Three Adventures in a Day – Part 3

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The mine ruins from a distance.

As I sit on the 4-wheeler and watch my husband and my brother disappearing up the sheer rock wall, it occurs to me that I have two options: I can sit here and wait for them to come back and probably get quite bored, or I can go after them. Of course it is possible that I might break my neck rock-climbing, but let us be entertained or die.

This rocky cliff, though steep, does not look as impossible as cliffs are often inclined to do. It has many little ledges and as I climb I find them as useful as they appeared from below. About the time I’ve reached twice my height on this wall, it strikes me that there’s a reason you don’t normally see rock-climbers wearing floor-length skirts and that reason is not because they don’t think they’re pretty. It’s a bit disconcerting when you try to straighten up and discover you can’t because the hem of your dress is wedged firmly beneath the only foot that has found a safe place to stand on. I will just go carefully and it will probably be all right, I decide with the cheery optimism that has likely been the herald of many tragic and foolish accidents.

But when the little sister starts to follow my upward climb I do feel pangs of worry. True, she is probably more suited to rock-climbing than I am; she is as tall as me and far more wiry, and her dress is slightly shorter. But she is my little sister for all that, and if she gets scared and stuck my own lack of confidence will make me sad help for her.

Somewhere in the back of my mind is an uncomfortable fact: what goes up must come down. I don’t fancy backing down that rock wall. So, like any sensible little lady would do, I keep on climbing and making the return journey even longer.

After a bit we come to a bench of sorts. It’s still too steep to stop comfortably but at least  there are trees and plants growing here. They are helpful to grab onto except when they turn out to resent being treated so and jab thorns into your hands for revenge.

Here it is that I finally catch sight of the husband, which comforts me. He nicely pauses and suggests paths that might be easier for my feet to travel. The cliff has given way to dirt and loose rocks and though that might sound safer and easier, it isn’t at all. When your feet don’t necessarily stay where you put them, you might find yourself descending the mountain much faster than you’ve any desire to do.

The slope is stair-like enough that it always seems like the top is just a little farther on, but when you get there you find still another summit a little way ahead. This is the sort of mountain that tricks you into climbing much higher than you actually meant to. Eventually we do come to something you could call a top; we can’t keep going straight or we’ll plummet into the rocky gorge.

I hoped the view of the waterfall would be magnificent from here so that I would have a reasonable-sounding excuse for climbing so recklessly, but I am disappointed. We are too high above the water and the angle is wrong. From here it might just be a wild mountain stream. I take a picture anyway but I must confess the thing looks better from the bottom.20160627_170139

The brother has moved across the treacherous slope and says he’s going over to the mine ruins and he’ll climb down that way, believing it to be an easier path than descending the cliff. That sounds perfectly reasonable, so we try to follow.

Have you ever walked across the worn-down remains of a rockslide? I advise it. It really gets the blood moving when you find yourself sliding down towards certain doom with nothing to grab onto. The husband and the brother have their own method: they just keep walking. Sure, they slide down, but they started high enough and move across fast enough that they end up where they want to be anyway.

The sister and I don’t possess that kind of nerve just now. We creep and slip and slide, hanging onto bushes and plants until we run out of them. Then we find old iron rails wedged into the mountainside which we use to brace ourselves, though it is still a little nerve-wracking to lunge across the spaces between them. Bless those miners for not cleaning up after themselves.

When we reach the mine we don’t find it to be the simple salvation I hoped for. From a distance it looked like enormous concrete steps, but we’re not giants of the necessary size to use it as such. Each individual step is taller than any of us and we don’t dare jump down them because we’d likely end up trapped or with broken bones or both. Most of the layers are divided into concrete rooms; some of them don’t seem to have any exit, some of the floors are crumbling away into the level below, and some don’t have any floors at all.

So we decide to go down along the outside. By dint of hanging tightly onto the steel cables we find trailing about (again, bless the miners) and accepting that sliding is part of the journey, we manage to find paths that don’t kill us even if they do leave my hands black and burning.

It’s rather fun actually, I decide as we near the bottom, filthy and tired and aching. Of course about as soon as I decide that I slip, twist my ankle, and slide the rest of the way down. But it’s not far and I’m not hurt, just startled and extra dirty.

“This is an adventure,” I say to the husband, and he looks amused. Likely things do not seem so adventurous when you are big and brave and don’t feel like you are literally holding your life in your hands. There are advantages in being a small lady. And if nothing is going to show up and make me risk my life in trying to escape it, I shall just have to escape at random intervals for fun.

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.

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!

Brothers

It’s dark on the road we’re driving. The gospel music is so loud I can only hear pieces of their front-seat conversation, but I don’t mind. I’m not in the mood to talk and to listen well, and their conversation is scattered; sometimes their comments are serious, but more often they laugh. In the dashboard glow I can almost see their faces, different in almost every way. One is clean-shaven, the other bearded. One wears glasses, the other wears a hat. The size of their ears, the line of their noses, the shape of the skin over their cheekbones and foreheads- they are not alike. No one would suspect them to be born brothers.

They are not. They are the other kind of brothers, the kind that you choose and build and fight for. I knew them separately before they knew each other; I have watched their friendship grow and deepen, as much as you can watch such a thing without being part of it. I can see, in both of them, how much they have changed each other; sometimes I feel like I lost them both a little bit to the other. But I like to see them: the writer in me thrills to watch any relationship that matters, and there is something ancient and wonderful about brotherhood. Christ had brothers of this kind, eleven of them.

I admire this relationship, though I cannot fully understand it, and I am jealous of it. I have never been brothers with anyone, and knowing that it is good and it is needed isn’t enough to keep me from being small sometimes, because I am not really part of this story. I am in it, sometimes; they are generous in inviting me.  My biggest role came at the beginning. I do not say it would not be without me; I believe some relationships matter enough that God would not let another person’s choices prevent it. We come from tangled lives and there are many ways they might have met without me. But I like to think that I brought them together, even without meaning to. I like to feel that I matter in this story, no matter how small my role may be.

It is a story worth seeing. There is a strength and a depth and a roughness in brotherhood, outside of my ken. They laugh much together, but they do not cringe away from the subjects that matter. They are not afraid to disagree, or to agree. They see each other seldom and they have full lives apart, but it is not hard for them to share this day.

They are good men, both of them, and in this dark car I like watching them be that together.

Storm Moments

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These are moments

I wouldn’t trade for a world

Moments of coming home

A step ahead of the storm

Moments of running out to greet it

Moments of dancing

On mud

On grass

On raindrops

On wind

And he comes running too

And spins me through the wild dark of storm

And kisses me under the cold fall of sky

Not because he loves it like me

But because he loves me.