Looking down

A mile high in Colorado

Whilst marijuana has been legalised in the state of Colorado, a ‘mile high’ doesn’t refer to that at all… Instead it’s actually a literal figure for the altitude of Denver, my arrival point in Colorado but by no means was it the highest altitude I reached during my time in the state.

As I was writing in my previous post, I had just hopped on board the California Zephyr, described as one of the most ‘beautiful train trips’ in all of North America.


The route from Chicago to Denver takes you through much of the farmland in Illinois, which total to approximately 80% of the area of the state.  As a leading producer of wheat, soybeans, corn and swine, Illinois is also known for its more specialist produce such as buckwheat, horseradish, ostriches and even Christmas trees.

Illinois farmland


Mendota – “The world’s greatest little city” and home of the Sweet Corn Festival

Exiting Illinois takes you west of the Mississippi River into the state of Iowa, which back in the days of exploration was a pretty big thing!  Being the fourth longest and tenth largest river in the world, the Mississippi River ‘drains’ 31 states, starting in Minnesota and ending in the Gulf of Mexico.

The lady who I was sitting next to (the one with all the shopping bags), it actually from Iowa and was totally lost for words when I asked the question, “So if I was a tourist visiting Iowa, what’s there to do?”

Her reply, after some iffing and umming was simply, “Nothing!”.

Asking again, that there must be something that Iowa is famous for… her reply was.. “Well.. we grow corn?!”

After some more questions, (eg. “Well, what do the locals do for leisure?”), she talked about ice fishing on her property and how her son’s recently bought snowmobiles last year and how this year, they were able to ride them on top of the lake on their farm from early December onwards (now that’s cool… :P).

Crossing the Mississippi River!
This could be a scene from a Batman movie… Burlington, Iowa

It turns out that she is a widow, with her late husband being a retired Air Force officer.  During his career, they lived in various locations around the world, including Germany during the Cold War at Ramstein Air Force Base.  After retiring, her husband passed away on 11 September, 2001 after hearing news of the attack on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon.  Her daughter, who was living in Chicago at the time took the California Zephyr to get back home for the funeral, as it was the only frequent mode of public transportation that go remotely close to their property, even though from her station, she still needed to drive another 3 hours.  Luckily she said, that it did not occur during the height of the winter season as the roads can be extremely dangerous during those times.

After a very long conversation, we reached her stop.  After helping to carry her bags off the train, it was back on board the California Zephyr, zooming through the central United States as the sun set over the Iowa farmlands.

Sunset over Iowa

That evening was my first experience in an Amtrak dining car.  Basically, once you have made your reservation, you walk down to the dining car at your booked time, get seated with some other guests who have booked at the same time, order from a 3 course menu and for $24.00, leave packed to the brim…

For my first dining car experience, I was paired with another retiree (funny, as they seem to be the minority on passengers, yet I guess they would be the ones most likely to have dinner in the dining car as opposed to the cafe car).  After initial introductions, it turns out that this guy too was an Air Force Officer, serving during they Vietnam War.  Though I can’t say I know all the service details about being conscripted or volunteering, his story went something like this:  Knowing that if he was drafted, he would be drafted into the Army and then into the infantry, he voluntarily enlisted and passed the more stringent requirements to get into the Air Force, which meant that he had to serve for 3 years, vs. 6 years in the Army infantry which would have most likely have happened if he was drafted.

After completing basic training, there was a post for junior officers in the Air Force Signals Cryptology unit.  Knowing absolutely nothing about what ‘Signals’ or ‘Cryptology’ involved at that time, he was told “You’ll be initially posted out into the Nevada desert, driving a van around with sensitive equipment where you will take particular readings and perform various computations.”  Sounding nothing like the jungles of Vietnam, he put his hand up for the role.

Unknowingly however, his duties related to the encryption and decryption of command communications which were generally used by top level Air Force personnel to communicate between the USA and Vietnam.  As the Air Force had a heap of ‘top end’ command officers stationed in Vietnam, he was one of a handful of non-pilots, non-commanding, MP’s from the Air Force who were actually deployed to Vietnam to support such officers (after trying so hard to avoid it!).  As he described the situation as it played out.. “Isn’t it just ironic…”

Moving on from his service, he later worked as a software developer for various military contractors until his retirement, where he now spends his time in the amateur hobby world and playing around with his Arduino kit.

