Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative travel blog where you can join me vicariously in adventures around the world. I tell my stories through both words and photographs. If you're joining me on a mobile phone, click HERE to quickly access the archive and essays. People say to me all the time, "You should write a book about your travels." Well, my friends, this is essentially it. And in this age, an online blog is easier, displays a bajillion more photos, needs no publisher, and often reaches a broader audience than in print. Unlike a formal book or essay, though, I'm mostly just writing casually off the top of my head, but I hope, dear readers, you will feel as if I'm having a conversation with you. In the archives you'll find personal posts from some of my travels. To read my more formal articles and documentaries visit one of the blue buttons above or see the Travel Essays section (the bubble below the archive bubble). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
Subscribe to the SKJ Travel newsletter to be notified when new posts go live. Simply enter your email address in the Updates box (bubble to your right)
This is an article based on interviews I conducted with Mr. Trevor Ellis, who also graciously shared some of his photos with me, scanned from his film originals. Please note all photos included here can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click).
Three men saw the enormous white bird land in a clearing, creating thunder and unearthly wind, and a white spirit fell out. The bird flew away and left the spirit — or was it a creature? — on the ground. The men ran down the hill as fast as they could to investigate but by the time they got there the bird was high in the sky and the white mystery had bolted into the jungle.
Long spears in hand, they searched through the jungle for some time but never found the white man who was lying flat on his stomach on the ground, still as a tree root.
“I could run pretty fast and I didn’t have that much gear with me, not even my two-way radio.” Usually Trevor tried to get his sediment samples via trekking on foot from his base camps, but some places he was supposed to sample would take so long to walk there, it made more sense to fly. Helicopters were the mode of transportation in the jungle. On this day, the helicopter dropped Trevor off in a clearing at about 11,000 feet, the highest the helicopter could fly, near a gravelly stream cascading down a mountainside. The helicopter hovered and Trevor jumped out; it would come back four hours later to pick him up.
As the sound of the helicopter faded away, he heard hoots and hollers. “About 100 yards away up the stream slope, natives were running down the hill toward me just wearing penis gourds, nothing else, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know that these guys are friendly.’ The way they were waving their spears around, I decided not to stick around to ask them, so I sprinted off into the forest.”
When the natives gave up the search after about 20 minutes, Trevor got up from lying on his belly and continued on with his work, collecting the samples he was tasked to. Four hours later the pilot returned to the clearing but the men with spears were not seen again.
“They probably had never seen a helicopter or a white man before. In those days this area was incredibly isolated. I never saw a jet airplane fly overhead in my entire time [spanning two years] in Papua New Guinea.”
Photos: Above men holding arrows and spears similar to the men he hid from; the spears have different tips on them depending on what animal they are intending to kill with it. Below a typical penis gourd worn by some tribal men.
I asked Trevor, “Did you or do you dream about these experiences? I’m wondering what kind of impact they had on your psyche.”
“No. Actually I didn’t find it all that disturbing. By this time I’d been through so many things that were sort of near death. Close shaves were very common in my work. I’m not sure I even told the other people I was with.”
Of course not; what young geologist in 1973 would bother with such a mundane story as being chased by naked natives with spears while collecting sediment samples in the highlands of Papua New Guinea? Although to be sure, most of his camp mates might not have been impressed, as they were other natives hired for him as translators and porters. He seems to feel bad about it now – it would probably be considered a bit un-PC in this age – but he often paid his crew in tobacco for their work. The company he was working for provided him the tobacco. At that time currency was just starting to be used in PNG, and day labor could be paid for in tobacco or currency.
He mentions a few such "sort-of-near-death" things with his disposition toward understatement. One night a big rainstorm high in the mountains caused a flash flood that tore through their camp lower down in the middle of the night, bringing snakes and debris right through his tent. There wasn’t much higher ground to climb to but they managed to get out of the way. The native crew were terrified as they didn’t know how to swim. But Trevor says, “It was rather exciting.”
