ML Cavanaugh

Most Sundays, pre-COVID, we’d be at our little church on Manitou Avenue. I’d grit my teeth through the service, gently coercing our two daughters to keep quiet.

But not now. The virus knocked us out of our routine. To a different place. Our new Sundays take us to Fountain Creek in Manitou Springs, which turns out to be another kind of spiritual communion.

COVID-19’s denied us the comfort of close connection and companionship with our family, friends, neighbors, and the little niceties of society. Of course, they’re not entirely gone. But our “alone together”-ness has meant the touch, the intimacy, the handshakes and hugs — the door’s closed on them for now.

But another door, made of sticks and stones, has opened to our great outdoors. And as big as your land and my land is, there’s plenty of room for all of us.

When we say “great outdoors,” we never really think about how truly great that “great” is. The Congressional Research Service reported this year that a whopping 640 million acres of the U.S. is publicly owned land (roughly the same size as Argentina; bigger than Greenland). Colorado has over 24 million acres, 36% of the state’s acreage, about the same size as South Korea or Portugal.

If you want to get outside and range free, the West is best. Setting aside Alaska and Hawaii, 46% of the 11 Western states is federal land, owned by all Americans. To compare, back East, about 4% of land is federal.

I suspect that’s why many of us headed westward. Say, like me, you were born in Minnesota, where 6.8% is federal land. Or maybe Massachusetts (1.2), Texas (1.9), Nebraska (1.1), Kansas (0.5), or Iowa (0.3) —Colorado’s wide openness looks pretty good. Add up the All-American land in those six states, and Colorado triples their total.

Right here in our backyard, Fountain Creek’s a good example of the power of public land. In straight-line distance, it flows 75 miles from Woodland Park, through Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs, to down near Pueblo. The Fountain Creek Watershed covers nearly 1,000 square miles and ultimately drains into the Arkansas River.

While in other places most beachfront property is locked away from others — in Manitou, Fountain Creek’s open to all.

That’s where my daughters and I have been going all summer. Our creekside spot is an undisclosed, top-secret location. Code name: Manitou Beach. It’s need-to-know information. Not even my wife knows where.

Whatever we need, the creek provides. Ample shade. Cool water. Exquisite scenery. Even a measure of privacy. And of course, some sonic peace, moist Muzak, a babble and flow that makes the perfect outdoor ambience.

If ever you feel smothered by notification noises, just grab a folding chair and sit a spell alongside Fountain Creek. Let nature’s symphony steer you straight.

It’s not perfect.

The girls fight. Trash on the trails. I’ve had to launch several no-notice search and rescue missions for a favorite toy that the speedy stream has carried off. These missions are every bit as harrowing and exciting as any of the “Toy Story” movies, but a little less pleasing to the eye and definitely not rated “G” to the ear.

For all its flaws, our COVID-induced summer at Manitou Beach has been a welcome silver lining. While we’ve lost too many other forms of connection, this budding bond with nature in our neighborhood is fulfilling on several levels.

The girls have learned they can make infinite fun outside. They play-act. They throw rocks. They splash around. They make canals. They sing out. They spot birds. They do all these without a parent’s helping hand. They work themselves into a state of wildness, two unguided missiles locked on everything the waterway has to offer.

They’ve fallen in love with a creek. Not from a glossy travel magazine or fancy nature documentary, but from actual experience. From where we live. From here. That’s the next generation of stewards that’ll keep our state’s 24 million acres colorful and clean for all Coloradans (and those yet to come).

When COVID-19 is past — because, this too shall pass — we’ll go back to all our community and all our congregating. We’ll be back in church, and my teeth will grit once more.

But something will be different. Changed. Water has the power to shape, to leave small grooves, open cracks for new flows. We know now that baptisms by creek can wash away virus fears for a while, and so we’ll be swept back by the tide to our Manitou Beach. (Just don’t try to find us.)

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. He can be reached via Twitter (@MLCavanaugh) or email (author@mlcav.co).

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. He can be reached via Twitter (@MLCavanaugh) or email (author@mlcav.co).

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