2017 Writing Retreat at Lake Cuyamaca

I can’t believe it’s been over two years since my last writing retreat. And it’s not for lack of trying. Life has been quite busy in the meantime and I’ve been doing a lot more traveling than I normally do.

Anyway, I finally managed to go on a writing retreat in October. My friend and I ended up deciding to do a camping writing retreat (if you think that sounds crazy, you’re not alone, judging by the number of strange looks I got before the trip). But it totally worked!

We packed a tent and supplies and drove up on Friday, through Ramona, past Julian, to our campsite near Lake Cuyamaca. I’ve always enjoyed the beauty of the mountains surrounding Julian, but have never camped out that way, despite living in San Diego for nine years.

Our campsite was quite popular and there were quite a few sites booked for the weekend. It definitely wasn’t the isolated experience I’ve had on other camping trips. I camped at Joshua Tree several years ago and I swear there were only two other people there the whole weekend.

We didn’t get started on the actual writing until Saturday morning, but I ended up having one of the best writing sessions I’ve had in months. Really helped me break through the lack of confidence I’ve been suffering lately. And it brought me that much closer to finishing my Tesla book (yes, the SAME book I was working on at the last writing retreat).

View From the Front Door

After writing for a bit, we decided to go to Julian to do a couple things. On the way, we learned of a fire burning at another campsite in Lake Cuyamaca, which made us understandably nervous. The fires were still burning in the California wine country and we were acutely aware even as we left San Diego, that fire danger was high. Luckily, we found out later that they were able to quickly get that fire under control and I don’t believe anyone was hurt.

On the way to Julian, we stopped off at Lake Cuyamaca to look at the lake, take some pictures of the fall leaves, and torture my dog by walking him onto the dock. Zoom in on his face….Elliot was so not amused.

In Julian, we visited our favorite little teahouse, Julian Tea and Cottage Arts, and of course, bought some tea! Then we went and waited in line to get a slice of the famous Julian pie and cinnamon ice cream before heading back to our campsite for a sunset walk around the campgrounds. Our campground was literally right across the road from Stonewall Peak.

That Famous Julian Pie

I was able to fit in a little more writing time before bed that night. The wind had been high all day and it continued after dark, making our attempts at a campfire both sketchy and sort of impossible. We tried to go to bed early, but our neighboring campers kept me up most of the night making sausages. We thought it was funny when they went to bed early, but I guess they were just napping in preparation to wake up and cook sausages around the campfire at midnight! I kid you not, that is what happened.

In any case, I was able to rally myself the next morning and do a little more writing before heading back to San Diego to unpack and get ready for my trip to Colorado.

Stonewall Peak at Sunset

I’ll pause here to explain about a few of the discoveries I made about how a camping writing retreat can actually HELP your writing process.

-No Internet Can Be a Godsend

I’m writing historical fiction and if there’s one thing to be said about historical fiction, it’s mostly researching with a side of actual writing. I’m constantly thinking of things I need to look up/research/doublecheck and it does slow the process considerably. If you don’t know the answer to something offhand, you only have two choices: keep writing and look it up later or stop, drop, and research. With the Internet at my fingertips, I often do the later. But while we were camping, I couldn’t access the Internet unless I gave myself a hotspot and I didn’t want to run down my phone battery doing that. So I was forced to keep going and just write notes for myself and I actually think that is the better method. It took me a lot less time to go back and fact-check my work than it usually does to write and research at the same time. (In case you’re wondering, I don’t do just Internet research, I have quite a library of books that didn’t come along on the camping trip. But the Internet is a great place to start and many times I can find an answer for a small detail or locate the book I need to order if I need more in-depth information).

-Those People Who Handwrite in the Computer Age Might Not Be Crazy After All

I’ll be honest and say that I have written the vast majority of my books on my computer. Ever since I got my first laptop when I was fourteen, I have been in love with how quickly you can type down your racing thoughts without sacrificing legibility. I have poor handwriting to begin with so the later is an important consideration. Occasionally, I have written short passages in my phone’s notes or jotted them down on scrap pieces of paper (Once, I even used a paper towel!) But I have never intentionally written sections of my book longhand to transcribe later. I know many writers have this as part of their process, but I do not. Though I have to say, I got the chance to try it out at the writing retreat and I am now convinced that maybe those writers aren’t crazy after all. That there’s actually something to it and it doesn’t just create extra work. When I tried out this method, I noticed that I naturally edited my work during the transcribing process, which was pretty neat – I can now see why people write this way!