Photos: Above typical base camp set-up for 10 days at a time; Trevor's tent and field supplies set upon a platform made of felled trees by the porters. Below a typical lean-to the porters built for themselves at base camps.
A more disturbing time was during one of his regular camp relocations, which were often conducted via helicopter —a far more expedient way to move than carrying everything through the extremely difficult terrain on foot — "the helicopter flew away with half my crew and didn’t come back." It was supposed to return for the other half of the people and supplies. "But it turned out the engine on the helicopter went bad. We screwed up and uh, well, he also had our food. The remainder of us went for three days without food."
I asked, “Were you starting to get worried?”
He replied, “Well the real problem was we couldn’t get communication either. So we didn’t know what was going on for those three days. I could guess, though." He had mentioned earlier he had a voracious appetite during his time in the PNG highlands, so he must have been painfully starving, but it’s hard to get a statement of alarm out of him.
"We ate beetle biscuits." I.e., little beetles they popped into their mouths live. "They were bland and crunchy." But not remotely filling. The remaining crew stranded with him, though natives, were agricultural people from a different part of the island who didn’t know how to catch or select edible foods from the jungle.
I had been wondering after a few hours of interview if he ever faced these rather extreme situations with anything but equanimity or secret glee, when he mentioned a moment of "extreme fright." Climbing around rocks and cliffs they didn’t have ropes or anything like that with them. One time he was on a ledge in a vertical cliff face near a waterfall, high above the river, and needed to jump over to where he could take a sample from the sediment in a small pool. As he jumped over a narrow channel, the rock on the side he landed on was slipperier than the one he left, and he slipped and landed on his belly on a rock ledge hundreds of feet up from the ground. He says it felt like ten seconds but was probably just one as he pushed himself back from the edge of the abyss that would have been his death.
But perhaps the most alarmed he felt in his work, I finally learned, was a time when he was working in remote northwest Australia, his home country. He was camped on a dried river bank next to a little lake. One afternoon swimming across the lake, "a pair of nostrils came up in front of me." A bit of laughter escapes him before he continues, "And then a pair of eyes a long way back from the nostrils. I just thought I was dead, I didn’t think I had a chance.”
A large salt-water crocodile was trapped inland for the season when the river dried up. About 20 yards away on shore, a co-worker happened to witness the scene, grabbed a hunk of wood and threw it at the croc, and hit it dead-on. "The croc rose up out of the water, all four feet in the air, water pouring off of him, while I swam by it. That was a really, really close shave.”
“They just told me where I was going and dropped me off.”
Trevor had been on his way to another job in Australia when he got a call that told him to go to PNG instead. On a dime he switched gears, got himself some vaccination shots, and he was over there in ten days from the call. U.S. Steel Corporation was trying to diversify into copper mining; Trevor was contracted through a middle-man company to explore the Western and Central Highlands region to the Indonesian border, taking sediment samples to test for the presence of copper.
“I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I’d been working in a pretty isolated place in Western Australia, but Papua New Guinea was taking it to another extreme.”
At the time Trevor was working there, PNG was still a territory under Australian rule; it established its sovereignty in 1975, just after he left. PNG is one of the most culturally diverse nations on the planet, and most citizens still live in traditional communities. But given the diversity of tribes, the types of communities and living quarters can vary widely, just like "clothing" or lack thereof, body modifications, etc. There are over 800 known languages!
Even today, PNG is one of the least explored countries, mostly due to the extreme terrain. Still today, air transport is the primary means of getting around, there are few connecting roads, even to the major cities. The interior jungles likely contain numerous undiscovered species of animals and plants. I've read that some people theorize there remain "uncontacted" tribes therein. A big reason I was keen to interview Trevor on his experiences in the 1970s is because I was spellbound watching films, and reading articles, documenting Westerners' first contact with some tribes in PNG ... people living with stone age-caliber technology and frightened of the white people, fascinated with things like ballpoint pens. (I had the same interest in first-contact documentaries with tribes in the Amazon.) About 80% of the population continues to live in traditional, and often very isolated, communities with few or no modern "conveniences."
