June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
The plundering miners have been replaced by the plundering tourists. Can the Rockies survive this new invasion?
The period between the First and Second World Wars was, for the Rockies, a time of cruel suspension and uncertain change. Not even we children could pull the covers over our heads and pretend that the bogeymen were not there, for we were surrounded with the wreckage of hopes that once had blossomed as brightly as our own.
The most graphic of the ruins lay in Colorado’s Red Mountain district, a six-mile sprawl of abandoned workings along one of the headwater streams of the Uncompahgre River. By horseback across the intervening high ridges, Red Mountain was not far from TeIluride, where I lived, but by car it was a long drive around through Ouray and up the resounding Uncompahgre Gorge. Occasionally my stepfather would go there to examine moribund mining claims in which he held an interest, and the trip gave my brother and me and perhaps a friend or two an opportunity to scamper off along the weed-grown bed of the silent narrow-gauge railway for an hour of delicious prowling amidst acres of junk.
Laced among lifeless cabins were long dumps of waste rock, running like petrified tongues from the mouths of the deserted mines that the railroad had once served. Weighted down by each winter’s heavy snowfall, the mill and mine buildings, the stores, the little bell-towered church—everything—leaned a little more perilously each year, until one summer we returned to find that another landmark had collapsed into a heap of splintered boards.
We never found much inside the cabins except broken-handled implements, cracked dishes, and oddments of homemade furniture, for the departing residents had removed whatever was usable. Now and then among the waterlogged layers of newspaper that had been tacked to the walls for insulation we would notice a section of print that was still legible, and we would read, without much interest, of what had been happening down in Silverton in 1906. We investigated the wooden snowsheds that led from each house to its privy. We stirred our shoe toes through the heaps of crumbling tin cans outside the kitchen doors and occasionally saw, without being aware of their value as collectors’ items, old whiskey and catsup bottles whose glass had been stained a delicate purple by years of sunshine. Then we’d hear my stepfather honking the car horn and we’d scurry back. We sensed vaguely that we had brushed across lost dreams, and after we returned to Telluride we realized, during uneasy moments, that the stuff of our own lives was slipping away just as inexorably.
For we could detect the grim note that came into the voices of our elders when they mentioned that another mine up in Marshall Basin had closed. We stood around with our mothers while they watched the neighbors across the street move away, leaving behind a For Sale sign that no one ever lifted from the desiccated lawn. Then another, and another, and pretty soon one of the groceries on Colorado Avenue closed, and after that the lace curtains disappeared from the windows of one of the huts, called cribs, down on Pacific Avenue, “the line” where the prostitutes lived.
By August, 1929, the Bank of Telluride was insolvent and the examiners were on the way in. At that point the bank’s president, Charles Delos Waggoner, had an inspiration. By a dizzy manipulation of cashiers’ checks drawn on the Chase National Bank in New York, he paid off his own bank’s obligations and headed for western Canada, half a breath before the alarm was sounded.
Telluride’s only benefit was a brief lift in spirit. One of their backcountry boys had outfoxed the city slickers, and for a time the name of their town was on the front page of every major newspaper in the land. In the end, though, Waggoner was caught; he went to prison and the doors of his bank never reopened.
By the beginning of the 1930’s the brump of the stamp mills above the town had ended, and no amount of shouting could drive the silence away. Those who were left in the town tried. After all, Telluride was the county seat and a certain amount of county business, financed by taxes on the railroad and on the neighboring cattle and sheep ranches, had to go on until mining came back. All over the Rockies people were chanting that litany, which no doubt the inhabitants of Red Mountain had once chanted too: “Mining will come back.”
We leaned on frail reeds while we waited. A brief upswing in livestock prices ended in 1927 and the market resumed its long postwar slide into the Depression. Desperate for revenue, many cattlemen took to crowding their animals onto smaller areas and renting the balance of their land to sheep growers. Equally desperate for revenue, the sheepmen let their herds crop to the roots both the rented forage and the grass on the public domain, reducing the range’s carrying capacity and creating, with the cattlemen’s help, serious problems of erosion.
