10-Day Road Trip Through the Colorado Rockies
Axel Pinkow & Edward Tanguay -- August 1995
Written by Edward Tanguay
Monday, August 7, 1995
Monument to Cripple Creek
Axel and I drove out of the driveway at some indefinite time as neither of us were really caring too much about time on this trip. It was early afternoon. In the local Safeway we spent time trying to find garlic sauce and then went to the post office. One more stop at Chapel Hills to buy the last necessity, a ten-pack of socks, sent us on our way: up into the Colorado mountains for about ten days.
Speeding through Manitou Springs we motored along up the first mountain in the white Saab that Dave Pinkow had so kindly lent us for the trip. Dave is an American relative of Axels living in Boulder, a second cousin a couple times removed. In Woodland Park we stopped at the "Donut Factory" and looked at the hyper-crowded world map of pins representing where customers had originated. Five years ago I had been to the Donut Factory and the map still made sense: scattered pins were sticking out of hundreds of cities in the States, into cities such as Berlin, Paris, London and a few pins were in large cities in Japan and other places in the world. Today, five years later, as I looked at the map, I saw that the situation had changed. For the intensely crowded gob of pins everywhere on the world map, one could not even see land anywhere from Bordeaux, France to well into Russia, past the Ural mountains. Pins were sticking in the most unlikely places in the world where travellers had purportedly originated: Siberia, the Mongolia countryside, and the mountains of Tibet. I almost believed that these pins might have represented real travellers until I saw five of pins crowded around a point in the middle of Antarctica. I couldn't quite believe that a group of hearty, travel-happy penguins had made there way to Colorado Springs and had stopped in at the Donut Factory for a donut. Things change, I mused, as we moved toward that counter which was itself crowded with donuts. I bought my donut and cup of coffee, then found a table for the two of us and sat down at it. After Axel had bought his donut behind me and came to the table, he took a bite, then told me that the woman at the counter had asked him where he was from and then asked him if he was a Christian or not. I didn't know what to say to this other than that the Front Range of Colorado seems to be a hotbed for religious revivalism nowadays. I thought that lady had looked a little bliss-filled when sold me that donut. It's a good thing Axel had answered yes or we may have been there for awhile. The donut was awesome, by the way--a freshly baked chocolate one covered with rich chocolate icing--and we left satisfied with the shot of sugar and caffeine to push us along our way.
The road from Woodland Park to Florissant was simply fun to drive--winding and smooth. There was quite a bit of traffic, but then, this place is growing. We drove through Florissant (which means "flowering" in French) and onto the 11-mile reservoir camp grounds where we set up the tent. The whole process of setting it up was quite easy and we were finished in minutes. We were in a flat valley here next to a little mountain stream. The air smelled of cool pine and there was beauty on all sides.
After setting up the tent, we drove to Cripple Creek on a beautiful road with rocks that looked as if they were pouring out of the mountains. We passed a llama farm and stopped quickly at the Florissant Fossil Beds which we want to visit tomorrow. We drove into Cripple Creek the back way, by the post office, not by the Mollie Kathleen mine. Cripple Creek looked very homey and country-like, not the fast-paced, crazy gambling town like Central City and Black Hawk. But then, I guess Denver can feed the latter with a larger volume of gamblers ("gamers" in all political correctness) than Colorado Springs can feed the former. We walked to the Imperial Hotel where I remember visiting before in 1990 and 1993. We hope to see a melodrama tomorrow. Then we stopped in a casino and I taught Axel how to play nickel slots with the money we had turned into nickels to play--I played a dollar and he played a dollar. I lost my dollar and he won twelve bucks! Beginner's luck, I guess! Chicago's Pizza was our next stop for an all-you-can-eat pizza, soup, and salad special. I read a little booklet on the city and learned that a man by the name of Bob Womack discovered the first gold here in 1890 after prospecting for fifteen years. The next year the town was incorporated and by 1900 supposedly had 55,000 inhabitants according to some reports. This type of population increase was common with Western gold towns of that time. By 1921 Cripple Creek was back down to about 5,000 people. This post-boom decrease in population was also common, which created quite a number of ghost towns which can still be seen today. Cripple Creek was one of the last boom towns in Colorado coming about thirty years after the first strike up near Denver.
As we walked out of Chicago's Pizza with full stomachs, I
noticed a number of cowboy-types. These were real cowboys with
dirt-caked boots, dirty and dusty jeans, a flannel shirt with
rolled up sleeves, leather or rattle snake skin belt, a bandana
around the neck and huge cowboy hats. I admire them much more now
after having lived in Europe awhile. The cowboy is a real thing
and a sort of dying breed running out of rustic land to live his
natural life. It's almost the same thing that happened to the
Tuesday, August 8, 1995
Cripple Creek to The Royal Gorge
After a good night's sleep on an air mattress in the two-man tent on a rainless evening, I woke up to a pretty hot morning. The heat inside the tent seemed even hotter as I remembered shivering the night before. Crawling out of the tent, I saw a black squirrel and a ground hog. Soon the tent was put up and coffee had been made by Axel--Turkish style which involves filling each cup a fourth full of coffee grounds then pouring in boiling water, just like I remembered it from the Czech Republic! By the way, this is how you have to drink American coffee if you want to taste it. Axel had bought a small can of Folgers which had printed on it "makes 82 cups." From this can, we were able to make a total of 14 tasty cups! A little breakfast with the coffee, then a little cleaning and we were packed and driving out of the valley. The stream running alongside the road on the way out looked tempting for a morning swim.
We stopped by the general store (there's a lot of these out here, each with a three-year-old box of Grape Nuts on the shelf and Cracker Jacks by the door), then motored on the fun-to-drive roads to Adeline Hombek's homestead house. This 19th century pioneer had outlasted three husbands, gave birth to five healthy children, and lived with two Indian tribes before she moved out with all the kids and no husband to the Florissant area to homestead a splendid house. She even furnished the house with windows which was uncommon in that day.
The next stop was the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument which had some splendid specimens of fossilized tree stumps. It was hard to imagine that those stumps were not made of soft wood until you went up to touch them and felt that they were indeed hard stone. A cute 17-year-old girl park assistant in official uniform and a Smokey-the-Bear hat informed us that actually only 80% of the fossil was stone. We took a small walk through a nice area of pine trees then exited through the main entrance. On the way out, a posted quote in a display area caught my eye:
"Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." -- Chief Seattle
As we drove up to the Mollie Kathleen mine, I almost got chills thinking about going back down into that cage and riding straight down for 1000 feet into the earth dripping with water. I had been here before. We bought our tickets and then took two special yellow jackets off the wall which were provided for the tour ("They go from medium to a double X, but it don't much matter," said the high-school-age worker--I love the mountain talk up here.) "Bob" was our tour guide, a true-to-life miner who had just spent twenty-four months with an Indian tribe on the Yukon in Alaska panning for gold. As we were riding down in the double-caged "elevator-on-a-rope," we passed a tunnel that went out to Cripple Creek. Bob said the miners would escape out that way while their wives were waiting for them at the top for the paycheck! Bob explained to us how the miners used to explode out the walls with dynamite to get the chunks of ore needed to extract gold. Then he showed us (after we walked further through the wet, lamp-lit tunnels stepping over puddles of red-colored water) some rocks and minerals that had been found in the mine. One rock in the case looked like gold was not worth anything--"it and two quarters would buy you a cup of coffee," noted Bob. He also quite confidently stated that if it were not for Cripple Creek gold, World War I could not have been fought by America. I wonder what percentage of the war budget was funded by Cripple Creek gold. In any case, before the war, Roosevelt had toured the mine and found blind donkeys doing all the hard pulling of the ore wagons, so he outlawed them donkeys in mines. (The donkeys had become blind from lack of light.) I asked Bob what incentive the miners of that time had to work in such terrible conditions for such low wages. He answered, "High grading." High grading was the illegal pocketing and carrying out of rich ore by the miners. A couple good chunks could earn a miner a couple days' wages. Some made quite a profit that way, it is said. We came to the end of the tour, still 1000 feet below the surface. I took a glance up the mine shaft through which we were about to ascend in the metal cage to the top. Looking up the shaft, I saw a speck of light at the top as small as a star. It was eerie. We all got in the cage, and as we rode back up from this miner's hell (which was actually a lot colder than hell), Bob explained to us that to crawl out of that shaft up the ladder would take a strong man about three hours. That could very well be, as Bob explained that we overestimate our strength when going straight up carrying our full body weight. In any case, I would never want to try and was glad that the rope pulled that rusty, metal cage with its crowded passengers all the way to the top.
