Colorado Rockies: A Wild Time in the Mountains
When we first began to think about traveling, we imagined what we thought the west would be like. Our daydreams were monopolized by dusty terrain, antique wooden houses and streets lined by one-room storefronts. We found this spirit alive and strong when we arrived in Central City, Colorado just outside of Denver. Here were all the elements of the Rockies, with the 8,500-foot altitudes, crested mountain views and the thin air of the Continental Divide. It is a place where century-old mines still stand on yellow hillsides and are still run by miners with the trade in their blood. Residents still meet and trade stories at friendly community bars and on a warm day, they still see big horn sheep, mountain goats, buffalo and elk on their regular drive to Wal Mart.
In a lucky turn of events, we had the opportunity to spend two months in Central City, after reconnecting with family in the area. Colleen, Deb’s stepmother whom she was close to, had moved to the mountains a couple of years ago after Deb’s Dad had passed away. We were happy to take her up on her generous offer of hospitality.
Our first drive to Colleen’s was a spectacular introduction to our new terrain. We took backroad 119 off of Interstate 70 and wound our way through Clear Creek Canyon to Central City. Although many people don’t appreciate the area in which they reside, locals here say they never tire of the canyon views. The road curves through tall, mountainous cliffs with sculpted, weathered rock hundreds of feet high. Pines climb the rock; the river follows the curve of the highway and occasionally big-horned sheep perch on the cliffs wondering at the cars while stepping slowly towards patches of dried bush. At some points the road even followed tunnels through the rock, allowing drivers views inside the towering granite.
Eventually the road took us to Black Hawk and then to Central City, both old mining towns that had experienced a recent influx of casinos. Black Hawk was prospering from these gaming halls, including the largest, the Black Hawk Hyatt, which could only be created once workers blasted part of the side off a nearby mountain. Central City didn’t welcome the casinos at first and its streets were quieter with many storefronts and smaller casinos out of business, leaving dusty glass and empty lots. Throughout our stay we were to learn that correcting this imbalance was one of the thorniest, most discussed political problems in the county. Ironically Central City is positioned above Black Hawk on the hillside and had looked down on its less fortunate neighbor until recently. More ironically, 150 years ago, Central City was the largest town in Colorado and expected to be the state capital. Beautiful Victorian Homes and a still active Opera House attest to its opulent past.
Colleen lived in one of the Victorians on a hill above both cities. It is one of the oldest homes in the area with a double view. From the back of the house, in a brightly painted yellow sunroom near the kitchen, we saw a raven, bobcat and bear populated gulch. Last summer bears found their way from this gulch down Colleen’s road and into Central City streets. From the front parlor, we saw views of the towns and the ruins of several old mines. Occasionally, late spring snows blanketed the area with a few inches of powder that gave them a peaceful, antiquated feel. Both these views were especially pleasant in the morning, where we shared quiet moments with one of the house’s resident cats or Pandy, Colleen’s bearded English collie.
Like many homes in the area, Colleen’s house has a rich history. It began as a simple powder magazine for Hazard Powder Company, serving mining operations including the ones we saw across the street and boxes of powder can still be found in some of the back rooms of the basement. Eventually, other rooms of the house were added to the underground section and the house reached its current size. During prohibition, with the Powder Company long gone, hops were planted in the backyard for beer making and part of the original magazine was turned into a speakeasy. The bar remained intact over the years and was used as a tap room where, in the 1970′s Goldie Hawn attended a party there during the area making of the “Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox”.
The upper parts of Colleen’s house have their own history. In the living room with its large windows and ornate, wooden staircase, an antique mural is painted on the walls. While the artist is unknown, the mural is still clear and depicts Janus, Aphrodite and Cupid. On the staircase, reportedly exists the ghost of an old miner who still haunts the house. The ghost seems to be friendly but strange things occur in the house with televisions being turned on unexpectedly and doors becoming locked without reason. At one point, the previous owners found their young daughter acting strangely. She was standing in the living room and pointing to the staircase repeating “Man, Man”.
Ghost stories, like the one in Colleen’s house, are plentiful in Central City. Some locals were sure that pioneer ghosts existed in nearly all of the old buildings and weren’t very happy when casinos displaced the homesteads. One of our favorite stories was of casino slot machine pulled by invisible hands to ring a triple-7 jackpot. Locals swear the unblinking casino security camera caught this but we never saw the tape.
Plenty of non-ghost stories abound in Central City too, and made for lively dinners in Colleen’s sunroom or at the local bar. We heard stories of drunk men shooting rattlesnakes on camping trips, gun fights on the main street of Central City (one of which happened during our stay) and old prospectors wrestling with bears or trapping mountain lions on tree branches until the branch broke off.
As best we can tell, mountain drinkers are especially willing to take risky chances with near fatal consequences – and live. We know of one person in particular who really did ride his horse into a bar and heard of countless others who received tickets for horseback riding under the influence. Reckless driving on curving mountain roads seems to be another aspect of late night mountain life, with cars going into gulches and creek-streams but drivers coming out okay. Unfortunately with the influx of casinos, accidents have increased and we did see cars that had crashed into one of the mountain faces of 119 after coming out of one of the mountain tunnels late at night.