The rangeland crisis in the mountains was intensified by the same fierce drought that during the early thirties turned the high plains east of the Rockies into dust bowls. Spurred by the disaster, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act—named for Edward Taylor, a long-time congressman from western Colorado—thereby placing federal controls over whatever public domain still lay outside of the national forests and national parks. Henceforth the most vital single factor in the swift spread of the American frontier—free land— was no longer available. Men could use the nation’s natural resources only under the supervision of gigantic federal bureaus.
The mountain railroads were no better off than the Depression-harried stockmen. All the lines had emerged from the First World War in debt; some were in receivership. The wretched physical condition of Colorado’s principal mountain road, the Denver Sc. Rio Grande Western, led jokesters to scoff that its initials really meant Dangerous & Rapidly Growing Worse.
The matter was no joke to the Rio Grande, however, or to its Ridgway-Telluride-Durango subsidiary, the Rio Grande Southern. The company earnestly wanted to abandon the profitless, snow-heaped, flood-tormented narrow-gauge branches and concentrate on improving and shortening its main line between Denver and Salt Lake City. Heeding the howls of local businessmen who preferred a poor road to none, the Interstate Commerce Commission refused permission. Wretched compromises resulted. Although livestock and ore trains still ran into Telluride and on to Durango more or less as needed, passengers and mail were relegated to a hybrid called the Galloping Goose, a truck body mounted on railroad wheels. There were seats up front for five or six passengers (if that many should ever appear), a van-type body behind for miscellaneous freight, a cowcatcher for nostalgia, and gasoline for power. This unnatural offspring of an efficiency expert’s mating with a balance sheet careened along the rusty rails until 1951, when the D. & R.G.W. at last began to abandon its narrow-gauges.
Strangely enough, the Depression that was suffocating the stockmen and the railroads brought a flutter back to the mining industry. Most of the large gold and silver properties in the mountains were controlled by absentee corporations whose directors seldom had either the opportunity or the inclination to sniff around the edges of the cold workings in quest of crumbs. But local men did. Wages were down, materials were cheap, and they hoped that they could dismantle the old mill and mine buildings and make a precarious profit by wringing gold dust out of the tons of debris that had accumulated during the years. For this privilege they paid the owners a royalty, so that no one lost too much in case of failure. Other men, backed by slightly more capital, poked inside the hollowed mountains, found pillars of ore that had not been removed by owners intent on bigger game, and secured royalty leases on those.
These clean-up operations were quickened in 1934 by President Roosevelt’s abrupt devaluation of the dollar. Overnight the price of an ounce of gold leaped from $20.67 to $35. Lessees promptly intensified their work, building modern little mills to take advantage of newly developed techniques for removing metal from refractory chemical combinations. Relief agencies even conducted classes in gold panning, and here and there, during summers, one saw families camped beside streams while the husbands sought to eke out a dollar or two a day washing gravel as it had been washed seventy-five years earlier by the first stampeders.
It was no true revival, however. The bonanza ores were gone, and the essential smallness of the operations was underscored by the giant bones among which they pawed. Still, such operations provided a living for a few people—until the Second World War. Instantly the gold mines were denied priorities for materials. Shortages closed them down—soaring costs would soon have had the same effect, anyway—and eight decades of often overblown romance, wherein the tail seemed frequently to be wagging the dog, came to an end.
Mining, of course, did not stop; emphasis merely shifted—to the copper of Butte, Montana, and Bingham Canyon, Utah; to the lead that accompanied the silver of the Coeur d’Alêne in Idaho; to zinc in the narrow canyon of the Eagle River below Colorado’s Tennessee Pass; to molybdenum at Climax, high above Leadville; and, very mysteriously at the time, to the carnotite ores pocketed in the plateau country bordering the San Miguel River a few dozen miles below Telluride. Carnotite yields both vanadium oxide (red cake) and uranium oxide (yellow cake). When the carnotite mines reopened late in the thirties we assumed that the goal was vanadium oxide, to be used in hardening steel. We were wrong. Under impenetrable secrecy, yellow cake began moving to an ultramodern research complex at a place called Los Alamos in the Jemez Mountains north of Santa Fe. Years later, when the bomb went off at Hiroshima, we knew.
War-born improvements in technology turned the surviving metal mines into giants. By the mid-1960’s Bingham Canyon, Utah, was turning out upwards of 80,000 tons of copper ore each day —more ore per twenty-four hours than the narrow-gauge railroad had hauled away from Red Mountain in four full years!