Next attraction in Cripple Creek was the melodrama, the little cultural jewel in this outback, gambling, mountain town. We bought our tickets to find a free drink coupon and a $2.00-off lunch coupon attached. Axel and I realized that we had thirty minutes before show time so we ran downstairs, slammed a Red Dog beer each, then motored to the ritzy restaurant (my non-shaven, unshowered head sticking itself in the oak-framed door and asking the waitress if it were possible to down everything in 25 minutes--"sure!" came the answer, and we entered.) The meal was scrumptious. Interestingly but expectedly, the $2.00-off is not simply figured into the price of the meal: you pay the full price at the restaurant and are given a coupon which can be traded for $2.00 at the cashier's desk in the middle of the casino and the cashier will only pay you in quarters. He pays you in quarters only so that you just might play (why not, come on!) a couple quarter slots on your way out. We didn't-- just yet.
We entered the theater and were seated and served by the fully costumed actors, which was classy. The show was called "The Spoilers," which had also been done on film in 1942 by John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. The show was great, a story about character building, girl winning, and gold stealing in an Alaskan town during the gold rush. The the audience cheered and clapped for the hero and his girl and hissed and booed at the villain and his cronies--nice! Afterward the same actors (oh--the piano player was the best, by the way, a smiling little guy) put on a 50's medley of songs, skits, and jokes. It was very entertaining. The actors came from as far away as California, Massachusetts, and Canada (afterwards when they thanked the audience, the main actor said between breaths, "you try coming from sea level to 7000 feet and singing and dancing on stage for awhile!"). The song "Lollipop, Lollipop" and "Sandman" were my favorites of the 50's piece.
Axel and I left the theater and were about to leave when we got the gambling itch. Earlier, a friendly, talkative stranger from Oklahoma in the Kathleen Mine parking lot had told us that he had read in the paper that some casino that started with a 'w' was supposed to be the best paying in Cripple Creek. He wasn't quite sure which. On this advice, Axel and I walked along the main street until we found the sign "Womack's Casino." We walked in, each changed five dollars into quarters, and sat down at the two slot machines near the door (those near the entrance are always the best paying). Axel lost his five dollars in five minutes and I won $46.50 in ten minutes. Breaking more than even (we had team gambled--the winner paying the loser what he lost), we got out of town and headed for Cripple Creek's sister mining town of Victor. (By the way, we were tempted to play longer and the casino made it easy enough by having each machine able to accept a 1, 5, 10, or 20 dollar bill. If that weren't enough, it accepted three kinds of credit cards! "KEEP PLAYING!" the machines seemed to shout.)
Victor. This is a very mountain town with a general store that has a little ice cream parlor where I saw two men sitting both eating a sundae. A good looking waitress uttered to one of them as she walked by, "Don't whine. I hate whiners." We bought two bags of ice and left. Trying to get out of town to the south, we flagged down a jeep pulling a boat. Inside was an old man (husband), a rather homely but younger woman (wife) and between them curiously glaring at Axel and me was a cute, wholesome boy. "Mountain family" all I could think. Surely they had come back from a nice fishing trip to the nearest lake. They were really nice and helped us get on the right road to the Royal Gorge. On the way we passed a still-active mine which had successfully defaced any sign of beauty within a two-mile radius. But they need the gold ore, I guess, or whatever it is they're mining. It's only a fraction of the scenery that had been destroyed, Axel and I realized as we drove the highway down to the Royal Gorge. This drive was one hour of pure mountain beauty. No words can describe how vast, awesome, and untouched the landscape is back there. The setting sun doubled this beauty. The sun was setting even further down as we drove up to the Royal Gorge (families stopping their cars and sending their children out into the road to pet the deer wandering about tamely).
The Royal Gorge itself is a man-made wonder spanning a God-made wonder. We walked across and back. I felt a bit (more than a bit) woozy walking across looking down at the river far, far, far below. The most amazing aspect about this bridge is that the floor of the bridge consists of nothing but wooden planks! It's the world's highest suspension bridge and it was build with simple wooden planks holding you up hundreds of feet in the air! Not only that, but some of the gaps between these wooden planks are so gaping that one could lose a camera through one of these slits (it plummeting straight down a good two minutes before shattering or to its death below) AND they allow bumper to bumper, two-way traffic on these rattling wood planks! A talk with the ticket booth man afterwards did not calm my anxiety about their safety concerns: he assured me that "many" planks were replaced every year as they wear out. The term "wear out" sent shivers down my spine as we walked on the solid earth (thank God) back to the car.
That night camping, I heard a pack coyotes howling down in the valley to my right and saw a 30,000-foot high thunderstorm rumble majestically over the mountains to my left. Otherwise the sky was clear and the moon was full.
Wednesday, August 9, 1995
The Royal Gorge to The Great Sand Dunes
Kaploosh! Splash! The first thing I remember in the morning at the KOA camp site at Royal Gorge was falling backward into the pool. Refreshing is the only word for that! The next great experience was standing in front of a sliding glass door refrigerator in the nearest general store wrapping my hand around a cold Mug Root Beer! It had been years since I had had a root beer as they don't sell them in too many countries outside America, especially Europe where everyone thinks root beer tastes like medicine. I brought everything up to the counter in this general store and put it on a big pile. The teenage girl ran everything up, forgot something that I had on my pile of things, so I picked it up and said, "Did you include this?" "You can have it," she said. She didn't care. That's how general stores work.