This is where the conversation got really interesting (for me.. ). One of the ‘games’ that his amateur radio club plays is a ‘find the signal origin’ game, where one of their members would be moving around, broadcasting a signal, whilst others are driving around with their receivers, trying to triangulate his position and find where he is.

Typically, he drives around with his directional antenna, stopping every now and then, hopping outside his car to take signals then continue driving onwards.  With his Arduino kit and a stepper motor from an old inkjet printer, he planned to create a motorised gimbal for his antenna to go on the roof of his vehicle, so that he doesn’t need to get out to get his reading.  After a bit of discussion, I floated to idea of combining his idea for a gimbal with an electronic compass, which would enable the antenna to be pointed in the same global direction, regardless of which way his vehicle turned.  Learning that his receiving equipment can output an analogue signal based on the strength of the received signal, I then asked if he could input that signal into one of the ADC (analogue to digital converter) inputs on his Arduino board and write a loop in his program to keep the antenna gimbal spinning clockwise (or anticlockwise) as long as the signal strength keeps increasing.  When a drop in signal strength decreases, the gimbal would reverse position to keep trying to find a strong signal.  After a few oscillations, he would be able to lock onto the signal and get the heading of the signal origin using his electronic compass.

At this idea, his eyes literally lit up and after a bit of time spent scribbling on napkins by the both of us as we mapped out this idea, we were kicked out of the dining car as the next reservation group was due in and we shook hands and parted ways.  I wonder how this guy is going with his project (he did hint that he might conscript his 11 year old nephew to help out as he apparently does a lot of this stuff at school nowadays…).

After turning in the for the night and sleeping the whole night, we arrived into Denver Union Station, newly renovated I might add; so new that the exit to the station wasn’t finished, so we had to use the fire escape instead… 😛

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New platforms at Denver Union Station

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Absolutely starving and not wanting to eat preformatted powered eggs from the train, it was to the nearest cafe I could see – Mangiamo Pronto on the corner of Wazee and 17th St, one block from Union Station.  First dose of fresh fruit in a while!

From there, it was onwards to pick up my hire car from Enterprise Car Rental, around 5 blocks away and past Coors Field, home of the Denver Rockies and a “Cannabis Station” – a relatively recent addition to the Colorado landscape.

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Coors Field, home of the MLB’s Colorado Rockies
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Going high?

I don’t know what it is with car rental businesses, but they seem to always have the dingiest, run down offices and often, very unhelpful staff.  Unfortunately, the Enterprise Car Rental office in downtown Denver wasn’t too different.  Seconds after I walk in, another staff member walked into the office right past me, blaring “Oh my f*cking gosh, that was the worst customer in the world…” before his colleague who was serving me gave him the awkward look, to which his toned turned to “Oh, good morning Sir, how are you this morning?”….

Anyway, after a bit of confusion in birth dates (the Enterprise Car Rental website doesn’t specify whether the date should be entered in dd/mm/yyyy or mm/dd/yyyy, and so I was coming up as an under-age driver), I was away in my Ford Edge in what was beginning to be a clear sunny day in the state of Colorado; first stop, Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak.

Booking the vehicle in January, I did a lot of Google searching on road conditions in Colorado during March, in particular the amount of snow and ice.   Luckily, the previous few days leading to my visit had been quite warm and my day of arrival was significantly warmer than what the passengers on the Amtrak told me to expect.  I’m talking about 16’C!

Driving out of Denver in the morning was pretty easy, basically driving down Broadway until I hit the entrance to the motorway and I-87, which took me all the way down to Colorado Springs.  I did have a few ‘first time’ experiences whereby melting snow on the roof of some vehicles would fly off and hit my windscreen, which initially gave me the shock of my life…

After cruising down the highway for around 45 minutes, I was in ‘the Springs’.  The weather was so good that I had to pull over and attach the Go-Pro to the roof so I could take photos whilst driving.  I mean, the weather was this good:

Glorious day in Colorado
Glorious day in Colorado

As it was such a good day, I decided to try my luck with driving to the top of Pikes Peak.  Pikes Peak, standing at 4302m is known as “America’s Peak” and it is the most visited mountain in the United States.  In the summer, Pikes Peak is the home of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, where the 19.9km road to the top of the mountain is closed to elite racing drivers who battle their way around the 156 turns to get the top in the fastest time.  The current record was set last year by 9-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb who drove a Frankenstein’d Peugeot 206 (206 T16) to the top in 8 minutes and 13 seconds.