I knew PNG had been pretty infamous for the number of tribes engaging in headhunting and cannibalistic practices. Apparently by the 1980s, these practices had all but died out except in the more isolated areas, where it was still going on in the 1970s. Trevor encountered at least one village where the large huts had human skulls hanging all around the outside like decoration. In the photo below, you can see three of them hanging from the floor boards to the left of the man leaning against the hut.
As you, my readers, may know my interest in witchcraft culture through my friendship with Berrie Holtzhausen and the film I was involved with making about him, African Witchfinder, I will mention that witchcraft and witch killings are rampant in PNG. I watched a documentary with Ross Kemp that revealed the "witches" are also often horrifically tortured for hours and even days before being killed. Recently Berrie was involved with a Zoom meeting with people from PNG on the topic, perhaps combining knowledge and experience in combating the problem (I haven't actually gotten the low-down on the meeting yet).
So in light of how unexplored and unglobalized the country remains in context of today, imagine what a wild land it was in the 1970s.
"I had no idea what it was going to be like," says Trevor, "what the conditions were like, I didn’t have a concept of how isolated it would be. I learned all this as I went along. And gradually I learned what happened to the fellow I replaced." The guy originally tasked to do this work had a nervous breakdown. The heat, the insects, the extreme isolation, the river crossings and continual hacking through a jungle that blotted out most sunlight — it wasn’t particularly uncommon for foreigners in these situations to break down. That guy had to be flown home.
(The next job he took in Australia after PNG, Trevor again replaced a man who couldn’t take the tough conditions.)
Like early polar explorers seemed to have superhuman abilities to tolerate cold, Trevor had the good fortune of being able to tolerate heat. Before coming to PNG, he spent some time working in the harsh desert sand dunes in northwest Australia. He drank 10 gallons of water a day and was coated in a white crusty layer of salt at the end of each day. He had to take salt tablets each day to replenish what was lost through his sweat — every fourth gallon of water had a tablet with it. He said one day he sat next to an Aboriginal man in a pub and his white-man skin was darker than the Aboriginal’s.
He was able to handle mosquito and other insect bites without much trauma, even when he was coated in bees and had to run to the river like a cartoon character being chased by the angry stingers.
He learned to have exceptional balance, crossing rivers and gorges on skinny little trees that served as the natives’ bridges, machete hacking his way through dense soggy jungle and slippery tree roots, walking through rivers on super slippery rocks. Never using ropes climbing rock faces. Below are some photos of river crossings and typical "bridges." The native men are his porters.
The man sitting on the rock below was Trevor's "head" porter for a time (he had different tribes as porters in different areas of the country). His only duty, though, in the actual "portering," was to carry Trevor's two-way radio. That was the single most important piece of equipment, the only contact he had with the outside world. He said that it only worked about half the time, but it presented the only possibility of communicating with the company headquarters on the island to request supplies or an evacuation or exchange any other important information.
“I was pretty darn good with a machete,” he says, which I'm sorry, but you just would never imagine that meeting him today. Even though I'm a serious introvert, I do enjoy talking to people, especially older people for precisely this reason — the things you would never imagine about a person. The most ordinary person picking out an orange in the grocery store might have an epic background. Maybe they are a decorated war hero, maybe they invented something really important, maybe they escaped from the Khmer Rouge or China's Cultural Revolution, maybe they nearly starved to death one year. This is also one reason I love traveling the world — the stories behind peoples' lives in other countries are often even more astonishing than those in America because of the different conditions and histories of those countries. Anyway, I digress. Merely to say, don't ever judge a book by its cover.
He had teams of 10 natives with him at most locations to carry gear, and an assistant to help with the field work. He went through a lot of boots that rotted out from walking through the rivers. He eventually started to go round barefoot like the natives but he was warned about getting hookworm and decided to try going back to boots. Then there were the leeches, the rashes he would get, the mosquitos .....