The drive to Salida on Highway 50 was beautiful (save a few strip-minded areas, I have yet to find a vantage point in Western Colorado that does not provide an idyllic mountain scene). The ride along the Arkansas River as the landscape became more and more New-Mexico looking was a treat for the eyes and remained that was as we drove into the circle of mountains surrounding Salida. In Salida we found the old part of town and walked around the western-looking streets lined with red brick buildings, some in better shape than others. We looked for a place to eat, found a nice bar but it didn't serve food. The woman working said we could go across the street to the deli, get a subway sandwich, then bring it back over and have a beer and eat the sandwich at the bar. This fine example of commercial community cooperation but we opted to go on down the street looking for a book store. We found one but unfortunately a closed sign was hanging on the door. It read, "Do To ILLNESS We Will Reopen Tommorow at Noon." The English teacher in me wanted to get out my red pen and correct the mistakes; unfortunately the note was on the inside of the store. We stopped in across the street at the First Street Cafe and asked for directions to another bookstore; she told us "down the street and to the left." We went there. We walked in this bookstore. Immediately I sensed a strong esoteric atmosphere: maybe it was the UFO-siting book next to the "Basic Guide to Zen Buddhism." Across the room, one could find a book entitled "Country Lesbians" and a few books away an 800-pager called "The Female Orgasm." However, I browsed a bit more. To my surprise, I soon found a whole wall dedicated to inexpensive (one dollar each) Classics! It was a gold mine put out by the "Dover Thrift Edition" line of books. The books I picked out (and subsequently that the gap-toothed, esoteric-looking-himself owner rang up for me) were: Carl Sandburg's "Chicago Poems," Nathaniel Hawthorne stories, John Donne's selected poems (I had mysteriously opened it up to the poem "The Bait" which I had memorized years before, so I bought it), Longfellow's poems including "Paul Revere's Ride" and "The Courtship of Miles Standish," James Joyce's Dubliners, and Lincoln's great speeches. (All for a buck each!) I asked the owner where there was a good place to eat and he suggested the First Street Cafe, the same place that had suggested I go to this bookstore; another good example of commercial community cooperation.
We ran through the rain carrying our bags of newly bought books until we were under the safe, dry protection of the First Street Cafe. As I sat down I asked the bus girl what was the best thing to eat there (she looked like she was not a day older than 13). "Everything," she said with a smile. The burgers were great.
Next stop was a card shop in which the owner gave us some scrumptious free fudge (home-made of course) and upon finding out that Axel was from Germany said in almost accent-free Germany, "Ich kann etwas Deutsch sprechen." It turns out she had lived her first four years in a German speaking part of Lithuania. She had moved with her parents to Nebraska and then to Salida with her husband. Next stop was Salida's version of a general store: SAFEWAY! Thank God! This was a full-blown store and we stocked up on everything most of those country general stores don't carry, like good wheat bread, and spiral note pad, and other necessities of life.
Leaving Safeway, we soon found ourselves driving 60 m.p.h. down a nice, paved road right southward into the heart of the beautiful San Luis Valley surrounded by mountains in the distance. It's a beautiful, flat valley and almost seems holy. I'm sure the Ute Indians had thought so when they lived here. Perhaps so did the Mormons when they came through. Axel read a neat pice of history about the place as we drove through: it seems that a man named "Rich" lived here in the 19th century before anyone had come out here. He lived out in the middle of the valley and was so isolated that he would go three months sometimes without seeing another human being. During one of these lonely spells, he became so desperate for company that he made a huge bon fire thinking it would attract attention. Well, it did! The far-away Ute tribes saw it, interpreted it as a war signal, converged for battle, and rode out to the fire! As it turns out, after that meeting, Rich became a good friend of the Utes, so good, in fact, that when he left and a new family moved into his house, the Utes made a formal request to that family that he "be returned."
The San Luis Valley is huge and vast and we kept on driving and driving down a Kansas-straight road. We found a little "point of interest" and stopped to find that it was a plaque and some information about Bison. Behind the plaque at a distance one could see a herd of these fenced-in brutes. I learned that before 1800 there were from 50 to 125 million Bison and by 1895 so many had been exterminated that only 542 individuals remained! Careful breeding of these animals since then has gotten their number back up to 100,000 today.
We could see the Great Sand Dunes from a distance for the past hour but now we were nearing them. We stopped quickly at a camp site to secure a place to camp. While in the general store at the camp grounds, I overheard this wholesome sentence said by a mother to her bright-eyed eight-year-old daughter: "Go home and see what's on the children's channel then clean the guinea pig cage out because it needs cleaning." We found a nice spot up in some stunted scrub trees, then drove on to the dunes.
The Great Sand Dunes look at once awesome and out of place. What are they doing here (they are the nation's largest) in a valley in the mountains in the middle of Colorado? A little pamphlet told me that wind comes eastward from the San Juan mountains, picks up sand from the banks of the Rio Grande which runs through the valley, blows it further eastward and when it reaches the Sangre de Christos, it carries the lighter sand upward but drops the heavier sand. We arrived at the dunes and a warning sign along the path instructed us: "Lightning sometimes strikes the dunes, creating lumps of fused sand called 'fulgurites.' Don't become a 'human fulgurite' . . ." I think this sign was made by the same person who put the "no fishing" sign on the royal Gorge. A river runs in front of the dunes and creates a phenomenon called "bores." These are little wave-like surges that ripple down the stream about every twenty seconds as sand builds up and causes water to splash upward down the stream as it flows. They are created when streams or rivers flow at enough of an angle through loose sand. It's hard to explain them if you haven't ever seen a "bore" splash down the stream, but you can watch them for a long time without understanding what they are or how they work. Axel and I began climbing the dunes, and climbing, and climbing, and climbing. My God, we were so deceived by their mass! This is one huge sand hill! We decided (out of breath and lying face down in the sand like two Arabs out of water and without camels) that we would skip going to the highest dune as originally planned and just play for awhile. I made myself into a pencil and rolled down fast! It was awesome so I tried a somersault down. That was great, too, so I slid down face first! Then we just sat on a dune and marvelled at the beauty of the surroundings. After Axel dug a huge hole and I covered myself up with sand, we snapped some pictures of the place to try to capture the vast beauty (which can't be done) and carried our sandy bodies on our bare feet back to the car.
Returning to the camp site we found nearby three graves on the
side of the hill, each marked 1895. Who were these men? How did
they die? On a full moon night, we went to sleep with these
thoughts in mind.
Thursday, August 10, 1995
The Great Sand Dunes to Durango
Here's the answer to the mystery of the three graves: The mens' names were "Grandpa Nelson," "Jim Bowerman," and "Jack Reimer." And there's the reason they all died in 1895: That year, they were all prospecting for gold in the Sangre de Christo Mountains when suddenly their dream of dreams came true--they found gold! To celebrate, one of them went to the nearest town to buy some alcohol. The liquor store owner sold them wood alcohol instead. The man brought it back to the camp, the three men drank it, and all of them subsequently died. We got this information from the woman at the camp site's general store. I suspect that that liquor store owner had some how found out that the three men had struck it rich and intentionally poisoned them so he could jump the claim. That's just how the West worked back then, it seems to me. (You just have to read the story of Soapy Smith in Creede to know that.) Axel and I decided to ditch the effort to climb the highest dune this morning. The reason? It's 700 feet high and, well, it will always be there ("Geologists believe that one reason the dunes do not move much is that they are moist almost throughout. The moisture comes from the rain and snow.")
Instead, we found ourselves speeding down Highway 160 West towards Monte Vista having just blinked through Alamosa (Is there anything to see there? Don't know. Probably.) The radio station blasting into the car and out the windows was 88.7 KRZA Alamosa. We happened to catch the show "Modern Jazz Plus." We heard a country song ("My Sweet Little Cherokee"), a deep soul song, a light jazz, trumpet-dominated piece; then an awesome travelling Reggae song by [pah-TAY-kay pah-TAY-kay] (spelled here phonetically because I have no idea how the group spells it). This "Modern Jazz Plus" show seemed to have more "plus" than modern jazz.