-A Dying Computer Battery is the Best Motivator

Since Julian is such a tourist town, they actually lack the normal writer refuges: coffee shops and a library. I was still determined to bring my laptop along on this trip since I do prefer to write with it. But knowing I only had so many hours on my battery and that I wouldn’t be able to recharge it, definitely kept me motivated and on track. And with no Internet to waste time on, I definitely made the most of all of the minutes on my laptop battery!

Overall, it was a great writing retreat. If anything, it was a little bit too short…I could have spent several more days on our retreat! But as most writers know, reality often knocks before the writer’s creativity is even close to exhausted.

Have you been on a writing retreat this year? Where did you go? Let me know in the comments below!

Writing Project Wednesday: Trains

I think I grew up knowing more than the average person about trains. My dad used to work for the railroad and there was always a healthy appreciation for these iron horses in our house. Sadly, the age of the train has long been on the decline. It was such a treat to get to research trains during their heyday! I’m sharing a few of my favorite tidbits of research below:

-Colorado’s history and growth is intrinsically bound up with the development of rail lines through and across the state. Colorado Springs was no exception. Until 1971, Colorado Springs had a functioning passenger train service. The historic train depot is still there. Until 2011, it was home to Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant.

-The Colorado Springs train depot is the very same one Nikola Tesla arrived at in 1899. Tesla is just one of many famous faces who passed through that depot. If you’re ever in Colorado Springs, you should pay a visit to the beautiful old building. You can see my pictures of how the building looked at the end of 2014 here. Here’s how it looked in 1871:

-At the end of the nineteenth century, steam locomotives were still used to power passenger trains. They weren’t fully replaced by electric and diesel locomotives until the first quarter of the twentieth century.

-In 1876, the Transcontinental Express train made the journey from New York to San Francisco in just 83 hours. A few days after its historic trip, passenger service began.

-In the 1890s, railroad lines covered the eastern side of the United States, but were comparatively sparse in the west:

-There are many examples of steam locomotives in museums across the country. If you visit Colorado Springs, there’s an example of one in the park across the street from the train depot. Here’s a rendering of one:

If you ever have the opportunity to take the train across Colorado or more broadly, across America, I would highly recommend it! It’s one of the most fascinating ways to experience our country as the railways take you through places you would not otherwise be able to see.

On the next Writing Project Wednesday, I’ll be talking about food!

Writing Project Wednesday: The Alta Vista Hotel

The Alta Vista Hotel in Colorado Springs is notable because it is where Nikola Tesla stayed while he worked in Colorado Springs. Though it no longer stands, there are photographs and a smattering of information about it. For today’s Writing Project Wednesday, I’m going to give you the history of Tesla’s home away from home in Colorado!

-The Alta Vista Hotel was built around 1889, just a few blocks from the train station. It was torn down in 1962. You can see pictures of it during the demolition on The Colorado Springs Gazette here.

-It was located at 112 N. Cascade Avenue. The Kirkpatrick Bank and its parking lot sit on that site now. You can see the spot where it stood in my pictures from my trip to Colorado Springs here.

-The Alta Vista Hotel was made of stone and brick. You can see a beautiful colorization of it here. Additional photos of it can be found on The Tesla Universe site here and The Pikes Peak Radio and Electronics Museum site here.

-Tesla stayed in room 207 or 222, depending upon whom you ask. Most of his biographers agree that it was 207. As the story goes, he selected his room because the number was divisible by 3, a prime number.

-Tesla also famously asked for eighteen fresh towels to be delivered to his room every day. The biographies about Tesla abound with these details as if every biographer seems keen to prove Tesla’s eccentricity.

-In researching more facts for this article, I stumbled across a copy of the breakfast menu at the Alta Vista Hotel that is in the New York Public Library’s digital collection. I have to say, some of my most fascinating research is seeing what people used to eat.

