A World in Pastel

Getting out of Colorado Springs is the greatest challenge of our day. At seven o’clock in the morning, the traffic is already maddening. Luckily for us, a Western Meadowlark’s cheerful song emerges above the noise of the cars and instantly puts us in a better mood. It is an emblematic bird of the prairie which surrounds us as soon as we turn onto Highway 24. For the second year in succession, my husband and I travel 40 miles to our destination near Calhan, on occasion of my April birthday. This year our friend, Susanne, here on a whirlwind visit from Germany, accompanies us to the eastern reaches of El Paso County where the fantastic geology of the Paint Mines greets us amid the undulating landscape of Colorado’s High Plains. The tooth of time has gnawed spires, cones, and further fanciful forms out of the clay which constitutes the chief component of the mines. Their colors range from a near-blinding white to ocher and pink, but constantly vary as a result of the prevailing light.

Pyramidal formation

Our guest in front of the Paint Mines. We really enjoyed your visit, Susanne!

The flora, still attired in muted beige and ruddy winter tones is punctuated by perennially green yuccas, but nascent wildflowers and verdant grasses suggest vernal awakening, despite a few remnants of snow that survive in shaded crevices.

Four to five miles of hiking trails afford far-off and close-up views of the Paint Mines. The perceivable shades and shapes are limited only by our imagination. From a distance, the structures appear like solid rock, but to touch they are friable, and leave a chalky residue on our fingers. The area has attracted humans for at least 9,000 years. Indigenous North Americans hunted for prey and multi-hued clays for pottery, ceremonial paint, and additional purposes. In the late 1800s, settlers of European ancestry fashioned bricks from the natural building substrate.

Paint Mines with Pikes Peak in the background

Whenever I am here, I imagine the transformation of the panorama in the intervening millennia. Pikes Peak looms on the western horizon as it has since times immemorial, but roads and houses are relatively recent introductions, and the forest of modern-day windmills near the Paint Mines is the latest, and most controversial addition: at best affecting the scenery, at worst the health of residents, and the survival of birds.

Turbine trees

On this mid-week morning, we share the space with few other humans, but enjoy the furred and feathered fauna. Cottontails and jackrabbits disperse at our approach, then stop and eye us from a safe distance. A Thirteen-striped Ground Squirrel makes an unexpected appearance, its coat bearing a prominent pattern.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, unfortunately not showing its face

We see pronghorn and deer, but foxes and coyotes remain hidden, as do reptiles, especially the rattling kind, much to our relief. Many winged beings call this place home, year-round or temporarily. Rock Wrens’ melodies reverberate in the maze of the mines, Northern Mockingbirds impress with their repertoire, and the fluting of Western Meadowlarks continues to delight.

Rock Wren

The squawking, tweeting, and chattering sounds surrounding us confirm that many creatures conduct their lives in this seemingly sparse environment.

A so-called hoodoo

One of the most iconic structures

Taking our leave, we carry away indelible impressions of the whimsical, vibrant formations, and of its denizens, and we feel connected to visitors throughout the ages who were similarly charmed and captivated by the Paint Mines.

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A Visit to Catherland

Willa Cather (1873-1947), one of my favorites among America’s great authors, spent her formative years between nine and sixteen in Red Cloud, in south-central Nebraska. The scenery of the Great Plains seared itself into her psyche and suffused much of her writing. She might be best known for her so-called prairie trilogy, which comprises O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918), but others among her twelve novels are redolent of that setting. In the early 20th century, when pioneer life along the American Frontier was not considered worthy of literary pursuit, Willa Cather broke the mold and became herself a pioneer, with regard to theme, women’s central roles in their spheres, and her hallmark prose, evocative of place.

Even though American Indians had survived, even thrived, in the challenging environment of the High Plains, for those on a quest to conquer the West following the Civil War, this land posed a conundrum. Unlike the agricultural areas in the eastern states and in Europe, it was seemingly barren. Many settlers concurred with the impression of the first explorers traversing the area in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, who had referred to it as “The Great American Desert”.

For Willa herself, it wasn’t love at first sight. When she arrived in Nebraska’s Webster County in 1883 from her birthplace in Virginia, the transition from the green lushness to the semi-aridity of the High Plains was confounding. She reminisced later, “This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. I was little and homesick and lonely and my mother was homesick and nobody paid any attention. So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake.” Her eventual fondness of the native flora is epitomized in a 1921 interview, “There is one book I would rather have produced than all of my novels. That is Clements Botany dealing with the wild flowers of the west.” While Willa Cather sings the praises of the raw beauty and intricate design of that carpet woven of native wildflowers and grasses, she simultaneously admires the soil’s arable potential and refers to the generosity of the earth willing to subject itself to the plow and to human industry, to yield a harvest that benefits humankind, provided it is treated with understanding and respect.

Sparked by my own acquaintance with a number of Willa Cather’s narratives, and fanned by my growing fascination with the Great Plains which also occupy a vast portion of Colorado, I finally fulfilled the long-held wish to make a literary pilgrimage to Red Cloud in October 2015. Thanks to the Willa Cather Foundation, it is possible to tour original sites and buildings important in the writer’s life which she immortalized in many of her stories, along with some of her contemporaries.