We sped over Wolf Creek pass playing some country music: "Dreamin' with my Eyes Wide Open" then sped down into the valley towards Pagosa Springs. Near Pagosa Springs (which means "healing waters") there is the story of Albert H. Pfeiffer who was chosen by the Utes to lead them into battle against the Navajo (we're talking late 19th century here) and Herr Pfeiffer (he was from Prussia) led them to victory and, hence, won the beautiful Pagosa Valley for them. But the more interesting story about Mr. Pfeiffer is that he had a bad case of acne and bathed in the Pagosa springs to help cure himself of this skin ailment. Well, one day he was bathing with his wife and servant girl in a spring when they were attacked by Indians! The sad part of the story is that the Indians killed both his wife and the servant girl. The funny part of the story is that Mr. Pfeiffer took off out of the water buck naked and ran the whole way home through thorny bushes, over cactuses, hot rock, and sand. He arrived home "safely" with ripped up feet and legs and an arrow sticking in his back. Well, maybe it's not too funny, but it happened here in Pagosa Springs.
Still motoring westward along 160, we spotted a pair of rocks sticking straight up in the air. "Chimney Rock" was what it said on the map, so we decided to investigate. Unbeknownst to us, we were in for the longest, most personal tour in our lives, given to us by an old, friendly, lovable character named "John." We pulled up to the visitors center (a small hut at the bottom of the hill from the high rocks) and met John and his talkative wife (I don't know how she eventually got on the subject of South African military service, but she did). "Follow John up the hill in your car," she instructed us finally. John created storms of dust as he drove his pale green Ranger's pickup up the hill. We followed him about five miles up to the proximity of "Chimney Rock." We got out of the ar and it slowly dawned on us that we were the only ones on the tour. After parking and getting out of his truck, John at down on a rock in the shade and invited us to sit down next to him and we did. As the groups are normally ten people or more, he has to give basic warnings such as "Don't pick up anything on the tour" and "Don't throw rocks over the edge." He looked at Axel and me and realizing the silliness of telling us this, he smiled and went on. He started out with a broad, grandpa-like smile and asked, "So, what do you know about the Anasazi?" I answered that they had lived in Mesa Verde about 1300 A.D. and that they had made some pottery. Axel said that he heard that they had mysteriously disappeared. John's eyes sparkled and a grin came on his face. He began to tell us about the Anasazi and the Choco Indians. Basically, the Choco had come from the south (today New Mexico) and taught the Anasazi how to live up on the hills. The Choco-influenced Anasazi built "Kivas" (ceremonial huts) and "pit houses," that is living quarters, that were on the top of this hill near chimney rock. The largest of the kivas was called the "Great House" which was in some kind of lunar line with the gap between the two rocks. John told us quietly that the Anasazi hated the Navajo Indians and said he couldn't say much more about that since mostly Navajo Indian workers were working all around, reconstruction the Anasazi ruins. As John told us about the history of one of the pit houses, a worker (he looked like some student from a college in California) was shaking his head wildly in the background showing his disagreement with John's archaeological theories. John saw him and shouted over to him, "So what do you think it was, Joe's Bar and Grill?" The student shook his head and pushed his wheelbarrow filled with cement bags up the hill. John went on. He showed us a hole in a solid rock surface wand said that nobody really knew what it was. "One woman who had been on a tour with John had once suggested that it was where the Anasazi placed the crystal skull to show the alien space ships where to land." John chuckled to himself at that and we continued up the hill towards "The Great House." On the way, we met the Californian worker again. John and he got into a rip-roaring fight about whether the Chocoan Indians were farmers or not. Axel and I stood there while these two heatedly debated this fine point of Southwestern American Indian history. The last shot that the Californian made as "Don't walk away from me, John, tell me how the Choco Indians were not farmers if basic agricultural tools and large amounts of turkey dung have been found near their ruins!" John retorted with, "Stop reading comic books and get back to work!" as he walked away. John's point with the kid was simply that, of course the Chocoan farmed, but they were more than farmers. They had built such great buildings and roads for trade which suggested a class society in which some had the pleasure of not farming full time. This was John's point which the college kid couldn't comprehend. We followed John and the kid pushed his wheelbarrow down the hill again, miffed. John further explained that the Anasazi were a maternal society--the family name was carried by the women and the mother's brother was the one to raise her children, not her husband! When the Anasazi flourished in the Chimney Rock area (around 1100 A.D.), there were from 1200 to 2000 on the hill and in the surrounding area. As we got to the Great House, we learned that the first part of it was built in 1076 (ten years after William was bashing Hastings over in Europe!) and the second part of it was built in 1094, twenty-eight years later. This is significant because every twenty-eight years, the moon rises three nights in a row between the two huge rock formations as seen from the Great House. From the top of this hill we could see the mountains near Durango to the San Juan mountains--about a 100 mile span. As we walked down, I thought about how when Indians die, their spirits stay in the same geographical location. I could almost feel these Anasazi souls present in the air, moving slowly in the sweltering heat. In any case, the whole Chimney Rock area was beautiful, almost magical, almost holy . . .
So we found ourselves in Durango. The town has always been a name to me, but tonight it was a lively street of young people mingling, shops open till nine o'clock, warm evening air, teenagers cruising and whatnot, and tourists strolling down streets full of people. I broke into the conversation of two teenage guys with pony tails, "Where's the local micro brewery?" I asked. They gave me directions. I knew we were getting closer when I heard a passerby tell to his companion, "I drank fifty-six kinds of beer . . ." Before we got to the place, however, we were told by a woman in a bookshop to try the micro brewery "Carver's" instead as it was more homey. We did. Axel and I entered "Carver's Bakery, Cafe, and Brewery" on Main Street. I knew it was going to be a good place when I heard "Come on Baby Light my Fire" playing by the Doors when we walked in. We sat down at a huge, wooden high-backed booth and I read on the front of the menu: "Before they were old enough to see over the counters, they were learning traditional baking from German bakers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin." To my right on the wall was a painting entitled "another Dysfunctional Family," probably by a local artist. It was one of those new, postmodern, bizarre pieces of art that seems to want to disturb and cause uneasiness with the colors, figures, and title. I didn't particularly like it. I looked at the picture next to it above the adjoining booth by the same painter. It was called "Artful Insemination" which convinced me that I would not miss anything by not looking at any other pictures in the series above the other booths. Axel and I ordered the "taster's kit" which consisted of the nine beers that the micro-brewery brewed. When they came, all multi-colored on our respective trays before us, one decided to try the worst first.
* Belgian Witbier *
Axel chose it because we both hate Weizenbier (wheat beer) and
"Witbier" sounded a bit like it. It was gross.
(I chose next and then we alternated.)
* Golden Wheat and Honey:
A very light-tasting beer with a real smack of honey. Actually
quite good, but a bit sweet for beer.
* Iron Horse Stout:
Beyond porter beer in thickness and weight, too strong, tastes
almost like a burnt syrup, worse than Berlin's Neuzeller
Klosterbraeu, bah! You would have to be an iron horse to drink a
pint of this.