-I also found a sample of the letterhead from the Alta Vista Hotel on the Tesla Universe site.

On the next Writing Project Wednesday, I’ll be talking about trains!

Writing Project Wednesday: Tesla, Edison, and The War of Currents

While the feud between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison predates my novel-in-progress, it’s still a fascinating story that few people are familiar with in present day. If you’re a younger person, you’ve probably seen The Oatmeal’s lengthy comic which summarizes Tesla’s life and also mentions the famous feud. You can see that full comic here.

I’m going to summarize the issues and introduce you to the major players in The War of Currents. For an extended look at the issues, I recommend Tesla Vs Edison by Nigel Cawthrone, a well-researched book that really covers this issue in depth. Eventually, I’m going to do a post ranking all these different Tesla biographies since I’ve read so many of them.

Ok so first things first as we dive into The War of Currents:

-This is Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla was a genius inventor who was born in Serbia in 1856. He arrived in America in June of 1884. At this time, he had already been experimenting with the alternating current (AC) motor. After he failed to raise money to back his invention, he accepted an offer from Charles Batcherlor to go and work for the Edison company in New York.

-This is Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison was a genius inventor who was born in Ohio in 1847. Edison either invented or improved upon a number of things we still use today like the lightbulb. In 1884 his electric company was busy lighting up New York with direct current (DC) power.

-Nikola Tesla went to work for Thomas Edison in 1884 and stayed for nearly a year. All the while, Tesla continued to work on his AC motor.

-When Tesla left Edison’s employ, he became to file his own patents. Tesla applied for patents on his AC motors, which were ultimately granted in 1888.

-This is George Westinghouse. George Westinghouse was an inventor turned entrepreneur who was born in New York in 1846. Westinghouse invented the air-operated brake for railroad cars. In 1885, Westinghouse decided to develop an AC power system. In 1888, Westinghouse purchased Tesla’s AC motor patents. Tesla then became a consultant with the Westinghouse Electric Company.

-Meanwhile, Westinghouse and Edison were fighting The War of Currents with their rival electric companies and rival power systems.

-Edison claimed that AC power was dangerous. In February 1888, Edison published an attack on Westinghouse and AC.

-Enter a fourth player, Harold P. Brown. Brown was an electrical engineer who also published an attack on Westinghouse and AC power in June of 1888. Brown knew he needed an ally so he called on Edison, who accepted.

-Brown then began to stage demonstrations that involved shocking animals with DC and AC power. Brown electrocuted dogs, calves, and horses to prove his point that AC was dangerous.

-In 1888, New York adopted electrocution as its preferred method to administer capital punishment.

-Brown was then hired by the prison system of New York to design its electrical equipment. Naturally, he decided to use the Westinghouse AC generators.

-In May of 1889, William Kemmler was convicted of murder and was set to become the first person to be executed by electrocution. Kemmler’s lawyers protested that electrocution was an inhumane punishment and the defense team began to dig into Brown’s background which later revealed that Brown was working with Edison. Nevertheless, the sentence was upheld and Kemmler was executed in August of 1890.

-By 1890, The War of Currents largely began to wind down. The Panic of 1890 caused by the collapse of Barings Bank in London created havoc for both Edison and Westinghouse. Faced with financial trouble, Edison General Electric and Thomas-Houston merged, Edison was dropped from the name, and the new company become General Electric. At this point, Edison also stepped away from the electric lighting business to focus on other things. By the end of the century, AC would become the undisputed winner in The War of Currents. The rivalry between Tesla and Edison continued for the rest of Edison’s life, though not quite at the same magnitude.

* Some of you may have noticed I included AC/DC’s logo in my title image for this week’s Writing Project Wednesday. The story goes that Angus and George Young noticed the initials AC/DC on their sister’s sewing machine and thought that would be a cool name for a band!

Next week, I’m going to talk about one of Colorado Springs’ creepiest unsolved murders!

