Despite a tragic summer, Colorado is still the real sunshine state

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From purple mountains majesty to amber waves of beer to 300 days of sunshine per year, there's a lot to love about Colorado...even this summer, the most trying in recent memory.

No sooner had we recovered from killer cantaloupes than the state faced crippling droughts. Then came the fires, which destroyed homes, businesses and lives in cities as large as Colorado Springs and as small as Last Chance. The smoke had hardly cleared when Denver police officer Celena Hollis was shot to death at City Park. And there was so much more senseless mayhem to come: seventy people shot, twelve of them fatally, at Aurora's Century 16 just after midnight on July 20.

Twelve days later, on August 1, Colorado marked the 136th anniversary of becoming a state. And on Colorado Day, Westword reporters set out to take the pulse of Colorado, to rediscover some of our favorite places, experience some of the most historic spots and, most important, remember why we live in this state, which stays beautiful even with its scars.           

Some of the stories that follow talk about renewal, some talk about change, and some simply remind us of what is special about Colorado. — Jonathan Shikes

Also read: Fifty latest reasons Colorado is the best state in the country

The Olympic Training Center, Colorado Springs

In 1893, Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor summering in Colorado Springs, wrote a flowery poem inspired by a trip up Pikes Peak. With a few tweaks, the poem was set to music and became the patriotic anthem "America the Beautiful" — a celebration of freedom and heroic striving, rugged natural beauty and fruited (originally "enameled") plains.

The mountains remain majestic, the skies spacious, but there's not much purple to be seen in the region's landscape these days. In this drought-cursed season, Pikes Peak is a sun-baked rock without a trace of snowcap; below it, the scorched flanks of the city's western foothills resemble a scenic postcard smudged with charcoal — a reminder of the Waldo Canyon blaze that claimed more than 300 homes, the most destructive fire in state history.

The wounds from that conflagration will take years to heal. Yet Colorado Springs remains a place of unexpected gifts, both natural and manmade. Not all of its surprises have been well-received; this is, after all, the town that gave us Amendment 2, Douglas Bruce and Ted Haggard. Yet it also has a terrific fine-arts center and many of the top tourist draws, from the cheesy to the magnificent — the Broadmoor, the Air Force Academy, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, museums of ghost towns and wax presidents — that have helped define Colorado and its charms for generations.

One of the most well-known is the Garden of the Gods. With its Tolkien-esque red-rock spires and castles and ship's prows, drive-through scenery not quite tame or wild, this sprawling wonderland is a dramatic example of what's now called the wild-urban interface. If the fire is evidence of the risk people take, the price they sometimes pay for living close to the natural world, the Garden of the Gods shows why people want to be there.

In 1879, at the urging of Springs founder William Jackson Palmer, railroad baron Charles Perkins snapped up hundreds of breathtaking acres in the area. But Perkins never developed the land. In an act of generosity and vision, he left the "garden" in its natural state for the enjoyment of the general public, an arrangement later formalized by his children, who donated the land to the city for a free park.

A few miles away is a garden of other, more human-looking gods: the U.S. Olympic Complex, the flagship training center for the athletic deities the country exhibits on a global stage every four years. (Winter Olympic hopefuls train primarily in Lake Placid, New York; a third center in California hosts volleyball, diving and other sports in which high-altitude training can actually throw off your timing.)

This, too, is a work of canny generosity and foresightedness: When the Ent Air Force Base closed in the 1970s, the city fathers wooed the U.S. Olympic Committee here by offering the prime 37-acre site for a dollar.

The result is a swimming pool that holds more than 900,000 gallons of water and takes several days to fill using fire hoses; the largest indoor shooting range in the hemisphere; a thriving paralympic program; some of the most sophisticated sports medicine and training gear on the planet, including high-def cameras and playback screens that allow athletes to review their own performance from various angles; millions pumped into the local economy; and a sleek system, financed largely through corporate sponsorship and not a single tax dollar, for preparing a stream of world-class performers and living inspirations, right down to the latest model, Colorado's own super-achieving Missy Franklin. The swimming superstar, who goes to Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, first met fellow gold-medal winner Michael Phelps at the training center four years ago; she's likely to return to Colorado Springs to train for the 2016 games.

