As the Wind Blows

Pagosa Springs, a small town in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, lies 7,100′ above sea level. It is locally known for its therapeutic hot springs. Pagosa also boasts a 35-year business called Rocky Mountain Balloon Adventures, which takes you an additional 3,000′ above sea level for “360° views of the beautiful valley [of Pagosa] below”. Maybe you’ll climb aboard their basket and go for a float someday.  If you do, my apologies for not joining you.  I’d rather spend my time in the terra firma of Pagosa’s hot springs than the “terror for-sure-a” of a balloon ride above.

Getting high, above Pagosa Springs

Logic says my fear of heights denies me the thrill of soaring up, up, and away.  Not true.  It’s more about the “gone with the wind” part (sorry for that, Scarlett).  Once the balloon reaches cruising altitude, the pilot extinguishes the fire and Mother Nature silently takes over.  Then your high-rise ride gets a little dicey unpredictable.  It’s the whole not-knowing-where-you’re-gonna-end-up moment that gets me.

Possible outcomes as follows.  You descend gracefully into a farmer’s field with the “chase vehicle” just minutes away.  You zip hundreds of feet up and then hundreds more down, depending on which fickle air stream you encounter.  Or, you float all the way to nearby New Mexico on the strong winds we have here in Colorado.  All while literally hanging by threads.

Albuquerque’s big balloon bash

Speaking of New Mexico, it wouldn’t be the worst destination for one of Pagosa’s rogue hot air balloons.  After all, the International Balloon Fiesta – the largest gathering of balloonists in the country – takes place every October in Albuquerque.  At least you’d have professionals on the ground eager to reel you in.  Also in Pagosa’s favor: small town = few power lines.  Hot air ballooning and power lines do not mix.  See here for what happens when they do (coincidentally, just weeks ago in Albuquerque).

Despite the occasional crash landing, ballooning fatalities are rare.  In fact, hot air ballooning has been designated “safest air sport in aviation” according to years of statistics, and a Swiss aeronautics organization whose name I can’t pronounce.  So maybe it’s not so bad if you never have a neatly paved runway to greet your touchdown.  Heck, Pagosa locals love it when a hot air balloon ends up in their backyard.  They come running out of their houses to greet you with coffee and cinnamon rolls.  Breakfast?  Hmmm.  Maybe I can do this ballooning thing after all.

I may not be a balloon flyboy but that doesn’t mean I’d rain on a parade of those big colorful inflatables.  After all, hot air balloons first appeared to me in favorite childhood stories, like L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, William Pène du Bois’s The Twenty-One Balloons, or Albert Lamorisse’s priceless (and wordless) The Red Balloon.  They show up as flying animals every Thanksgiving Day at the Macy’s parade in New York City.  As well, right here in my hometown we have an impressive showing of hot-air balloons every Labor Day weekend, including a “balloon glow” in the evenings.  Now that I think about it, there’s probably more ballooning going on in this part of the country than anywhere else.

Colorado Springs’ beautiful balloon glow

It’s not as if hot air ballooning is some new-fangled sport (hoverboarding, anyone?)  The first untethered hot-air balloon flight took place back in the eighteenth century.  Hundreds of commercial operators offer hot-air balloon rides in the United States, and hundreds more are private owners.  Add a little perspective and 3000′ above Pagosa Springs is nothing.  The world record for the flight height of a hot-air balloon is 64,980′ (like a Mt. Everest on top of a Mt. Everest).

Up, up, and seriously away

Strict definitions aside, the altitude record for hot air ballooning is about to topple, in a big way.  A company called Space Perspective is now taking reservations for its giant hot air balloon, launching in early 2024.  You, seven other passengers, and your pilot astronaut will take a six-hour ride in a pressurized capsule under a giant balloon… to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.  A seat on “Spaceship Neptune” costs $125,000.  Operators are standing by to take your payment…. for 2025, that is.  The 300 seats offered in 2024 are long gone.

Maybe 3000′ above Pagosa Springs doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “On sale: $125,000 balloon trips to the edge of space”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

It’s Raining DONUTS!

Pikes Peak, the majestic 14,000′ mountain nestled in the Colorado Rockies west of Colorado Springs, is getting a major makeover.  Okay, maybe not the mountain itself.  Her nine-mile Cog Railway reopens in 2021 with new train cars and tracks to carry visitors to the summit.  Her Manitou Incline, the one-mile ladder-like hiking trail up her eastern flank, has been improved for safer climbing.  Finally, her Summit House visitor center is being replaced – sixty years after the original – with a state-of-the-art glass jewel.

