The Most Interesting Person I Met in Leadville

As I’ve mentioned, we had books at our house in Leadville.  They were a poor substitute for women and dope, but they did me sustain as I fought the cold, recovered from dynamite headaches (not from the concussions of mine detonations, but rather from casual contact with undetonated powder), and grappled with the day-to-day challenges of living in the higher elevations of the remote.  Scores of paperbacks covered half a bedroom wall of our little house built like a railroad flat.  Few of the books were mine.  Nearly all had accumulated over several years in the Leadville house and in a number of mountain dwellings predating the Leadville house, contributed by myriad young men who had lived or briefly crashed at said habitations. 

No pulp for a snowbound week here: Most of the books smacked of advanced education and wide-ranging interests.  There were titles by Jung, Solzhenitsyn, Burroughs, Bourjaily, Mann, Kerouac, the True Light Beavers (Don’t ask), Malcolm Lowry, Ginsburg, Sholokhov, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Sanchez, and Ram Dass. 

One paperback on the shelf grabbed my attention almost immediately.  First, there was its cover art: a photo of a solitary, naked, red rock monolith against a beautiful blue, cloud-dappled sky.  Then there was its title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.  Living in Leadville, I naturally opened any tome whose title suggested warmth.  Written by a guy named Edward Abbey, Solitaire was his account of his years as a park ranger at what was then Arches National Monument in southeast Utah. 

So, I read. 

The memoir immediately resonated with me as it vividly evoked an unusual wildlandfor I was still open to a periodic escape to the backcountry, providing it was a warm and snowless backcountry―and did so with appealing doses of philosophy, humor, poetry, and, especially, anger.  Abbey was obviously angry at wilderness degradation, but that bile would resonate with me later.  It was his Thoreauvian distaste for anthill society and its determination to marginalize, if not crush, the individual that clicked with me at the time.  Thus, the Solitaire of the title, I figured.

Abbey’s was the first book I ever read that revealed and celebrated the desert―actually, what scientists and geographers characterize as the semi-desert of the Colorado Plateau―and explained its appeal.  And more than just a paean for a landscape, Desert Solitaire struck me a deeply personal book.  It had an intimacy I’d never before experienced in a work of non-fiction. I felt I really got to know this likable and candid guy named Abbey.  The odor of a real person emanated from the book.

A fanfare for the common loner.  Abbey’s writing style and approach to life has served me to this day.


That’s Amore?

The curtain effectively lowered on my sojourn in Leadville late one November night when, after weeks of increasing tension not uncommon among sexually-frustrated young men condemned to live together in that rugged town of few single women, I was on the receiving end of an airborne frozen pizza as I tried to sleep.  A fistfight with my psycho-drunk housemate―a friend of 15 years, no less―ensued.  I managed to land a few blows as my friend lurched about, but then fled our rental house in my Fruit-of-the-Looms when he grabbed a carving knife awarded to him for his attendance record at the mine.  (Would that his attendance at our house had been lacking that night.) Fifteen minutes later, a third housemate and neutral body politic kindly brought me car keys and sufficient clothing as I huddled in my Mustang in front of our dump on Seventh Street.  Then I drove through the night to Denver and my sister’s rental house, where I made a temporary nest in its basement.  For the next two weeks I commuted the 90 minutes between Denver and Climax. 

Meanwhile, I ran into my housemate/nemesis at the dry.  I was anticipating a snub, perhaps a threatening look.  However, bearing a black-and-blue crescent under each eye (which I found deeply gratifying), he instead grinned and good-naturedly said, “Is the moon in the sky a big pizza pie?”  Stunned by his lack of hard feelings─puzzled, too, as I was at the time unaware of Dean Martin’s signature song─I sighed and grudgingly smiled.  But this gesture didn’t sway me.  I could no longer live in Leadville, nor could I any longer stand the absurd commute between Denver and Fremont Pass.  I abandoned the mountains for a second time and called Denver my home for the next 13 years.


