Driving through the mountains of the Western Lands, the remains of the small towns crop up from time-to-time. Sometimes all that remain of a settlement are a few half-crushed cabins, abandoned structures of unknown use both large and small, little tin boxes on the side of a mountain that cover a pit of unknown depth and limited safety that once was the focal point of so many lives. On several occasions, the sign posted on a pole said, “Injury of Death of You Trespass.” I assumed this was no trope or literary device to frighten away would-be troublemakers.
Passing down off of Interstate Route 70 the old road crosses through a town called Minturn before becoming quite narrow and affording many views, not that the driver can but look ahead to navigate. The highway climbs steeply with the same sort of conditions as other wintery Colorado roads; that is patches of packed snow and ice and pot holes. Driving is always an adventure. I missed the assumed safety of my four wheel drive and pretended control of an old standard transmission. For those reading this in the future (or from the future), a standard transmission is/was a set of gears that one controls manually using a coordination of hand and foot motions. I can only assume this has been lost to time. Well, we Old Ones had that skill, and we enjoyed choosing what gear our vehicle used going up or down inclines. With that kind of control as part of muscle memory, having an automatic transmission is a spooky thing, like having gnomes control one’s car. I can only imagine what sense of fear and loathing drivers used to these ancient ways of driving will have when all are mandated to be carried about by autonomous cars, not to mention the process of getting an approved route from Big Brother Googles that may direct your travels. “I’m sorry Dave, the A&P Tea Company is not a sponsor of the 2070 Olympics, I cannot let you shop there now,” the creepy HAL 9000 voice will say.
Today, we don’t yet have to worry about all that. We can worry about personally driving one’s self off a cliff with no technology other than strictly mechanical and our own biological failures. No one said freedom was simple, safe, or had a purdy mouth. Drive on we did past signs pointing out particular mountains, but it was impossible to stop as snowbanks were high and icy and didn’t afford a space to pull off. After numerous twists and turns, the route to Leadville crosses an iron bridge of uncertain tensile strength that looks like it was built back in the DPW days as part of some art project. The bridge arch appeared more the top of a clerestory window than something designed for hauling loads of tinned beans and trucks of beef. Marking the road each side of the bridge two large pillars stood as if we entered and left a temple not a bridge and the shape suggested that some time ago these posts had once held lighted globes that crackled with blue electric bolts, smoldering incense burned to sate the Old Man of the Mountains or beacon fires lit exclusively when Gondor needed assistance.
After the bridge, the route descends to a valley where the driving is more happy motoring and less white knuckle terror. And by descending, this author means the altitude of the road goes down to 10,000 feet or so. I have crossed the Himalayas, the Andes, the Carpathians, the Atlas, Pu’u Kukui, Sierra Madre de Chiapas, the Urals, the Smokey Mountains, Yanshan, Appalachians, the Sierra Chinaja, the Alps, the Laurentians, Sierra Madre, the Presidential Range, to name a few. This does not mean that I have climbed every mountain. Each range is special in a new and exciting way, and the nature of the Colorado Rocky Mountains separates them from all others. I perhaps am biased as I prefer hills and mountains and tend to have panic attacks about flat ground or suburbs since they are so entirely undefendable from zombie attacks. But perhaps that is just more my own psychosis than any dispassionate objective aesthetic of geography.
The snow cover was scant since it was “early in the season” as well as being “unnaturally warm” which was strange to hear since it was about minus several degrees below zero each night and for some time each morning. In time, and passing a few moose, we rambled into the cold city of Leadville, population unknown since we had no cell service and therefore couldn’t use The Googles.
Leadville had once been the most populous municipality in the state of Colorado after Denver. In 18something the discovery of copious amounts of something valuable brought people from all over. To set itself apart from the dusty primitive camps that passed for towns and cities in the day, Leadville had running water, gaslight, twenty-eight miles of roads in the city, and two operas houses before the more whore house than opera house other one burned to the ground. Famous people came and went to and from Leadville, and today people still claim that the water is safe to drink despite the city being named after a certain chemical element known as a soft metal for which there is a daily and lifetime allowance of zero percent to be taken internally but nevertheless the paint flakes so infused with this substance seem sweet as candy.
The city now is much smaller than before and in places there may be missing several structures of a historic nature. On the outer limits of the city, there is a collection of the usual Dollar Stores, garages, Family Dollar stores, liquor stores, Dollar Generals, laundromats, 99 Cents Only stores, and Super A to Z Jacks Stores. Once beyond the mining museum, the street becomes that Anytown USA found here and there in this Great and Storied Land. Brick buildings line up against wooden ones. Each brick had to be transported by wagon over perhaps that same road I just crossed in comfort in my little heated moto of metal and glass. It made me tired to think of building the city by hand especially since to walk across the street all full of processed food and filtered water wearing warm synthetic clothes and brand new boots made me out of breath and uncomfortable. Greatly out of breath, that is. Huffing and puffing like a forty year smoker. Leadville is also known as The Cloud City or the Two Mile High City since it is situated at 10,300 feet above sea level. This was clearly something that didn’t need to be on a sign post as it was evident that oxygen was something rare and had to be used with care.
At the end of town closest to the mining museum is a large brick structure built by two brothers who came from Delaware in 1880-something and named this heap the Delaware Hotel after the state of the same name. The hotel today is packed with antiques and brick-a-brac, much of which are for sale and in the lobby. Such an array of interesting crap exists that there needs to be a sign that exclaims, ‘This is a working hotel, please see the receptionist for information’ or one may mistake the reception but other than another stall in this here antique barn. Upstairs, the hallways are equally appointed with antiques that appear both stock in a store and displays in a strange and personal museum. A room had been booked in the Old Delaware Hotel sight unseen other than a single photo on the online internets web. The hotel didn’t disappoint in charm or history, while the two beds in the room were arranged oddly due to the “L” shape of the space and the wall art seemed random if not charming. I wondered if any famous people from long ago had stayed here, but looking up the city on The Googles, it appears that other than Oscar Wilde and Doc Holliday, few of the national repute had stayed in town back in the Wild Wild West Days. I did discover that a friend of mine had rented a room at the exact hotel a number of years ago, and like myself almost passed out and slipped down the exact stairs I almost fell down due to altitude and perhaps inebriation. Ah… Good times. One of the great benefits of a relative flatlander coming to such an altitude as in Leadville is that one turns into a very inexpensive date. Each drink is like having 2-3 down at the altitude of the ocean. Mix that with the cost of local liqueurs and brews being priced in local currency, and one four dollar Whisky Sour can set you right for the evening.
Leadville seems a solid hideaway for the winter but would offer much in the summer months too. While most of the city is intact, there are some reminders that the modern world is waiting to swoop in and squat out a few boxes and parking lots, but for the most part there is much of the old West in town and certainly for whatever is lacking, visit the Deleware Hotel and gift shop for that stuffed bison head you always wanted or trinket. However, if you use the bathroom in the lobby and are not a guest, do leave reception a tip. After all, it is a working hotel.