*Image: “Hilltop Road View of Seattle” by Allen Forrest, 16″x20″ Oil on Canvas Panel
Garbage Heap Wonderland
by Gretchen Comcowich
We pass the last neighborhood before the forest begins. We walk beyond the houses where mountain-hardened residents are tucked away. As we crunch through old snow, the barking dogs and sounds of ATVs fade.
The four of us, cousins, walk through the woods. One swaggers through the snow. He takes a drag on his cigarette; the smoke spirals in the November air. It’s been a dry winter so far; the snow barely reaches up enough to fleck our shoelaces. It can’t be more than 20 degrees outside. There is no humidity gnawing on our exposed faces and wrists. Instead, the temperature settles like an extra layer of skin.
Unlike my grandparents, and a few uncles and aunts, most of my family now lives at lower elevations, where the air is thicker. The cold skin melts away when we see the city lights of Denver through dirty windshields. The city glimmers, gold veins in a miner’s lamplight.
The four of us all have sturdy bones and a tasteless sense of humor. A humor curated and refined by an upbringing with regular, massive family gatherings, cold winters, alpine summer magic, and a dash of Catholic guilt for good measure. But this place, the valley down below, is a part of us—as definite as our shared DNA. It is a strand of G’s and A’s and T’s entwined in the form of a hike, a hike all of us have taken together since we were small. I’m still the only girl.
We reach the break in the lodgepole pine and look down at the valley. The last of the pink and gold limbs of the sun reach over the mountains. A rosy blue haze hangs on the aspen, sagebrush, and yellow mountain grass. The valley stretches a mile or two from the corner where we stand together and stops next to the Pizza Hut. The Pizza Hut: the spot where the highway leaves town. The mountains rise and fall, boom and bust, like the town of Leadville itself. Gold, silver, molybdenum, and tourists: the economies of this place layer on top of each other like the igneous rock on top of the Leadville limestone. Wind and rain have eroded and shaped the mountains over the last 300 million years. Along the way, hydrothermal activity worked its way in among the cracks and crevasses; when the water boiled off and steamed through all of those millennia ago, it left a miners’ paradise in the jagged wounds left behind.
Water still shapes this place, or at least, the lack of water does. As a western girl, I grew up hearing the mantra “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” We all learned basic water laws in eighth grade. Along with reservoirs, rivers, and snow machines, tailing ponds line the highway to Leadville. Runoff from the mines nearby has filled these oversized puddles with unusable water, chemical water, poison water, dead water. What good is something you can’t fight over?
Gold along the creek bed might be the thing most people remember about Colorado’s early settled history, but it was silver that led to Leadville’s creation in 1877. Its population fluctuates with the demand for different minerals. At one point the town barely existed; at another, it was a contender for the capital city of Colorado. People and money move like water here, ebbing and flowing, flooding and drying up. A chart of their fluctuation would look a little like precipitation records, or the steam rising from prehistoric springs.
No matter the population, Leadville remains the highest incorporated city in the United States. During its heyday, Leadville reigned as the second largest city in Colorado. It was a bustling community where corseted women graced the prominent hotels and miners came and went, buying supplies and spending the flecks of silver they extracted from the mountainside. Only ghosts of this past exist now. The buildings still stand, some of them restored, others in disrepair, their gingerbread trim flaking like the mica that glints on the old wagon roads.
When I think of the town, I imagine Augusta Tabor’s lone room sticking out from the Tabor Hotel. Her husband built it for her so she could watch the goings-on in the street below. For many years, she’d worked beside her husband first as a farmer’s wife, then as a miner’s wife; she was one of the first women to live in the miners’ camps in Colorado. Riches came for Augusta and Horace, but not without a price.
I imagine the calluses on her hands fading as profits grew. Just as she became more comfortable, she lost her glitter in the eyes of Horace Tabor. His practicality dissipated with his rising bank account, and then it vanished like a Leadville summer in a September snow. He left her for someone younger.
This valley was once farther from the town. The old Victorian houses stand three or four miles away. The first prospectors and suppliers used the land where my cousins and I now trudge as the town dump. The town’s garbage heap became a childhood wonderland for us. Bits of broken crucibles and plates sent our imaginations soaring. In the sagebrush, we found wheels from Victorian baby carriages, blue glass bottles with the year 1890 melted into their bottoms and the occasional scatter of condoms and beer bottles left by mountain partygoers in the night.
On other trips into the brush, we hunted bones. We found shards of elk ribs and a coyote skull hidden in among the yarrow. It is winter now, and the artifacts of imagination are hidden under the snow. A coyote flees down the dirt path in the distance. I point him out to the boys before he vanishes. Even he is a product of the ghosts in these mountains. His kind has replaced the wolves decimated by sheep herders and government-sponsored trappers. An old man once told me about the signs warning of cyanide bombs left for wolves on the mountainside.