Up until 2011, the track/road was partially gravel and the previous all-tarmac record was 9 minutes 46 seconds, set in 2012.  However, with a signed public speed limit of 25mph for most of the road, I was in no way going to be able to set any records going up.  But this was fine by me as the views on the way up were absolutely amazing, especially on such a clear day.

One of the first lookout points on the way up.
One of the first lookout points on the way up.
Ute Pass
Ute Pass

Reaching the bottom of the peak, the ranger at the entrance to the road cautioned me through and informed that the road above 3500m was still closed, but the time I reached that height, there may be a chance that it would be open to the top.  It took me around 40 minutes to reach 3500m, but unfortunately, the road was still closed and I was forced to turn back around.  I was told that it would definitely open up in the afternoon however, or I could take the iconic Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the top.  I decided to return in the afternoon.

Road closed at 3500m

So with a couple of hours to spare, it was time to check out the local sights on the way down and in and around Manitou Springs area.  It turns out the North Pole is located in Colorado along with Bigfoot…   Maybe he and Santa are friends?



If you’re ever in the area for a few days, it is definitely worth visiting the local Tourist Information Centre for a quick overview of the attractions in the area.   The old ladies at the Tourist Information Centre were all too happy to give advice on the local sights, restaurants, hotels and attractions and supply you with many maps of the area as well as discount vouchers.  Supposedly the ‘big thing’ in Manitou Springs apart from Subway is the Heart of Jerusalem, Middle Eastern restaurant, where the wife of the owner doubles as a belly dancer… Hmm.. Maybe next time.

The Manitou Springs town centre is an attraction in itself, reminding of some of the small towns on the Atherton Tablelands.  There are a heap of shops and plenty of natural springs where you can sample the naturally carbonated water from the region (that’s right, softdrink out of the ground!).  Supposedly, kids here are known to make sparkling lemonade from the carbonated springs during the summer months.

Manitou Springs township with Pikes Peak in the background.
Yes, it actually worked!
Yes, it actually worked!



Hipster revolution arriving in Manitou Springs!
Hipster revolution arriving in Manitou Springs!



One of the few high-end retail shops in the area.
One of the few high-end retail shops in the area.

Nearby to the township are the Manitou Cliff Dwellings.  These dwellings are Anasazi dwellings relocated from their original location a couple of hundred miles away to their present site to be preserved.  Basically, they are dwellings carved out of the side of rocks and cliff faces.

Manitou Cliff Dwellings


After this, it was time to head back up Pikes Peak before it closed for the day.  Arriving at the park entrance, the same ranger waved me on with the thumbs up saying it’s open all the way to the top!

Again, with the Go Pro mounted to the vehicle, I was able to capture the spectacular views on the way up above the treeline.

The final trees…
Past the treeline!
Past the treeline!

Even though I was only driving up, I could feel the air getting thinner and thinner as I ascended from 2000m to 4300m.  In fact, the top of Pikes Peak would be the highest altitude I have ever climbed to on land, surpassing my hike around Mt Kenya in 2008 (3300-3500m).

The top!
The top!
Looking down
Looking down

Once at the top, there is a wide area to explore to get a 360 degree view of Colorado.  As I was walking around, two Air Force F-16’s flew past below making an awesome noise as they climbed away (two little specs in the photo).  But unfortunately, with time flying past another ranger arrived to close the top for the afternoon before the roads started to frost up again.

USAF F-16's
USAF F-16’s ‘buzzing’ the mountain.
Top of Pikes Peak on the way back down…

Just a note on the vehicle requirements for Pikes Peak – a 4WD or AWD vehicle is not necessary, however a manual transmission or the ability to lock the transmission in a low gear is necessary for entry, as they require you to make heavy use of engine breaking on the drive down to avoid wearing out the brakes.

At least half a tank of fuel is also required as going up the hill really chews through whatever is in your tank, even at low speed.

Taking it slow on the way down…

When I mentioned to the ladies at the info centre that I like to do a bit of hiking but didn’t have too much time to spend in the area, they pointed my way to the Manitou Incline, a 1.42 long trail with a vertical rise of 620m.

When you see it, you see that it does go straight up, with a maximum gradient of 50 degrees just before the stop. In fact, the gradient gets so steep 60m from the top that what you see from the bottom as the top is actually a false peak.




