PIKES PEAK, Colo.—Every trip comes to an end, and sometimes before it’s over.
At least that’s what John Steinbeck said in his road-trip classic Travels with Charley. He said long trips reach that certain point—more miles ahead, more people to see—but for you the trip is over. You are ready for it to be over. You are ready to be home.
After two weeks in Manitou Springs, I was not quite at that place, but that place had come into view. I knew I needed to do something to push it back, to delay the inevitable letdown.
That’s when I decided to climb Pikes Peak.
The official motto of Manitou Springs is “At The Foot of Pikes Peak.” And it is. My cabin in Summit Village is less than a mile walk to the Barr Trail, the 13.1 mile trail to the summit. When I was 18, and again when I was 19, I ran the Pikes Peak Ascent, which was then a part of the Pike’s Peak Marathon. I will be 56 in a couple of weeks—three times the age I was then—but my memories of those two ascents remain strong. I wondered: Could I do it again? Would this be the way I could push back time?
The Pikes Peak Marathon has an interesting history. In 1956, former Finnish marathon star Dr. Arne Souminen challenged smokers to race him up and down Pikes Peak. Thirteen runners accepted the challenge, but only three were smokers. Though one of the smokers beat Souminen to the summit, none of them completed the round-trip. Afterwards, Souminen said, “I think I’ve proven my point. I finished the race and none of the smokers did.”
That first race would have been a one-time event had not Souminen recruited Rudy Fahl to manage and promote it. Fahl was a real estate salesman known to his friends as a runner and promoter of healthy lifestyles. Years before Frank Shorter became the first American to win a gold medal for the marathon in the 1972 Olympics, an event some sports historians say helped ignite the running craze, Fahl was a distance runner. His memory of the 1956 challenge run—and his personal passion for healthy living—caused him to start the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon in 1966. That makes it the third oldest marathon on the United States.
Today, they cap the number of participants at 1,500, run the ascent on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday, and require runners to submit times from other marathons to qualify. The two times I ran the Pikes Peak Ascent in the 1970s, Fahl was still alive and the event was more of a family affair. If you had run the race before, you had an automatic spot. If you had not run the race before, you had to know Rudy Fahl, or know someone who did who would vouch for you. That’s how I got in. Even so, I was told it would be best to meet Rudy and thank him, which I dutifully did.
I was never a competitive runner, but I had spent the summer leading backpacking trips in New Mexico, so by the time the race came around in August I was pretty well acclimatized to the altitude. I made both ascents in under four hours. My best time was three hours and 39 minutes. By way of comparison: Legendary high-altitude runner Matt Carpenter, who now owns an ice cream shop in Manitou Springs and is a member of the town council, has won the Pikes Peak Marathon 11 times, usually reaching the summit in about two hours and completing the round trip in less time than it took me to do the ascent alone.
I was not so deluded as to believe that my teenage times—however mediocre—were within this much older man’s reach. On this trip, I was not going for a personal best. I just wanted to finish. And I did—barely. I will not give you a step-by-step account except to say that I did well for the first ten miles, averaging between two and three miles an hour even though the trail gained almost 5,000 feet in elevation between Manitou Springs and the timberline. But at the timberline—about 11,500 feet in this part of the Rockies—things took a turn for the worse. Age and altitude had their way with me, not to mention several snow fields that had to be delicately traversed, further sucking away my energy and time. I will only say that every step was a struggle, every breath a gasp. I did the first 10 miles in less than four hours. The last three miles took me another four hours—one slow step at a time.
Standing on the summit of Pikes Peak in my oxygen-deprived state, the past three weeks on the road jumbled together in a near-psychedelic mix. It occurred to me for the first time that I had written a lot about death on this trip: from Elvis to Martin Luther King to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing to a soldier who took his own life, whose friend I happened to meet on the side of Route 66, “America’s Mother Road.”
When I realized that, I also remembered the speech Martin Luther King gave in Memphis the night before he died:
“Like anybody, I would like to live. A long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
A couple of days before I climbed Pikes Peak, 180 Summit students I have been teaching graduated from their two-week program here. For many, Summit was a mountain-top experience, a life-changing two weeks they will remember forever. Their eyes, in their own way, had also seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. And on that graduation night there was much laughter and a few tears, in part because the students knew they could not remain on the summit in the euphoria of their consciousness-altered state. They had to return to the valley of their everyday lives and get on with things.
Another theme of this road-trip has been music, and one of the songs I’ve listened to often has been Bebo Norman’s “Walk Down This Mountain.” Norman also led backpacking trips when he was young, and he said when he was high in the mountains, he often had moments of clarity that he associated with the presence of God. He wrote this song, he said, when he realized the moments of clarity were not because God had become more present, but because he had been more aware. God was with him everywhere, and at all times, if he only had eyes to see and ears to hear, so he wrote:
Walk down this mountain with your heart held high.
Follow in the footsteps of your maker.
With this love that's gone before you, and these people at your side,
If you offer up your broken cup, you will taste the meaning of this life.
I did not walk down Pikes Peak. I had bought a one-way ticket down on the Cog Railway. When the train arrived back in Manitou, it was late in the afternoon, a strangely quiet time after all the activities of the day are over, but before the nightlife of this resort town begins. I walked from the train depot to my cabin through empty streets, pausing to take a deep drink from Twin Springs, one of the sweet, carbonated springs that give the town its name.
When Steinbeck realized his trip was over, even though he had miles to go before reaching home, he observed, paradoxically, that “the reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space has ceased. I remember a man in Salinas who in his middle years traveled to Honolulu and back, and that journey continued for the rest of his life. We could watch him in his rocking chair on his front porch, his eyes squinted, half-closed, traveling to Honolulu.”
Steinbeck concluded that “the American tendency in travel” is this: “One goes, not so much to see, but to tell afterward.”
Or, if we are doubly blessed, both to see and to tell.