2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Wagon Man’s treatment evidence of Aspenization of Manitou Springs

Published: April 9, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin

Lou Smith hugs her pet, Homer the duck, in a July 15, 2002 Gazette file photo.

The late Lou Smith hugs her pet, Homer the duck, in a July 15, 2002 Gazette file photo. Smith and Homer lived in Manitou Springs. Smith was charged by the city with keeping a noisy duck. After she won at trial, Smith and Homer became local celebrities and even had a festival named in the duck’s honor.

In December, I asked if Manitou — the mountainside tourist hamlet that embraced Homer the Duck, Emma Crawford and her runaway coffin, bizarre fruitcake-tossing contests and other quirky festivals and individuals — had grown too corporate, too Aspenized, for a man and his wagons.

Specifically, Phillip Cargile, 56, his three wagons and stuffed cartoon dolls.
Otherwise known as the Wagon Man.

Phillip Cargile, Wagon Man, on Feb. 18, 2014. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Phillip Cargile, Wagon Man, on Feb. 18, 2014. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

For the past two years or so, Cargile pulled his wagon train in a random daily trek around the region spreading a message of “BE POSITIVE” that was printed on a sign that hung around his neck. A sign on his back declared: “Where there is no vision, the people will perish.”

Sunshine, rain or snow . . . it didn’t matter. Wagon Man was on the job in his trademark patchwork overalls and cowboy hat with his left hand on his wagon handle and his right hand stretched to the heavens, symbolically lifting up all who saw him.

Many days he was accompanied on his wife, Cheryl, or the Wagon Lady, who typically wore her own sign: “A Happy Heart Is Like Medicine” and straw hat.

Often I saw him trudging down West Colorado Avenue or on U.S. Highway 24, a large U.S. flag flapping behind him. Passing motorists honked, waved and yelled “Wagon Man” as he went by.

He seemed harmless enough, spending his days fulfilling his calling.

Phillip Cargile, 56, is known as the Wagon Man because he walks the roads and highways of the Pikes Peak region "lifting people up." He's seen on Feb. 18, 2014, outside Manitou Springs City Hall where he was on trial for four tickets for being a pedestrian illegally in the street. He faced fines exceeding $400 if convicted. But Judge J. Martin Thrasher said the law did not require pedestrians to use sidewalks and found Cargile not guilty. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Phillip Cargile, 56, is known as the Wagon Man because he walks the roads and highways of the Pikes Peak region “lifting people up.” He’s seen on Feb. 18, 2014, outside Manitou Springs City Hall where he was on trial for four tickets for being a pedestrian illegally in the street. He faced fines exceeding $400 if convicted. But Judge J. Martin Thrasher said the law did not require pedestrians to use sidewalks and found Cargile not guilty. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

I stopped and talked to him last May. I found him friendly, quirky and interesting.

I asked where he was going and why he was pulling three wagons, one holding a portable radio, the second filled with shirts printed with his photo, which he sells, and the third holding a large, homemade cartoon doll and a flag.

He responded with questions.

“Are you a Christian?” he said, pointing to a large tree and explaining how religious denominations are like the branches all tracing back to a single root: God.

“Why do I walk?” Wagon Man said. “I walk for you.”

I learned he and Cheryl were from Panama City Beach, Fla. He said he walked to Aurora after the theater massacre then walked to Colorado Springs following the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012. He and the Wagon Lady fell in love with the area and decided to stay.

Cheryl, who works as a substitute school teacher, soon found work as a caretaker for an elderly woman whose daughter owns a salon on Colorado Springs’ west side. Wagon Man did odd jobs for the woman.

They rented a cabin in Manitou Springs and seemed to settle in.

Phillip Cargile, the Wagon Man, stands along West Colorado Avenue on May 28, 2013.

Phillip Cargile, the Wagon Man, stands along West Colorado Avenue on May 28, 2013.

Until winter rolled around and Wagon Man was seen pulling his wagons down the middle of Manitou Avenue in a snowstorm.

