Saturday, March 3, 2018

Realities of Colorado Springs


What's It Really Like in Colorado Springs?


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Sunset in Colorado Springs.

You probably wouldn't be reading this unless you either are considering visiting Colorado Springs or are thinking of moving somewhere nearby (or live here and want to see if my experience matches yours). So, without any hemming and hawing about how wonderful Colorado Springs is - and it is wonderful - let me list some realities of living in Colorado Springs.


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Road Orientation


I live in Colorado Springs and have travelled in every direction around it. I've also lived in New York City and know that if you live in most other places like that, you just choose your direction and go. You want to go north by northwest? Why, choose one of three great roads to use that head that way based on traffic and so forth.

It's a little simpler to choose your direction entering or leaving Colorado Springs because of the road orientation. That is, you have fewer choices, so that makes it all very simple. Travel to or from Colorado Springs generally is limited to due north, due south, due east and due west, with an option of driving a short way directly to the southwest and northeast (a very short way, then you get to head due east or west again). That's about it - those are your options. Choose wisely.


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Town Pronunciations


Colorado has a lot of historical influences, and the town names reflect that. However, just because a town has a Spanish name doesn't mean it's necessarily pronounced the same as it would be in Mexico or Spain. But, sometimes, a name that looks pretty darn English is pronounced the way it would be in Mexico or Spain, though that may not be obvious from the way it appears on the map.

I will give two examples to illustrate the point.

Canon City is just to the southwest of Colorado Springs. It is the gateway to the famous Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, which is a must-see for visitors. It also is a thriving town because it is home to several penitentiaries (name a truly evil criminal and he's likely spending time in Canon City). You will see "Canon City" on the map and naturally assume that it is pronounced Cannon City.

It's not. In fact, while it invariably is listed on maps and websites as Canon City, the actual name is Cañon City. If you know some Spanish (not a bad idea in Colorado, btw), you know that Cañon City is pronounced "Canyon City" because of that little squiggly line called a tilde. This is one instance where the roots of the name apply, rather than an Americanized English pronunciation.

Now, if you get on the road out of Colorado Springs heading west and make a few (very few) turns here and there, you eventually will come to Buena Vista. You don't have to be a scholar of Spanish to know that the correct pronunciation of Buena Vista is "Bwenna Vista." If you go there, you can pronounce it that way and show how erudite and linguistically sensitive you are - and there are some who do just that. Heck, pronounce it any old darn way, it's a free country.

However, pronouncing it Bwenna Vista will just annoy the locals. The way they pronounce Buena Vista is "Byou-na Vista." In other words, it is a grossly English pronunciation overlaying an obvious Spanish name. As I said, you can pronounce it any way you like, and there are likely newcomers in town who pronounce it the "proper way." Heck, maybe in a hundred years if they're annoying enough they'll change the common pronunciation. However, I know instantly that anyone who calls it "Bwenna Vista" doesn't know the first thing about Colorado.


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Issues Adjusting to the Elevation


Altitude is an issue.

If you've lived at altitude all your life, or have visited very high places regularly, or otherwise have acclimated yourself to thin air (pilots may have gotten used to it, for instance, and maybe skiers), you perhaps will simply shrug at this and say "Nonsense, that's no issue at all." I came from the East Coast long, long ago, but I still remember the issues I encountered. Without going into detail, these included digestion issues (use your imagination), shortness of breath, things like that. They don't hit you right away, but after a few days you are likely to notice something.

Did the adjustment stop me from doing anything like travelling over the passes and visiting Leadville at 10,000 feet or whatever it is or going to the top of Pike's Peak (14,000 feet)? Absolutely not. Did I notice a change? You betcha. Figure a couple of weeks to get truly acclimated if you go from sea level to 6000 feet, which is what Colorado Springs is at. Oh, and Colorado Springs isn't even really in the mountains, it's along what is called the Front Range - but it's still pretty darn high if you grew up around sea level.

Oh, one other thing. Above, I mentioned a short-term issue to acclimatization that will pass fairly quickly. There's a long-term issue, too. The Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce loves to brag about how many days here are sunny. I think it's over 200 days a year, or 300, or ... well, Colorado Springs gets a lot of sun, whatever the true number is. I don't think it's strictly an altitude thing, more a climate thing, but personally I think the altitude does have some effect on what I'm about to tell you.

The longer you spend in Colorado Springs, the crazier the things the sun can do to your skin. I don't want to get disgusting, but people get these growths.... No, I'm not talking about a second head or a tail or anything. But, that sunlight will cause "skin tags" or worse on your face and elsewhere. It's not some kind of crazy Dawn of the Dead thing, and it certainly doesn't affect everyone - but the local dermatologists (and there quite a few) do a lot of surgeries to remove the little buggers (one I know does six surgeries a day). I had it happen to me, too, so I'm speaking from experience, and I don't spend an inordinate time in the sun (in fact, I'm careful about my sun exposure).

