmer gets its name from the landowning family that fenced it with barbed wire.
Also in view is a reddish line carving the hills for 6 miles, a rock appearing like the arching back of a serpent in a green sea. Driving closer, Penn stops at the dike known as Profile Rock. A bulging face sits in a cow pasture, its long neck curving into the oak-covered slopes.
Next is Devil's Stairsteps. Massive slabs rise at 90-degree angles, one after the other to the sky - the route taken by Satan to overlook the world and plot his takeover, legend has it.
Penn's attention is elsewhere. He picks up a stone. "This is what's really cool, this is really great," he says. "See this little rectangle? Plagioclase feldspar."
The white blemish would be dismissed by most anyone. But Penn knows that spot to be another treasured remain of creation.
However dreary it appears, the stop back in Walsenburg might be Penn's favorite. The highway cuts through the rock wall dividing the Phillips 66 and the Family Dollar.
From the litter-strewn road, Penn hikes 10 yards or so up to the rock, to show the ripples and color distinctions between the "country rock" and the dike that intruded through it. The blending phenomenon resulted in this erosion-resistant formation, ensuring it could withstand millions more years, along with all its sister walls beyond.
"Oh, look at this, this is really cool," Penn says, picking up another rock with another white spot - a xenolith, he says, another fragment from the Earth's crust.
Cars whiz by, and one driver looks up with a cocked eyebrow. But Penn is too excited to notice that or the minutes turning into hours.
"I see new stuff all the time. It's my favorite thing to do."