The Waldo Canyon fire was contained after seventeen days. But there's another fire in Colorado Springs, the one in the replica Olympic torch on top of the visitor's center at the complex. It never goes out.

Less than 20 percent of the athletes invited to train at the center, who often end up living there for three to six years and working like hell to be the best they can be, ever make it to the Olympics. But hope burns eternal.

— Alan Prendergast

Rocky Ford Cantaloupe Creations Cook-Off, 16th Street Mall

Why didn't the melons get married? Because they cantaloupe!

It's an old joke in Rocky Ford, home to what has been one of Colorado's signature crops for the past 125 years. But things weren't so funny last year, when a listeria outbreak at a cantaloupe farm a hundred miles away, in the town of Holly, caused thirty deaths nationwide and scared consumers away from Colorado cantaloupes for a while.

As this year's harvest season kicked off, the Rocky Ford Growers Association wanted to refresh its image (and the Colorado Department of Agriculture is helping with a $175,000 promotional campaign). It got a good start when the group and Safeway decided to sponsor today's cantaloupe cook-off on the 16th Street Mall.

"We really wanted to have some fun, especially after some of the situations that have happened with other cantaloupe," says growers association spokeswoman Diane Mulligan. "Not only do we want to get the safety message out there, but this is such a fantastic year for the sweetness of the cantaloupe. We really wanted the general public to have an idea of what we were doing and some of the cool things you can do with cantaloupe."

Four chefs participated in the cook-off, creating cantaloupe-inspired dishes that were available for sampling — and rated by three judges.

Chef Jensen Cummings of Row 14 paired his compressed cantaloupe with Kona Kampachi (Hawaiian yellowtail tuna) topped with chocolate mint, sunflower seeds and a honey horseradish vinaigrette. "I really like the idea of taking the melon and making it almost like a protein," he says, adding that he will incorporate a similar dish into Row 14's menu.

Chef Sarah Callaway of Panzano whipped up a cantaloupe sorbet in a light, crispy honey-tuile cone with toasted sesame and micro-basil to top it off. Cook-off judge Marty Coniglio of 9News said, "The basil gave it such a nice balance. It took it to a different level. It was delicious and refreshing."

Willie G's chef Chris Meier concocted a beautifully plated dish consisting of an involved caprese salad with mozzarella balls, baby tomatoes, spicy capicola ham and, of course, Rocky Ford cantaloupe drizzled with balsamic. He then paired it with a cantaloupe consommé and carbonated cantaloupe for a colorful, decadent trio.

The contest winner, Lee Reitz of Wystone's World Teas, truly flew above and beyond with his dish, however. He basted a prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin in butter and olive oil, placed it on top of a grilled goat-cheese polenta, then completed it with avocado, cantaloupe chutney, cantaloupe gastrique and a garnish of toasted cantaloupe seeds. The vibrant dish wowed judge Joan Brewster, who described it as "an adventure. You kept tasting different things, and the chutney was amazing."

— Natalie Gonzalez

Also read: Fifty latest reasons Colorado is the best state in the country

Snowmastodon exhibit, Denver

Four elementary-school boys press their faces to the glass window, peer into the Schlessman Family Foundation Laboratory of Earth Sciences and scrutinize the object on the other side. "It's a giant white...thing," one reports. He's not wrong. Thankfully, researchers at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science have placed a sign near the thing: "Today's Fossil: Mastodon pelvis."

"Oooh, cool," his friend pipes up. "A mastodon's like an elephant, right? Where did it come from?"

The answer to his last question is one of the proudest in the state's natural history, but its sheer novelty makes it the kind of story these guys would be most likely to hear at bedtime. On October 14, 2010, while excavating the Ziegler Reservoir outside of Snowmass Village, bulldozer driver Jesse Steele uncovered part of a skeleton amid the usual rubble and dirt. When he saw the bones flip over in the bulldozer's blade, he grew both excited and scared. These were too big to come from a cow.

After Googling the bones and matching them to an ancient mammoth, Steele and his supervisors at Gould Construction dialed research outfits across the state until they found a partner in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. "We get three or four calls a year that sound interesting, but this one sounded particularly interesting," says Ian Miller, the museum's curator of paleontology. "A mammoth high in the Rockies? That's unheard of."