Especially if you have a fair complexion, you may want to use some sunblock and sunglasses and maybe a hat. And Chapstick. And drink a lot of water. And have some skin lotion handy. And....


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Temperature Swings


The temperature swings wildly in the mountains throughout the day, and more so the higher you go up. I spent a summer in Buena Vista, Colorado - June, July, August, September - and would get up early. Buena Vista is pretty high, but not much higher than Colorado Springs. There was a big thermometer right outside the window, and every morning I would amuse myself by noting with astonishment that when I got up it was in the low 30s, then around 8 am it would start climbing until it hit 80 degrees around 11 am - then fall again at night. This happened every day. Every. Single. Day.

It isn't unpleasant. There are some benefits - it's easy to sleep soundly at night if it's not hot out. However, it's just plain weird having to wear a jacket outside at 7 a.m. in the middle of summer, then comfortably stripping down to shorts and T-shirt two hours later.

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Fickle Weather


A guy I stayed with once told me how, when he first got out to the Rockies, he woke up on July 4th, and it had snowed overnight. Yes, snowed, and not just a little snow - a lot of snow. It does happen, though snow in summer is rare.

Some roads stay closed from October to May - until the snow melts. Why does it take so long? Because the trees block the sun, and it gets cold enough at night to keep things reasonably chilled at ground level in the shade during the day.

There's a saying that every Coloradan learns after a while:
You can get all four seasons in one day in Colorado.
It's the truth, and actually not uncommon at all. Snow in the morning, sunny and warm by noon, hot in the afternoon, moderate in the evening. And, you can scramble those all up by time of day, too - Sunny and hot in the morning, breezy but nice at noon, snow in the afternoon, everything melted and nice in the early evening. Happens all the time.

Bottom line: if you think any temperature swing between 0 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 degrees Fahrenheit in one day is impossible - you haven't spent much time in Colorado Springs or the surrounding area.



It Hails. It Hails a LOT


That video above? That's in May, and that's not snow.

It hails all the time in May and June for some reason. Why? Heck if I know. It's Colorado Springs' version of the monsoon season. It will hail at other times of year, but that's rarer. For some reason, June is hail season in Colorado Springs, sometimes extending into mid-July. August is dry, and in May you're more likely to get snow than hail. But June/early July? Hail heaven. And yes, it will dent your car, and it will sting if you get caught out in it. There can be enough hail to be able to shovel it. That's a lot of hail.

Oh, it also gets really windy. The wind once caught my car door before I could grab it (I had left it slightly ajar while parked) and damaged it, bending the hinges. That's windy. The winds are especially bad during the change of seasons, during October and March/April. When those winds hit, I know they're blowing in the next season. I realize that's not related to hail, but I didn't feel like creating a separate category for the wind.


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Forest Fires


Colorado has lots of forests. They are lovely, a big selling point. Everyone likes to look off in the distance and see all that green.

Some summers have a lot of forest fires. You are thinking, well, that's okay, I will just drive away from any fires. Sure, but the fires can lead to major roads being closed. For instance, there is one road and one road only heading west from Colorado Springs up to the higher elevations (unless you make a massive detour). In 2012, that road was closed because of the forest fires. You don't get a memo in April saying the road will be closed on June 15th - you drive down the road for two hours with no turnoffs and then find it's just closed. How do you know it's closed? Why, all those fire trucks suddenly blocking the road.

Too bad so sad! Time to look at that map! Hope you don't have to be anywhere in the next two hours, because friend, you ain't making it.

Fires don't happen every year. In fact, they don't even happen every decade. But, they can happen in consecutive years, especially if it is a dry period (Colorado Springs has been in a mild drought recently according to the federal government). The massive fire in 2012 that came down from the west was started (apparently) by some lady burning love letters from her ex (I think she went to prison). You can still see the charred remnants of some of the houses on the west side of Colorado Springs. Nice, $350,000 houses, and all that is left are the slabs they sat on. Black Forest, just to the north, also has a tendency to burn down from time to time.

That's just the way it is, I didn't make the rules.


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Animals


There are animals in Colorado Springs. Big animals. And sometimes they aren't shy. I once stopped at a mailbox, reached over, looked up - and there was a big animal standing right there looking at me. I think it was an elk, it had big antlers (sorry, I'm not a hunter). There are trees everywhere, and animals are experts at blending in until they feel comfortable being seen.

And this brings up a huge hazard: deer. Certain parts of Colorado Springs have a lot of deer. For instance, the northwest suburbs (Rockrimmon) are loaded with families of deer. They don't just "occasionally" appear among the houses to "forage" - they literally live there. Yes, among the houses. They are there every time I drive through.