He showed me a photo taken of himself standing the jungle with his shirt off, his hair and skin almost painfully pale (hard to envision him once looking like an Aboriginal!), and his back covered in beetles, the ones they ate as "beetle biscuits." I would have already run screaming from the jungle the moment my back became a porch for so many insects.
Amazingly, he never got sick or diarrhea drinking water straight out of the rivers in PNG, eating local food, munching on live beetles in the jungle. However, all his scrapes and cuts, inevitably accrued traipsing through dense jungle, would suddenly become infected at the same time. About every six weeks, he would fly out to recover for a couple weeks on antibiotics and then happily return.
It’s as if his body was especially made for jungle exploration. It seemed to know its destiny way before Trevor’s mind at the helm discovered it.
"At the time, I really liked the work [the remote assignments]. Being from a little country town, a coal mining town, youngest of three boys, it was great to get away and be totally independent and develop my own confidence. I was a really shy kid. In college I worked like a dog just to get passing grades."
When he managed by the skin of his teeth to get accepted into university, all freshmen had to undergo an intensive psychological examination. It was here he learned that all his questionnaire answers indicated he was on track to be the most average kind of person. Average number of kids, average income, average house on an average street, average humdrum career.
This – like a crocodile coming for him in the water – was alarming. He studied his brains out, so to speak, in order to graduate university, determined to thwart that prophecy. At that time the university system in Australia weeded out about three-quarters of the students — roughly a quarter of freshman made it through to graduation.
Straight after graduation, Trevor took a job and was sent off into a remote corner of Australia, his first taste of geological exploration, I guess you would call it. That type of isolated field of work attracted some "interesting" personalities. "For someone to be working out in those remote areas, they typically seemed to be running away from something. I mean really running away from something." Some personal demon or the law.
He found out one day that one of his coworkers was a murderer when the guy hopped in a truck and tore off and never came back. Trevor didn’t know why until the police came through and revealed his coworker’s crimes. If Trevor was running, I think it was simply away from his shy, average, unremarkable self into his real self, running toward his heart.
In its main base camp building in PNG, U.S. Steel had a big topographic map of the island on the wall, stretching from floor to ceiling. But in a large northern portion, it was just a blank white space, no lines or data. “That’s where I was hired to go,” testing for samples of copper in the silt on the land U.S. Steel had leased. He was directed to sample every stream valley.
Not even the Australian governing administration knew anything about what was in that area. Fifty miles x 100 miles of uncharted territory. There wasn't even aerial photography of the area because of the persistently cloudy skies. So Trevor had no idea what he would encounter in terms of the terrain he would be confronted with or the people he would meet. Three men that he decided not to meet were the ones who ran toward him brandishing their spears.
One thing he did have was aerial radar images at 4 inches-per-mile scale and his compass. He could make out the streams pretty easily in these images because they were breaks in the vegetation. On the ground, his compass was all the GPS he needed. One evening trekking back to camp from a ravine he was sampling, his porters had not paid attention and they found themselves in the wrong ravine to go home. As it was getting dark, there was some anxiety among the natives and it was Trevor with his trusty compass who led them back to their own camp ... they could hardly believe the white man knew the way better than them!
The company specified spots he was to reach and take samples. He would then fly around in a helicopter sketching out the terrain on a letter-size plastic sheet on his lap and then tell the pilot where to set him down, with the directive to come back in ten days and pick him up at the same spot.
"It could be very rough terrain and the managers didn’t have any idea the reality of the conditions. They asked me once to traverse a certain area from one drainage system to another in five days. I estimated it would take at least two weeks, then came to find out two other parties had recently attempted the crossing and had to turn back, so I didn’t attempt that one." Rather than argue with his superiors about it, he simply went somewhere different without consulting them, and that happened to be where he landed on his belly above the abyss in extreme fright.