 

Writing Project Wednesday: The Color of Lightning

Growing up in Colorado, I used to think we’d hit the jackpot when it came to natural disasters. Hurricanes never bothered us, earthquakes didn’t happen, and blizzards were easily handled with a pile of blankets and some advanced planning. While we were close enough to the mountains that tornados in our area were rare, we were also far enough away that wildfires weren’t much of a concern. But one weather phenomena we did have in abundance was thunder storms and with it, lightning. These lightning storms and Colorado’s dry climate are the main reasons Nikola Tesla traveled to Colorado Springs in May of 1899.

I’ve seen a lot of these natural light shows. A normal summer day consisted of a hot and sunny morning with a thunderstorm rolling off the mountains in the afternoon. If you wanted to go to the pool, you best not sleep in since eventually you would be chased out of the water by ominous, dark storm clouds.

Living in San Diego, I kind of miss the thunderstorms. In the nine years I’ve been living here (yes, nine, wow!) I’ve only seen an actual thunderstorm a handful of times and aside from the one time we got a tornado warning in Del Mar, it’s nowhere near as beautiful (or as dangerous) as the type of storms Colorado tends to produce. In my parents’ house, there’s a series of pictures that’s been hanging up for as long as I can remember that my dad took one summer. It’s aptly titled “Armageddon”.

Depending on where you live, you might not know that lightning actually comes in colors! Yes, colors! I’ve seen white, of course, but also purple and red and twice I’ve had the fortune of seeing “thundersnow”: the rare phenomenon of a thunder storm coupled with snow! I always thought the different colors of lightning were merely a trick of the light or the eye (is that still a trick of the light?) and nothing more. But as I’ve been doing research for my novel, I found out that colored lighting actually tells you something about the lightning and the atmospheric conditions of the storm!

According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) “lightning can appear to be many different colors depending on what the light travels through to get to your eyes. Haze, dust, moisture, raindrops and any other particles in the atmosphere will affect the color by absorbing or diffracting a portion of the white light of lightning.”

A Reddit Ask Science forum also had this to say about the colors of lightning: “When white light passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, the molecules that make up the air (nitrogen, oxygen, and argon) will scatter the wavelengths of visible light disproportionately. Shorter wavelengths are scattered more than longer wavelengths by a factor of roughly 3.5:1. This causes a beam of white light to appear yellowish. As the light travels through more air, the shorter wavelengths are depleted even more and now the yellow wavelengths are being significantly depleted causing the light to appear reddish. So the more air between you and the light source the redder the object appears. A lightning flash reaches temperatures of about 30,000 K (54,0000°F) which is five times hotter than the surface of the sun. Objects with this temperature would emit a brilliant white light. The closer the lightning flash is to you, the whiter it appears. Distant lightning flashes will have a yellowish color because the light has to travel through more air molecules. If there are raindrops between you and the lightning flash, the color will appear reddish. Sometimes fine dust particles are eroded from the surface by the wind beneath the cloud and lifted into the air. These particles will also scatter the light and give the lightning flash a yellow/orange appearance.”

In lay terms, basically the closer you are to the lightning and the less interference from dust and other pollutants, the more white it will appear. The further away it is and the more dust and pollutants in the air, the more yellow or even orange it will appear. You can think of a flame…the center is often white or nearly white where the fire is hottest and the outer edges appear orange and red where the fire is cooler. Raindrops in the air also cause the lightning to appear reddish…you have probably often seen purple lightning with thunderstorms that have a significant amount of rain. Other colors are possible, though more rare. The NSSL mentions that during the thundersnow phenomena, the lightning can appear pink or even green!

Bonus fact: if you’re always trying to remember whether lighting or thunder comes first, lightning comes first because light travels faster than sound! You cannot have thunder without lightning because lightning causes thunder. NSSL has a great description of how lightning causes thunder here.

A little off topic, but while doing research I found these two insane videos of what happens to wood when lightning hits it…worth a watch!

Next week I’m going to be diving into the great feud between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, the “War of Currents”!

Writing Project Wednesday: Nikola Tesla and Elon Musk’s Tesla Car

I haven’t talked about my writing that much on the blog lately. But, yes I am still writing! Slowly, but surely. I’m actually still working on my historical fiction novel about Tesla. Nikola Tesla, the inventor, not the car (more on that in a sec). I’ve been working on this book for five years now! Eek! Off and on because I wrote a draft of another book and worked on an older book during that time, but five years still.

