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The Best Person I Met in Leadville

No, books didn’t keep me in Leadville, but they did sustain me 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 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 in the house over a period of a year or two prior to my arrival, contributed by myriad young men who had lived or merely crashed for a week or so at the dwelling.  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 is his account of his years as a park ranger at what was then Arches National Monument in southeast Utah. 

So, I read. 

The memoir resonated with me as it vividly evoked an unusual wildland―for 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, nods to classical composers, 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: I felt I really got to know this likable and candid guy named Abbey.

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

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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 (perhaps somewhat similar to today’s “involuntary celibates,” although without the misogyny) 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.  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.

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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.