The Centennial State

Every year for our wedding anniversary, Samantha and I plan to take a trip. Not that I ever need an excuse to hit the road for a few days, but the celebration of our marriage (and our first date) is a great reason to spend a little time away from home. This year, we went to Colorado. It’s a state I’ve explored a bit over the years, but it was Samantha’s first time. Autumn is a fine time to visit!

We flew out of Tulsa at 6:00 AM on Friday, October 11th. I hate getting up that early, but it would essentially leave our entire Friday open for exploring. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a much more nervous flier, too. The sooner I can get it out of the way, the better. Though I’ve learned not to drink coffee before flying…it makes the anxiety that much worse. I forgot my headphones, too, so I just kinda sat there for two hours as the sunrise chased us westward. We gained an hour in flight, so it wasn’t even seven o’clock when we landed.

Although Denver had received quite a snowfall in previous days, all that remained on the ground when we arrived was a dusting. For that, I was thankful. I didn’t relish the idea of driving through the state in a four-cylinder rental car on poor road conditions. The sun had just broken the horizon as we departed the Denver airport and headed south.

I’d last visited Cañon City in the summer of 2013; my friend DeeDee and I were on a trip to Salt Lake City. I hadn’t yet developed (ha) the eye for photography I have now and I was amazed at all the sights I didn’t capture six years ago. We ate at a little diner on Main Street and walked around the downtown district, admiring the frontier-style architecture and vibrant community. I particularly loved a little sign that betrayed an evolution from a Motel to a Motor Court — though the place clearly didn’t accommodate anyone anymore.

At around noon, we boarded the Royal Gorge Route Railroad and took a scenic ride. The train snaked through the canyon alongside the Arkansas River. Unlike the Grand Canyon, this natural wonder wasn’t formed by centuries of erosion. The rocks here were pushed up by volcanic activity and had a sharper, jagged appearance. It was awesome in the true sense of the word. Even though it was still a bit cold outside, I made my way to the viewing car and spent most of the ride snapping photos in the open air.

The railway itself has an interesting history. Two companies (Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway and Denver & Rio Grande Company) each planned to build the line through the gorge and warred for the right to do so. The companies even hired gunfighters like Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday. Most of the battles were fought in court and eventually D&RG won the right, but you can still see remnants of stone fortifications in the gorge. The detailed history is really fascinating and I recommend you give it a look.

On the opposite side of the river from the tracks, an old water pipeline weaved in and out of the canyon wall. The pipe, originally made out of redwood, was built by prisoners from the territorial prison in Cañon City in the early 1900s. It was in use until 1973, which explains why so much of it is still there. It still had quite a few wooden sections, though most of those had collapsed by 2019. The old caretakers house still stood, too — the pipeline had to be inspected, which meant a 16 mile round-trip daily.

The train tracks pass underneath the famous Royal Gorge suspension bridge, of course. The bridge was built in 1929 and was the highest suspension bridge in the world for seven decades. I tell you what, when the train horn echoed through the gorge, I felt like a ten year old boy again. The train also goes over an 1879 hanging bridge, which is anchored into the rock wall itself. At that point, the gorge is only 30 feet wide and the walls go straight into the river.

Once the excursion was over, Samantha and I drove up to the TOP of the gorge. Although I have a crippling fear of heights, she encouraged me to walk over the bridge with her. Last time I was in the area, the forest around the gorge had just suffered a terrible fire. The bridge and the park itself were totally closed. This time, I crossed over on my own two feet. As soon as Sam mentioned you could see through the planks, 955 feet below, the walk became more difficult…but we both made it! We were greeted on the south side by a ram, who was more interested in eating the decorative pumpkins anyway.

We crossed back over the bridge on the tram; I didn’t have another slow walk across in me. We departed victorious and headed back north towards Colorado Springs. We were saving Garden of the Gods for Saturday, but I did make stop to photograph a sign that’s long been at the top of my must-see list: Johnny’s Navajo Hogan. The bar/restaurant dates back to 1935 though I don’t know the age of the sign itself. Sadly, not all of the neon was lit, but it’s still a beauty.

Our destination that first day was nearby Manitou Springs; my cousin Amanda had suggested it after they visited earlier in the year. It’s a quaint little town..and a Gold Mine for sign geeks! Many of the motels had their original signage in good working order; I wasted no time in capturing what I could. We stayed at the Villa Motel, which had a lovely old-school lodge feel to it. I greatly enjoyed looking at the historic photographs in the lobby and in our room.

All in all, we had a packed Day One in Colorado, even though I’d expressly scaled back our drive time from my original itinerary. There’s just so much to see and do!

About rhysfunk

Rhys Martin was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1981. In 2009, he sold everything he owned and left the country, living out of a backpack for ten months. He discovered a passion for photography while traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. After returning home, he looked at his home town and Oklahoma heritage with fresh eyes. When he began to explore his home state, Rhys turned his attention to historic Route 66. As he became familiar with the iconic highway, he began to truly appreciate Oklahoma’s place along the Mother Road. He has traveled all 2,400 miles of Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles. He has also driven many miles on rural Oklahoma highways to explore the fading Main Streets of our small towns. Rhys has a desire to find and share the unique qualities of the Sooner State with the rest of the world. Cloudless Lens Photography has been featured in several publications including This Land, Route 66 Magazine, Nimrod Journal, Inbound Asia Magazine, The Oklahoman, and the Tulsa World. In 2018 he published his first book, Lost Restaurants of Tulsa. Rhys loves to connect with people and share his experiences; ask him about enjoyable day trips from Tulsa, locations along Route 66, and good diners or burger joints along the way.
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