Drip, Drip, Drip

Despite the satisfaction and pride I took in drilling, blasting, and mucking at Climax, and despite my increasing wealth, those high-country bugaboos, cultural famine and chilly weather, returned to dampen my enthusiasm for mountain living.  Paperbacks, trout fishing, and Leadville’s mining museum were not enough to satisfy my cultural needs.  As for climate, a running joke in Leadville was its two seasons: Fourth of July and winter.  The Mosquito Range soared at its back, and at its front the Arkansas River valley swept up through unyielding conifer forests to the gray pinnaclesincluding Colorado’s tallest, Mt. Elbert─of the Sawatch Range.  Above treeline, stubborn fields of rotten snow, filthy with airborne dust, stared down at the huddled Leadvillites even in August.  Come mid-September in Leadville, when below-freezing temperatures overnight were not unusual, I actually looked forward to the “warmth” of my underground jobsite: the temperature at the level I worked was a constant 40 degrees.[1]

Yet there was dependable relief 30 miles southeast of Leadville, offered by an old acquaintance: Buena Vista.  On my days off, I’d occasionally drive there; buy a loaf of French bread, a block of Velveeta, and a bottle of Boone’s Farm “wine”; and head for those gentle hills of juniper and cactus just north of town.  Even at midday in the dead of summer, I’d build a fire of juniper and enjoy the incomparable spice of its smoke.  Then I’d dig my bare feet into the sand and relish the warmth, space, and light of the arid woodland. 

The continuing drip drip drip of the Southwest.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, Fahrenheit is the temperature scale used throughout this text.



Leadville, Colorado: Manliness and Machismo

A friend from my Summit County days, still living in the Colorado mountains, dangled the prospect of a job that would pay three times as much as I was making in Denver: working in an underground mine.  So depressing was my employment situation in the city that I was willing to take another stab at mountain living.  I rejoined my friend, who was now living in Leadville, Colorado. 

I couldn’t imagine a town with a duller name, and I was oblivious to the fact that this name was inspired by a neurotoxin that was poisoning American children who, being children, had been for years eating the sweet-tasting chips of lead-based paint.  Although Leadville, its colorless name notwithstanding, played a significant role in Colorado’s history, I had no interest in learning about it.  I was back in the mountains only for the big bucks, and identification with the adventure, romance, and manliness of what was commonly regarded as a very dangerous occupation was a bonus.  Despite no experience, I was hired as a molybdenum miner, working at a place on nearby Fremont Pass, 10 miles northeast of Leadville, called Climax.

At my job in the ski resort of Breckenridge, I had worked with no Latinos.  Today, I cannot recall engaging so much as a single Latino in Breckenridge’s various bars back then.  The Climax mine, on the other hand, employed scores, if not hundreds, of them.  They, too, wanted to make good money.  They were overwhelmingly male and commuted from Leadville and the more distant towns of Buena Vista and Salida. 

For the most part, I liked the Climax Latinos, for they were like everyone else who worked underground: basically happy, humble, and skilled union men who made extremely good wages, playfully taunted the shift bosses, owned homes, and drove new cars and pickup trucks.  Buried beneath hard hats, headlamps, ear protectors, thermal underwear, jeans, flannel shirts, rubber gloves, rubber boots, “self-rescuers” (emergency portable oxygen sources), and rain jackets and pants (the pneumatic rock drills showered water to keep the bits cool and suppress silicosis-causing dust), they shuffled and waddled through the caves and drifts like every other similarly dressed and accoutered miner.  Swallowed in complete darkness, variously 300 to 600 feet underground, we were all one, each equally subject to a twisted ankle or the random plummet of a dangerous, if not deadly, rock. 

Prior to my arrival in Leadville, a young Latino with whom I worked at the shipping clerk job in Denver had managed to sour me, albeit all out of proportion, on his culture.  Tossing his voluminous shag cut, he strutted around the warehouse in his platform shoes and bell-bottoms, insisted that I look at wallet photos of all the Latinas (he claimed) he had bedded.  No soft-spoken, gentlemanly Eddie Espinosa, he was an annoying, cock-of-the-walk urban Latino giving me my first taste of the toxic Latin masculinity known as machismo. 

There were undoubtedly Climax Latinos given to machismo, although I saw it exhibited only once during the eight months I worked at the mine.  One morning, as a bunch of us were headed from the parking lot to the “dry,” the building in which miners clocked in, got their gear, and prepared to descend into the guts of Bartlett Mountain, one burly hombre in a group of muchachos, walking immediately behind a Latina I’d seen working underground, cooed, “A beeg ass for a beeg man!”  

I was certain the woman heard the remark.  However, she simply smiled slightly without turning around.  I had no idea what she was feeling, assumed she didn’t know the hombre.  Today, feminists would likely characterize the remark as “controlling.”  Back then, the remark merely disgusted me.  Sure, I reveled in my perceived bravado as a miner, but my sister had taught me to respect women, and this ape made me ashamed of and embarrassed for my gender.  Yet I said nothing to him, for he was indeed “beeg,” “beeger,” in fact, than I.  And, shy and verbally inept as I was in such a situation, I said nothing to the woman after we had all dispersed at the entrance to the dry.  




