Eighty years ago, two men arrived at the pay gate of the highway that winds up Pikes Peak. The mountain, as you probably know, is named for explorer Zebulon Montgomery Pike, who saw the peak that defines our region on his brave expedition across the West in 1806.
Both men sitting in the car were named Zebulon Montgomery Pike and had driver’s licenses to prove it.
“Are you going to charge me to go up my mountain?” the older Pike said.
The man at the gate scowled as he examined the driver’s license.
“I don’t care if you’re Jesus,” the man said. “It will cost you 50 cents.”
The younger of the father and son Pikes in the car, a man who liked to be called Monty, never tired of that story. Friends say they heard him tell the story of the failure to save 50 cents five or six times, and there are variations of the story, which might or might not be true.
One variation has Monty returning to the pay gate in 1956 wearing a full Zebulon Montgomery Pike army uniform. He again showed his ID, again requested free admission and again listened to the order to pay or turn his car around.
Last month, Monty died in his adopted hometown of Salida. He was 97. He was the great-great-great-grandnephew of Zebulon Montgomery Pike.
“He is an extremely kind person,” says Harv Higsen, Monty’s friend. When he talks of Monty, Higsen switches from present tense to past tense. It’s only been a few weeks since he learned of his friend’s death.
“He was just a very kind, calm and thoughtful man,” Higsen says.
First time Harv met Monty, they traveled to the site on the Arkansas River near Salida where Pike and his party of 20 camped during Christmas 1806. Harv and Monty stood beside a big bend of the river for a long time, imagining where the tents had been. Both men cherished the chance to return to yesterday to imagine the lives of the explorers.
The Pike Expedition offers a grand story, one we tend to forget. Pike took a 3,664-mile journey through what are now six states. He observed the weakness of Spanish presence and military force in what is now Texas, an observation that led to thousands of Americans settling in the territory. These settlers led to the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, and a vast expansion of the United States.
Monty was deeply proud of his namesake’s courage and ability to lead his men through a huge, dangerous wilderness.
Harv sat in the audience Nov. 2 at Temple Baptist Church in Salida for Monty’s funeral.
“It was a celebration,” Harv says. “It wasn’t gloom and doom.”
Monty didn’t wear his replica Army uniform just for show. He traveled to schools and spoke of his ancestor’s long journey through the American West. He was intent on bringing a vital story from yesterday straight into today.
Roy Pike, 83, is another of the explorer Pike’s great-great-great-grandnephews, and he often saw his cousin in full Pike regalia.
“Oh, he looked fabulous,” Roy says.
Pike family reunions are immense and happy affairs. When the family gathered, a big group surrounded Monty.
“He had such a grasp even in his 90s,” Roy says. “He knew more about things and had been more places.”
Roy is a minister. He believes in an afterlife in heaven.
“He was the elder statesman in the Pike family,” Roy says. “And we miss him. But we believe that he is now with the real Zebulon, and we’re looking forward to the big reunion.”