In fact, so far as annual tonnages were concerned, mining was back. It did not seem like the old days, however. The new effort was concentrated, leaving hundreds of once-active claims untouched, their tunnels and cabins slowly collapsing. The serpentine supply trains of livestock, their cavernous barns and profane herders, and the ranchers who once had grown fodder for the animals all vanished. The little railroads disappeared. Automation eased the gruelling labor inside the earth; at a new molybdenum mine, opened in 1967 in Clear Creek Canyon, Colorado, a single worker can tell by a glance at a television screen which ore bin far underground needs filling, an operation he then completes by pushing a button. The 4,000 or more inhabitants that Telluride’s strenuous demands had once drawn to the town had shrunk by 1967 to fewer than 600. Burdened with an outmoded tax structure, the decrepit town faced, as most of the reduced mountain communities did, harrowing problems in maintaining schools, hospitals, sewage disposal plants, and other municipal services. That’s what old-timers meant when they said that mining had not revived, whatever the tonnage figures proclaimed.
The drift of people away from the high country was more than counteracted by the rapid growth of cities near the foothills. Most of the newcomers who settled in these cities responded enthusiastically to the dry climate and the dramatic landscapes. College professors, according to one wry bit of folklore at the University of Colorado, were even expected to receive part of their salaries in sunshine, scenery, and pleasantly informal styles of living. Indigenous folk celebrations —rodeos, Indian dances, Spanish fiestas—caught the fancy of many of the new settlers. In New Mexico the architecture of the Pueblo Indians, as modified by the Spanish-Americans, completely won over the home builders settling around the new atomic plants. And only an hour from every major center—from Great Falls, Montana, to Albuquerque, New Mexico—lay the enthralling playgrounds of the national forests.
The salubrious climate and vigorous sports of the mountains had long been advertised, of course. Biggame hunters were attaching themselves to fur-trade caravans as early as the iSgo’s. In 1873, Denver’s Committee of Asthmatics had printed one hundred case histories in pamphlet form and broadcast the hope of relief to sufferers throughout the nation. During the i86o’s, dwellers in the high basins learned to travel about on long Norwegian skis, balancing themselves with a single pole held slantwise in front of them; a few unconventional souls, banding into outing clubs, even used the devices for sport. Railroads eagerly promoted mineral-water spas where guests at ornate resort hotels amused themselves between sips by taking scenic drives in elegant coaches.
These things were exceptions, however. Until the advent of the automobile, outdoor recreation was limited to a few places and to relatively few people. Then, liberated by the new mobility that developed after World War I, venturesome families began visiting the Rockies in their own cars rather than aboard trains. At first most of the visitors sought out the national parks. Later, in the igso’s, increasing numbers took to bumping over the new fire and supply roads that the Civilian Conservation Corps was building deep into forests, where once only unmapped trails had led.
The surge was not limited to summer campers and autumn deer hunters. Stimulated by the success of the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, skiers began prowling the Rockies, looking for runs comparable to those in Switzerland. Hoping to fill empty train seats, officials of the Union Pacific hired a Swiss expert to locate a site to meet the demand. The spot finally selected was the old town of Ketchum on the Wood River of southern Idaho, once a lively center for the distribution of mining supplies and for the shipment of sheep to market. Turning up an eastern fork of the Wood River, the promoters built Sun Valley, first of the major Rocky Mountain ski resorts. The Denver & Rio Grande meanwhile promoted more modest sites in Colorado within reach of Denver and Boulder—Winter Park at the western portal of the Moffat Tunnel; the long hills near Hot Sulphur Springs in Middle Park, where William Byers had tried seventy years earlier to develop a summer resort; and Steamboat Springs on the Yampa River, where eventually some of the first American ski-jump records were established. Other weekend enthusiasts drove automobiles to the top of Berthoud Pass on U.S. Highway 40, then skied down swaths cut through the forest for telephone lines, and were picked up at the bottom of the improvised runs by friends who had volunteered to bring down the cars. Lifts? You were lucky, in those years, to find even a rope tow.