Early the next morning, a team of scientists drove from Denver to Snowmass to confirm the find, which most still believed to be a single, if exceptionally old, animal. But as public attention surrounding the dig site grew, so did the parameters of their discovery. A project that began with $40,000 in expected costs expanded to more than $1 million, and one mammoth turned into 6,000-plus bones from more than thirty old-world species, including mammoth, bison, sloth, salamander, coyote, squirrel, frog, snake, otter, beaver, shrew and gopher.

But the single most important discovery made at the site might well be the ground itself. By digging cores straight through layers of sediment, museum scientists collected hundreds of thousands of years' worth of data to create the state's most complete long-term climate record. In roughly two years, this data will feature heavily in a book of Snowmastodon research that museum staff and volunteers are currently compiling as they brainstorm a large, updated display from all of their finds. Right now they're working on a 6,000-piece crossword puzzle, and though the original Snowmass excavation is finished — and the man who co-led it, museum head curator Kirk Johnson, just announced that he's taken a job as the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. — they find extra pieces each day in the samples they extracted.

Moving forward, the real problem comes in connecting all the dots: It's nearly impossible to tell definitively which bones came from which mastodon, and most attempts result in a prehistoric Frankenstein. "We still might reassemble a skeleton for the display, but right now we're still learning every day," says Bryan Small, who oversees the technicians in the lab. He laughs, looks around the open, dinosaur-themed workspace and points out at least five samples resembling the one on display.

"In the meantime, we've certainly got plenty of mastodon pelvises. It must be pelvis day in here." — Kelsey Whipple

Rocky Mountain Arsenal,

Commerce City

Just ten miles northeast of downtown, on the border of Denver and Commerce City, is one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the country.

A stopover for fifty pairs of roosting bald eagles last winter, the refuge is littered with prairie dog holes and home to deer, coyotes and even a muskrat or two. On this warm summer day, its nine miles of trails are covered in colorful crickets. But Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge only exists because it was once a chemical-weapons plant and one of the most contaminated sites in history.

The short-grass prairie where the refuge is now was once home to Plains Indians and herds of bison, and later to western settlers and grazing cattle. But at the height of WW II, the U.S. Army purchased 17,000 acres of this land and manufactured mustard gas, napalm and other chemical weapons on it. Over the next forty years, the site's facilities were leased to private companies — like Shell Chemical Co., which produced agricultural pesticides — and reactivated for use during subsequent wars.

During one of the largest single demilitarization operations in the nation's history, Project Eagle, the Army destroyed mustard-gas stockpiles and 930,000 gallons of Sarin nerve agent at the arsenal.

In 1984, the Army began investigating the contamination issues there, and in 1987, it was added to the Superfund list. Because of a lack of human presence, however, the area had become an involuntary refuge for a diverse population of wildlife, including deer, coyotes, ferruginous hawks, owls and a roost of bald eagles (then an endangered species).

Now, 25 years and 31 cleanup projects later, 16,000 acres (94 percent) of the arsenal have been removed from the Superfund list and restored to short-grass prairie that is home to more than 330 species of wildlife. The refuge also boasts a beautiful visitor center and exhibit hall, and provides free public programs such as bird-watching and wildlife bus tours.

But there are still those other 1,000 acres, and later this summer we'll get a reminder about what is still there when the refuge closes for one month to support the expansion of an environmental monitoring project on what's left of the site's U.S. Army-owned land.

During the temporary closure, which begins on August 20, the Army will drill eight more groundwater wells around a former cleanup project, which will provide additional monitoring and aid long-term care of the area.

Closing the refuge — a rare occurrence — will also allow for visitor-center maintenance and other projects on the grounds to take place, says visitor-services manager Sherry James. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be installing cattle guards for the bison enclosure and working on trails; the temporary closure will also give staff an opportunity to plan new programs and activities for the public to look forward to when the refuge reopens in late September.

