Umbrella Rocks: Out of Sight, Out of Mind 

"I called this meeting -- " began Danny, when Porcupine broke in rudely:

"When is the world coming to the end?"

"The world isn't coming to the end," said Danny.

"It isn't even coming to the middle," squeaked Pat.

"Oh, spinach!" grumbled Little Skunk. "I wanted to see what it was like without a world."

Thus I was marked, at the tender age of about four, as a bedrock optimist. My brother and I were incidental characters in Jigger Flies First, a children's book written and illustrated by our father, about the wild animals' views on the construction of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Jigger the kitten encounters various animals who, fearing for their beloved Umbrella Rocks as the bulldozers tear up the hills to the north, blame it all on Falcon.

Umbrella Rocks -- also known as Hoodoos or Mushroom Rocks -- sprawl throughout Woodmen and Pine valleys and the bluffs east of Monument Creek. To early settlers, Woodmen Valley was Cedar Mountain Valley (Cedar Mountain became Blodgett Peak in Hayden's 1881 Atlas of Colorado). General Palmer originally intended to live in this area, which he called Bijou ("little gem"). Tourist guides from the 1870s to the 1880s named it Monument Park, its "monuments rising above the prairie glades." It is "the home of the sand rock freaks" where "nature has in her most jocose mood gathered together the strangest collection of sand rock figures imaginable."

Thomas Moran's exquisite 1873 watercolor "Monument Valley Park" (Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center), depicts some of the most graceful formations. In 1883 the Modern Woodmen of America established their tuberculosis sanatorium in the valley, and bestowed its present name.

The odd rock shapes are Dawson Arkose conglomerate -- a deposit of grainy quartz and feldspar, later covered by a harder, iron-containing layer of rock. The dark top layer, eroding more slowly, becomes the "mushroom caps" supported by columns of soft, light-colored stone. In his 1906 guidebook to Colorado Springs geology, CC geology professor George Finley included a chapter on "The Erosion Columns of Monument Park." In describing the best way to enter the area, he wrote, "(the traveler) will have an extensive view of the whole park. Forty or fifty columns are in sight."

My father worked as a laborer building the "Denver highway" (now I-25) in the 1920s. "The road camp lay amid some of the most freakish rocks on the globe," he wrote. "They were not colossal ... but of a proportion more intimate with man's normal imagination -- before he lost it."

On a nearby hill was "what appeared to be a twisted ostrich neck capped with a tam o' shanter, peeping at us ... Squarely in the middle of the lush prairie lawn to the northeast was a series of stem-rocks, all spanned by one continuous slab of cap-rock. Horses and colts frolicking on the plain would stop to gaze through the apertures, giving the ridiculous impression that they were looking through windows to see what was going on outside." Though dead tired after long days of shoveling, my father spent every evening exploring: "The foothills were alive with those mushroom rocks ... Not a one must be overlooked."

In the early 1950s, my father brought his young family to his favorite haunts for picnics. For me, the rock formations go by the names he gave them in Jigger Flies First: Falcon's Roost, Paint Pony's Picture Window. It was a magical realm, with endless discoveries of delightful stone goblins and hideaways. As kids, we didn't think about who owned it or questions of access, though the book makes one allusion to a sign: "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. ... But Jigger didn't read very well before breakfast. He though it said Welcome to Paint Pony's Meadow. So he went right in."

The book ends happily: the animals stop blaming Falcon and "the world was safe, the wonderful Umbrella Rocks were safe, and the animals living there were safe."

The stone monuments were safe from Air Force Academy construction. But soon thereafter, one large tract of land after another in the Woodmen Valley vicinity turned into houses. The concentration of umbrella-rocks populating the grand sweep of valleys and ridges was forgotten, segmented into people's backyards. Individual, publicly accessible hoodoos are scattered among Palmer Park and University Park; Falcon's Roost still peeps over its hill near the Current plant. But, even though it was Palmer's "little gem," Monument Park, the "home of the sand rock freaks," was never set aside as open space accessible to the public, and now hardly anyone knows it ever existed.

Open space continues to become the homes, businesses and streets of Colorado Springs -- faster than ever. What other rock formations, ridges, valleys, groves or creeks may end up segmented into backyards, as forgotten as the Umbrella Rocks? As land prices continue to skyrocket, how can open space acquisition funds like TOPS be increased or extended?

Unlike Little Skunk, I don't want to see what it's like without a world -- a world that has room for rocks, roaming and imagination.


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