I Return to Denver, Briefly

In Denver, over the course of a year, I made new friends and rediscovered the joy of using a large public library, browsing a bookstore, playing a game of pick-up basketball at a public court, watching a first-run movie.  I enjoyed the company of my sister, who left the mountains for the city about the time of my departure. 

And I stepped into the classic Southwest for the first time, visiting New Mexico.  My sister, her friend, and I drove to Santa Fe and lodged in a motel there.  We visited the city’s historic plaza.  We ate “Mexican” food (actually, New Mexican food) at its restaurants.  What struck me most about the city was its large Latino population and preponderance of earth-toned “pueblo-revival” architecture, although at the time I was utterly unaware of New Mexico’s various Pueblo Indian tribes that for generations had inspired such architecture.  I vividly remember playing word games in the car while returning to Colorado on I-25 in the high-plains northeastern New Mexico twilight.  Yet I left northern New Mexico with no great desire to return anytime soon.  Denver was still novel and exciting and thus I was set on establishing a life there. 

Unfortunately, this meant enduring a succession of dull, unchallenging, low-paying jobs.  I had settled in Denver with absolutely no career ambitions, no interest in how my bachelor’s degree in English would favor or disfavor me in the Denver job market.  What I did for a living in Denver did not matter as long as it put a roof over my head.  My interest was in eating, going to bars, smoking the occasional joint, reading, gazing at the mountains, and finding a steady girlfriend for the first time in my life.  After all, though he could claim at least a partial Ivy League educationColumbiaJack Kerouac wasn’t looking for the bottom rung of the corporate ladder when he first landed in Denver in the 1940’s.  He was content to do manual labor in the city’s Denargo Market district during the day and party and dream romantic dreams on Denver’s Colfax Avenue and in the historic Colorado mountain town of Central City at night. 

But I found myself discontented with working as a shipping clerk, forklift driver, shag boy for an RV and speed-boat dealership, and ditch digger.  I was insulted by the pay these jobs provided.  Yet I had no desire to return to college, get certification as a teacher, and teach in a Denver public school the English I presumably loved; no desire to get an advanced degree in English or begin the study of law, engineering, or business administration.  And I was certainly above learning a trade such as plumbing or car repair.  Meanwhile, I was still without a girlfriend.  Now, I simply wanted to make more money, and one day in 1975 I was offered that opportunity.  


Meeting the “Southwest” of Colorado

In the fall of 1973, following my graduation from Hobart, I returned to Colorado.  Yet I wasn’t bound for Denver.  My sister, to whom I wanted to remain close, wasn’t living there.  She had joined a boyfriend in the Colorado mountains.  The two lived just outside the town of Alma, in a rickety cabin with an outhouse.  At some 10,500 feet above sea level, Alma, at the foot of the Mosquito Range, was the highest incorporated municipality in the United States.  

Several mountain ranges away, a college classmate of mine lived in a combination of bedroom, living room, and kitchenette in a former motel in Silverthorne, Colorado, and he invited me to join him.  Today, Silverthorne is a wealthy high-country playground serving several nearby world-renowned ski areas, including Vail.  In 1973, however, it was a dusty, muddy settlement containing a few trailer parks, a bar, a liquor store, and a convenience store; home to ski bums and workers of various skill levels employed at the nearby Eisenhower motor vehicle tunnel, then under construction.  At 8,700 feet, the town sat beside the Blue River, clamped between the Gore and Williams Fork ranges, mountains upon which piled 200 to 300 inches of snow annually.    

After three weeks in aptly-named Summit County, I realized I didn’t like mountain living.  The dearth of culture was one reason.  I missed Denver’s museums, libraries, book stores, and public parks.  I missed a place where something other than alcohol, sheet rock, tool belts, pickup trucks, and canine behavior could be discussed.  The lay of the land disagreed with me as well.  Prior to Colorado, the only “mountains” I’d known were New York State’s Catskills and Massachusetts’s Berkshires, both ranges rather modest.  Summit County’s massive, ubiquitous formations crowded upon one another, brooded over the towns, cast long shadows at morning and in the evening.  Daily I felt as if my existence was in their vise.  I disliked the weather of the dwindling high-country fall.  I was without a car, so five days a week I hitchhiked in frigid mornings and chilly evenings 13 miles to and from the town of Breckinridge, where I worked every day outside as a construction laborer.  Meanwhile, I dreaded the approach of my first mountain winter.  Everywhere I looked I saw towering ranges, each relentlessly cloaked in dark, mordant pines, each poised to breed raging snowstorms and deliver blasts of bitter cold.  Is this all there is to the storied Colorado high country? I wondered. 

Fortunately, it wasn’t. 