World War II slowed the stampede of recreationists. Afterward, the Depression gone, the number swelled even more prodigiously. Between 1946 and 1964, visits to the national forests in Colorado increased from 1,500,000 to 14,567,000 a year; in New Mexico, from 500,000 to 5,769,000; in Montana, from fewer than 1,000,000 to more than 7,000,000. And these enormous figures do not even include visitors to the national parks, monuments, or historic sites. Each fall, more than half a million Nimrods fanned out through the hills and harvested surprising amounts of wild meat —in 1964 an estimated 81,000 deer and 11,000 elk in Colorado alone.
In the winter the skiers came, seeking multimilliondollar lifts that would enable them to plunge down as many miles in a weekend as some average prewar skiers had covered in a winter. To entertain and house these new enthusiasts, old towns were refurbished— Aspen in Colorado and Alta in Utah are two of the better-known ones. New towns also appeared—for instance, the carefully planned Tyrolean-style village of Vail, Colorado.
Motels, restaurants, garages, filling stations, outfitters, and storekeepers in existing towns were staggered by the concentrated demands of these fluid hordes. For a single example: the permanent population of Lake City, Colorado, located in the heart of a popular trout-fishing and deer-hunting area, is fewer than a hundred people. Then in July and August and for a while in October, upwards of a thousand restless transients flow through the town each day, expecting food, beds, gasoline, and miscellaneous supplies. Since local facilities in Lake City and a dozen towns like it can service only a small portion of the demand, a new kind of supplier has appeared: the man and his wife who during winter operate a desert dude ranch or motel or store in, say, Scottsdale, Arizona, and who at the beginning of the summer load their trucks with saddle horses and dude wranglers, with stocks of gay western clothing, with brooms and portable television sets, and head for the high country—modern-day Yankee peddlers.
Even the decrepit, forty-five-mile-long narrow-gauge railroad running from Durango, Colorado, up the awesome Animas Canyon to Silverton felt the shock. Tourists discovered the exotic little curiosity in the early 1950’s, just when the D. & R.G.W. was preparing, with a sigh of relief, to shed the profitless spur. Such a clamor against abandonment arose that the railroad reconsidered. By 1967 two ramshackle strings of yellow observation cars were being hauled up the wavering tracks each summer day; the so-called Train to Yesterday had become one of the most popular tourist items in the Rocky Mountain area.
Towns overwhelmed by these jostling crowds were not quite sure how to shape their new identities. Some, like Montana’s Virginia City, grew resolutely picturesque and reconstructed themselves to look, they hoped, as they had during the days of the Gold Rush. Others, like Colorado’s Central City and Silverton, succumbed to the carnival trade and filled themselves with tawdry curio shops competing for attention by means of flamboyant signs and amplified barkers. Still others contented themselves with offering comfortable if somewhat standardized accommodations and varying entertainments. A favorite form of the latter was drama, ranging from serious experimental plays at places like Helena to old-time melodramas at Cripple Creek, Durango, and Jackson Hole. Critics of the scene are inclined to sneer at all of them—Samesville, U.S.A., Rocky Mountain style.
Inevitably a few of the people who rolled through the hills began to desire something more permanent than a motel room. Those with modest means obtained title to abandoned houses in the old mining towns by paying the back taxes, then rebuilt the dwellings. More affluent visitors, especially skiers, began erecting second homes at Sun Valley, at Jackson Hole, at Aspen, and at half a dozen other spots. Summer cabins dotted the eastern flanks of the Big Horn Mountains, the meadows of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, the mesas back of Santa Fe. A surprising cultural drift accompanied this movement into mountain camps once notable for their crudeness. Ouray, Colorado, sought to emulate Taos, New Mexico, as an artist’s colony; Central City produced lavish operas each summer; Aspen launched music festivals and intellectual seminars almost as rarefied as the mountain air. Towns as isolated as Cody and Big Horn in Wyoming and Helena in Montana built handsome museums to glorify the work of such western artists as Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington.
Difficult though the problems of adjustment have been for the mountain hamlets, the strain placed on the national forests by recreationists has been even greater. For one thing, the towns wanted the new rush; the Forest Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture originally devoted mainly to conservation, did not. Partly for that reason, the national forests were not nearly as well prepared for the rush as the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service.
The Forest Service was work-oriented. A notion clung in the Rockies, and in much of America, that there was something faintly reprehensible about grown men playing around in the outdoors like unemployed Boy Scouts—unless they were hunting food, in the tradition of the pioneer providers. Thus it was culturally acceptable for rangers to join state fish and game departments in propagating wildlife, but otherwise their concerns were determinedly utilitarian.