* Raspberry Wheat:
This "ale" tastes a bit like cool-aid, weak
cool-aid, no, it tastes like a Raspberry tea! In fact, I think it
is raspberry tea! Don't order this one!
Score: (doesn't rank as a beer!)
* Old Oak Amber Ale:
Smooth, with a slightly burnt almost coffee aroma with a nutty
aftertaste. I would order a pint of this.
* San Juan Porter:
Has an immediate, deep, dark roasted nut flavor, just like
Philadelphia's Juengling Porter--awesome for a porter beer.
* Colorado Trail Nutbrown Ale:
A full-flavored nutty beer, adequately hopped, very pleasing
to the palate and quite drinkable in quantity.
At the end of the beer tasting (and the wonderful burgers that we had enjoyed), Axel found a fitting quotation on the menu: "Bread may be the staff of life, but beer is life itself." Might be, but in any case, it certainly added to it that evening.
We walked out onto the summer evening street of Durango (Main Street--the only happening street). It was a night ripe for "verbal snapshots" Here were a few:
Two young mountain-types, a man and woman, walked by steeped in serious conversation: "He didn't get nearly what his bike was worth . . ."
A teenage guy walking by came up to a group of teenage girls and gave them the finger with both hands, then walked off. The leader of the girls shouted after him: "You're an asshole, Steve!"
Two teenage guys passed: "She treated me like dirt!"
A man passed us walking with three of his business friends: "I probably should call my wife and tell her where I am . . ."
Teenage couple, passed with multi-colored, twisted balloons on their heads.
A man in a cowboy hat waved and smiled to a passing pick-up truck.
Two girls in the White Water Rafting ticket booth: "Wait! Yesterday Jerry Garcia died while we were camping? What did he die of?" -- "Natural causes I think."
Axel and I didn't know who Jerry Garcia was. We then read on the front page of the newspaper in the next newspaper dispenser: "The loss . . . just digs down really deep. --Bob Dylan" I asked out loud, "Who was Jerry Garcia?" -- "Grateful Dead," answered a yuppie-type to my left. Unfortunately that reminded me of a joke, which I told aloud, "How do you know that a dead-head has been in your house? -- He's still there." No one laughed. Perhaps I should have mourned instead.
Friday, August 11, 1995
In the morning we woke up at "Butch's Beach" which was near a pleasant-sounding mountain stream which was next to Highway 160. The noise of the latter drowned out the noise of the former. We got up, packed the tent, and tried to find the post office which we finally did. It was a wholesome, small town post-office. Then it was on to the goal of all tourists who come to this area: Mesa Verde!
Things that people say are great are always different than what people say. The first surprise about Mesa Verde was that it took so long to drive there. It is really out in the middle of nowhere! No wonder no one discovered it until 1888! After driving about a half hour south into a seemingly increasing desert landscape, we got to the visitor's center for the Mesa Verde National Park. The tours for the buildings (The Balcony and the Cliff Palace) were for 5:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. (all the ones previous were booked up by the world's tourists) so we decided to just drive around and look at the sites from afar. We did, and I was really touched by the site of the Cliff Palace. Why? The things was build about 1100 A.D. and the people living in it left about 1300 A.D. I looked at it as a symbol of the potential that the North American people had of building an enduring culture parallel to the European culture. Why didn't they develop the wheel? Or gun powder? Or the sailing ship? They were so close, but they died out--or moved, and the history of North American was put into the hands of the more sophisticated Europeans in 1492. Standing, looking at those impressive 14th century ruins, I had to think, "Man! Almost guys! Almost!" All of the other sites were basically the same--the gave me the feeling and realization that human beings had been living in this valley about 900 years ago. All of it was a bit eerie and incomprehensible.
Almost by mistake, because of our growling stomachs in fact, we ended up on our way back to Durango in the town of *Mancos*. Very soon I came to realize that you could cut the community pride in this tiny mountain-ranching town with a knife! It was strong. The ironic thing about this community pride was that there was not even a block of stores in this town. You would think it was a dying town if you didn't go into "Lizzy D's Sweet Things" and pick up a complimentary copy of "The Mancos Times-Tribune" as I did. Inside one can read:
"So you're here. You've seen the ruins, strolled though the shopping district [shopping district? my God, it's only five stores!], and you love the place [well...]. You want to stay a couple days [no, just until Axel and I finish our hamburgers, actually]. Or you want to stay forever [forever?]. How can you find out more about what Mancos offers? Or suppose you're not here. Perhaps you have relatives here [the probability of this causes a divide-by-zero error] and they've sent you this Visitor Guide. Perhaps you picked it up on the Silverton Train [likely, but no], or on the plane from Paris [now what would someone in Paris be doing with a Mancos--population 900--newspaper, I ask you].
The paper was too much! You would think that *Mancos, Colorado* was the last place on earth that people were crowding into because of its beauty (it's not bad but...) and economic future (the only economic future I see for this town is when the Californians invade it with their saving accounts). At any rate, we wandered into "The Bounty Hunter" of the Mancos, Colorado main street. It was a hat making place. You could buy a leather hat from between $300 and $400! Axel asked if he could take a picture of the wall of hanging hats. The answer was "No!" We moved on. I asked the woman at the cashier where the best place in town to eat was. She put forth a choice of two: "the Hamburger Haven, or, if you want to get real sick, try Candy's up by the highway." On our way out, there was an autographed picture of Jack Nicholson on the wall thanking the place for a hat they had made for him! The place at least seemed to have connections!
We went across the street to "Buck's Saddlery" and entered to a conversation going on in the corner: "I really like to break boots in . . ." I looked up on the wall. There was a picture of Ronald Reagan (!) holding a saddle that they had made for him in this store. This place obviously had connections, too! Well, saying good-bye to the owner as he further explained to a customer how he liked to break in boots, we left the pleasant leathery smell of the store and walked up the central street of Mancos. On the adjoining street we saw a row of four institutions:
The Mancos Public Library
The Mancos Recreation Center
The Mancos Town Hall
The Mancos Post Office
And that was it. That was Mancos, except for "the haven" which was the short name for "The Hamburger Haven." (I had learned this from the owner of Lizzy D's Sweet Things.) This is where we went in order to quench our thirsts and satisfy our hungers. As we entered "the haven," I noticed two diplomas on the wall, framed. They were high-school diplomas (!) from 1990 and 1993. The waitress came to our table, told us the special was bacon burger, so we ordered two of them. Then she moved to the table behind us to take an empty plate away from a cowboy sitting there in the booth still drinking his coffee. I heard "Thank you, Roy" and "Thank you, Diane." It's a homey place, Mancos!
The ride back to Durango involved more country favorites on the radio. Here's the lyrics of one song that just had to touch your heart: "Sittin' all alone tonight with no one to love me" and the song's last lyric was "I don't know why I'm not as lucky as the others are, perhaps I'm just wishin' on someone else's lucky star . . ." Country songs always fit to passing country scenery.
Back in Durango we got a camping place, then saw the Durango-Silverton train, but didn't go. Why? Because it cost 42 dollars. We are both on student budgets and that ride will have to wait till a later socioeconomic class comes to rest upon us--later. We walked in a Walden's bookstore and browsed. I couldn't help overhearing this comment from a woman (possible student) as she came in: "Farewell to Arms. That's the absolute worst book . . ." Then I happened to overhear the owner of the store refer to a customer as the "Jeopardy Woman" as she came in. Being a Jeopardy fan, I struck up a conversation with "the Jeopardy Woman" and found out that she indeed was qualified for and had taped a game of Jeopardy which will air September 22, 1995. Her name is Ann Butler--look for her! (She didn't win.)