I know, you're going "Awwww, how cute." Yes, cute. I've driven along, seen a pack of deer standing by the side of the road, almost gotten by them - and then suddenly one of them will decide that now is the time to cross the road with that jumping gait that they have. Right in front of me, that is. A friend of mine, a soldier, ruined her car on the US Air Force Academy grounds one night when she ran into a deer (it's poorly lit there in places). And... she's a native Coloradan.

I was at a party once in Monument, just to the north of Colorado Springs. While we were eating chips and dip and drinking cokes outside, a big brown bear walked along the side of the road. These things happen.

Animals are an issue.


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The Roads


The roads within Colorado Springs generally are pretty good (with one exception I'll note below). However, if you are in Colorado Springs, you likely at some point are going to drive out of Colorado Springs, and then roads can be an issue.

There is one major highway that runs through Colorado Springs, from Denver down through Pueblo and beyond. It's a great road, and generally isn't slowed by traffic jams (except up by Denver, and sometimes in the middle of Colorado Springs at rush hour).

When you head out of Colorado Springs on anything but the highway, though, you eventually are going to come to roads that are a bit iffy. The further you get into the Rockies, the more interesting the roads become. They can be narrow, with no guardrails, and they may look great on maps and then turn out to be very rocky. Experienced bikers have been known to wipe out on gravelly turns.

Even in Colorado Springs, driving can get very dicey at times. It is a hilly town, and black ice forms on even some of the more prominent arteries. There was one infamous incident a few years ago when car after car coming down one particular major road down a fairly mild hill towards Powers Boulevard slid into each other, one after another. There literally were dozens of accidents. Some people decided they would "prove they could do it without crashing" - and they, too, wound up sliding into cars that themselves previously had slammed into other cars. You don't know you've lost braking power until it happens, and then you're screwed.

By the way, if you're thinking to yourself, "Well, I'll be fine, that ice won't get me, I have a four-wheel drive monster truck" - friend, and I say this with great humility, you are not ready for Colorado Springs in wintertime.


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Obey the Traffic Laws


The local police in Colorado Springs are great, very helpful and brave. The issues you may encounter with cops likely will develop as you drive out of the Springs on any roads other than the main highway.

Local cops in the little towns surrounding Colorado Springs and up into the Rockies strictly enforce those 30 mph speed limits that pop up out of nowhere. Just keep an eye out and don't think to yourself, "Oh, there's nobody here, I'll just cruise through that 3-building town at 50, nobody will care."

Nope. Don't do it. When the speed limit drops for seemingly no reason from 65 to 35 - do it.

And, by the way, the police are very happy to stop you to inspect any trailers you are towing. That happens all the time, in fact, I saw that recently. I had a friend who got stopped in the middle of nowhere once (outside Hartsel, if that means anything to you) and couldn't leave the spot because the cop decided there was something wrong with her trailer. Somebody had to come and bring a bigger trailer to put the little trailer on before he would let it go anywhere. At the very least, have your trailer paperwork in order.


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Mountains Block the Sun


In high school, one of my teachers decided to teach us something useful for a change. He began the lecture by saying, "water runs downhill." That was to be the day's lecture. We all kind of looked at him. What a silly topic for school, right? Let's learn some calculus or something!

He then proceeded to spend the rest of the hour explaining why the fact that water runs downhill matters. This obvious reality, he explained, is the basis of practically all civilization. It affects our everyday lives and we rely on it constantly. All architecture that includes plumbing relies without question on the fact that water runs downhill. Entire cities are built the way they are because water runs downhill.

It was a stunning lecture, one that I'll never forget for its sheer transcendent lucidity. Now, let me try.

Mountains block the sun.

You may figure, well, that's obvious. Yes, it is. However, you won't realize all the ramifications of that until you spend time in the mountains. The mountains can become quite annoying by blocking out the sunlight.

You like that little stream with the trees all around and the lovely scenic mountains that form the valley which gives the scene an almost surreal quality? Figure on a late morning and early evening.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, before you buy a house, consider how the nearby scenic mountains interact with the sun throughout the year. You especially want direct sunlight during the winter - it will make your life so much easier by melting snow on your driveway and sidewalk and so forth. Try to find a house that faces south/southwest and isn't so close to a mountain that you get in the shade by mid-afternoon. I have such a house, and I love seeing my driveway and yard free of snow after a snowstorm a day or two before those across the street. It just makes life easier - plus, I'm told my house is top-tier in terms of solar energy potential, which is always nice to know. You never know when you might want to get solar or sell your house to someone who wants to get solar. I think my heating costs are less than they would be in the wrong location, too.

If you are camping and relying on solar, mountains blocking the sun becomes an issue in a hurry. However, even if you are just driving somewhere in the vicinity of mountains, realize that the roads that get a lot of mountain shade can be very tricky in the wintertime. The sun matters... more is better.


