*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on November 22, 2018. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
This week is for giving thanks, and sometimes those things we’re most thankful for are in the unlikeliest places. For me, right now, it’s a billboard.
But not just any billboard. This one happened to lead me to a woman who seems to have found the formula for happiness and longevity.
But first, let me back up a bit. I’ve been noticing witty road signs while scooting around town. For example, on the west side’s 8th Street, a few months ago, I looked up to see Bruno’s Party Rental was “now offering gluten free tents.” Or, in Old Colorado City, Old Town Propane’s enormous sign, sitting on the ground, recently announced to oncoming passers-by: “Slow down. The cop hides behind this sign.”
The authorities appear to be catching on. A Federal Highway Administration study found that a clever road safety sign (“Get your head out of your apps”) is much more effective than traditional propaganda (“Click it or ticket”). Sometimes funny saves lives.
Yet, to me, the reigning queen of sign-makers is Sandra Campbell. (Or, as I call her, the Poet of Truth at the Fountain of Youth.) About once a week, for the past four years, she climbs a small lump of land in front of the Manitou Springs Aquatics & Fitness Center, and manually “uploads” a new message to the sign. And since it sits at the critical road juncture (where Highway 24 meets Manitou Ave.) that brings most people to Manitou, including hikers, Incliners, and out-of-towners numbering in the millions—Sandra’s welcoming words are often Manitou’s first impression on visitors.
She has limited space: five lines, 20 words maximum, no punctuation. The discipline that results is a mixture of roadside poetry, Twitter-a-terre, and sign-based sloganeering.
Sandra still remembers looking up at their previously blah-blah billboard and thinking, based on her experience in advertising: “I can do better.” She realized that if they could get people into the habit of looking up at the sign to read something interesting, then maybe people would also check it out for more substantive, pool-related messages.
It worked. I’m hooked. Count me as one of her leering fans, rubbernecking every time I turn onto Highway 24. She likes quotes: “A day without sunshine is like night” (Steve Martin). Or super short jokes: “Bike in town keeps running me over. Its a vicious cycle.” And the oracle in her can even sense when I need a gentle nudge to keep my eyes on the road: “Don’t read this sign while driving.”
At the holidays, she sticks to general themes and emphasizes emotional tones. For example, one of her favorites is simply: “Silent Night.” It may have been last year, but I remember running early in the morning past the sign, and I wish I could express in words the feeling I had, the spark of joy, in running along a dark and snowy road, looking up through the whirling snowflakes, and seeing that gentle reminder of the season. “Silent Night.” It was, for a moment, perfect.
Sandra’s public words prompt us to heed the old advice to make your life itself into art. Her voice, over the phone, reveals even more: She exudes joy. Sandra “loves the pool” and its “amazing community of people.” She’s happy.
Beyond billboard haiku, you might ask—just what is her actual job at the pool? She teaches water aerobics and swimming, and after working for years in business, fitness is clearly her passion. And the results speak for themselves in her age-defying colleagues and clients. The woman she took over from as head water aerobics instructor taught the class from age 63 to age 91. You read that right. 91. One of her students, formerly an artist in Manitou, took water aerobics until nearly right up until she passed away recently at age 106.
Maybe it’s the wit. Maybe it’s the water. Maybe it’s her desire to share gratitude with others. I can’t say. All I know is I’m thankful she does it.
But something sure keeps Sandra Campbell going. I suspect she knows what the secret is, and only lets the rest of us in on it through occasional billboard hints, which we’d all do well to pay attention to, like when she posted,