In Pursuit of the Kitsch

In a town known for mineral springs and marijuana dispensaries, lines of cars on the winding main road stop to let families cross the street. An old man in a leather cowboy hat plays guitar on the sidewalk while passing pedestrians throw crumpled bills on top of the dog curled up in his instrument case.

Illustration by Cate Johnson

“Supposedly there’s a vortex of energy here in Manitou,” a shopkeeper says. “It just feels different.”

It’s true. Although no vortex of energy is immediately evident, it’s undeniable that Manitou Springs, a high-altitude Colorado town located beneath America’s Mountain and barely large enough to have its own high school, is nothing like the sprawling city of Colorado Springs, located only six miles east along Highway 24. Unlike Colorado Springs, Manitou appears to be a refuge for the aging hippy generation. Established in the late 1800s as a premier health destination, Manitou experienced a decline in the tourist trade in the mid-1900s as a result of the Depression and World War II. With the designation of a National Historic District in 1980, however, the town refocused its efforts on preserving the 19th century look of the town and began attracting a vibrant art scene and revitalized tourist trade. With a focus on historical preservation and no room for residential expansion on the surrounding red rock hills, it’s easy to imagine that few things, besides the recent addition of parking meters, have changed much in the last half century.

Today, Manitou Springs is a riot of color and disorder: buildings with a variety of architectural styles jumbled together along a few hilly streets, multi-story murals of Native Americans painted on brick walls, and signs designed to capture tourists’ attention at every turn in the streets. And among the weird, the artsy, and the frankly puzzling, there are also trading posts, curiosity shops, and import stores all claiming to contain the true spirit of the Southwest.

One of the most noticeable is Marshall’s Curiosity Shop, located just west of the Ruxton roundabout. The proprietor, an older man with a tie-dye shirt and long hair held back by a headband, is working outside, hauling metal chicken sculptures from their roadside display to the back of the shop. He nods to the store’s entryway. “You ain’t seen nothing until you go inside,” he said.

I approach the entryway with a certain degree of trepidation. A sign warns “Uneven floors: please watch your step,” and Spanish music plays over loudspeakers. The inside is an assault on the senses; the air reeks of air freshener, while the rooms are crammed with every sort of colorful borderland paraphernalia imaginable: Navajo blankets, Zapotec ponchos, Ecuadorian table runners, tin mirrors, pottery skulls, ceramic chiles, life-sized tissue-paper people. “Blankets Sale!” handwritten signs shout. “40 percent off mini rugs and placemats!”

Down the street a bright blue building called “La Tienda” advertises the same sort of gimmicks as Marshall’s, but with a lighter touch. Gentle music plays in the back, and the proprietor, an older woman with long blonde-gray hair, is smoking a cigarette outside when I enter. “That’s Manitou for you,” she says when I comment on the friendliness of everyone I have encountered, and she herself is no exception.

The narrow room is timeless; it could have been there for the past 10 years or the past 100. Aging gumball machines line the narrow entryway, and sunken flagstones tile the floor. As expected, the walls are hung in brightly patterned woven blankets. “I fill the shop with things I find beautiful,” Donna Chambers, the proprietor, says, adding with a wry laugh, “and what I think might sell.” Blankets, apparently, sell well, as do shirts and jewelry. “Rocks sell, believe it or not.”

The shop’s counters are strewn with these and other knicknacks: Zuni jewelry, imitation claws “cast from actual bear claws,” and stone ravens. It’s mostly tourists who come in here, Chambers told me, but sometimes people from Colorado Springs or Manitou. “What is the essence of Manitou?” she ponders when I ask. “It’s all different.”

In truth, Manitou is about as kitsch as you can get. Art galleries, restaurants, and import stores all market their claim to the “real” Southwest. Navajo blankets, both imitation and real, are ubiquitous. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the town has a certain charm. It’s a preserved monument to the 1980s and to the generations of health cure seekers who marketed it as an engaging Western getaway. It’s a recreation of the Southwest that, in its hodgepodge of cultures actual and appropriated, is an engagingly weird demonstration of the smalltown tourist experience.

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