Kendal Hemphill


When Katherine Lee Bates gazed out at the view from Pike’s Peak in 1893 she was inspired to write the poem ‘America the Beautiful,’ later put to music and now known, for some reason, as the song ‘America the Beautiful.’ When I gazed out at the view from Pike’s Peak in 1999 I was also inspired to write ‘America the Beautiful.’ Unfortunately I was 106 years too late. I didn’t have time to worry about it, though, because I was too busy yelling at my three boys to stay away from the edge. Colorado is an ideal vacation destination for young boys, who derive some sort of sadistic pleasure from teetering on the edge of one abyss or another, while their parents yell at them to back up.

The optimist may look at Colorado and see mountains; the parent looks at the state and sees abysses. Pike’s Peak was named for the man who discovered it in 1806, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike’s Peak. Zebulon had come to Colorado under orders from the U.S. Army, not only to spend some of your great-great-great-great-grandparents’ tax dollars, but also to explore the area and see if there were any decent ski resorts around. He located Vail and Aspen, but neglected to mention either of them in his official report, due to his disgust in finding them inhabited mainly by snobby, blond, preppy college students with names like Biff and Buffy. Zeb and a small party of men tried to climb the mountain that November, but only got about ten thousand feet high, due to the fact that the road was under construction at the time. He predicted that no one would ever climb to the top, and that Katherine Lee Bates would write ‘America the Beautiful.’

My family and I decided to climb Pike’s Peak by way of the Cog Railway, since the only other option, except for walking up, was to drive up the road, which is still under construction. Our decision was also influenced by the fact that we were driving a Jayco motor home, and had become so attached to it that we didn’t want to drive it over the edge of an abyss. Further, we knew that we would have to return the motor home at some point, and we didn’t want to have to pay for it, especially if it was at the bottom of an abyss. The Manitou and Pike’s Peak Cog Railway is the highest of the fifty-five rack railways in the world, and has the greatest elevation gain, 7500 feet.

The idea to build a railroad up the mountain was inspired by the poem ‘America the Beautiful.’ Just kidding. Actually, the railroad was inspired by a mule ride up the mountain in 1889. Zalmon Simmons, who owned a mattress company in Wisconsin, had ridden a mule to the top of Pike’s Peak, and was sitting in a hot tub when he decided to write ‘America the Beautiful.’ He also decided that he wanted to go back up the mountain, but he never wanted to ride a mule again. So he financed the Manitou and Pike’s Peak Railway Company, and hired a bunch of unskilled laborers at 24 cents an hour. Several of them were killed in blasting accidents, which inspired Katherine Lee Bates to . . . right.

Anyway, the railroad was finished on October 22, 1890. The ride up in the train, for the most part, involves a lot of swallowing and yawning to clear your ears, and looking out the window at trees which appear to be leaning at a 45 degree angle. Luckily we sat near a nice family from Holland, consisting of Henny, Marianne, and ten-year-old Arjen van Os. My Dutch is a little rusty, but Henny knows enough English to get along, and we had a lot of fun trying to talk to them. Arjen spent most of the ride teaching our boys how to say some Dutch words, and since coming home we’ve corresponded with them via email and learned that, after seeing the view from Pike’s Peak, Marianne was inspired to write a poem entitled ‘America the Not Too Shabby.’

What surprised me most about Pike’s Peak was not that automobile and motorcycle races are conducted on the road to the top of the mountain, or that people actually PAY to be allowed to ride a bicycle DOWN this road. There are plenty of idiots in the world, and many of them can be found fooling around near large abysses, trying not to fall in. What surprised me most was that, every August, a marathon is held on Pike’s Peak road. People who I’ll describe as ‘not nuclear physicists’ race up and back down the road, a distance of twenty-six miles. And the record time for this race is three hours and twenty-four minutes, which inspired the winning marathoner to fall face down on ‘America the Beautiful.’

While I’m not a marathoner, I like a challenge now and then, so when I got home from Colorado I pointed out to my friend, Gordo, that if a stringbean in a pair of nylon shorts could run up Pike’s Peak and back in three and a half hours, a couple of fine specimens like ourselves should be able to do it in two days. So that’s what we plan to do, in the spring of 2000, provided Colorado is still there after the great Y2K disaster. And in order to make things interesting I decided to invite my favorite humorist, Dave Barry, to come with us. Dave, while he pretends to be a wimp, actually has participated in some pretty strenuous activities, including rappelling, snorkeling, laser tag, parenting, and driving in Miami. Then Gordo, who often bites off more than I can chew, decided that we should challenge Dave to get a team together and race us up the mountain. I thought that sounded like a really stupid idea, but agreed due to the fact that, if we fall behind, Gordo will have to carry me. So what do you say, Dave? Interested in a little contest here? Or are you chicken? Remember, an opportunity like this comes along once in a lifetime. If you’re lucky . . .

Kendal Hemphill is a syndicated outdoor humor columnist who still has most of his own hair. Write to him at PO Box 564, Mason, Tx 76856. Email: hemphill@ctesc.net