Memento Mori

I don’t particularly harbor a death wish—far from it—and had planned this post long before current events unfolded and gave us more reminders of our mortality than we would ever want. Some people avoid cemeteries, but others gravitate toward them (even while still alive). One reason I like to spend time there is related to my favorite pastime: birding. As most graveyards are verdant oases and provide habitat for much avian life, it’s not unusual for birders to frequent them.

While human cacophony and chaos are ubiquitous, they tend to spare memorial parks, perhaps out of some underlying tacit acknowledgment that our dead deserve peace and quiet. Or because of an inherent human tendency to avoid reminders of our impermanence and finiteness. And while I’m not particularly fond of my own, I am attracted by the stillness and serenity that tend to shroud cemeteries.

My personal interest in history and desire to seek out the final resting places of persons whose life stories have touched me adds another motivation to visit. 220-acre Evergreen Cemetery was founded in 1871, and while young by European standards, its tangle of tombs tells ample tales.

Regardless of who we are, whether we end up in a pauper’s grave or a fancy mausoleum, whether we are believers in an afterlife or in complete oblivion, whether we are cremated or left to return to the elements out of which we were made, burial grounds remind me of our shared humanity and fate, a realization I find strangely consoling.

Because birds and other animals have no compunctions about spending time in necropolises, and populate them naturally and actively, and because the local vegetation reflects nature’s cycles and the passing of the seasons, I find comfort in the pulsating life force that is everywhere in evidence, some of which I will share with you next week.

To enlarge a photo, click on it.

America the Beautiful

Barr Trail is one of the Pikes Peak region’s most iconic hiking paths and whether one trains for the annual Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon, or simply desires to hike it for its own merit, it packs a punch. Beginning at an elevation of approximately 6,800 feet in Manitou Springs, it climbs steadily to 14,115 feet, over a distance of about 12.5 miles. Even though various trails up our local 14er had existed since the early 1870s, Fred Barr surveyed the mountain in 1918, and supervised the construction of the route we still use today. In my mind, it is divided into four parts, each measuring roughly 3 miles, and each endowed with its own character.

The seemingly endless back and forth of the switchbacks right from the start presents the least welcoming aspect. Their repetitive nature is compounded by Incline return traffic which, depending on time of day and week, can result in the need to sidestep the narrow path nearly incessantly, to allow runners to pass. The nearby Incline, an old cable car track, spans 2000 vertical feet in just under a mile, and has become one of the premiere fitness challenges for athletes from near and far. Incidentally, it is visible as the oblique swath that transects the trees below Pikes Peak in the featured photo above.

Beyond the various Incline connections, the crowd lessens, and one’s view widens, including a first glimpse of the summit. At No Name Creek begins one of my favorite segments, by virtue of its profusion of wildflowers and avian activity. Who can fail to be cheered by the chirping of chickadees? Gradually, more expansive scenes of the mountaintop appear, even though, depending on one’s physical form of the day, this can be inspiring or demoralizing. IMG_6700 (43)

After 6. 5 miles, Barr Camp, 10,200 feet high, offers a welcome resting spot, if desired or needed. Also built by Fred Barr, it was used by the tourists he guided up from the top of the Incline, to catch a few hours’ sleep, before leaving for the peak at 1 AM, where they hoped to witness the sunrise on this purple mountain majesty. IMG_6700 (51)Now as then, one can gather strength there, before transitioning to the following section leading to the A-Frame, a wooden shelter. This stretch is steep, and somewhat tedious, but what sustains me here is the proximity of timberline and with it, the promise of the beguiling beauty of the tundra.

Once above the trees, boulders of varying size dot the slanting meadows, brilliant yellow cinquefoil and other colorful blossoms nestle in their shelter, and butterflies feast upon this delicate, yet tenacious alpine flora. Photogenic chubby yellow-bellied marmots, and furry pikas fast on foot keep guard, or hope for a morsel of nourishment. IMG_6700 (76)In the east, the velveteen foothills roll into the wide expanse of the Plains, with its amber waves of grain. The stony face of Pikes Peak looms large in the west. The last three miles zigzag across the façade of the mountain and terminate with the Sixteen Golden Stairs. My heavy breathing, and jelly-like legs convince me that this is a misnomer. Sixteen hundred must be closer to the truth…

Knowing firsthand how extraordinary the trip to Pikes Peak by automobile or cog train can be, reaching this pinnacle under one’s own power is even more gratifying. But all visitors seem united in a similar sense of elation, and I have yet to encounter anyone who is not enthralled by the panoramic view, under spacious Colorado skies. Surely, Katharine Lee Bates would agree. Even though she spent only a few months in Colorado Springs in 1893 to teach at Colorado College (she was an English teacher at Wellesley, as well as a published poet, lecturer, and suffragist), her one trip to the top of Pikes Peak in a horse- and mule-drawn carriage inspired the words of a poem which would later be set to music and become a beloved hymn.

