A Tall Turtle Tale In The Garden Of The Gods

*Note: This audio essay first aired on KRCC (Colorado Springs’ NPR affiliate, 91.5 FM) on July 8, 2021. The link to the program is here; the audio file and the text from the essay are below.

There’s a tall, tall turtle in the Garden of the Gods, and I’d like to tell you a story about it. 

But first, we should recognize that American tall tales—even ones about turtles—served a purpose. Exaggerated stories made the early pioneers feel a little better as they faced loneliness and new lands. If legends like John Henry, Paul Bunyan, or Davy Crockett’s fictional wife—Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind—could make it, so could the pioneers.

Which brings us to the Garden of the Gods. 

The rock formations there have always had nicknames tied to strange stories. Old brochuresreference a “Baked Potato,” “King Arthur on Horse,” and the area near Balanced Rock was once called “Mushroom Park.”

Over time, these all have changed. 

Which means we’re free to make up our own names and tales for those rocks.

Just west of Parking Lot 7, next to the Scotsman Trail, is an enormous, van-sized turtle with its head reclining.

Here’s how that Tall Turtle came to be, according to me:

The story goes that in 1820, Dr. Edwin James stumbled on a giant turtle, very old. Edwin had a habit of wandering off his expedition, like when he discovered the Rocky Mountain Columbine, Colorado’s state flower. 

The old turtle had much to say. The last of her bale (or group) of turtles, she told Edwin about the lake that was once there, that as the water ran out, the bottoms of their shells carved the sandstone into the Garden we see.   

The next day Edwin went off to climb Pikes Peak, and when he got back, the old turtle had turned to stone. The water was all gone. Edwin never forgot her or the beauty those tall turtles had shaped with their shells.

At least, that’s my own tall tale for how that Tall Turtle got there.

What’s yours?

Until our next mountainside chat—be good, be well, and no matter what, climb on.

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