Willa Cather`s childhood home

Willa Cather`s bedroom in the unheated attic

The later Cather Family home. Willa wrote in the second floor bedroom whenever she visited Red Cloud.

Since nature plays such a prominent role in her work, I was profoundly moved by the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. These 612 formerly overgrazed and herbicide-treated acres had, nonetheless, never been touched by a plow. Acquired by the Nature Conservancy in the 1970s, they were subsequently transferred to the Willa Cather Foundation. Located a short distance south of Red Cloud, they exemplify the successful restoration of a portion of original grassland. It is heartening to see a biome revert back to its original state, albeit only with a concerted effort. It took and still takes many hands to pull or burn invasive weeds and to reintroduce native grasses and wildflowers. Controlled intermittent grazing simulates the cyclical visitations by American bison when they still roamed vast regions of the continent.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

Like the pioneers who inhabited Willa Cather’s universe, the present-day caller is greeted by the picturesque prospect of rolling hills rippling in Nebraska’s relentless breeze. I am confident that she would embrace this natural treasure named in her honor. Just as we devotees want her stories and characters to live on, so should the landscape which gave them life.

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Just Another City Park

One of the oldest “parks” in Colorado Springs is North Cheyenne Cañon. Ever since the founding of the city by General William Jackson Palmer in 1871, this local landmark has enjoyed great popularity among residents and visitors alike. The official park originated in 1885, when the city purchased 640 acres from Colorado College, and reached its current size of 1600 acres through a land donation by General Palmer in 1907, as well as later additions.

Starsmore Center

The park’s entrance is graced by the Starsmore Discovery Center. This massive stone house formerly served as the residence of the Starsmore family and stood a couple of miles east, at the corner of S. Nevada Avenue and Cheyenne Road, the location of a present day fast food chain. In a spectacular action, the entire 200 ton building was moved to its new home on a trailer in April 1990, and opened as the park’s main visitor center two years later, which was also when the Friends of Cheyenne Cañon nonprofit organization was created. This year, it celebrates its 25th anniversary — Happy Birthday, Friends!

North Cheyenne Cañon Road

A serpentine, newly re-paved road lined by giant Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs winds up the narrow canyon for nearly 3 miles, paralleling the course of North Cheyenne Creek to the foot of Helen Hunt Falls. These are named in honor of a famous writer who relocated from the East to Colorado Springs for its purported beneficial climate. More about this remarkable woman in a future post. Adjacent to the falls sits a log cabin, in operation as a second visitor center since 2013. It replaced a dilapidated predecessor, known as The Cub. This structure was associated with the nearby Bruin Inn, a retreat originally owned by Colorado College that has long since burned.

Helen Hunt Falls (in the background on the left) and Visitor Center

A small distance beyond this site, the pavement ends at the junction of the Gold Camp Road and High Drive, now a parking lot. The former was built as the railroad bed for the so-called Short Line, to transport gold mined in Cripple Creek at the back side of Pikes Peak, and destined for the processing mills in Old Colorado City. Once mineral extraction ceased to be profitable, the rails were removed and the gravel route became available to car traffic.

Junction of High Drive and Lower Gold Camp Road

Parking lot, often filled to capacity

Following the collapse of one of the railroad tunnels, the affected portion of the road was barred to cars, and reserved for horses, pedestrians, and bikers. When flooding washed out stretches of the High Drive, it, too, opened only for travelers on hoof, foot, or spokes. Owing to this rich past, North Cheyenne Cañon Park received special distinction in 2009, by being included on the National Register of Historic Places.

The attractive scenery is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. Miles of spurs branching off the Gold Camp Road and High Drive, combined with hiking opportunities in the canyon itself, result in a near-endless web of trails covering this mountainous margin of Colorado Springs. My husband and I have walked many of them, but keep gravitating to the Columbine Trail which begins at the lower trailhead west of the Starsmore Center, at an elevation of 6250 feet, and reaches the upper trailhead at an altitude of 7300 feet, after four miles. Southern exposure makes it one of the earliest, snow-free paths. Meandering in and out of copses of conifers and clusters of scrub oak, it affords glimpses of the Helen Hunt and Silver Cascade Falls, of the rock formations which rim the ravine, and of the vast expanse of the Great Plains to the east.

Columbine Trail

View of Silver Cascade Falls from the Columbine Trail

Looking east

Depending on the day, week, or month, the park may be crowded, and since we seek solitude, we avoid weekends, and other busy times. While breaking a sweat and feeling the blood course through our veins, we delight in the warm caresses of sunbeams, the rushing sounds of the creek, and the joyful songs of feathered tenants. Chickadees, nuthatches, jays, and towhees flit in and out of the trees, ravens and raptors soar overhead.

For years past, North Cheyenne Cañon has provided pleasures to seekers from near and far. This seeker hopes to find them there for many more in the future.

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