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Katherine Lee Bates gazing at Pikes Peak from a rock in front of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.

Addendum: This is only the 2nd post I have ever re-published (with a few alterations). It first appeared on WordPress on 08/17/2016, when I had very few readers. I thought the middle of August was a good time to share it with more of you, for the following two reasons.

This year’s Pikes Peak Marathon is scheduled to take place on August 23, while the Ascent on August 22 has been canceled.

If you have read my two previous posts about the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, you will recognize the building in the photo behind Katherine Lee Bates, whose sculpture is one of many that grace Alamo Square Park. She was born August 12, 1859. If I had paid closer attention, I would have posted this a week earlier. Happy belated birthday, Katherine.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

Welcome back to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Welcome back! As announced last week, today’s tour will afford further glimpses of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, located in the historic El Paso County Courthouse. As it reopened on July 9, 2020 after being closed for over 3 months, you don’t have to limit yourself to a virtual visit (but please wear your mask and keep a safe distance from other visitors).

Once you walk up the front steps and through the front door into the lobby of the 2nd floor, you will behold one of the most arresting pieces of equipment inside the building—the 1917 Bird Cage elevator, fashioned by the same Otis Company still in the elevator business today. The interval between the courthouse’s opening in 1903 and the elevator’s installation was presumably due to a lack of funds.

Unless you suffer from claustrophobia and/or agoraphobia, let’s ride the now-automated contraption (it used to have an operator in the early days) to the third floor with its Division I Courtroom, restored to its original splendor. If you paid attention last week, you might have picked up on my description of “the seemingly central clock tower.” It was actually offset 8 feet to the west to allow this courtroom to be built large enough for its needs, but the asymmetry is discernible only from the outside.

Today I will focus on our museum’s “permanent” exhibits (whose lifetime is about 10 years). It is impossible to do them justice with a few photos and words, but I will try my best without overwhelming you with too much information (my apologies if you have already fallen asleep 😊). One of the reasons I enjoy volunteering here is the fact that our museum director, curator, and staff are committed to providing an honest view of the history of Colorado Springs and the region, while questioning long-held notions about “Manifest Destiny” and the settlement of the American West. The displays are inclusive and avoid the one-sided point-of-view that has proven so divisive and destructive for our society.

In The Story of Us, each letter of the alphabet commemorates a significant person, place, or event in Colorado Springs, from A for Antlers Hotel, one of the most famous and enduring guest accommodations (the other is the Broadmoor) , to Z for Zoo Park, the first zoo. S celebrates local Sankofa culture as shown in the diorama.

Cultural Crossroads honors the rich legacy of Indigenous peoples. The Front Range of the Rocky Mountains represented not only a geologic intersection between the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, but a cultural one as well, where the Utes (known as The Mountain People) interacted with numerous Plains Tribes, among them Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa. Objects here represent more than 30 different tribes.

A Home of One’s Own pays tribute to author and American Indian activist, Helen Hunt Jackson, whose life and achievements I have described in a previous post. Visitors tend to be fascinated when they learn that the structure visible in the background represents a portion of Helen’s actual residence, not a replica. It was dis- and re-assembled not once, but twice, as it was also showcased in the museum’s previous home.

Any Place That is North and West (also the title of a Langston Hughes poem that makes me tearful each time I recite it) tells the inspiring stories of African-Americans who came to Colorado during the Great Migration, in which millions of Blacks left the Jim Crowe South to find freedom and opportunity for themselves and their loved ones. Fannie Mae Duncan, founder and operator of Colorado Springs’ own Cotton Club, was the focus of an essay I wrote in honor of Black History Month earlier this year.

From Paris to the Plains retraces famed potter Arthur Van Briggle’s journey. A gifted artist from Ohio whose talent was fertilized by a sojourn in Paris (whose isn’t?), he came to Colorado Springs seeking a cure for his tuberculosis—in vain. He died at the age of 35, but not before having recreated a matte glaze dating back to the Ming dynasty which became all the rage. His accomplishments would have been impossible without the tireless support of his wife and fellow artist, Anne, who continued to create Van Briggle pottery after his death. His death mask and their intertwined hands on a vase of their making are among the most affecting artifacts.

Last but not least, the remarkable life of General William Jackson Palmer—Quaker, abolitionist, volunteer Union soldier in the Civil War, railroad builder, founder of Colorado Springs in 1871, and generous benefactor—is explored in Evidence, which opened in 2019 as the first of three new displays designed to celebrate our city’s approaching sesquicentennial. A new Cultural Crossroads exhibit scheduled to open this year was postponed until autumn 2021, and Colorado Springs@150 will open in January 2021.