“America’s Mountain” in the Colorado Rockies

Local folks like me only have one concern with all this Pikes Peak activity: the donuts.  What’re they gonna do about the donuts?

You can drive, hike, or take the Cog Railway to the top of Pikes Peak, but you’ll always stop in at the visitor center once you get there.  It’s the only thing you’ll find on the tiny summit beside the stunning views of the world below.  Maybe you’ll purchase a supremely tacky, overpriced souvenir while you’re there.  Maybe you’ll need a bathroom break.  Whatever you do, you will buy a donut.  Pikes Peak’s “World Famous” treats are sort of a reward for making it to 14,000 feet.  Okay, so they’re not Krispy Kreme but they’re not terrible either.  Just eat them at altitude.  Once you begin your trek down the mountain they collapse into a mushy mess and they’re awful.

When I first realized the Summit House was getting demolished instead of remodeled my thoughts went straight to the donut machine.  What are they gonna do with the donut machine?  The “Belshaw Mark VI Donut Robot” delivered its final batch last week before someone pulled its plug.  The Mark VI is a mechanical marvel.  It can produce 700 donuts an hour (the summertime demand for Pikes Peak).  The Mark VI endlessly dispenses the raw dough, four rings in a row, and creates donuts through a conveyer system of automated frying, rotating, and dispensing.  Leave it on for twenty-four hours and it’ll pile up 17,000 of the little buggers.

Meanwhile, the new visitor center is getting a new donut machine.  Maybe it’s the latest model of Belshaw’s Donut Robot and makes 1,000 donuts an hour.  Maybe the donuts taste more like Krispy Kreme.  Whatever it can do, this machine is a beast.  It’s so big they had to use a crane to lift it into the building before they even closed up the walls.

If I’m the old Mark VI Donut Robot I’m not happy about being replaced, not at all.  I mean, c’mon! I faithfully produced thousands of donuts day in and day out for decades!  I’m not yesterday’s news just yet!  Why not let me keep my job instead of giving all the love to a newer model? No siree Bob, I’m not gonna take it.  I need to make some sort of statementY’know, demonstrate the extent of my discontent.

OH MAN, can’t you just picture it?  Standing down on the streets of Colorado Springs one morning you suddenly hear this massive BAH-BOOM from the direction of Pikes Peak.  Sidewalks start shaking and people start pointing.  You look up to the mountain and there’s a freaking volcano blowing its top.  A huge column of fire rises to the heavens.  The sky is instantly air-brushed with white smoke.  There’s ash raining down in every direction.  Except, wait, it’s not ash it’s…. it’s…. it’s donuts.

The rain of donuts, of course, is the Mark VI Donut Robot run amok.  In its desperate attempt not to be overlooked it starts making donuts like crazy.  Four at a time, plop-plop-plop-plop, fry, rotate, dispense.  Faster and faster and faster, until its conveyor builds up a big head of steam and starts to break apart.  Then the whole thing just blows up.  Boom

Down and further down come the donuts.  Rolling by the hundreds along the hiking trails.  Bobbing down the rivers and creeks like mini inner tubes.  Ricocheting off the pine trees as they come back to earth until they just go poof! in a cloud of powdered-sugar smithereens.  Decorating the rocks and trees with a cream-filling look of snow.  Piling up in the low spots like generous helpings of oversized Cheerios.  Clogging up the cog railway so the only way the train gets to the summit is for the riders to get off the train and start eating.

The Mark VI may have imploded but man what a way to get noticed, right?

Truth be told, there’s an aftermarket for Belshaw’s Mark VI Donut Robot.  Do the Google search if you don’t believe me.  A used one runs $15,899 plus $600 for shipping, and don’t look now; they take credit cards and toss in a limited warranty!  Just think what you could do with 700 donuts an hour. All you have to do is click the “Buy It Now” button on the website.  But one more thing before you do.  Ask the seller if their Mark VI has given them attitude lately.  Like it used to be on a majestic mountaintop or something wacky like that.

Note: This post would not even be a whisper of a thought were it not for Robert McCloskey and his wonderful children’s book, Homer Price.  In Homer’s short story “The Doughnuts”, a restaurant donut machine goes bonkers and starts dispensing hundreds upon hundreds.  How the town resolves this donut deluge makes for a great story.  Thanks, Robert.