We then went to the "Barley Exchange," a basement bar that seems to be the place to go for the well-to-do (at least in terms of money) in Durango. Well, this place is famous for serving over 100 types of beer and the quote of the evening came when a mechanic-type at the bar turned around to a passing waitress, held up his bottle of long-neck Budweiser beer and yelled, "This is a really good beer, I tell you what!" Two tables away I heard a woman student tell her friends, "So I'm listening to this goddamn symphony in the middle of the exam. I couldn't tell if it was Mozart or what . . ."
Axel and I soon moved over to Carver's again, a much more relaxed atmosphere. The place was packed. One of the girls from the next table yelled at the waiter as he passed, "How are you doing?" He yelled, "Doing!" without turning his head as he sped out the door to the patio to take orders. Axel and I drank and talked and wrote for hours.
I was later at another club alone (Main Street, Durango is open until the wee hours). An impressively good, wandering East-Coast-type singer and guitar player explained how he came to write the love song he was about to play: "I said to myself, Paul, why don't you write a love song? . . . Well, the things we learn . . ." I talked to him afterward. He was from Illinois. He had tried different things in life until he found that his true love was music, and now he's doing music. After going to another club and dancing to "Monkey Meet," an awesome all black Reggae band, I walked back tot he tent as Durango rolled up the carpet, about 2:30 a.m. Durango--it's not a sleepy mountain town!
Saturday, August 12, 1995
Durango to Montrose
Before leaving Durango, we stopped by Fort Smith college, student population 4,200. The population on this Saturday in summer was about 8, but I was able to get a pamphlet on the college and get a feel for the campus. It's a perfect school: liberal arts, in a small, happening town, good professor/student ratio, and in a beautiful, historical area. Maybe they'll want a Colorado boy to teach foreign languages there someday. I talked to a student who was working at a store in town. He studied chemistry there and couldn't say enough good things about the school. "I love it there," he said. This was the last sentence I heard in Durango, and it had a nice ring to it. Unless Gunnies is an outrageously fun place, Durango is going to be my favorite town on this whole Colorado trip.
Our Saab sped its way up the million Dollar Highway toward Silverton. The scenery consisted of beautiful mountain after beautiful valley with intermittent ensembles of lakes, peaks, and blue skies with white, fluffy clouds (which all makes one wonder why the county or state does not install a couple more guard rails on this road--a second-too-long stare at one of these gorgeous scenes and your car would be plunging down into it. The same safety engineers who designed this road probably installed the wood planks with the gaping slits between them on the Royal Gorge bridge. speaking of road builders, the man who built many of the roads in these awesome canyons between Durango and Ouray was Otto Mears, a Jewish immigrant from Russia. If you would like to read an "American Dream" success story, get a biography of Otto Mears. He came to America as a penniless orphan landing in San Francisco and became a success through hard work, talent, and efficient road-building.
Coming up over Red Mountain Pass, we had the country music jamming: "If the world had a front porch like we did back then, we'd still have our problems, but we'd all be friends." I was able to sing along about the third go-around of the chorus. A couple songs later we were entertained by these lyrics: "You better kiss me 'cause you're going to miss me when I'm gone."
The first glimpse of Silverton as we winded our way down into the valley made me think, "My god, what a perfect place for a town!" The flat little valley between the rising majestic mountains seems to yell, "Build a town here!" We pulled into the visitors' center which is a beautiful, old 19th century house. We parked next to an RV that had a blank map of the United States on it. States where the RV had been had been colored in. The map was about half colored. The sign on the visitor's center said "open daily 9 to 5." Another sign said, "Sorry, we're closed." (It was 11:00 a.m.) Another sign said, "Will Return At 9:00." Nonplussed, we left.
Silverton is a town of shops and we did them all, at least on the main street in town. Silverton seems to have more than one man street, especially since the train from Durango comes into town a few blocks away from the main drag and commerce seems to have set itself up around that focal point. The sign of the day goes to a renovated hotel that advertised itself as "A luxury hotel for non-smokers." This non-smoking thing is getting strong in Colorado. I remember as I got out of the plane at Denver International Airport last month a woman casually asked a man, "Can you smoke in this state anymore?" Well, as I walked past a liquor store, I was a lazy, yellow dog lying in the main aisle. Across the street was the Greyhound stop ($54 to Colorado Springs). Axel and I ate at the "Romero's Restaurante y Cantina," fine Mexican dining. We sat down and a little Mexican looking kid came up and banged down two waters with ice on our table. "Thanks," I said. "Yep," he muttered as he took off back to the kitchen. It turns out that a whole family (The Romero Family) owns this place and the whole family including cousins, sisters, brothers, serve you. They are incredibly overstaffed, but it's all family; it doesn't matter. The restaurant had a rustic atmosphere with old license plates on the walls along with old tools such as saws and hammers. I ordered the Quesadilla plate and Axel ordered "The Mole." I was a bit concerned until I saw that the meat was going to be chicken. I don't know why they called it "The Mole." Looking around I saw a woman with "The Mountain Look" and looking at her I realized that I could finally describe this look in words. I had seen "The Mountain Look" on people in Durango but couldn't quite put my finger on it. First of all, to have the mountain look, your hair must not be combed and should be quite grown out. There are many variations. Your face should look natural, as if you just got back from a day's mountain bike ride, tan and flushed. You must be able to smile brightly and your eyes should have adventure in them. And you should have tan, leather hiking boots with grey, scrunched up sock (wool socks).
Well, another guy, a mountain type, was telling a story to a tableful of men and women. He was describing a fight he had gotten into. "I hit him" and "He punched me" were to things I heard. The most classic line was much later when he, still talking about the fight, said, ". . . and that's when I should have kicked him in the head." Sounds like a great fight!
We ate our Quesadillas and Mole. It rained. It stopped raining. We left. We stopped at the gas station where the very happy looking (what makes these people so happy--the mountain air, the improving economy?) attendant blasting classical music (Vivaldi?). He wanted to buy some German marks from Axel. Axel sold him 2.5 marks for $1.50. That guy must have a big collection of foreign change.
We got on a wrong road out of town but finally got back on Highway 550 north to Ouray, part of the million dollar highway--and the scenery is worth more than that. There is absolutely no end to the beautiful mountain scenes on that stretch of road. Unfortunately there are also no guard rails on key curves and embankments, as before, and a lot of hair pin turns looking over tremendous valleys (in which I was surprised not to see piles of tourist cars and RVs). Soon we saw Ouray. Didn't stop. Sped through. And soon we were out of the mountains headed toward Montrose. I made a mental note, however, to learn about the relationship between Chief Ouray and the Whites. It's an interesting and hopeful chapter in the history of the Whites and Indians before the terrible massacre at Meeker.