If you live nearby and have never, or not for a long time, visited the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, or if you are traveling through the Pikes Peak region, please drop in. Something interesting and stimulating is certain to await you, so come and come often, especially since the museum is free (donations are gratefully accepted). For further information, follow the link to the museum’s website:

Welcome to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

West side of the building with entrance, July 2020.

Welcome to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. Allow me to introduce to you one of my favorite home-grown institutions, where I have happily served as a volunteer docent for over five years.

Our local history museum is located in the former El Paso County courthouse. The building was commissioned in 1899 and completed in 1903, then served as the county courthouse until the early 1970s. It was clearly built to last, but very nearly fell victim to urban renewal during the 1960s and -70s. If it weren’t for a group of engaged (and enraged) citizens, this gem would have been reduced to rubble, like other iconic downtown Colorado Springs structures.

The museum relocated from its previous, far smaller quarters into these more spacious surroundings, and reopened its doors in 1979. The building not only houses myriad fascinating artifacts, but represents the most elaborate showpiece of the entire collection. Though few people today fail to be impressed by its commanding presence, it has not always enjoyed favorable sentiments. Rather, it was embroiled in a series of controversies from the start.

Southeast corner with surrounding Alamo Square Park, June 2017.

Similar angle in February 2018. What a difference 8 months can make!

Situated in the middle of Alamo Square Park, the site was originally known as South Park and was the counterpoint to North Park (present-day Acacia Park) several city blocks north. Against the wishes of many lawyers, who would have preferred their future work place nearer their elegant homes in what is now called The Old North End neighborhood, the more southern location was chosen. Local residents protested the felling of trees from South Park, which had been painstakingly planted and raised. And, to add fuel to the fire, the appointment of the architect, Augustus J. Smith, with his what some considered an inadequate résumé, ruffled feathers among the architectural establishment, who were aghast that an outsider would get credit for what promised to be a prestigious project. But no gnashing of teeth or maligning resulted in the reversal of the county commissioners’ choice, and Augustus immortalized himself by erecting the 9th incarnation of the El Paso County courthouse in the then-popular Italian Renaissance Revival style, modeled after imposing Renaissance residences in Italy.

Characterized by flat or low-pitched roofs, wide eaves, central cupolas, vertical and arched windows, the design of the courthouse also pays homage to Greek antiquity by incorporating, in order of increasing complexity, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. This classification is based on the elaborateness of the columns’ capitals (or crowns), not the shafts. While the building base is solid and square and adorned with sturdy Doric columns, the architecture becomes more detailed and elaborate before culminating in Corinthian columns in the seemingly central clock tower. Not unlike a wedding cake, to which it has been compared, its most eye-catching features adorn the top.

To honor its rootedness in the American West, the edifice incorporates Manitou Springs green sandstone in its foundation, and Platte Canyon granite and lava rock in its walls, materials all quarried in Colorado. The ornate if not slightly ostentatious enterprise came at a cost, but $420,000 seemed an appropriate price to pay for the then 30-year-old community of Colorado Springs. By the turn of the 20th century, not only did it enjoy a growing reputation as a health resort for sufferers of tuberculosis, it also benefitted from the river of gold flowing down the slopes of Pikes Peak, where the precious metal had been discovered in 1891.

View from the northwest corner with reflection in the adjacent building, July 2019.

In case you are surprised at the opulence you see before you, a recent article in our newspaper suggested that of all the historic courthouses in Colorado’s 64 counties, our local El Paso County example is by no means the most lavish or luxurious (though it might afford the most stupendous view).

April 2016. Westard view from the clock tower, showing the Front Range with Pikes Peak in the distance, and in the foreground, the 10th El Paso County courthouse, successor to its much more attractive antecedent.

If you enjoyed today’s tour, which highlighted some of the building’s history and exterior, I hope you will join me again one week hence, when I will give you a glimpse of the museum’s interior treasures.

My Turtle Self

In the lowermost layer of the pond I make my home. In the deepest, darkest, and dankest part of the pool I sleep through the cold season. By immuring myself against cold and hunger, my immovable body becomes part of the watery world, my immobile form invites vegetation to take hold, and aquatic animals live in the forest I carry on my back. Alone, yet not lonely, I lead my life, too old to propagate my seed and species.

From time to time I emerge from the murkiness to linger, to drink in the blue sky, the golden rays of sun, the fresh and fragrant air. These elements fill me with pleasure, but what lies beyond the perimeter of my circumscribed existence does not. Pollution, loss of habitat, hate and strife and war. I want no part of it.

I submerge myself once again, seeking oblivion. Ignorance is my bliss.