One thing I find a lot is that most people haven’t heard of Nikola Tesla the inventor. The Tesla car, absolutely! But the genius inventor? Not so much. Internet cartoonist The Oatmeal has a great primer on Tesla here, if you’re curious.

Credit: The Oatmeal

In my new series, Writing Project Wednesday, I’m going to be talking about my writing projects a lot more going forward. Specifically, all of the random research that goes into them. Even if you’re not writing historical fiction, you’re almost always going to have to do a boatload of research and become an armchair expert on something or the other like knitting needles or postage stamps. Seriously, there is no escape.

I’ve always said, if going to school and accumulating degrees was a career, I’d probably be doing that. I LOVE learning stuff. I LOVE reading (duh) and I LOVE falling down rabbit holes on the internet on semi-obscure subjects (I’m looking at you Jonestown) so being a writer is a good fit. Another thing I really love doing, is teaching people. Thus, this new series!

Ok, back to Tesla and the Tesla car. One incorrect assumption I hear a lot is that people think the Tesla car was invented by a guy named Tesla…thus the confused train of thought I see pulling into the station when I talk about my book. The process goes something like this:

  • Light of Recognition: Oh I’ve heard of Tesla! That’s cool you’re writing about the car, it’s so popular right now. You know my neighbor has one. Did you know it can drive itself?
  • Dawning Confusion: Wait, you said historical fiction? But that doesn’t make sense, the company can’t be more than fifteen years old…
  • Apologetic Murmuring and Appreciative Nod: Oh, ok so there was an actual guy named Tesla. My mistake. I thought you were talking about the car. You said he was an inventor? Did he invent the car? Your project sounds cool by the way!

So many conversations roll like this, I’m honestly surprised when someone knows I mean Nikola Tesla and then can name an invention of his. That person immediately becomes at least 20% cooler in my mind. Sorry, not sorry.

Without further ado, allow me to give you the facts and unravel the mystery of Nikola Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Tesla car!

-This is Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla was a genius inventor who was born in Serbia in 1856 and died in New York in 1943. Nikola Tesla developed the AC current motor in the 1880s, which later put him at war with Thomas Edison and his Direct Current (DC) design. He also invented or conceptualized a bunch more things. A cloud of conspiracy surrounds him to this day.

-This is Elon Musk. Elon Musk is a businessman who was born in South Africa in 1971 and is still alive and kicking and currently dating Johnny Depp’s ex-wife, Amber Heard.

-Tesla, Inc. is an American car company founded in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Elon Musk is the face of the company as its current CEO. Fun fact about the logo: Elon Musk said it is intended to represent the cross-section of an electric motor!

-This is the Tesla Roadster, the first Tesla car. It used an Alternating Current (AC) induction motor so they named the company and the car after Nikola Tesla since the car’s motor is descended from Tesla’s original design.

-This is the extremely popular Model S. It also runs on an AC induction motor. It is the new status symbol of wealthy people who care about the environment and also want to drive a cool car. I want one, too. Elon, if you feel like sending me a Model S, I will gladly take it off your hands! Any color, my friend!

tl;dr Nikola Tesla was an inventor who invented the AC motor. The founders of Tesla named the car and the company after him because they use an AC induction motor in their cars that is modeled after Nikola Tesla’s invention patented in 1882.

Next week, I’m going to talk about lightning!

 

A Photographic Trip of Colorado Springs, Circa 1899

Most people know about the Tesla car, but not about Tesla, the man. I was first introduced to Nikola Tesla, the inventor, back in 2006, while watching the Christopher Nolan film, The Prestige. Though the Tesla character played by David Bowie was only a small part in a film dominated by Christopher Bale and Hugh Jackman’s rival magicians, I was nonetheless entranced by this character. Jackman’s character goes to Colorado Springs, seeking Tesla’s help to best Bale.