My aunt, a wolf lover like me, chose to stay behind on this trip. She claims that there are many animals in these woods, but we are always too loud to see them. On my trips into the valley I have spotted a hawk and a coyote or two, but never the deer, elk, or snowshoe hares that probably live here.
The Arkansas River is a good three-hour hike from where we stand now. Once, on a summer walk towards the river, our grandparents’ old tomcat, Smudge, and my uncle’s cattle dog, Casey, followed my aunt and me. The two animals got spooked halfway there; Smudge puffed up, looking from side to side. Casey tucked her tail, and both hunched over. I had never seen any of these family dogs so afraid. I had watched one destroy entire families of neighborhood squirrels, rabbits, rodents and birds, leaving them proudly next to my grandmother’s bed.
My aunt and I turned around because Casey and Smudge refused to go any farther. “I bet there is a bear nearby,” my aunt said, and we decided to head back the way we came.
Today, Smudge stayed home with my grandparents. He is old now, but his thick, gray fluff hides his age. He reminds me of Leadville itself. Both are wrapped in history and grit, but underneath they are frail, a shadow of their former selves. We make it halfway down the hill to the valley before I call to the others, “It’s getting dark. We’d better head back.” We shuffle back into the trees from the clearing and walk along a drainage ditch from a mine we can no longer find. The snow is even thinner here, and I can see the dirt underneath, permanently stained golden brown by sulfuric acid. The miners exposed the iron pyrite and sulfides that lay below the mountains’ surface to the oxygen in the thin, alpine air. As they dug deeper, the sulfides mixed with the water they pumped in and then drained out, washing away the unwanted minerals and debris to get at the gold or silver. The acid mixture of water, air, and sulfides will now forever eat away at the gravel and dirt in the valley below. You can see acid stains on the mountainsides along the freeway too—they are the color of two-week-old bruises.
As it gets colder and darker, my thoughts turn to Baby Doe Tabor. While Molly Brown is Leadville’s unsinkable legend, Baby Doe is its best ghost story. Baby Doe wasn’t her real name, but her curvy good looks and flirtatious nature made the nickname so permanent very few Coloradoans know her by anything else. She ran off with Augusta’s Horace Tabor in 1882. They moved to Denver, flaunting their riches and making extravagance look like a sport. In 1893, silver prices plummeted, and they went broke. Horace died ten years later, and Baby Doe spent the rest of her life trying to recover her fortune in the blue and gray and purple surrounding us. She froze to death when she was 81. They found her wrapped in newspaper, huddled in her husband’s last mine.
My grandmother used to visit an elderly lady who lived in the part of town where Baby Doe once walked in her miner pants and dirty blouse. Grandma would come home with the lady’s handmade rosaries, one for each grandkid. The story goes that this woman’s husband worked for Baby Doe, and he and the other workers pretended to work the last decrepit mine, ignoring her whenever she came out screaming.
More and more people move to Colorado every year. Every time I go, more second homes and residential villages, uglier than the sewage treatments around the tailing ponds, seem to pop up and peel away at the landscape.
Just as the miners once rushed up the mountains in search for riches, many people come now for the beauty of the place. They forget that living in a place like Leadville is always a gamble. Will there be enough water? Will you make it down from timberline before the storm clouds cover the mountain? Will you spin out and wreck the car on Floyd Hill when you have to go to a doctor in Denver? Will the thin air affect your pregnancy? Will the snow at the ski areas be enough this year? Certainty is for flatlanders.
My cousins and I climb back up the hill. Soon we pile into our parents’ cars and leave. Even as more people move up into the high country, others still say the best thing to come out of Leadville is the highway. They say that the old town is too small, too isolated, and too empty, that the long mountain winters leave too many bruises, and the living is too hard. I think the truth about places like Leadville lies someplace in the middle, in the valley among the metal wagon wheels and coyote tracks, with the glass shard mountain peaks looming overhead.
Illustrative Imagery by Allen Forrest
“Painting is a cross between a crap shoot, finding your way out of the woods, and performing a magic act. Each time I begin to paint I feel like I am walking a tightrope—sometimes scary, sometimes exciting, sometimes very quiet, and always, always surprising; leading me where I never expected to go. Doing art makes me lose all sense of time and place and go inside one long moment of creating. Whenever I feel a painting in my gut, I know this is why I paint. The colors are the message, I feel them before my mind has a chance to get involved. Color is the most agile and dynamic medium to create joy. And if you can find joy in your art, then you’ve found something worth holding on to.”