Accustomed as they were to that kind of rationale, local supervisors at first looked sourly on the influx of recreationists brought by automobiles. During the early iggo’s, they complained bitterly in their reports about taking care of people rather than forests—of hauling garbage, erecting directional signs, hunting for lost children, and answering foolish questions. Not until skiers began risking their lives en masse did a major shift in attitude occur.
To most dwellers in the high country, these new winter sportsmen were incomprehensible. We who lived there were afraid of snow. The toll of disasters over two thirds of a century had been appalling. In 1874 an avalanche at Alta, Utah, killed more than sixty residents; the exact number was never determined. Between 1875 and 1910, when the last of the Alta mines closed down, sixty-seven more died from the same cause. Nor was Alta unique. At 7:30 A.M. on the morning of February 28, 1902, a slide tore away part of the workings of the Liberty Bell mine above Telluride. As rescuers toiled up from town, a second avalanche dropped on them. And finally, after the rescue work had ended and the weary volunteers were dragging the corpses and the injured back to town on sleds, there was a third slide. The triple blows killed nineteen men, including my grandfather’s brother, and cruelly hurt eleven more. My stepfather-to-be saved himself by seizing a tree as he was being hurled down a hillside; there he clung, semiconscious, deafened and almost suffocated by the snow that had packed like cement into his ears, mouth, and nose.
At a mine where I had once worked above Ouray, a slide swept away the boardinghouse and killed seven or eight of my erstwhile companions. And we all listened to men like Harry Johnson, who had been trapped above Telluride at the Black Bear mine, where the cook and her husband had been crushed to death in their own bed; Johnson’s tale of a dazed groping for help in the white wastes twelve thousand feet high was by no means reassuring.
As skiers unfamiliar with the slopes began thronging them, the Forest Service, which issued special-use permits for lifts that might carry the newcomers to disaster, took to worrying. The result was the establishment at Alta, during the winter of 1937-38, of the nation’s first avalanche-research center. The masses of information collected there during subsequent years enabled not only ski patrols but also highway departments and telephone and pipeline maintenance crews to design protective bunkers at vulnerable spots, to predict unstable conditions, to shoot down threatening accumulations of snow with cannons and special “avalaunchers.” Today, if hazards warrant, slopes and highways are closed entirely, and when accidents do occur, tested rescue procedures are put into operation immediately. The results have been phenomenal. By 1965 the annual toll from avalanches, which once had killed a score or more people in the Rockies each year, had dropped to less than six, although more users than ever were travelling the roads and coursing the slopes.
The guidelines for whatever the Forest Service did, whether promoting outdoor sports or developing utilitarian goals, were laid down as matters of administrative policy by the Department of Agriculture and hence were susceptible to amendment with each change of administrators. To give the programs the dignity and stability of law, Congress in 1960 passed the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act. In this new act, recreational facilities were officially recognized for the first time as a national resource, and the service was ordered to “manage” recreation along with trees and grass and water.
Budgets jumped; crash programs were instituted. Thousands of miles of road were built not only for timber cutters and stockmen, as in the past, but also for growing numbers of highly sophisticated mobile camping units. Visitor information centers, built in imitation of similar units in the national parks, appeared in the more popular areas. Signs interpreting a region’s history, geology, ecology, and whatnot sprang up beside the mountain highways. “Adventure” trails led from parking places into choice dells where viewers might glimpse animals in their native habitats.
Census takers meanwhile stalked the gathering places with clipboards and pencils, trying to determine what the forest visitors really wanted. Most, it seemed, were not touring the forests per se but were passing through on the way to visit relatives in another part of the country. They would leave the direct route if roads were good and afforded roomy turnouts where they could exclaim over striking views with a minimum of inconvenience. Fishermen among them hoped to be able to catch trout from the shoulder of the road and apparently saw no incongruity in ganging up elbow to elbow beside the pools formed by bridge abutments. A significant majority of the passersby insisted that when they “camped out” for a night in a mobile home, they preferred doing it in tight clusters with others of their kind. They desired showers and laundromats with hot and cold running water, sturdy tables and prepared fireplaces, convenient toilets and ready access to grocery stores and gasoline stations. When they returned at night from a day with the power boats or motor scooters that they carried with them, they were not averse to nearby entertainment—juke-boxes, bowling alleys, shooting galleries, cocktail lounges, and the like.