One Saturday in late October, my sister and her beau showed up in Silverthorne in her 1967 Mustang and invited me to join them for an afternoon and evening drive to a mountain town, heretofore unknown to me, named Buena Vista.  Recalling “Espinosa” and “Mares,” I liked the name of that town immediately and, always anxious to flee Silverthornethe name alone seemed to draw bloodagreed to go.  We lowered the Mustang’s convertible top, bundled up, and drove southward. 

We drove through the valley of the Blue River, beneath the grim, gray peaks of the Ten Mile Range.  We drove up the switchbacks, convoluted as intestines, of Hoosier Pass to the Continental Divide.  At the pass’s summit, 11,500 feet, I cast a sad eye upon a fresh dusting of snow.  From there we descended southeast into an empty, windswept mountain upland known as South Park, containing the little town of Fairplay, a stark fretwork of buildings, powerlines, and scattered, thin aspen stands.  From Fairplay we resumed heading south, now in the shadow of the massive Mosquito Range cloaked darkly by the Pike National Forest. 

Some 20 miles south of Fairplay, however, as Highway 285 noticeably descended, we entered a different landscape, one of gentle hills.  The hills were not dark with impenetrable stands of arrowy conifers and spruce.  They were instead dotted with evergreens of some sortI would later identify them as juniper treesthat stood no taller than two or three times my height and often granted each other a generous measure of space.  And the ground beneath them was not smothered beneath ferns, mushrooms, dead pine needles, and rotting wood.  Rather, it glowed in the late-afternoon sunshine with a fine, sparsely-vegetated soil.  From this ground, as spaciously distributed as the junipers, grew stunted cacti, the first I’d ever noticed in the wild.  Meanwhile, the land was webbed with what appeared to be streambeds, but they were waterless, free of choking willows, and filled with what appeared to be bone-dry sand.  Although I knew we weren’t in the classic North American arid land of a Dristan commercial, the word “desert” entered my consciousness for the first time in my Western experience. 

As we continued our descent, progressively warmer air bathed the convertible.  When we emerged from this strange fold in the land, a valley huge beyond imagining appeared, and a slender, golden line of trees threaded through its depths.  “The Arkansas River,” my sister, referring to the thread, explained for my benefit.  And the spectacle didn’t stop there.  Just beyond the valley, there exploded a mountain of equally stunning proportion.  “Mt. Princeton,” announced my sister’s boyfriend, “Fourteen-thousand feet above sea level.” 

Warmth, light, space, majesty, refuge: as “high country” went, this one appealed to me.  Little did I know that I had entered, certainly by some authors’ and geographers’ standards, the “Southwest.”  In a mellow, purple evening, we ate alongside ranchers at a Buena Vista steakhouse, 800 very agreeable feet below Silverthorne.  I didn’t want to leave. 

I lasted another three months in Summit County, and one in neighboring, bitter-cold Park County.  As Annie Proulx wrote of a poor French woodcutter experiencing his first winter in New France’s boreal forest, he “learned he had never before experienced extreme cold nor seen the true color of blackness.” 

Then I moved to Denver, my toes black, blue, and aching with frostbite, seemingly refusing to thaw.  (Due mainly to my imprudence: The boots I wore to work were too small, inhibiting circulation, which, thus, aided frostbite.)  But I would remember and return to that land of sand, cacti, dry creek beds, and luminous woodlands.


In Absentia: Southwest Echoes in Film and Literature

Except for one more summer in Denver, I spent most of the next four years in upstate New York, where I attended Hobart College, and New Jersey, where I lived in the house I grew up in.  During this time, my sense of the Southwest, still largely formless, began to dwindle even more.  Nevertheless, that distant land still found ways to seep enticingly into my consciousness. 

At Hobart, a class in film introduced me to director John Huston’s gritty The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  I especially enjoyed the movie for its depictions of urban (according to the movie, Tampico), and wilderness Mexico, and for Mexican-born actor Alfonso Bedoya and his memorable performance as a comic, yet cold-blooded, bandito. 

Another course introduced me to Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, a book in which graduate student Castaneda narrates his apprenticeship with a Mexican sorcerer, Don Juan Matus, who prescribes peyote for enlightenment.  Castaneda’s “structural analysis” of Don Juan’s “teachings,” which consumes half the book, bored me.  But, given that I was now well into experimenting with mescaline and LSD, I devoured the passages in which Castaneda trips on peyote in the spacious, glowing desert of northern Mexico, a place that seemed much more conducive to visions than the cabbage fields and dense, dark woods of New York’s Finger Lakes region, Hobart’s location.[1]

[1] Critical studies of Castaneda have today convinced me that his tales of “Don Juan” are pure fiction.