In The Field: Colorado

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The fascinating emptiness and the desertion of the old mine drew me in. It was creaky, wooden, and on the verge of collapse with rusting bolts and nails about to give way. Snapped cable lines, for the trams that used to carry the ore down the mountain, stretched across the hillsides in twisted coils, wrapped among brush and stunted trees. Crushed rock tailings stood in silent piles next to rushing streams. Even more than the machinery, the long-gone stories about the people interested me: the miners, not caricatures of a crazy old prospector eating canned beans or gunfighters drawing down on each other in a muddy main street, but real miners who worked there. The working-class spaces were now empty — no gripes and no injuries, no conversations about paychecks blown the weekend before — disappeared like melted snow.

Inside the buildings the quiet almost hurts. Yet the same types of men are still up there, driving pickup trucks with dogs in the back and gun racks across the top of the seats, looking for nuggets in the streams and the mountains.

A friend and I were up in the Mosquito Range, in an old mine building. We had the place to ourselves for miles around. We took our time and minded our steps, while the floorboards creaked and the wind whistled through the rafters, enclosed in a world of gray weathered wood.

My eyes followed a trail of dried blood, like paint, running across the floorboards. I felt dense. How did I almost step in it before saw it?

Earlier that summer, an old prospector told us about hearing the mountain lions shriek at night. You bet they saw him, he told us, and sometimes he heard them. In all his years in the high country he only saw a mountain lion once: saw the tail as plain as day when it crossed the road in front of his four-wheel drive. But there up in the thin air, the wildlife isn’t the danger

“Be careful around those abandoned mines,” he said. “They are a good way to get killed. You never know what is going to collapse.”

Back in the mine, my eyes followed the trail of blood across the floor. It stopped, and I followed my friend’s outstretched arm, pointing upward. Half an animal, a ground hog or marmot, was stuffed into the rafters, guts glistening in the muted light, shiny against the flat dust. About ten yards away the lion had stashed the other half, tucked into the crook of a cross beam. I imagined mountain lions’ wild calls echoing off the mountainsides. You don’t see them. They see you. Was one outside in the tall brush, eyes on us? Up above Alma, on the Great Divide, we found fresh tracks moving from the mud into the snow. Another time I saw scat with hair in it, steaming on the trail.

The mountain lions aren’t the only ghosts in the high country.

“You can go to the most remote place you can think of on these peaks,” the old prospector had said, “and then find where somebody’s left something. People have been over every inch of this place.”

Farther up the range, I had climbed Quandary Peak, blazing what I thought was a fresh trail. Up on the mountainside, with tiny wildflowers, boulders, and pikas, I felt I had found a piece of the mountain all my own. Instead, there were tin cans sitting there, waiting to be covered in the next snowfall, from where a prospector had stopped for a meal.

In Fairplay, I did a bit of prospecting in the rushing stream behind town. You were allowed to dig through the tailings, take buckets of dirt and swirl your pan in the rushing water and keep what you found. In a summer of Saturdays I found barely enough gold dust to cover a fingernail. One afternoon, I went into a fresh pit between the boulders and grabbed a bucket of sandy soil. When I got to the stream two mangy locals glared at me. One looked like a woodchuck, with a tobacco-stained blond beard, and the other one was darker, unshaven. They had trucks and malamutes, and each also had a Glock pistol, in a holster slung low and wrapped around the thigh.

“You better not have got that from our hole!” said the woodchuck with the sidearm.

I just looked at him. He had a gun, but I wasn’t going to lie to him, so I just stared and he turned beet red. I didn’t know there were rules about where you could or couldn’t fill your buckets. After a few seconds we stopped staring, and I went to my part of the stream to pan in the fast water.

Later, when the two left, Woodchuck stopped and said, “Well, I guess you can go right on ahead and use our hole, you should get some pretty good color out of it. Better than letting those assholes from Denver get it,” he motioned towards a middle-aged professional and his buddy, panning contentedly downstream in clean, expensive outdoor gear.

I nodded.

As they went to their pickup trucks I thought they were nuts. But panning in that stream, mountains off in the distance, birds flapping through August snowflakes, I felt a twinge of gold fever. Walking on the dirt roads I found myself stopping to look if I really didn’t just see a nugget sticking up from the gravel.

Filling it with sandy dirt from their hole, I dipped my green plastic pan, cold water freezing my wrists, shaking it back and forth while the current took the lighter stuff downstream. Within a few minutes, the first bits of gold appeared, bright and crisp against the pan. The black sand swirled away and a metallic flash of gold dust showed itself underneath, a selfish blend of magic, discovery, and payday all rolled into one. Better me than those assholes from Denver, indeed.


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