As more and more camping spots of this sort appeared, dissident voices began to sound. As long ago as 1872 naturalist John Muir of California’s Sierra Nevada had spat out in a private letter that “rough vertical animals called men … occur in and on these mountains like sticks of condensed filth.” But were modern recreationists really so inured to urban crowding that they craved similar conditions in the mountains? Or were their attitudes being subtly guided by the purveyors of an annual four billion dollars’ worth of trailers, boats, scooters, sports clothing, and sports equipment—a new breed of exploiter as ruthless as any lumberman ever was?
Whatever the cause of the crowding—ignorance, exploitation, or inherent nastiness—its results were both disturbing and challenging to wilderness lovers. “We are entering a new era in land management,” said an angry conservationist at a statewide Recreation Planning Conference at Missoula in 1966. “Our burgeoning population is descending on every available acre to recreate. … An army of family campers … crowds our public campgrounds every summer and makes Times Square look like a Buddhist retreat. … When the last wilderness trail has been cemented over; when the outdoor toilets are in milelong rows, as close as houses on a Philadelphia street; and when parking lots cover ninety-nine per cent of every park, what then?”
One answer has been the closing of certain remote areas to roads and to all forms of commercial activity except some grazing. This is not a new movement. In 1924, Aldo Leopold of the Forest Service, an eloquent crusader for the concept of “quality” in outdoor recreation, prevailed on the government to set aside as the GiIa Wilderness Area half a million acres of mountain land in southwestern New Mexico. Dozens of comparable reservations followed during the next decade —“wilderness areas” that were more than 100,000 acres in size; “wild areas” that were smaller; “primitive areas” in which limited amounts of lumbering, foraging, and water extraction might be allowed at some future date—a total of some 15,000,000 acres.
Like other Forest Service activities prior to 1960, the preservation of these wilderness regions was a matter of administrative policy and hence subject to arbitrary change. As pressures on the forests increased, wilderness-lovers began to fear that such changes would occur, and they attacked along a broad front, insisting that the entire wilderness system be given the protection of law.
An intense emotionalism accompanied the campaign. The wilderness, its proponents argued, was a priceless heritage—the land as our pioneers had known it—and it filled a spiritual need even for people who never saw it but derived abiding satisfaction just from knowing that it was there. Those who did seek it out found the country’s last true solitude, with its powers to restore and sustain. There, somehow, was the embodiment of what Thoreau had meant with his paradoxical statement that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”
To many mountain dwellers that kind of thinking was incomprehensible. Grazing and timber lands, they said, ought to be utilized under the sustained-yield program. Though lumbering caused temporary scars, eventually the land could be made more beautiful than before through scientific reforestation. Emotionalism appeared in these arguments, too. One Colorado congressman scornfully labelled the preservationists “the deep breathers.” Local businessmen trotted out a cliché as hoary as Thoreau’s: “The economic strength of any nation lies in the exploitation of its natural resources.” Wilderness bills were decried as class legislation—“the domination,” said one Colorado lumberman, “of Public Land Use by … a minority group of the participants,” and hence un-American.
The preservationists won. In September of 1964 President Johnson signed a bill that officially described the wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” More than 9,000,000 acres of former wild, wilderness, and “canoe” areas were placed within a National Wilderness Preservation System, to be managed in such a way as to keep them untrammelled by man—a paradox in itself, since the very word “management” is a denial of wilderness. Another five and a half million acres of erstwhile primitive areas were to be re-examined within ten years to determine whether they merited inclusion within the preservation system. Finally, methods were outlined whereby additional areas could be added to the total.
Within less than three years some three dozen proposals for additions had been offered to Congress. Men who looked on the forests as utilitarian objects wrung their hands. “Some of our esteemed citizens,” wrote “Uncle Dudley” in Nation’s Agriculture (JulyAugust 1967), “are going a little nuts about wilderness. Why, we just got done changing a wilderness into a fairly desirable United States of America.” Anyway, most vacationists preferred the outdoors without primitiveness: “There is no waiting list,” Uncle Dudley snorted, “for the unimproved camp sites!” Enough was enough.