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Isolated Roads


Colorado Springs is a big town, the second largest in Colorado. It's also one of the 50 biggest in the country or something like that (it was No. 42 in the last list that I saw) at least. There's nothing isolated about Colorado Springs, aside from the fact that it's 50 miles or so to the next really big town (Denver).

However, as you drive off to the east or west, there are long stretches with no gas stations, no stores - no towns. You may be, like, "Ideal! That's what I want! I want to get away from it all!"

Well, it's lovely to have peace and tranquility on the road until you break down or run out of gas on that scenic road where you haven't seen a soul for 20 miles - and believe me, such stretches are not uncommon. I-70, the highway to the east, is notorious for having long stretches where you can't fill up, especially at night.

Moral of the story? Make sure your vehicle is in good condition and full of gas before going adventuring. And... don't count on that cellphone working everywhere even on all the main roads, and some carriers do better in the mountains than others. Verizon seems to work well around here for some reason, but your mileage may vary.


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Garden of the Gods is a durable tourist attraction.

Stable Economy


The Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce probably wouldn't particularly like this blog post (if its members ever saw it) due to my harping on the altitude and weather and all that. I don't want to give the wrong impression, so let's wind up with something positive. The defining characteristic of Colorado Springs at this particular point in time is that it has a stable economy. In part, that's a function of its isolation that I've kind of alluded to above - there aren't any nearby town that could have problems and spread them to Colorado Springs. The economy of Colorado Springs is kind of like an island - self-sufficient. Tourism is important, Pikes Peak is right there and people use the Springs as a launching pad to the Rockies. There are various reasons why the Springs does well.

But, there's a much bigger reason for Colorado Springs' success, which is...

the military.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the military to the local Colorado Springs economy. There are military bases all over the place, and if you drive for ten minutes on the highway, you're going to drive by one. That's the rock-bottom reality of Colorado Springs.

From that simple observation flow some conclusions that may matter to you.

For one thing, real estate in Colorado Springs is a pretty good bet, and the town continues to expand to the north. There's always a flow of newcomers with jobs, and they like to live off the bases. There also is a fair number of military retirees in the area, though they tend to live up in Monument or Black Forest or some of the more remote spots up in the mountains. I once asked one of them why they like to sort of "get away" from the more populated areas, and was told that it just gets tiring always taking orders - once you're out of the system, you want more freedom and less rules. So, retirement is their time to find a somewhat less-crowded area to live. Don't know how many military retirees think like that, but makes sense to me. There are a lot of military retirees around here.

Air Force Academy Colorado Springsvisitingcoloradosprings.filminspector.com
Getting the Air Force Academy during the 1950s ensured the future health of the Colorado Springs economy.

Okay, time for a personal anecdote. I bought a house in Colorado Springs in 2010 when local prices fell along with the rest of the country. Everybody was scared, and the general mantra was that owning a home had become too risky. Of course, we all know how that has resolved. Since the 2009/2010 housing issues, prices in the Springs really have bounced back. I bought then because I had confidence in Colorado Springs. If you know the government money is always going to be there and the tourists will as well, you don't have to worry about the steel mill that is some other town's big employer closing, or the John Deere factory, or whatever it is that is the main employer. Intel closed a plant here some years ago, and the Springs barely noticed, other high-tech firms took its place.

The US Air Force Academy isn't going away, nor is NORAD headquarters (well, it did move across the valley, but that's not what I mean). I've seen some folks griping recently about the high real estate prices in the Springs so you may not have the same view of that equation as I do. Other prices are pretty reasonable, there are 7 Walmarts in the area and their prices seem okay to me, but real estate is strong.

The military also affects healthcare. Colorado Springs healthcare is outstanding. I can vouch for this personally. For really exotic things you need to go up to Denver, but healthcare infrastructure in the Springs is far superior to most other towns on the Plains. Why? Look no further than the nearest military base, those guys get good health care, whether they be active duty or retired. There's a Springs VA hospital which is not particularly memorable (I've been there, it's okay), and the Denver VA situation is complicated, but the private practitioners in the Springs are outstanding for what you probably expect.

It's kind of ironic, given my positive view of the importance of the military to the local economy, that the roughest parts of Colorado Springs are down south by Fort Carson. But, overall, the military presence is what really gives Colorado Springs that "special something" that you are bound to notice.


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Conclusion


I've personally experienced every single thing I listed, nothing in here is made up. I have no agenda in discussing the realities of living in Colorado Springs aside from trying to be helpful, and I'm not trying to turn you into a scared little rabbit worried about every little thing. What I listed are just occasional annoyances and peculiarities, no more. These are the lessons I have learned since I moved here in 2002.

Everyone's experience is unique, and you may not ever notice some of the points I listed. These are just some words to the wise for those who like to plan ahead and want to be prepared.

Colorado Springs is a great place. Hope you enjoy your time here.


2018

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