*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on August 6, 2017. It can also be found online here.
America is an angry place these days. Politics burn hot on both ends; cable news stokes the fire. Families choose sides, dividing the closest bonds. Arguments abound, and at times, that spirit of animosity can just be too much.
Which is what makes Manitou Springs so different, so distinct – so weird. While most think it’s the pot or the art, or maybe even that residents call each other “Manitoids” – what really sets Manitou apart is an uncommon neighborliness, connectedness, and kindness.
Our family is attached to the Army, so we’re modern nomads. We’ve moved nine times in the eight years since my wife and I married and have resided in places as small as a town in central Pennsylvania and distant as Wellington, New Zealand. We’ve experienced a lot of diverse communities.
Nowhere comes close to Manitou, where we arrived eight months ago. It started the moment we moved in. Our car got stuck on an icy hill, and our cross-street neighbor came over and dug, salted, and pushed us out.
Within a week we were at a block party, struggling to remember names attached to smiling faces. Our kids have adopted a regular begging schedule: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays they ask for the kids in the house to the left; Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays they request the kids in the house to the right; Sundays they demand both. Chaos ensues.
Good neighbors are friends created by geographical accident. We didn’t know any of ours before, but now they help us with home repairs; lend us tools and even a little advice. It goes beyond over-the-fence chatter. They were the first to hear the ambulance sirens when our daughter’s recent seizure struck; at least a couple of them asked what they could do to help even as we were leaving for the hospital (apparently, neighbors are the one element, naturally occurring in nature, known to be faster than Facebook). And I’ve seen my wife genuinely sparkle when praising them to our family over the phone. We’ve never had these relationships grow so fast, so much, so good. And we are grateful.
We also walk everywhere through Manitou’s small streets, which binds us to buildings and connects us to crannies in a special way. There’s a nearby retaining wall that carries the enormous block letters, “W.P.A.” (for Works Progress Administration, the government agency that built infrastructure in the 1930s and helped a lot of Americans through the Great Depression).
Memorial Park is dominated by a World War I-era soldier statue, representing Eber Duclo, the town’s first resident to die in France in 1918.
Back even farther, our home was built in 1899, while Queen Victoria, our daughter’s middle namesake, was still on the British throne. Manitou has seen a lot of life – the worst and best of times. Feeling even the most tenuous connection with the ghosts of Manitoids past instills confidence; floods and fires don’t seem so frightening. Manitou still stands.
Our rituals regularly bring us into contact with kindness. The town librarians that overlook our daughter’s weekly game of “chase and scream” in the otherwise quiet reading room. At the post office: holding up the line due to our crying kid, and being met with grins and offers for assistance. The city folk and other parents we encounter on the playground that are so quick to say “thank you for your service” when I haven’t had time to change out of my military uniform after work. These small acts accumulate; the kindness grows to something as refreshing as the local spring water on a hot day.
Manitou is a gathering place, a collection of different titles and labels. We’ve encountered them all: beekeeper, doctor, physicist, writer, pilot, father, fireman, artist, lawyer, Realtor, mother, minister, musician. And now, us: active Army officer and retired ballet dancer. Everyone comes from somewhere else, with unique gifts, but all now (weirdly) call themselves “Manitoids.” It would be hard to find a better, more American example of the motto on all our coined money: E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”). To wit: Out of Many, Manitou.
One last label: I’ve heard Manitou described as a “hippie Mayberry,” and that seems about right. My neighbors might disagree, but wouldn’t do it in a disagreeable way; they’d do it with a warmth and genuine kindness that seems in such short supply these days.
And then we’d all agree on at least one thing – this place is a refuge from the angry cloud that’s set in over America – so we’ve got to keep Manitou weird.
Major ML Cavanaugh is an Army strategist and Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and can be reached on Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.