Initially the trail was a cog railway, but due to frequent washouts, it was closed in 1990.  After a whole range of legal disputes (due to it crossing over private property), the trail was finally made legal to the public in January 2013.

Council run street parking is available a hundred metres or so from the trailhead of the incline, for up to 4 hours.  After hearing that the local Army contingent usually does the incline in 35 minutes (Colorado Springs is home to the US Army’s High Altitude Training Research Centre), I figured 2 hours would be plenty of time to take a few photos, go up and down and ‘train’ for my trek to Everest Base Camp next month.

Around halfway up, the lactic acid burn in the legs was excruciating and I had to take a break every 20-30 steps up.  At once point, the height of the steps (remember, they are sized and spaced like old railway sleepers, rather than actual pedestrian steps), was so high and steep that I was nearly using my hands to help climb up the track – and I wasn’t the only one!

In fact, the track was pretty crowded with people in all kinds of physical shape.  One guy was training to become a firefighter and was carrying “15 pounds” in his pack.  Along the way up, I passed him and asked him if he wanted to carry my 11kg camera bag up…  I got no reply 😛

Around halfway up...
Around halfway up…

If you ever attempt this track for the first time, be sure to carry more than 500mL of water and start as early as you can to avoid the blistering sun and crowds of people.  Oh and if you don’t need to carry 11kg on your back, don’t and pay for more than 2 hours parking!

In the end, after spending 10 minutes or so getting my back ready in the car and walking to the trailhead, another 15 minutes taking photos at the bottom, I was on the line in the terms of time.   Take into account that  due to the steepness of the track, going down will take you as almost long as going up (unless you have knees of titanium) (I didn’t :P)..  In the end, it took me 46 minutes to make the 620m climb get to the top, 10 minutes rest, then 39 minutes down and back to the car to make it back exactly on 2 hours!  One tough way to start the morning!  Unless you’re purposely doing it for exercise, do yourself a favour and pay the extra $1 to get another hour on the meter….


Before heading back to Denver to return my car, I decided to make trip to the Garden of the Gods for a more relaxed walk.  The Garden of the Gods is a public park which was previously owned by Charles Elliot Perkins.  Upon his death, his family gifted the land to the City of Colorado Springs in 1909 on the provision that it be turned into a public park and named the Garden of the Gods.

Entrance to the Garden of the Gods

Access to the park is via a ‘ring road’.  A word of warning however, that the local maps for the park are absolutely rubbish.  They don’t follow any scale and direction and they loosely follow the walking paths throughout the park!



If I had more time in the area and a partner, I would definitely hit up the park for some outdoor rock climbing as there were as many climbers as walkers the day I visited and the variety of places to climb was awesome!


All in all however, it was a pretty cool park to walk around in.  Reminded me a lot about walking around Uluru and the Olgas, albeit with slightly smaller but just as spectacular rock structures.  Funnily enough, here I learnt that “Colorado” is actually Spanish for coloured and ‘red’… Hence a perfect name for the state full of red rocks!… Learn something new every day!


With the afternoon settling in, it was time to head back to Denver to return my vehicle.  It seemed almost a bit of a shame to be leaving the Colorado Springs area after only an overnight stay as there is so much to do, especially if you’re a fan of the outdoors.  This has to be also said for the entire Colorado state, with the ski resorts and mountains and more on offer.  However, with a schedule to stick to, including an upcoming 5 nights in Yosemite, I had to move on.

My overnight accommodation in Denver was at the 11th Avenue Hotel/Hostel.  Again, there were plenty of people ‘in-between’ homes in the lobby and staying there.  Entering my 8 bed dorm, I noticed every bed had the same book on it.  It turns out that the American Physicists Society Conference was happening in town and all of the guys in my room were basically PhD candidates from around the world.  Of the three guys I did eventually meet, all were quantum physicists with two originally from India, carrying out their research at the University of Alabama and the University of Maryland and the third person was from Tokyo Denki University.

As the engineer in the room and hearing them talk their stuff, it seriously made me feel like Howard in the Big Bang Theory!

Anyway, with an early morning train to catch, it was an early night for me.  However I must admit, the excitement of travelling through the Rocky Mountains and entering Yosemite National Park was in my head all night as I tried to go to sleep amongst the ongoing traffic noise outside.  Luckily I woke on time and made it to the Amtrak station without any hassles, taking one of Denver’s free electric-powered shuttle buses which takes passengers from the Civic Centre, all the way up the main city mall to the Amtrak station.  California here I come!



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