Winding, hazardous roads are another aspect of the area we grew used to during our stay. One of the most famous of these is officially called “Oh My God Road” (you can actually locate it by this name on a map) and connects Central City with the neighboring town of Idaho Springs. It is particularly reckless with steep, beautiful drops, views of the Continental Divide, and barely enough room for two cars on its unpaved surface. Someone we met could name the owners of most of the cars that sat, wrecked and rusted, off the side of this road. He could also recall the time he ran off the road because he was driving with his lights off at night. If he had gone much further off the road he would have dropped hundreds of feet. Instead, he simply got out of his car, walked the rest of the way down the mountain, and had a friend help him tow the car out of the gulch the following morning. The road is so steep that when some tourists drove off it, they walked down to Central City and were rumored to change their travel plans in order to catch an early flight home the next day.
One of the most charming aspects of the community was being able to experience life in a small town. Within just a few days of our visit we met a handful of people who recognized us throughout the rest of our stay and made us feel welcome. At one point, we met a Black Hawk city alderman at one of the casinos. Instantly upon meeting him he seemed to like us and tried to convince us to stay, giving us an inside view of area politics and suggesting career opportunities for us. Within a day, people we began to know in the city had heard we’d met him and that he’d approved. They also continued to talk about our travel plans, how long we were hoping to stay, where we were looking for work and what we did on our time off. It seemed that some of the clichï¿½’s of small town life proved to be true.
Periodically, we took some time out of small town life to see a bit of the area. Central City is located just forty five minutes from Golden, famously known as the home of the Coors Brewing Company. We completed a tour and Deb fell in love with one of their sample brews, a Belgian beer they call Blue Moon Ale. She bought this beer often at grocery stores and even found it at a nightclub where she went with Colleen. Coincidentally, the bar, called Little Bear, was rumored to be the place that gave Willie Nelson his start in music.
In Denver, we walked around the historical district in downtown Denver and spent time at the Tattered Cover Bookstore. We also did some scenic driving throughout Boulder with a friend, Dave Burleson. The highlight of this drive was a huge elk sighting near Estes Park and our stop at charming coffee store in an old hippie town called Ward. This town was was a place where talkative old hippies could go to hide and live their life. It was littered with old cars, strange characters and dogs roaming freely and keeping guard from the top of some of the homes.
We also made a quick tour through Rocky Mountain National Park (although we couldn’t see much as not many of the roads had been opened for summer yet) and stopped at the Stanley Hotel where Steven King set “The Shining”. A last tourist destination was lookout mountain, home of Buffalo Bill’s gravesite and spectacular views of Denver, Golden and the surrounding area. Tourist brochures there said that from this vantage, visitors could see Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas on a clear day.
While in the area, we also were focused on making money for the rest of our travels and worked several jobs. We housesat at a bed and breakfast, Deb waitressed and Jeff worked at a Barnes and Noble. Two jobs we held in addition to these truly immersed us in small town life. With help from some of the residents we knew, we were hired at the area paper to write stories, take pictures and sell ad space. Among our bylines were a front-page story on a Denver reception highlighting the positive effects of gambling in mining towns and a miner’s dinner called a sowbelly supper, named after traditional mining food of salt pork and beans called sowbelly.
We also researched back issues of the 167-year old paper for a column that showcased articles appearing in the paper during the corresponding week 30, 60, 90 and 120 years ago. As we paged through the old issues of the paper for this column we were fascinated. Weddings, mining accidents, politics, drunks, prospectors and investors of years past took us back into the history of the town and showed us the origins of the town spirit we’d seen throughout our stay.
Jeff’s second job at the courthouse working for Colleen was equally interesting. He handled old records and title deeds kept in large leather books in a county vault since the beginnings of Black Hawk and Central City. As marriages occurred or new titleholders came in to claim undeeded land these activities had to be recorded and Jeff and Colleen kept track of this, literally updating pioneer history. At this job we learned that homesteading still happens, and land never deeded could be had for no cost by making improvements over a set number of years. One day, a casino trying to expand came to the office for information. They mentioned that in order for them to secure new land, they had to send a manager to China, meet with the descendants of one of the Chinese miners, and secure property rights. On other days, a crusty lawyer would visit the office, working on claims he had bought cheaply from homesteaders’ descendants ignorant of the land’s value. He was in the process of selling these plots to casinos developing the area. These activities, the past and the future of the area, were recorded in the county office.
In the best possible way, our stay in Colorado was an intense western experience. History came to life for us almost every day here, as we spoke to people who continue to mine, others who plan their homesteads and even others who work rebuilding the mortarless stone walls the way the Cornish miners did. We were told that if we’d stayed later Central City would continue to come to life, people would fill the streets, wildflowers would bloom and yellow roses the miners planted would engulf the stone walls. But we’d seen plenty as we’d heard stories in the newspaper offices, met characters that were a part of the town and walked through the old houses and on the narrow streets that had been here since the beginning.