So. The rush of recreationists to the Rockies looks like a new stampede, but in many ways it is a disturbingly familiar continuation of the old story of brutal exploitation. For example:
Not long ago, my family and I, travelling on horseback with friends, rode up Henson Creek above Lake City to American Flats, 12,000 feet high, mile upon mile of alpine tundra rolling around the feet of towering peaks. Scars showed everywhere—colored splotches of waste rock beside old prospect holes, a network of paths eroded into the thin, friable soil by uncounted numbers of sheep, the slash of a mine road climbing across a distant pass. A bruised land—but the wind sang, the cumulus clouds piled dazzlingly. An occasional jeep ground past, following the mine road, its sunburned occupants staring wide-eyed. A family banged along on two motor scooters, children clinging to their parents’ waists; probably they lacked money for jeep rentals, or time or experience for horses, and this was the only way for them to see the highlands. Red flags fluttering from short yellow stakes showed where surveyors were contemplating a normal highway that would enable still more visitors to partake of the scene.
Then we veered away from the sheep trails and the roads, following the old Horsethief Trail through a gap in the rim. During the i88o’s enterprising rustlers had stolen horses and mules in Lake City, had driven them across this breathless route to sell them in Ouray —then had doubled their profits by stealing more stock in Ouray for sale back in Lake City.
Behind us, Coxcomb Peak rose like a cleaver, Wetterhorn like a chisel snout. Ahead yawned Uncompahgre Canyon, 6,000 feet of blue-misted space from the top of Potosi down to the town of Ouray in the canyon bottom. High-antlered deer trotted along the near skyline, watching us as curiously as we watched them. One by one our horses came abruptly off a shale bank onto a sharp gray ridge. We rode dumbly, looking left into the stupendous gash of Uncompahgre gorge; and all at once, under our right boot toes, as startling as a yell in the night, gaped the Cow Creek drop we had forgotten about, one more mile of collapsing cliffs and trees and tormented ravines sliding down, down, down, to soar again on the opposite side to the stark cliffs of Courthouse Mountain.
Long ago someone had named that knife-edged ridge between the chasms the Bridge of Heaven. We held our breath as the horses walked gingerly across. Devilish things had reputedly happened there in the past. Wind had blown one prospector off to his death below. Lightning had killed another. A sheepherder, crossing the narrows in company with a rival in romance, had given the fellow a push. Or so they say. We zigzagged down among stately blue spruce, through asters and paintbrush and grass as high as our stirrups, past deep-blue larkspur, among white aspen boles, lost in a murmur that we called silence but that in reality was only the absence of human sound. Early the next morning we drove from Ouray up the winding highway to the south. High above the town, we pulled out on an overlook and studied the northeastern rim of the gigantic amphitheatre of cliffs, hoping to spot some part of the trail we had followed the day before. There? Or there? We could not be sure—so tiny a thread in the vastness.
“Never mind,” my wife said. “We’ll remember: all of it was a bridge of heaven.”
Our eyes dropped back to the town. Red sight-seeing jeeps were leaving the garages to pick up the day’s passengers. The strident thrum of a motorcycle reached even to where we stood. A huge sign, which we knew glared with lights by night, was stretched across a cliff face, showing the way to a local scenic wonder that everyone was invited to see—for a price. To the right, a large white star and a large white cross gave manmade blessings to the dark spruce. Behind us, noisome as well as visual, a fluff of smoke rose from the town dump, surely the loveliest dump site in the entire nation.
And above, in the high thin blueness, the Bridge of Heaven on Horsethief Trail. Four hundred years of it —the plunder trail to heart’s desire. So it was for Coronado’s Spaniards and William Ashley’s beaver hunters, for the miners and the stockmen and the Utopian colonists, for tie cutters and ditchdiggers. So, too, for today’s vacationists and the purveyors who batten on them—there are, after all, more ways than one to skin either a cat or a continent.
The jeepsters sang and waved as they passed, and who is to say they were any less happy than the backpackers heading for the Mt. Hayden Hiking Trail, up Canyon Creek above the glaring sign? That’s the hell of heaven: defining it to everyone’s taste. Somehow, though, it has to be managed. For there simply are not four hundred more years of plunder remaining, either in the Rockies or in the country as a whole.