Thursday, July 14, 2011

Above the Fruited Plain

…if that fruit is corn.

Today was the day that launched the planning of this entire trip. I’d been kicking around the idea of driving up Pikes Peak since the fall, a few times even considering coming all the way out here for just that purpose, and then turning around and driving back. This morning, I finally got to cross the mountain off my bucket list.

The last day and a half in Colorado Springs have been filled with personal firsts. Yesterday saw my first encounter with Mountain Time, my first excursion into Colorado, and my first time laying eyes on the Rocky Mountains. With today’s ascent, I can add to that list my first time setting foot in the Rockies, my first time standing above 10,000 feet (actually my first time above Mt. Washington’s 6,288 feet), my first time seeing snow in July, my first successful ascent of a fourteener (Well, my car’s first ascent. And probably its last.), and my first encounter with mild altitude sickness (but more on that later).

The Pikes Peak Highway is the Mount Washington Auto Road after working with Roger Clemens’ trainer for a few seasons. It’s 3 times longer, 2.5 times taller, and (on several occasions) far steeper than Mt. Washington.
Anything you see that's not tree or water is part of this road..
Pikes’ sub alpine zone of stunted flag trees and miniature plants is far less pronounced, but because so much of the mountain is above the tree line, before you have a chance to think about any of that, you’re whisked up into an otherworldly environment where you travel for much longer than I expected. Once I passed the tree line, I figured that I must be almost to the top, but around every bend (all 162 of them), more of the mountain’s ridiculous height came into view. All told, I spent far more time driving above the tree line than below it.

Unlike Mt. Washington, the summit of Pikes Peak is not home to the worst weather in the world. Granted, it was July instead of September, but when I stepped out of the car, I had to think for a minute before deciding to take my jacket. It was about 50 degrees (at 11:30) with a mild and pleasant breeze. If not for the altitude, I would have stayed up there all afternoon (but more on the altitude later).

Pikes Peak is the original home of purple mountain majesties. America the Beautiful was written after a visit here.
I found it very easy to orient myself, as the difference between the views to the east and west are pretty dramatic. Despite some summer haze, to the east I had the chance to reminisce fondly about the entire day I had spent driving over flat featureless terrain that appeared to stretch on into oblivion.

View to the east. Ah, memories.

To the west sat several ridges and valleys comprising the heart of the Rockies. In the distance I could just barely make out a line of jagged snow-capped peaks that I figure must be in Utah, but I don’t know how to judge these giant states. Where I come from, from the top of anything tall you can see at least 5 of them. Regardless, I have a feeling I’ll be seeing them up close very soon (read: tomorrow). 

View to the west. The car's not gonna like that.

So about that altitude thing… Way back in September, standing at 6,288 feet, I remarked to my father that breathing was noticeably more difficult there (for the record, unpacking the car yesterday at Colorado Springs’ 6,035-foot elevation produced the same sensation). He basically called me crazy. While I still hold to that statement, now I can see where he was coming from. As I learned from my hour-plus drive up the side of the massif, 14,115 feet is a long way up (and presumably a long way down, but I didn’t feel like testing that one out). Whereas doing strenuous activity at this somewhat lower elevation can make a person feel winded quickly, at 14,115 feet doing any activity can make a person feel winded immediately. And it’s not as if I was hiking up and down a hundred feet at a time to get better views. In fact, the summit of Pikes Peak is pretty flat, which is a good thing because since it’s also pretty wide, if I had to work much harder to get around I would have never made it over to the opposite side. 

Fortunately, I didn’t experience the nausea that can happen to some people at that height. Instead, after a few minutes up there I started to have some minor loss in coordination and began to feel lightheaded. It basically felt like I was having one of those really low blood sugars (Not the regular lows. The kind where you have to sit down, lest you fall down.) It actually came in waves. After 20ish minutes it faded and I was ready to pronounce myself king of the mountain – the guy who had defeated the 60% oxygen saturation. And then the headache came back and I decided it was time for me to begin the descent.

The drive down was a lot like the drive up, except I got to see the stuff on the right side of the road instead of the left side. There was a moment, though, of which I am particularly proud. In order to descend over 8,000 feet over 19 miles, the grade on this road was steep, so they ask you (unlike at Mt. Washington where they tell you. Repeatedly.) to stay in low gear the whole way down. I guess some geniuses decide they don’t need to do that, and choose to ride their brakes all the way down, which subsequently overheat and fail and these people (and the BMW’s that I’m sure they all drive) become dinner for the marmots and bighorn sheep. So the Pikes People (like that one?) make everyone stop halfway down to check your brake temperature. Anything over 300 degrees and you get a timeout. So when the cowboy-looking dude with the Old West mustache took his infrared thermometer to my wheels what did it read? 139. Even this guy, who I think may have narrated The Big Lebowski, was impressed. Hear that, Massachusetts RMV? If it’s good enough for Rooster Cogburn it should be good enough for you!

Anyway, on my way back to the hotel, I stopped off at the Garden of the Gods visitor center to get that picture that I missed yesterday. Mission accomplished!
Second best picture of the trip so far

Best picture of the trip so far

I must say, though, that as far as visitor centers go (and this applies to all 3 on Pikes Peak, too), the focus here seems to be much more on just experiencing the thing you’re visiting, rather than learning about it. I was eager to ask someone on the top of the mountain what caused the drastic change in geography from the world’s largest prairie to mountains so high they contain permafrost just a foot below the surface. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really find an answer, or any good literature to use with my classes next year (although I did find a decent poster or two to hang in my classroom).

Tomorrow it’s more personal firsts as I leave the commie, tree-hugging, granola-crunching, organic-food-eating bastion that is Colorado Springs and head through the Rockies, over the continental divide, into Utah (which I expect won’t be so much of an island of New England), and almost into Arizona. I had been considering seeing the final Harry Potter movie tonight, but I feel like it might not be the most responsible decision to stay out until 3am the night before driving over 650 miles of mountain. Maybe I’ll be able to catch it on Monday. If not, there’s always Vegas. But no matter what happens , I’m confident in at least one thing…

There will be no cornfields tomorrow.


  1. That first picture is now my desktop background. Beautiful! What kind of camera are you using?

  2. A Canon Rebel t2i, with the kit lens and frequently a polarizer.