MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo.—From Tucumcari, N.M., we headed north, crossed into Colorado at Raton Pass, a famous landmark on the “mountain route” of the Santa Fe Trail, and continued north to our final destination, Manitou Springs, Colo.
If Asheville, near where my trip started, is one of the biggest hippy towns in the East, surely Manitou Springs, where my trip ended, is one of the biggest hippy towns in the West. Like Asheville, Manitou Springs is a strange brew of bittersweet influences. Railroad magnate and former Civil War General William Jackson Palmer founded it in 1872, locating many of the town’s original buildings around mineral springs in the area. Manitou Springs immediately became a destination for wealthy tourists and those desperate for cures. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of luxury hotels sprang up, and some of the residents reported remarkable cures as they walked from one spring to the other, imbibing the water as they went. Modern medicine suggests the walking, rather than the waters, contributed more to the cures.
Palmer, who also was one of the founders of adjacent Colorado Springs, is one of those fascinating characters of American history often overlooked by the textbooks. As a young boy, he learned all he could about railroad engineering and got a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad, moving up quickly through the ranks. In the pre-Civil War era, many locomotives burned wood harvested from the track right-of-ways. But the PRR had stripped most of the timber from its right-of-ways and faced a crisis. In the 1850s, at Palmer’s suggestion, the PRR became the first railroad in the country to convert to coal.
Raised a Quaker, Palmer’s passion for the abolition of slavery overcame his pacifist upbringing, and in 1861 he took a commission as a colonel in the Union Army, helping to form the 15th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry. He won the Medal of Honor for leading the 15th at Red Hill, Ala., on Jan. 14, 1865 where—according to his official commendation—“with less than 200 men, [he] attacked and defeated a superior force of the enemy, captured their fieldpiece and about 100 prisoners without losing a man.”
After the war, he became a major benefactor of Hampton University, a school created by the American Missionary Association for educating freed slaves. Hampton’s Palmer Hall commemorates his gifts to the school. He also resumed his railroad career, and in the late 19th century that necessarily meant heading west. After founding Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs—and accumulating magnificent wealth—he built his dream home, Glen Eyrie. He was a donor to many early churches and benevolence societies in Colorado Springs, and today Christian ministry The Navigators manages Glen Eyrie as a conference center. It’s not an exaggeration to say Colorado Springs’ reputation as a center for Christian work can trace its roots to Palmer, who combined a deep Christian faith with innovation and entrepreneurship.
But time and cultural change have alloyed Palmer’s original vision. For example, Palmer donated land in Colorado Springs for the establishment of Colorado College. He also served on the school’s first board of trustees. Colorado College, established in 1874, was to be in the tradition of Oberlin College, most famous then for its recently retired second president, the revivalist Charles Finney. Today, both Oberlin and Colorado College are among the most liberal and secular universities in the country. The conservative group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently placed Colorado College on its “Red Alert” list because of its poor treatment of conservative students who protested the college’s Feminist and Gender Studies program.
All of which is to say that conservatives and liberals, the solidly evangelical and the militantly anti-Christian, live together in Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs in a sometimes uneasy neighborliness.
But that’s why I love coming here. I’m the scholar-in-residence for the month of June at Summit Ministries, which attracts about 2,000 teens and twenty-somethings each summer to study apologetics and Christian worldview. The sessions last two-weeks and meet in the main ballroom of the old Grandview Hotel. Built in 1891, it was one of the last grand hotels built in Manitou Springs during its era as a spa retreat for the wealthy. It’s likely Palmer himself enjoyed meals in the same ballroom in which students today discuss Jesus, Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis.
I’ve been teaching here for seven years, and this is my second year as scholar-in-residence. Summit puts me up in a comfortable two-bedroom cabin I share with my wife and daughter, my companions on this road trip. It’s one of more than a dozen homes and cabins Summit has accumulated during its more than 50 years in Manitou Springs. The neighborhood around the old Grandview Hotel is now called Summit Village.
In some ways, my cabin holds in tension the forces competing for attention here. At night, I can look south and see the glow of a lighted cross that shines brightly over Summit Ministries. But the north-facing windows frame the gay-rights rainbow flag that flies over one of the downtown area’s most prominent buildings every July for “Gay Pride Month.”
Hippies and the homeless are a fixture of Manitou Springs. Many of them are musicians. In the afternoon and evening I hear them playing banjos, guitars, and drums on the main street below. The tourists who still come to Manitou leave the buskers just enough money to survive. Some of Manitou’s street people lack musical talent, but they are, perhaps, equally creative. I was walking down the street on my first day here and one beggar hollered as I passed: “Hey, I bet you can’t hit me with a dollar bill.” Pretty clever. Then I had another, less charitable thought: “You would think someone that clever could actually find a job.”
Summit Ministries has the reputation of being a good neighbor in this hippy town. Summit Village grew in part because the ministry bought derelict buildings and restored them to respectability. Several members of Summit’s year-round staff are actively involved in the community, serving on the Manitou Springs Volunteer Fire Department and in other civic roles. And even though Summit keeps its students pretty busy, they do have some free time to wander into town to buy an ice cream cone or a souvenir, or to play games in the rambling arcade that has both modern video games and old-school skee-ball and pinball machines. The Summit kids are a clean-cut and welcome addition to Manitou’s streetscape, and of course their dollars are welcome, too.
I should also mention that this part of Colorado has a strong military presence. Peterson Air Force Base, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the Army’s Fort Carson are all here. Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, the home of NORAD, and Schriever Air Force Base, one of the nation’s missile and space operations, are nearby.
So it was no surprise a couple of days ago when I was driving down the main street and saw a man in front of me running. He had the close-cropped haircut of a military man. He was soaked with sweat and running fast. I was driving slowly, hindered by pedestrian crosswalks and slow-moving tourists. I followed him past the park, where hippies sat in a drum circle. Past the “smoke shop” that advertises fine cigars but really sells rolling papers and bongs. Past the building that flies the rainbow flag. Past Donnie Reed—psychic and medium, who will do a reading for $30, and a second for half-price.
I followed my runner for blocks as he passed all this and more without even a sideways glance. Then, suddenly, he came to a corner, jerked his head and upper body to the right without breaking stride, and snapped a sharp salute. A second later I got to the corner and looked for what he captured his attention. There it was: an American flag, whipping in the wind.
I smiled and looked down the street for the runner, but he was gone, lost among the tourists and the hippies and the psychics and the freaks.
Welcome to Manitou Springs.