Legal torture? "That's the worst thing I ever did," the exhausted young soldier told City Councilman Scott Hente.
"I would have thought Iraq was the worst thing you ever did," Hente replied.
"This is worse than Iraq," the soldier said.
Hente laughs at the story. Hente, a 55-year-old prostate cancer survivor, is proud that he can still haul himself up the grueling Incline, the locally celebrated, treacherously steep trail, which is partially within Manitou Springs city limits. And he's proud he can feel better at the top of its 2,000-plus steps than a guy half his age. But he's not proud that he, and everyone else who climbs the Incline, is doing so illegally.
That's why Hente has been working to make it legal. It hasn't been easy, and it's not over yet in other words, yes, it's still illegal.
"Not only do you have the three owners, but you have other parties involved," Hente says.
Here's the deal: At the bottom, the Incline is owned by Colorado Springs Utilities. The middle is owned by Pikes Peak Cog Railway. The top is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Hente thinks he's on his way to getting all parties to agree to public access on the trail within the next few months. Colorado Springs would take out an easement on the trail, free of cost, and assume liability if a hiker is injured. (Why Colorado Springs? Well, Manitou Springs has no interest in opening the trail, and Colorado Springs owns a good amount of property on and around the Incline.)
Spencer Wren, general manager of the railway, says he's ready to put the issue to rest if parking and liability issues can be resolved. His "no trespassing" signs have proved ineffective, and he says, "We can't post armed guards out there."
An open trail would also mean volunteers could begin much-needed maintenance on the crumbling railroad ties that serve as the Incline's steps.
One large issue still looms. At the Incline's base, parking is a nightmare. Crowded in by the mountains and an expanding neighborhood, two parking lots and limited street parking serve patrons of the cog, as well as hikers heading for the Incline or Barr Trail. The larger city-owned parking lot is already reserved for cog customers, and if the Incline opens to hikers, the city would cement that arrangement as a means of payment to the cog. That would leave few spots open for hikers.
There's also the issue of traffic. Narrow, residential Ruxton Avenue is the main access point to Incline parking. Residents already are fed up with high traffic and inconsiderate parkers.
Manitou Mayor Eric Drummond says Manitou needs a plan. Ideally, Drummond would like to put a Manitou Parking Authority in place before the Incline (legally) opens. It's a project Manitou's City Council has long been working on, and if approved, it may solve some of the town's traffic and parking woes.
Drummond sees a wide range of options to decrease traffic parking structures, shuttles, metered parking and some measures likely will be aimed at easing traffic on Ruxton.
"We just have to kind of figure out what all of this means," he says.
The prospect of opening the Incline already has some people excited and not just hikers. Amy Long of Experience Colorado Springs at Pikes Peak says she'd be thrilled to start promoting the trail to tourists. Kitty Clemens of Manitou's Economic Development Council says the Incline would help attract healthy, fitness-oriented travelers.