Sunday, August 13, 1995
Montrose to Gunnies
The day started with a visit to the Ute museum. Unfortunately it was closed, so we simply looked at the Dominguez and Escalante memorial to their 1776 journey through this area, which was near the Ute museum. Their goal had been, of course, to find a route to California from Sante Fe. So why were they way up in western Colorado? Because they were trying to avoid the hostel Apache and Hopi Indians in Arizona. Dominques and Escalante went north into Colorado and then cut over West after getting out of the San Juan mountains. They supposedly completed their journey without firing a shot (they were Franciscan priests) and had a few Ute Indian guides. They never made it to California, having left Sante Fe on July 29, 1776 and returning on to Sante Fe January 2, 1777. Another man profited from the trip very much: the cartographer Don Bernado Miera y Pachero, retired captain of the Sante Fe army. During the journey, he prepared a map of the four corners area for Charles III of Spain. As we drove out of the Ute museum parking lot, I looked around at the landscape. It occurred to me that it was quite unlikely that this land belonged to the United States today. At the time of Dominques' and Escalante's trip, a couple tiny colonies where fighting guerilla warfare thousands of miles away on the East Coast. Yet they eventually acquired all the land clear to the West Coast through a series of unthinkable transactions (Louisiana Purchase), wars powered by Manifest Destiny (Mexican American War), and unstoppable incentives (gold and silver). As I looked out the window on the area around Montrose (Walmarts, McDonalds, car washes, gas stations), it looked so everyday American, so normal. None of the history showed itself. If you didn't think, it might appear that it had always been this way.
Driving on toward Gunnies, we stopped for about a half hour to see the Black Canyon. more than a half mile deep in some places it's simply a dizzying thing to look at from atop one of the sheer cliffs. The Gunnies river winds green and snake like below. An awesome feature of the canyon is that, like the Grand Canyon, the river has cut down into a plateau. I learned something about geological erosion there: the north sides of the canyon are much steeper than the south sides. any idea why? Because as the sun dries out the north side wall, it does not crumble as fast as the moist side with water that seeps through the cracks of the rocks, causing them to slowly dislodge faster than those on the north side. After this river-made and God-made creation, we met with two man-made creations: The first was an irrigation tunnel cutting through one side of the canyon which supplies farmers near Montrose with water. The second was Blue Mesa Lake, created by a dam. Really, dam projects seem to be win-win situations: they keep some trickling semblance of a river going, the dam creates loads of energy, and a beautiful lake is created. This lake did destroy one historic Monument, however: the old narrow gauge railroad built by the Denver Rio Grande through part of this canyon. Like the irrigation tunnel, it was a masterful engineering feat. Men were lowered into the canyon by rope where they drilled into the rock and placed dynamite charges with extra long fuse to allow them to scramble back up the cliff before the explosion. This was the pre-safety-conscious days of the late 19th century.
The Denver & Rio Grande railroad was either directly or partially responsible for many towns in Colorado including our next stop, Gunnies. Our first stop was Western State College where we (on a Sunday in summer) found the library open and met a nice woman student who told us lots about student life there and gave us some catalogs and pamphlets about the college. This liberal arts college just embarked on a new scheduling system called the "Scholar's Year" in which they have four semesters per year. The school is also closed on Wednesdays so that students can take part in speeches, talks, honors activities, and faculty can have meetings. Sounds like an exciting experiment. The students we talked to seemed to like it. Who wouldn't really?
On the advice of the two Western State students, we walked down Main Street, Gunnies (the only street, really, except the highway that runs through). On Main street we sauntered by the "Gunnies Camera Center" (it was closed--most shops were after 5:00 p.m.) which had displayed in the windows pictures of each float that had appeared in the recent Gunnies Parade. Each picture had a number with which you could order prints of it. Many locals were pictured waving on floats, riding bikes in the parade, or just standing on the side. I suppose that many locals had already ordered many pictures of themselves and friends taking part in the parade. What a marketing idea for a camera shop!
"Timbers Sports Bar & Grill" housed us next as we cooled down with two Rolling Rocks in a homey sports environment. About all of the pro and many college football teams were represented with rows of helmets on the wall shelves. But the dentist chair in front of the large bay window was out of place. I didn't understand why it was there until the bartender walked out behind his bar, got in the chair, cranked it up in the air so his feet dangled and then spun it around so that he sat facing the window and Gunnison's highway. He sat there dangling his feet as the cars zoomed by.
We camped at KOA Gunnies that night. KOAs are wholesome places. They belong to America like baseball and apple pie. As we were sitting at our picnic table talking and reading, I heard a man pass a boy who was carrying a bow and arrow. "You got a bow and arrow, huh?" said the man. "Homemade!" cried the boy with joy and a gleaming face. I thought I was sitting in a 3-D Normal Rockwell painting! A woman stopped by our table on her way to the bathroom. "You guys on the Ultimate Frisbee team?" she asked. We replied and got into a conversation with her. soon we established that she was from Boulder and so were Axel's relatives. "I saw you had Boulder plates, " she said. "I don't just talk to anybody, just people from Boulder!" Across the way an old (I mean quite old!) couple pulled up, set up their own tent, and whipped out a large, black frisbee and started throwing it back and forth to each other. They always hit their target: each other's outreached hand. They had probably stared playing frisbee with each other in the early 1930's! WHAM! A little girl racing around on a rented hot-wheel-looking tricycle almost crashed into a parked car. Her little brother zoomed by on his cycle. She yelled to him, "It was an accident! It's not my fault you're an idiot!" Her chain had come off. Soon she yelled over to us, "Hey, can you fix my bike?" Axel and I jumped up and went over to her bike. We spent about ten minutes working on her bike, getting our hands all black and greasy, until finally we had her chain back on for her. "Thanks!" she yelled as she zoomed off. I walked to the bathroom to wash my hands. A black man was sitting Indian style on the sink counter reading. "Late night read?" I asked. "Well, there's light, it's warm, and it's quiet." He was right. "I'm reading by candlelight outside," I replied. "Just like Abraham Lincoln!" he said smiling. He went back to his reading. I let. I read for awhile longer but never saw the man come out.
Monday, August 14, 1995
Gunnies to Leadville
The first thing I experienced in the morning was Axel running up to the tent saying, "There's this strange black guy in the bathroom! He talked to me for about 10 minutes and I hardly understood one word of what he was saying! He told me he was from Chicago. I told him I was from Germany and he kept repeating 'Das Leben ist eine Einbahnstrasse! -- Das Leben ist eine Einbahnstrasse!'" ("Life is a one-way street!")
We drove to main street again to look at the bookstores and drop by the post office. Even though Gunnies has only one main street, this street has two lanes going each way (Highway 135--it's the only road going up to Crested Butte) and after standing on the side of it for five minutes watching cars go by waiting for a break in traffic through which we could run, we finally were able to sprint across between a couple of moving cars. We got inside the bookstore and I saw the owners both looking out the window onto the street where we just were. I looked out, too. An old man with a cane was attempting to cross, hobbling one baby step at a time! "Does that old guy have a death wish or what?" commented one of the owners of the shop. I couldn't watch. I never heard anything further, no screeches or skids or thuds, so I guess the old guy made it! Gunnison--a small town with a bumper to bumper traffic!
The traffic was much thinner speeding out of Gunnies eastward on Highway 50. The scenery here is also much thinner. What happened to all the trees? Ever since Montrose the landscape has resembled a grassy moon. It was only on our way up the mountain to Leadville that the trees came back!
As we drove into Leadville, I saw Oro City on the right side, a ghost town. Horace and Augusta Tabor spent their poor mountain years there. I would pay big money to be able to go back in time, stop into their modest cabin, and talk to them. People from the past become personalities and we forget they were real people.
