Chapter 13: Manitou Springs

Beyond Dreams of Aberystwyth | The Book

And so I got back on the Californian Zephyr at Reno and for the next 30 hours travelled by train across Nevada, Utah and Colorado to my next stop, Colorado’s capital city, Denver.

By chance my aunt has a friend whose son married an American and they live in Manitou Springs – a small town not far from Colorado Springs – both about 60 miles south of Denver. I got the famous Greyhound Bus from Denver to Colorado Springs and Chris picked me up from there, and I had 3 days made very welcome by him and his family in their guest basement apartment in their lovely typical American house (complete with porch swing) enjoying the delights of small town America and sharing a little of their family life (2 very cute baby boys).

Colorado is one of the central states of the USA, with the beautiful and mighty Rockies carving their way through. A beautiful, diverse and happy-with-itself state many want to settle in (the ‘Colorado Dream’ having taken over from the ‘California Dream’ it seems).

I’d never heard of Manitou Springs, but it turned out to be a pretty, quirky and slightly alternative small American town with an arts and music scene. Left-wing compared to its ultra-conservative (and military) larger neighbour Colorado Springs, and surrounded by public trails accessing the natural beauty of the Rockies and other wonders.

Shops catering to tourists and the local alternative types: books, beads, homemade ice-cream, Native American goods (apparently the real thing), a pet shop with every type of doggy nonsense (bumper stickers, t-shirts, socks – I managed to refrain), dulcimers (bluegrass music is big), totem poles carved in the shapes of bears, an old fashioned penny arcade, a shop with everything made of hemp, art galleries. Finding a pint of milk was a trickier business, but there was a place on the edge of town catering for such obscure items. Streets of beautiful wooden houses with traditional American porches, painted a range of zany colours – pink, blue, yellow – how pretty they looked!

Independent shops, natural beauty, open mic nights and knitting circles. Apart from the architecture it all felt very familiar, and reminded me of Hebden Bridge near home – a funky vaguely multi-cultural little place, left of centre politically, a wonderful place to bring up children, with more than the average number of hippies, artists, pagans and lesbian and gay people. Thank goodness there’s a place for us all somewhere! It was good to hear that lesbian and gay people are part of the neighbourhood in a country that – apart from San Francisco and New York – broadly struggles to get its head round sexuality. There’s a big art community and I saw a great exhibition called ‘Femme’ by ‘ten talented artists who happen to be women’. There are not many black people in Colorado but it’s probably one of the best places in the state for Chris’s children to be – 2 boys he and his wife have adopted from Ethiopia. After trekking all over the world in places that felt very ‘other’ this felt very much that I heading ‘homewards’ in all sorts of ways, and while there was comfort in that I was also reacting to the almost too perfectness of it – this is an affluent, middle-class kind of ‘alternative’ – a privilege of how we in the west can make life for ourselves, that’s slightly unreal.

Manitou Springs is supposed to be a centre for pagan/Wicca culture but unfortunately I couldn’t find the headquarters, which was a shame because it was near Halloween and I bet there was something going on. America goes mad for Halloween, I’m not quite sure why, I’m pretty sure it’s not because it’s a society that is at peace with impermanence and death but I could be wrong. In Manitou Springs they even have a coffin race (what?) – in honour of a local woman whose coffin (buried at the top of Red Mountain overlooking the town) allegedly got washed down the hill when it rained a long time ago. Now people race coffins around the town to mark the occasion… Okay…

The sad thing about Manitou Springs though – which is the sad thing about all America – is that once it was sacred land for Native American peoples. The springs after which the town is named produce naturally effervescent, mineral-enriched water, once seen as the breath of Great Spirit. The springs were sacred to all the peoples – the mountains and plains tribes – and this was a place where all could share the waters, free of conflict. Eventually Europeans ‘discovered’ the area and the town of Manitou Springs was established as a spa town, and for many Americans, it’s history starts here. There are several spring heads dotted throughout the town where you can take a drink or fill a bottle, some with names like ‘Navajo Spring’, ‘Cheyenne Spring’ which made me feel uncomfortable. Where are the Navajo and Cheyenne drinking now?

The fact that this place is no longer sacred to its original people I found heartbreakingly sad. But what can you do? You almost have to put that to one side, from time to time anyway, when in America. The USA is entirely built on the exploitation of others in pursuit of its dream (though that wouldn’t be the conventional way the history is told) – decimated native peoples and the slave labour of millions of African Americans on which capitalism and the prosperity of the west was built. These stories are largely invisible in day-to-day America, but peek through from time to time – and in places like this – reminding those who care to be reminded or feel it.

It is a beautiful place. I went for a walk up Pike’s Peak on the edge of the Rockies, one of many wonderful pathways, on this hot sunny day it was particularly beautiful. I took photos like shots from cowboy movies. On the way back to the bus station Chris drove me to the Garden of the Gods, huge red sandstone rock formations created by erosion, stunning and golden orange against a perfect blue sky. One thing that you don’t always remember about America is how beautiful it is.

I filled up my water bottle with the breath of Great Spirit and Chris took me to back the bus stop.

Funded by Arts Council England

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