Three Adventures in a Day – Part 2

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Ruins hold the fascination of the ages for me. I long to visit the Old World just because it is so very old, and it is with great age that those splendid, crumbling, lost cities come, heavy with grandeur even yet. My world holds fewer ruins and most of them are far less grand. The ruins in the Colorado highlands are almost always crude; relics of the mining rush that came and went. Even if you did happen to be rich, it was not easy to create much elegance high in the mountains so long ago. I find their crudeness less surprising than their existence, but there must be thousands of abandoned mines in these mountains. You can see them almost everywhere you go. Some of them were obviously enormous operations but many look like little more than deep, dark holes. Nearly all of them have been sealed, though occasionally you stumble across one which you can enter. Usually it is not advised, nor, probably, legal. But I have been inside one, though I didn’t go very far in. There was lots of snow on the ground inside and a river ran through it, under the snow in places. It grew very dark quickly and I didn’t fancy my chances of falling through the snow into an underground river.

 

Today we don’t find any unsealed mines to enter. Instead we explore the houses in which the miners lived and inspect the ruins of the mines and mills they worked. A hundred years has lent beauty to their starkness, as well as the sadness of the abandoned. In one house we find an ancient iron cookstove and a rusted iron mattress but the rest are almost entirely empty. Most of the people who lived here moved away when the mines closed and I suppose they took their things with them. I look at their houses of wood with the sharp corners and small dusty rooms, and I wonder who they were. What made them come here, over eleven thousand feet above sea level, twelve rough mountain miles from the closest town? I know, generally, what brought the miners to the mines. But for every family the decision must have been a little different, just as the houses they built are all different. Where did they come from? Did they want to be here? Did they leave as soon as the mine began to decline, or did they stay as long as they could? Where did they go? Where are they buried? There is no cemetery near this little ghost town, and I wonder why not. But there was never any church either, according to the records. Perhaps they did their marrying and burying in Silverton, twelve miles away.

20160627_160236The first cabin here was built in 1873 but the place was already called a ghost town by the 1920s. Fifty years, not even a lifespan. It seems sad, but it also gives this town a beauty of things lost that is denied the nearby Silverton, which was born at the same time but has not died.

Once there were over thirty buildings here, as well as some tents. Today there are nine buildings still standing and taken care of. We walk through them, admiring their endurance and individuality. There is one larger house with an upstairs and a big bay window, and I wonder if these people were counted wealthy. Another house has an enormous stone fireplace. Still another has faded newspapers from the year 1907, found in the back room and now put in a frame on the wall. There is just a small amount left of what was once quite a large mine; the rest is all in splinters. There is a jail, with bars on the single window, an enormous door, and two small dark cells, the walls of which are double-boarded. The husband locks me inside this building, just in case I don’t appreciate what those men had to deal with.

These buildings are all in one town, and then there are other mines and mills scattered about the surrounding mountains. This makes sense to me, but somehow the little cabins out in the middle of nowhere do not. It seems that so long ago in such a wild place, why would you choose to live far away from everyone else? But maybe they had no choice…maybe there once were cabins closer…maybe they just didn’t like people.

I touch these old walls and I wonder. A hundred years from now, will there be abandoned towns from my days? The idea seems strange to me. Ghost towns have a glamour of nostalgia that I cannot see in today’s towns, so industrial and cold and modern most of them feel. But this is only because it is my present. Possibly the miners and their families didn’t see much romance in their high mountain towns either.

I call it an adventure because it feels like one to me, even though there is no fear in most of it. Only where the floorboards have fallen into holes and disrepair can I find a hint of danger, and even those do not break my legs today. But there is a beauty and a sadness here that satisfies something in my soul. These dusty walls are steeped in story.

Close to one building I find an old verse, composed by a man named Steve Earle. His words haunt me for the rest of the day and I love them for that.

There’s a hole in this mountain and it’s dark and it’s deep

And God only knows all the secrets it keeps

There’s a chill in the air only miners can feel

And there’s ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed.