Some content sourced from the KKTV 11 News story, “Final Batch of Pikes Peak Donuts…”, and the Thrillist.com article, “You Can Only Get These Incredible Donuts at the Top of a Mountain in Colorado”.

Golden Thrones

Every now and then the local news sneaks in a headline to showcase our local taxes and fees at work. A swanky new visitor center is about to open on the top of nearby Pikes Peak (14,115′) at a cost of $66M. A 250-ft. pedestrian bridge ($18.7M) spans gracefully over downtown railroad tracks, connecting a public park to our new U.S. Olympic museum complex. Increased traffic between Colorado Springs and Denver demands eighteen miles of a new interstate toll lane ($350M).

Colorado Springs must be “flush” with tax dollars

These efforts make sense and I’m happy to write the check, especially with the potential for revenue in return. But another project almost escaped my news feed and Mr. Mayor, I respectfully request a refund. We now have a fully-accessible fully-automated self-cleaning public toilet in a small park on the west side of town. Cost: $415,000.  That’s a lot of loot for a little lavatory, no?

On the surface our golden throne sounds good enough to try out.  It’s a touchless experience once you “ring the doorbell”.  The restroom door opens/closes automatically with a sanitary-sounding hiss.  Circulating air and classical music provide the white noise you need to mask unpleasant sounds.  A bathroom “host” politely pipes in over the loudspeaker to let you know you have ten minutes to do your thing.  After that – reason in itself to just go and watch from a distance – all doors open whether or not you’re buttoned up.  Talk about getting caught with your pants down.

Our city’s posh powder room comes from Exeloo (great name), an Australian company expanding its footprint into North America.  Besides the fancy features mentioned above Exeloo toilets are self-cleaning, which means they spray down and disinfect their surfaces from wall-mounted nozzles every thirty uses or so.  Makes me think the kitchens of Chinese restaurants could use the same treatment.

The (cheaper) Exeloo “Saturn”

Learning more about Exeloo didn’t make me feel better about my tax dollars.  That’s because our city purchased the fanciest model on the website.  Exeloo offers six different “loos”, with names like Jupiter, Saturn, and Orbit.  (Why – because going to the bathroom should be an out-of-this-world experience?)  Our city chose the model simply named “Fully Accessible”.  It looks at least twice as big as any of the others.

Let me contrast our wet-n-wild washroom with a more modest facility.  Just off the coast at Torrey Pines in North San Diego County you’ll find a nondescript public restroom sandwiched between the beach and the parking lot.  It has no doors.  It has no music.  It’s made entirely of cinderblocks and concrete.  A flush requires an “old-fashioned” pull of the handle, emitting just enough water to clear the bowl.  The sinks offer just a trickle of water to rinse your hands.  The mirrors aren’t mirrors at all, but big polished metal panels with just enough of a reflection.  This restroom is bombproof.

Which brings me to my point.  Why does my town need a bathroom good enough for a visit from Queen Elizabeth when cinderblock and concrete will do just as well?  The Torrey Pines toilet probably cost $4,000, not $400,000.  The next headline I’ll be reading is how a homeless person took up residence in our well-to-do water closet and now our tax dollars have to fund a full-time attendant as well.

The first time I experienced a first-class public flush was in Boston Common.  Smack dab in the middle of the grass expanse and softball diamonds we found a restroom similar to an Exeloo, only more like a double-wide RV.  It was a welcome sight after hours exploring the city on foot.  An attendant sat quietly on a nearby park bench, keeping an eye on things.  And the cherry on top of this sanitation sundae: the facility was sponsored by a non-profit called Friends of the Public Garden.  Not a tax dollar to be spent.

Could’ve had this whole house for less than our Exeloo, Mr. Mayor

Since we can’t go out to dinner or see a concert or even go to church this Christmas, I think I’ll take the family to see our sparkling Exeloo public restroom instead.  Maybe they’ve scented the circulating air to smell like Christmas cookies or pine trees.  Maybe they’ve switched out the classical music for holiday favorites.  Hopefully they’ve dressed up the attendant to look like Santa.  It’s the least they can do for my tax dollars.

Some content sourced from the 11/6/2020 Springs Magazine article, “At Least We Have a $300K Bathroom”.