Ghosts on the Prairie – Cripple Creek, Colorado, USA

A derelict gold miner’s cabin slopes east, lending a charcoal-eyed loner reprieve from the sting of the wind rolling down from the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. The arrestingly black eyes stare vacantly into the void of the wind-swept prairies. The loner’s sidekicks, a ragged posse of eleven, stand watch under the cover of teetering Douglas Firs and stocky Ponderosa Pines, their swaybacks soaking up the high sun. While darting flies pick at their weather worn ears, rotating like sonar, they scan the sweep of the plains for suspicious sounds. The other four mules listlessly sway in the surrounding prairie, uninformed, unannounced and generally unwanted. Out on highway 67, at the base of Pike’s Peak, the last living laborers of Cripple Creek’s gold rush roam. Rumor has it only these 12 original descendants remain. Their declining numbers beget a sense of loss—a potential clean sweep erasing the only living, breathing connection of the past to the present in Cripple Creek, Colorado.

Cripple Creek is where the last great gold rush in North America fizzled. In 1890, thousands of gold-seekers scrambled to Cripple Creek, then called Poverty Gulch, to stake their claim. Men – and women – established over 500 mines, producing over 21 million ounces in gold, making Cripple Creek the fourth largest producing gold camp in the world. Many believed the earth’s bounty endless. But they were wrong. At the turn of the century, the boom ended. While most of the gold-miners moved on, their pack mules stayed. Some miners released their mules into the hills beyond Poverty Gulch, but others weren’t so lucky. Abandoned 1,000 feet under ground, scores of mules were left to die along with the miners’ dreams of striking it rich. Lately though, the last living 12 descendants of the discarded donkeys have been re-surfacing in town, staking their own claim.

Georganna Peiffer, a longtime Cripple Creek resident and staffer at the Cripple Creek Visitor’s Center, knows all about the donkeys. At the edge of the town, the Cripple Creek Visitor Center – circa 1894 refurbished train compartment from the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad line – looks out of place. Propped idly beside some weed-infested railroad tracks, it looks as though someone plucked the train from its tracks and set it down in a big wide field, like an old toy. Inside the visitor center, the sweet chalky scent of ladies’ pressed face powder and the staleness of antiquity fill the air. Peiffer appears tiny and frail in the impossibly narrow compartment. When asked about the livelihood of the 12 remaining burros, Peiffer’s eyes roll upward to the low ceiling where she plants her gaze on an etch-a-sketch crack. A heavy sigh rolls out from between her thin, garnet stained lips. She edges out from behind her brochure-laden desk and wanders down the short aisle of the compartment. Then, she reveals, “There used to be 13 of ‘em. There was a baby last year, but somebody hurt him. They’re not welcome around here for most people, you know, they hang out in the yards and get into the trash. It’s just awful.”

Outside, the last of the winter wind whips through the visitor’s center, rattling the footing of the compartment. Squeak. Clunk. A stray cat that has been hiding beneath the Bordeaux velvet seats shoots across the aisle. When asked about the tabby, Peiffer explains, “After the last winter storm rolled through here, the cat finally came in. He always ran from me before but this winter was rough. He had to take a chance on me.” Peiffer’s eyes widen, brightening up from behind her bottle-thick cloudy glasses as she recounts the fateful day the cat puts its trust in her. “But nobody cares for them donkeys,” she quips.

Staking claim to anything is mostly never easy – especially when there are only 12 of your kind. But strength is not always in numbers, sometimes charm and allure go a long way. Unlike most western tourist towns where hokey faux-stone jail houses imprison tourists for a fee, or main street "shoot-outs" go down at high-noon, Cripple Creek doesn’t have to try all that hard to bring its past to life. On most days, passersby can spy the last 12 laborers of Cripple Creek’s gold boom. And unlike the locals, the tourists tend to gleam slaphappy wonder when they see the roving pack of donkeys – that same sort of gleam that Peiffer shines for her tabby.

No longer burdened with hauling men’s dreams up from the mines, the remaining 12 donkeys now take advantage of locally made handmade treats; they profit from something akin to fame. A sleeper of a destination, tourists and locals alike can gaze out into the empty blue of the Colorado sky and glimpse a pack of tattered burros, coal-eyed relatives of Cripple Creek’s heyday, ambling across the hills, carrying the weight of gold and men’s dreams on their backs.

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