— Melody Parker

Town Center at Aurora

In some ways, the Town Center at Aurora could be any mall in Anywhere, USA. The outside is sturdy and beige, and inside the air is cool and smells of sickeningly sweet Cinnabons. In between big-name department stores selling the latest celebrity perfume — on a recent afternoon, it was Justin Bieber's Girlfriend — smaller shops peddle vanilla body lotion, basketball jerseys, cell phones and enough short party dresses to clothe an army of suburban Kardashians.

But to Aurora, a sprawling city of 335,105 people, the mall is more than a place to buy earbuds and eyeglasses. To many, it's the heart of an ever-changing city that's struggled to find its center.

"It is the town center because it is a gathering place," says state representative Rhonda Fields, who represents the city. "Also right there, you have the central library, you have city hall. That is the center; that is one of the heartbeats of the town."

The Aurora Mall opened in 1975 near East Alameda Avenue and South Potomac Street, a shining example of a brand-new kind of commerce. A plaque at the Aurora History Museum explains that the new mall dwarfed the city's four-year-old Buckingham Square Mall "and anything in the area" — including the mom-and-pop shops on East Colfax Avenue. By the 1980s, the plaque explains, it was clear the malls had "dealt a death-blow to Colfax businesses" and become Aurora's most popular destinations.

State historian Bill Convery grew up in Aurora and remembers hanging out at the mall as a teenager in the mid-'80s. "I went there to play video games and see movies," he recalls. "I did all those things you do in a mall: go to Orange Julius, go to Spencer's."

But a decade later, the mall was beginning to show its age. In 1998, the previous owners sold it to the Simon Property Group. Soon afterward, the company announced it would add new stores in an attempt to boost the mall's image. One welcome addition was the freestanding Century 16 Theater next door, which the local press described as a key upgrade.

Changes couldn't hide a problem that the mall had been dealing with since the early 1990s, however, when allegations that mall security was racially profiling young black men because of the way they dressed led to pickets and boycotts. The issue cropped up again in 2004, when a mall leasing agent was caught on tape saying the mall was trying to reduce its "negative aspects," including "the young black customer." She said it was aiming to attract more white customers instead.

The mall responded by promising to hire more African-American executives and security guards, but in the fall of 2005, the shopping center took another hit when a shooting there left a nineteen-year-old woman dead and her 23-year-old boyfriend seriously wounded. Two twenty-year-olds were arrested for the crime. Because of that, there is now a curfew: On Friday and Saturday nights, kids under sixteen must be accompanied by a parent.

At the time of the shooting, the mall was undergoing a $100 million renovation to modernize its look, refurbish its food court and add a fourth anchor, Dillard's. The city encouraged the makeover, providing $15 million in tax subsidies. Aurora had recently relocated its city hall, library and police headquarters across the street. "This is a new chance for the Aurora mall and the whole city center area," Dianne Truwe, then the city's director of development services, told the Denver Post. Fittingly, Simon rechristened the thirty-year-old mall the Town Center at Aurora.

Last Wednesday at lunchtime, the mall was as busy as you'd expect for a weekday afternoon. Toddlers climbed on the giant caterpillar in the play area, teenagers roamed with Forever 21 bags, and grandmothers browsed in JC Penney. The Town Center at Aurora has a few throwbacks, such as a pet store that sells hyperactive puppies — miniature schnauzers were 20 percent off — and a video arcade like the one where Convery spend his quarters more than a quarter-century ago. It also has locations that make it unique: a tattoo parlor, a barber shop and From Mexico Con Amor, which sells lucha libre masks and two-foot plastic Saint Francis statues.

Both cookie-cutter and authentically different, the mall is distinctly Aurora. And any concerns that the tragedy that took the lives of twelve people there on July 20 will rob the city of its de facto center are baseless, says Representative Fields. "All of the e-mails and conversations I've had with people, they say they're not going to let this person who committed this horrible act take their community from them," she explains. "They're going to take it back and continue to do what they normally do.

"A lot of people are saying, 'I'm not going to let him win.'" — Melanie Asmar

The Humidor at Coors Field

Everyone thinks that the baseball humidor at Coors Field is hidden in some secret, special place, says Jay Alves, spokesman for the Colorado Rockies.

