ghost town on a divide of continental proportions

After visiting a nearby ghost town, via trespassing, my interest peaked in old long forgotten places. Trespassing is a bad idea, because in Colorado, it is permissible by law to kill someone encroaching on one's property. :) After I returned back from tempting fate of getting shot, I couldn't stop talking about what I had seen, luckily no armed people. My imagination was totally captivated by mining towns where no one lived and their imminent disappearance. 

Very shortly thereafter, I was told to read Stampede to Timberline: The Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Colorado by Muriel Sibell Wolle. I dutifully went to the library and checked it out.

This is the end all be all book, to me at least.


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The first edition was published in 1949. Muriel Sibell Wolle was an art professor at the University of Colorado. Upon moving to Boulder, she began going to the old abandoned mining towns and sketching what remained. In the book, she writes about the history of mining, what kind of treasure (metals, ore) sparked the generation of the town, and what prospectors feasted on at the Christmas celebration. Further, she finds the last hanger-ons to these towns, old prospectors who are sitting in rocking chairs on porches, remembering the golden days. These folks provide first hand accounts of what used to be, when the middle of nowhere was somewhere.

Another layer of the book is the adventures Muriel has getting to these places.  She is rarely deterred in finding these lonely and faraway places. To imagine a woman in the 1940's, stopping at nothing to get to these bygone spots tucked away on mountain tops, is inspiring. She used whatever means possible - jeeps, horses, and her two feet. She did me a great favor by preserving what was left behind in the amber of her drawings.

Carson, Colorado proves to be a difficult place for Muriel to visit. Carson is perched up on the continental divide at 12,000 feet. The town actually spans both sides of this ridge where the rain and snow part, deciding to go west to the Pacific or east towards the Atlantic. Carson was founded in 1881 for its gold and silver deposits. Some of the poetically named local holes (mines) were: the Legal Tender, the Kit Carson, the Iron Mask, and the Maid of Carson.

To get up to this forgotten place, Miss Wolle and her friend Jane had to ride a horse 15 miles one way from Lake City. She attempted this journey twice, each time, getting caught in an electric storm.  One local warned Muriel; "Carson was on an iron dyke...People got killed by lightning up there!"

Getting caught in a ghost town, on top of a mountain, during a storm sounds about as good as it gets to me. I could only be so lucky to get stranded here.

The feeling of being stuck, in a beautiful place, where it's not up to you to exert control. It's not your choice to leave. Time slows down. You are at nature's whim, with nothing left to do but just sit tight and enjoy. Things are oh so simple. A roof over the head, a smushed peanut butter sandwich. The only thing to do is to watch the storm pass.

These days, to visit these out of the way places, poses a sometimes difficult problem. The good ghost towns are up rugged mountain roads, where they get less traffic. My vehicle is a very low to the ground Prius. There are lots of rocks, tight switch back turns, mud, and general exposure. I need someone with a truck.  This person happens to be Mason. On these kind of outings, he likes to try to spot animals with his binoculars, while I've got my head, not in the clouds, but in the dirt, looking for shiny minerals by the old mines.

I convinced Mason, my cheri amour, to take me to Carson, located in southwestern Colorado, near Lake City, off of Cinnamon Pass. The four wheel drive road winds up Wager Gulch. Aspens were beginning to show off, turning heads, by turning brilliant golds, almost a florescent orange, and an in your face red. A cloudy sky does wonders to illuminate the leaves.

The road is rocky but Mason and I talk about compact discs we used to own as kids. I was happy as an apple turnover. Up, up, and up the truck climbed slowly. Carson took me by surprise on the left. It is funny to finally see a place I had been dreaming about for so long. We parked. I could not get out of the car fast enough.

I felt overwhelmed in deciding which skeleton of a building to go into first. There were half a dozen wooden structures. Windows and doors are long gone. If one of the old cabins does have a floor, floor boards are broken and coming apart. All of the wooden walls have been graffitied by various miscreants who have neglected to mind their manners. I will never understand why people can't keep their hands in their pockets. 

I wonder who lived in Carson, what they ate for lunch, and how different this landscape must have been from where these miners were born. To travel so far, and live in such difficult conditions, all in the name of finding a fortune. Humans love treasure, but moreover, treasure hunts.

I'm no different. I headed to the tailings piles and found silver and calcite. I put the pieces in my beanie where they smelled like sulfur and fireworks. I have since washed my hat, but my mineral samples reside on my dining room table.

We walked through the various structures, peaking out windows, imagining what it used to be like here as a bustling town . We went to the outhouses where Mason insisted that modern people dig up the old pots, to see if miners had dropped any gold nuggets while sitting down to take a potty break. I am unclear if this fact or fable.

When I found the spot, my heart leapt in my chest. I had been to this stable before in the 1940's with Muriel. I was sitting right next to her when she took out her notebook and pencil to draw, waiting for the rain to let up. All of the buildings she had drawn from this place are long gone. But the old horse dwelling smells earthy, like something lived here. 

"While we worked, lightning flashed and thunder crashed around us, and the rain, which was driving by us in sheets, turned to hail. Leading the horses, we took refuge in an old stable...Then while the storm spent itself above us, we spread our lunch in the manger ate the flabby sandwiches and the bruised fruit with relish. One storm drifted down the valley, but another one hit just when we were about to leave the stable. Looking out the window, I sketched the old false fronted store, the building with the porch, and the tall straight pines, in the midst of which some of the cabins were built. We could see the rest of the trail, a thin line along the mountainside, climbing to the top of the divide and over it to where the rest of Carson lay."

It didn't rain on us that day, but I know exactly what it would have been like if it had.