The Prestige became one of my favorite movies and I watched it over and over in the years that followed. I moved to San Diego in 2008 to attend the University of California at San Diego. I studied Literature-Writing and in 2012, became part of the departmental honors program. My interest being in fiction, I decided to write a story for my thesis. I had always considered myself a novel writer and so, I needed a new project. Something I hoped would stay at a manageable short story length as I only about four month to get the research, writing, and perfecting all done for the defense.

There were a few items I considered researching for my story: among these were The Tunguska Event in Russia and Tesla’s research in Colorado Springs. Conspiracy theorists have long linked the Tunguska Event to Tesla and so it seemed, that I had my subject.

As I began my research, it became clear to me that Tesla was incredibly enigmatic. Few books have been written about him, few papers from Colorado in 1899 even mention him. We know roughly Tesla’s trajectory that he followed while he was in Colorado Springs. Arrived by train on May 17th, 1899, stayed at the Alta Vista Hotel while his lab was being constructed, moved to the lab, ran experiments on lightning for roughly eighteen months, then left. The lab was dismantled and the pieces sold to pay Tesla’s debts. Little record of anything else.

I finished my short story about Tesla in time to graduated from UCSD. By the time I went for my thesis defense, my committee and I had both realized that my story had grown quite beyond my original intentions. It had all the potential to become a novel.

Two more years passed before I did anything with my Tesla story. I was burnt out from the breakneck speed of the research and writing and was quite burnt out with my story. I switched to writing another book in the intervening years. Until finally, it was time to return to Tesla.

I finished the first draft and during that time, it was suggested to me that I go to Colorado Springs and look at it for myself. I agreed that I needed to go, that my descriptions were lacking a certain authenticity. Though I rarely traveled back to Colorado these days. And when I did, most of my time was filled was family and friend visits.

Finally, an opportunity presented itself on December 22nd, 2014, while I was home visiting my parents. I packed my camera and made a list of all the sites I wanted to visit, some directly part of the book, others more serving as influence.

Here is the collection of photographs I took. I hope you enjoy this mini-tour of Colorado Springs, circa 1899!

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On the way in to Colorado Springs

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The old train station in Colorado Springs, since fallen into disuse. Tesla arrived here on May 17th, 1899.

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An old steam engine on display across the street from the train station, in Antlers Park.

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The site where the Alta Vista Hotel once stood. Tesla stayed there while his lab was being built. He stayed in room 207 or 222, depending upon whom you ask. As the story goes, he selected his room because the number was divisible by 3, a prime number.

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St Mary’s Cathedral, dedicated in 1898. Renovations were done over the years, but the original structure still stands, behind where the Alta Vista Hotel was. No evidence that Tesla ever went here, but it was close to his hotel and more importantly, shows the architectural styles of the time.

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Beautiful old houses near downtown Colorado Springs. No ages on them except for the last one, which was built at the turn of the century.

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Colorado Springs Day Nursery, established 1897 and still functioning today

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Lowell Elementary School, operating at the turn of the century and still serving as a school today.

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Colorado Springs School for the Deaf and Blind, operating since 1874. I don’t think any of these building are original to Tesla’s time in 1899. The main, red brick building was rebuilt in the early twentieth century. What we know about the location of Tesla’s lab is in relation to this school. It was a mile beyond the site of the deaf and blind school.

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Google dropped their pin for Tesla’s lab location right where this house is. As it was a fairly large structure, we can assume that it took up the majority, if not more, of this block of homes on Kiowa and Foote. Tesla stayed in Colorado Springs for just eighteen months. The lab was later dismantled and sold off to pay his debts.

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There’s a marker dedicated to Tesla across the street from where the lab was, in this park. This park is actually dedicated to firefights who have lost their lives in service to others. It is a little bit ironic as Tesla’s experiments at his lab once started a grass fire.

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The majestic Pike’s Peak.

 

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1) Colorado Springs Depot 2) Location of the old houses 3) Lowell Elementary School 4) Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind 5) Approximate location of Tesla’s lab 6) St. Mary’s Cathedral 7) Additional Churches Photographed (see Facebook) 8) Approximate location of the Alta Vista Hotel 9) Older buildings in the vicinity of downtown

 

For more photos from my trip, please visit my author Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/shannonfoxauthor