In reality, it's about as conspicuous as a box in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tucked away on the service level of Coors Field — one elevator stop below the main lobby and just down from the Rockies clubhouse — the humidor is right next to the type of walk-in beer cooler you'd find in the back of the house at any big restaurant or bar in LoDo.

In fact, the humidor looks like a beer cooler: industrial gray in color and with no signage indicating what's inside. But instead of Coors Light, this nine-foot-by-nine-foot walk-in holds about 400,000 baseballs, 72 of which are rubbed down and then used for each home game.

But the humidor's looks belie the controversy around it.

In 2002, the Rockies got permission from Major League Baseball to install it. "We used to, prior to the humidor, store baseballs, and they would dry up, get lighter and get harder. So with the altitude, we really had a lot of balls flying out of here like golf balls," Alves says.

Golf balls is about right. Coors Field holds the record for single-season homers at 303, set in 1999. That's 3.7 home runs a game.

Other teams complained, and they haven't stopped.

During the 2010 season, for instance, San Francisco Giants announcer Jon Miller suggested on air that something strange might be going on with the humidor, and ace Tim Lincecum was seen on TV muttering "Fucking juiced ball, it's bullshit" — a comment he later qualified by saying his emotions were running high — on the mound at Coors.

But offensive numbers have declined since the humidor was installed, from around 272 home runs per year to about 197 home runs per year. And that's important to the sport that honors tradition more than any other.

And even though the baseballs used by both teams at Coors are in line with manufacturers' specs — they're stored at 70 degrees, with 50 percent humidity — they still hit the cheap seats more than any at other place in the big leagues. "We're still a mile high — you can't change that," Alves says.

Still, he would like to see every team use a humidor. "To have a unified and consistent baseball throughout the game," he notes.

Now, if only it could help our pitching.

— Nick Lucchesi

Eisenhower Tunnel, Clear Creek County

Inside the control room of the Eisenhower Tunnel, dozens of employees monitor more than thirty large screens, keeping watch on a throughway that, since its historic construction in 1973, has allowed hundreds of millions of cars to drive straight across the Continental Divide.

At 11,155 feet above sea level, the 1.7-mile tunnel is the highest of its kind in the world — something that drivers notice right away as they chug uphill on either side or crunch their brakes on the way down.

"It's a critical link from the east slope to the west slope, and has made huge differences for people in the way that they can access recreation and all that the mountains have to offer," says Mike Salamon, who has worked as a superintendent at the tunnel, sixty miles west of Denver, for 35 years.

The numbers prove it.

Since March 1973 through July 2012, exactly 304,794,917 vehicles have passed through the tunnel, and the rate is twice today what it was thirty years ago. On average, more than ten million cars pass through each year, or an average of 30,000 a day (sometimes it seems like they're all there at once). And although ski-season traffic gets the most attention because of traffic jams and bad weather, usage is usually highest in the summer.

Plans for a tunnel under the Continental Divide date back to the 1860s, but it wasn't until a century later, in 1968, that the technology and funding was created to make construction possible.

The $116.9 million effort, which began that year, employed thousands of people who worked 24 hours a day, six days a week. When it was done, people no longer had to take the twisting 9.5-mile route along U.S. 6 over the 11,992-foot-high Loveland Pass, but could use the new I-70 instead.

Beyond the tunnel's quirky climate — where there can be snow on one side and blue skies on the other — there are some other unusual attributes. For instance, a staff of 51 employees work 24/7 to make sure everything is running smoothly. "That control room has never been empty since 1973," says Salamon, explaining that the team in the roughly one-acre facility has a wide range of responsibilities, from monitoring traffic and plowing snow to overseeing roadway drainage and stopping trucks that are too tall. On more stressful days, employees have to launch emergency responses to vehicles that stall inside or, worse, put out fires that ignite inside the tunnel. But because they pay close attention and have never had a fatal accident, Salamon says, "it's probably the safest two miles of road in Colorado."

From inside the impressive facility, it's clear that the site has everything it needs to function on its own, from 28 huge ventilation fans to a water-treatment facility that processes 72,000 gallons of sewage a day to its own fire pumper, which can discharge 500 gallons of water a minute.

"We're self-contained," says Ken Martinez, a senior maintenance supervisor. "We're our own little city up here."

— Sam Levin

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