You can’t miss the massive peak that looms over the tiny town of Crestone on the edge of the San Luis Valley. But what should you call it? Some townsfolk are trying to correct what they call a century-old mistake.
Read the name change petition submitted to the Board on Geographic Names
(scroll down to the section for Colorado)
On maps the 14'er just outside Crestone is labelled Kit Carson Mountain. But when you ask people here what name they use, you get a different answer.
MICHALAK: "I always call it Crestone Peak, but I know it’s wrong."
Deborah Michalak may be wrong now, but some of her neighbors are fighting to win official recognition for that local name.
MENECHINO: "We’re trying to end the confusion and get the mountain’s name was originally."
Meet Keno Menechino: local weatherman, reporter for the Crestone Eagle, and a driving force behind the push to officially rename Kit Carson Mountain as Mount Crestone. A few years back Menechino wrote an article about this case of massive mistaken identity. It turns out the founders of Crestone thought they were putting down roots at the base of Crestone Peak. According to their map, Kit Carson Peak was further down the mountain range. Alas, their map was out of date.
MENECHINO: "What had happened, sometime, I think it was 1875, maybe 1877, when the newest government maps came out, they reversed the names of the mountains. And, you know, you’re talking about the 1800s, news travels slowly and no one noticed the mistake."
Not until the 1940s, anyway, when a new teacher tried to tell the kids the mountain was called Kit Carson. Locals were up in arms, and have been to some degree ever since. But Menechino appears to be the first person to take the case to the federal government.
YOST: "I’m Lou Yost, I’m the executive secretary for domestic names on the U-S Board on Geographic Names."
If you ever get the hankering to name, or rename a geologic landmark, Lou Yost’s office is the one you call. They hear from hundreds of people like Menechino every year.
YOST: "When we get a proposal to change a place name, we do some research on existing maps we have here. And these days we use the internet to see what we can find. And we also want to get the input from local communities."
Advocates for the name change have a couple of pluses in that column. Crestone’s town council is enthusiastic for the new name, and a majority of Saguache county’s commissioners are also on board. The Saguache county sheriff, who heads the local search and rescue operations, isn't crazy for the idea. But he says GPS and cell phones have made the exact names of peaks less crucial in emergencies.
The renaming does face a couple of big hurdles, though. Colorado’s own board on geologic names is against it and so are the Forest Service and the Colorado Mountain Club. They’re worried about confusion between old and new maps of the mountain. Yost says that sets up an interesting case here.
YOST: "The board prefers to go with local use and acceptance, and in this case it seems to be split between the people who live in the town and see the feature every day and the hiking community who’ve, a lot of them, been on the feature."
PAUL: "Summitting Kit Carson and of course, getting back down safely, is quite an accomplishment, so those of us who have done it are pretty proud of that."
That’s Susan Paul of Colorado Springs. She’s helped organize climber opposition to the name change.
PAUL: "Words still mean something to some people and memories mean something to me. It seems wrong that my memories and the memories of many many people who’ve summitted that peak are really being overlooked and ignored."
For Menechino, though, it’s the climbers who are ignoring his town’s relationship to the mountain. Sitting in a small tower that rises from the second story of his house, Menechino has a clear view of the contested peak.
MENECHINO: "As you can see, it just looms over us, it effects our weather, it effects everything. We take care of it. and so that’s why we say, 'it’s our mountain.' We don’t mean to say it’s not everyone else’s mountain too. But it is our mountain and I think locals should have a say."
But Menechino and his allies haven’t exactly whipped the locals into a frenzy about this issue, even after writing about it in the paper for several years. Take Crestonians Kim Martinez and Katherine Michalak.
MARTINEZ: "I hate the fact that it’s called Kit Carson. But you said, Crestone...?” VERLEE: “There’s an effort to get it officially renamed that.” MARTINEZ: "Right on! I would sign that petition."
MICHALAK: "I would be fine with changing the name, but it’s not a huge issue for me either way."
Many here don’t seem to care too much what their mountain is named on a map. High school students Zienia Stewart and Matthew Grey grew up calling the mountain Crestone Peak. They took a break from pottery class to weigh in on the confusion.
GREY: "No matter what you rename it, it’s still going to be called Crestone Mountain." STEWART: "People are still going to call it that."
That may have to be the consolation prize for Keno Menechino. With so many groups opposed, his crusade to make the mountain’s local name official faces an uphill battle.
Whether the mountain stays Kit Carson or ends up Mount Crestone, the suspense is almost over; the Board on Geographic names is expected release its decision in January.