Axel and I parked the Saab and split up, agreeing to meet back in an hour. Leadville has a nice look to it--many false-fronted Western buildings and a wide main street. I passed "The Baby Dough Bakery"--a clever name. I walked into an antique store and saw everything from Western knickknacks to "hand-painted eggs from Poland" to an old Rod Stewart "Blondes Have More Fun" 8-track! It was a bizarre store--what a mix! I walked up and down main street again, trying to get the 19th century feel of the town. I couldn't I got some excellent coffee at a shop in a building built by Tabor. I finally met Axel, we had our daily beer at the local saloon (The Silver Dollar Saloon) and then headed off for the only camping grounds in Leadville: "The Sugar Loafin' Campground." We paid at the general store on the campgrounds. A sign above the store read, "General Store -- We generally don't have it, but ask anyway." Paying for the camping place, we learned that there was to be an "ice cream social" at 8:00 p.m. and a "slide show of the area" at 8:30 p.m. Sounded nice.
At the ice cream social I met a woman who had lived in Europe for ten years in the sixties and seventies. The slide show was, well, amateur at best but well meant. The elderly woman who ran the slide projector and explained the slides had not taken the slides so she could only guess at what they were. She introduced half of the slides as "deer country" and the other half as "beaver pond."
Tuesday, August 15, 1995
Leadville to Breckenridge
We woke up and it was cold! Leadville is the highest city in America (not the highest town, however, as Axel later discovered that Montezuma is higher than Leadville, but just a town). It was simply cold up high in the mountains, even in the middle of the summer. In fact, the two Leadville Fourteeners Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive both had large amounts of snow on them. We drove into Leadville again. This time I went straight to the "Aspen Leaf," an office supply store which had a computer with which you could send emails on the Internet. I sent three emails for three bucks. These Internet services ought to be springing up like mushrooms. Why aren't they? Maybe I should start one. Next stop was "Dee Hive Gift Shop." the only notable thing here was an actual 1988 Wheaties box with the Broncos pictures as the NFL Champions! They actually lost, of course, but Wheaties was so sure they would win that they had printed thousands of the boxes before the game even started! It reminded me of the picture of Truman holding up the newspaper which read, "Dewey Wins!"
The Tabor Opera House, Leadville's leading historical attraction, was our next stop. It's not a tiny place, seating 750 people, and was part of the "Silver Circuit" of shows from its opening night November 29, 1879 to its last big production ion the circuit in 1927. Horace Tabor built it but soon lost it when he lost his fortunes in the 1880s. The house passed many hands until it fortunately was bought by Evelyn Furman and her mother in 1955. Their subsequent cave and restoration of it won them a "Phoenix Award" which is given to people and institutions that restore historical buildings. This rad, gold, white and sky blue opera house has some interesting stories behind it. On opening night back on November 29,1879, attendance was low as there had ben a hanging the night before and everybody was either "entertained-out" or were not in the mood for an opera. John Philip Sousa and his band played here as did Houdini perform his magic. One day in winter when the circus was in town it was too cold for the animals to be outside, so the opera house opened its doors and the circus performed on state. The stage is quite small and the front row is about two leaps away from the stage. When the curtain went up, the well-to-do ladies in the front row were quite overcome by the four lions perched on their haunches a couple feet in front of them! Jack Dempsey even fought on this stage and until 1960 the Leadville high-school held its graduation here. Today it is used to perform melodramas on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
Adjoining the opera house is an antique store that has quite a lot of old junk mixed in with some interesting items. They had some old minutes from a 1921 jury screening process which I spent a good 15 minutes reading. Reading the parched paper which contained every single word of an actual conversation which took place more than 70 years ago was like looking through a time window into the past. The rest of the stuff was old spoons, forks, and dusty books. Upon leaving I saw a sign on the wall warning of old mines in the area and informing of the importance not to explore them. The poster contained the following choice sentence: "The fall down a mine shaft is just as lethal as the fall from a tall building--with the added disadvantage of bouncing from wall to wall in a mine shaft and the likelihood of having falling rocks and timbers for company."
After this we motored out of Leadville up to the Climax mine which has successfully erased a mountain top. It is still in operation and is quite a man-made eye sore. We got to Interstate 70 and quickly arrived in Frisco. Immediately one could notice the money flowing through this city. It wasn't an old mining town whose history lay in the 19th century like Leadville. Frisco's history is today. And together with the more impressive Breckenridge, it's easy to see why Summit county is called "Colorado's Playground." We arrived in Breckenridge an scoped out the town. It's main street is an endless series of beautiful mini-malls which provide a wonderful shopping experience, most stores taking all credit cards possible. (The writer of that Mancos newspaper should come to Breckenridge to see what a real shopping district looks like!) It's a place to spend money on shirts, ski supplies, fine dining, and drinking and dancing. I found an establishment more to my liking: the "Gold Pan Saloon," established 1905. It stilled looked like the Old West and on the wall was a sign that read, "Split Wood, not Atoms."
Wednesday, August 16, 1995
Breckenridge to Monument
Having spent the night in Ky Fox's condominium "Tannenbaum by the River" (appropriately named as it is surrounded by numerous high tannenbaums and situated near a beautiful, full-flowing river), we drove straight to Central City. In 1859, this tiny valley was invaded by gold seekers and today this tiny valley is being invaded by casino builders. We parked in one of the parking lots made on top of the surrounding hills and were shuttled down to the casinos in a van full of gamble-happy folk. The driver-comedian made jokes the whole way down. He told us that he was going to drive the shuttle straight to Las Vegas and forget Central City! An old man piped up that he would cash in his food stamps and pay for the gas. We arrived, however, quite soon in Central City and we got out laughing and tipping the driver. Playing the slot machines lasted about as long as buying the post cards, and cost about 100 times as much, so we left. We didn't leave the city, however, before both enjoying a twenty ounce steak (!) with potato, vegetable, cole slaw and the works for just $6.75! Full-stomached, we got out of town.
We drove on a beautiful road (80% of the roads we had been on had been beautiful--one idyllic mountain scene after another) into Boulder. In Boulder, we headed to the Pearl Street Mall. We parked a block away and as soon as I stepped out of the car, I could smell the sweet smell of marijuana blowing threw the afternoon air. It was coming from the outdoor mall. As we got onto Pearl Street, I noticed that the number of "liberal types" had doubled since the last time I had been there. We walked up the street once and down once. I saw a girl (mountain type) say to a guy (liberal type), "Yeah, we're going to Arizona for a few days . . ." They both kind of nodded and smiled. Several seconds later, the guys said, glassy-eyed, "Cool."
As we walked a bit further, a clean-cut college kid sitting on a bench with a friend yelled out to us as we passed, "Change for a fix?" It was odd. The guy looked so normal. Perhaps he was doing an experiment in social relations for his psychology class. I hoped so anyway. Or maybe I'm getting old.
Well, our trip had come to an end. The only thing left was to go thank David Pinkow for allowing us to use the car (no problems the whole way) and go thank Ky for letting us use his condominium in Breckenridge. Both of them lived in Boulder and by 10:00 p.m. we were out of town. The trip back to Monument brought this summer 1995 Western Colorado Mountain Camping trip to a quiet, relaxing, and thoughtful close.