Manitou Springs Police Chief Joe Ribeiro didn’t like seeing Wagon Man in traffic and feared he might cause a wreck. He ordered him to pull his wagons on the sidewalks.

After several warnings, Ribeiro started writing Cargile tickets for being a pedestrian illegally in the street, first on Dec. 8, again on Dec. 9 and a third on Dec. 24.

There would be a fourth ticket before the case reached court Feb. 18. Each ticket cited him for being a pedestrian illegally in the roadway and carried a possible $100 fine.

After a strange 90-minute trial in which an emotional Cargile argued he was vehicle because his shoes had small wheels in the heels, Manitou Springs Municipal Court Judge J. Martin Thrasher ruled the law pertaining to pedestrians in the street was too vague and he could not convict Cargile.

But he warned him to stay on the sidewalks. And after the trial Ribeiro told Cargile the City Council had enacted a new ordinance — I call it the Wagon Man Law — to require pedestrians to use sidewalks where they exist. (That doesn’t sound very funky to me! Maybe Manitou has gone corporate after all.)

I spoke to Wagon Man after the trial and he was both defiant and confused. He vowed he’d continue to walk in the streets even as his wife pleaded with him to use the sidewalks until she could arrange for them to return to Florida.

I watched as he gathered his wagons and pulled them away from the Manitou Springs City Hall, where trial was held. He stopped by Fountain Creek and stared into the water. I wondered if I’d ever see him again.

Now, I doubt it, unless I ever visit the panhandle of Florida.

Cheryl "the Wagon Lady" Cargile is seen in an undated photo in Manitou Springs with her red wagon as well as the three wagons pulled each day by her husband, Phillip Cargile, the Wagon Man.

Cheryl “the Wagon Lady” Cargile is seen in an undated photo in Manitou Springs with her red wagon as well as the three wagons pulled each day by her husband, Phillip Cargile, the Wagon Man.

On March 10, just three weeks after the trial, Phillip and Cheryl rented a car and drove back to Panama City Beach. We are Facebook friends and I’d seen a post announcing their return and the celebration of their friends in that tourist town.

“It’s gorgeous here,” Cheryl said Monday when I reached her by phone. “Wagon Man is out walking in a storm. But it’s a rainstorm instead of a snowstorm. It’s 70 degrees here.”
While Wagon Man is busy walking his wagons, Cheryl said she plans to return to substitute teaching to support the couple.

Wagon Man Phillip Cargile leaves the Manitou Springs City Hall in February 2014 after charges of being an illegal pedestrian in the street were dismissed. Despite winning his case, he recently left Manitou to return to Panama City Beach, Fla. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Wagon Man Phillip Cargile leaves the Manitou Springs City Hall in February 2014 after charges of being an illegal pedestrian in the street were dismissed. Despite winning his case, he recently left Manitou to return to Panama City Beach, Fla. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

And she downplayed my suggestion they’d been run out of the Pikes Peak region by Manitou police, who even confronted Wagon Man at the Carnivale parade, prompting parade-goers to step in and walk with him.

“I was ready to come home,” Cheryl said. “I’m a warm-weather person. I was turning into a Wagon Lady popsicle. And we were both a little homesick.”

She insisted they have nothing but love for the people they left behind here.

“We fell in love with that community,” she said. “Everybody there was just precious sweet. We started out truly homeless and we ended up in a beautiful cabin in the woods with so many friends. We were so blessed.”

While she declined to criticize police in Manitou, Cheryl said it was nice to be welcomed home by Panama City Police who, she said, were glad to see Wagon Man out on the streets again with his wagon train.

Police there have stopped him. But with a big difference.

“They stop him and give him water because they’re afraid he’s going to get dehydrated,” she said with a laugh.

I chuckled, too. Until I thought about the bigger picture.

I could understand if a unique character like Wagon Man caught flak in Colorado Springs. We’re a big city anymore. But I kind of hoped Wagon Man had found a home in Manitou.

Maybe I’ll start calling it Aspen Springs.

 

Aspen, Colo. Courtesy gentryconnects.com

Aspen, Colo. Courtesy gentryconnects.com