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Three Adventures in a Day – Part 1

20160627_152632To begin, riding on a 4-wheeler driven by the husband is an adventure in itself.

So there’s this one person who is from Arkansas and who is not in the habit of driving a 4-wheeler up and down rough, rocky, and often steep mountain trails (with, it must be said, never a guardrail. Once we reach that kind of elevation we don’t see any point in them). Then there is this other person who is from Colorado and who has on occasion done this thing; who has, in fact, once driven down ‘the deadliest pass in Colorado’ in the pouring rain with a small sister clinging to her waist and shrieking “OH JENNY OH JENNY OH JENNY SLOW DOWN OH JENNY WE’RE GOING TO DIE OH JENNY OH JENNY” with suitable variations. (Luckily I had no idea at the time that it was supposed to be such a deadly place, or I might really have died.)

Now which of these two people, do you suppose, has the least caution about driving around in these wild places? I’ll give you a hint: IT’S HIM.

He hasn’t the faintest clue how to be afraid of risky trails. “What’s the point in being alive if you never take the dangerous route?” he shouts merrily as he careens up smooth, steep boulders embedded in the road and then swerves so close to the edge that for a second I’m sure there’s not an inch of earth between our tire and the sheer drop-off. And we keep going.

There happens to be a snowdrift over our uphill trail, and the mountain beside it is too steep for even the husband to suppose he can climb it with a 4-wheeler. Daddy says okay, we’ll just have to take the other trail, but do the younger and less sensible males in the group want to try going over the snow first? Why, yes, they do! The husband tries first, after making a cheerful remark about dropping through and getting stuck. It’s steep and we spin out quickly. Next the brother tries, getting only a little farther before succumbing to the same fate. But now it’s a challenge, and we must not let a bank of snow beat us! So we try again and again, backing up farther and farther so we can be going faster and faster before we hit the snow. I imagine this could end by killing us, but we actually do reach the top of it eventually, with triumph and without death. And we keep going.

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When there is a lot of snow over our trail heading steeply down, the men suppose sliding to our doom that way might take a little of the fun out of the day. Daddy simply turns around and takes another longer trail, but the husband and the brother think they can find a more exciting solution: we will cruise straight down the mountainside. This doesn’t seem to be any kind of wise to me; these mountains are inclined to have sudden drop-offs and I don’t prefer to spend the rest of my life in a long drop and a short stop. But with amusement at my fear, the husband roars down. Near the bottom of the slope he does safely steer us onto the trail again, though I am sure at the steepest part we could not have stopped to save our lives. And we keep going.

Puddles, in case you were wondering, were meant to be driven through with speed and glee. Some of them are muddy and I get splattered all the way up to my hair, but some are clear and in the brilliant sun the sparkling drops feel nice on my skin. “These are sometimes unexpectedly deep,” I remark to the husband as he steers towards a particularly large mud puddle. This is how Mom was once dumped into the mud. “But this one isn’t!” he says merrily once we’ve sailed through it. He’s not wrong, so I don’t disagree. And we keep going.

We drive up (and down) two passes that are both nearly 13,000 feet. I love those high passes, where you’re above tree-line and the wind always blows cold and thin so that it hurts to breathe and there is a snow-dotted highland world spread all around you. This early in the year the trails going up to the passes still have snow higher than our heads on either side. But he drives up quite reasonably and the roads themselves are mostly dry. On the way down I do get a little nervous on the occasions when he lets the 4-wheeler fly faster and faster and I can just suppose we will smash into the snow wall at the next sharp corner and never be seen or heard of again. But he always slows down before that actually happens. And we keep going.

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If there’s one reason I like him, it’s because he loves winter.

When at the end of the trail I have no injuries more serious than the aches and stiffness that I have come to accept as part of bouncing about on a 4-wheeler all day, I have to admit he’s really not a bad driver. Yes, he scares me, but apparently he’s intelligent enough to only take the risks he can handle. And is an adventure really an adventure if there’s no danger in it?

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That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. Have you ever had an adventure without there being some element of danger in it? Tell me!