I guess mostly on account of nature shows I've watched on television about PNG, I had thought living and working in the jungle would be a story full of slithering snakes and exotic colorful birds. But the reality for Trevor was that the jungle was so dense, mostly all he saw was flora — leaves, vines, roots, trunks, and more leaves, and mostly all he heard, rather than exotic bird calls, was insects, cicadas and the like. One time he saw a tree kangaroo, but unfortunately his native porters shot it with a bow and arrow and ate it.
There's a large family hut in the tree below if you can pick it out.
Corresponding to a wide variety of tribal customs and languages, types of dwellings also varied from region to region. Often they were erected in clearings, either natural or man-made, and typically many people sleep together in one big room and they often have a fire going, filling the hut with smoke. Perhaps as a form of insect control. One evening Trevor and his porters ran across an empty hut and decided rather than setting up a camp, why not use the building that was there. Once nighttime fell, Trevor lit his gas lantern and flying ants came out in droves ... picture Daphne DuMaurier's The Birds but with flying ants. Ewww. He quickly decided it was better to spend the night in darkness.
Below is a beautifully decorated community hut – it served as the main administrative and police building for the area. The guys sitting on the bench on the right are prisoners. Pretty sweet prison cell, eh?
The first building below is a post office (for whatever pittance of correspondence came to the administrative center), and then what is probably a ceremonial building (Trevor couldn't remember exactly) fronted by totems.
I asked about his cultural interactions, like what all he learned about different tribes — if it had been me, I would have asked all kinds of questions about their traditions and ways of life, and of course bride prices. But cultural learning wasn't really on his table for a couple reasons. One is he was mostly just focused on his work, at that time his interest was in dealing with the tough conditions and completing his assignments. But also, a significant inhibitor to chit-chatting was the language barrier. As mentioned earlier, there are over 800 different tribal languages and no lingua franca among the more isolated tribes.
Just asking "directions" could be challenging, as in "how long to reach the river" or "how far away is the next ravine." Like many folks living traditional lives in jungles and deserts and savannas, they have no need for and therefore no language for precise times. "A little ways away," "not long," etc., were the typical answers.
Often it would be a chain of three translators before words got from Trevor to the locals he was interacting with, and another chain to get the local's response. So asking complicated questions requiring lengthy answers would have been tedious. He had to scout for someone who could translate from the local tribal language to a tribal language that his porters spoke, and then his porters translated that into the pidgin English they spoke (which Trevor learned to understand). I listened to a course once on the evolution of language, and one of the modules was about the pidgin English in PNG, it's pretty interesting how pidgins start and evolve, and how quickly they can do so.
But he could actually tell me something about one of my biggest interests: bride prices. He said a cassowary bird like the one hanging out with him and a colleague at a headquarters camp, was extremely valuable and that "a man could get two brides" for one of these birds.
The language barrier was often unnerving, and just as unnerving for his porters as for himself, if not more so, as they were intimately familiar with how unfriendly and violent other tribes could be. Trevor knew this as a fact, but they surely knew it from experience.
One time a little tribe of about 30 natives followed Trevor and his porters for about a month, spying on them through the trees. Eyes in the jungle always watching them. The porters didn't know how to communicate with them and they were really spooked. But eventually their shadows decided to officially join up with them, I guess deciding the pale man was benign and interesting. This came in handy when Trevor unexpectedly needed to be evacuated by helicopter as quickly as possible.
He had been stabbed in the eyeball by a hard, sharp and pointy leaf on a tree — it slammed into his iris when the person in front of him brushed by it and it swung back into his eye. “I didn’t worry about it for a couple days, but then my eye got infected. So I had to get hauled out of the jungle by helicopter to get it treated in Mt. Hagan."
But in the thick jungle, helicopters can't just land willy-nilly. It would typically take a crew of native porters several days chopping down trees to mark a flight path — an approach and take-off — and stacking them into a thick mat to make a helicopter landing pad. In this emergency situation, the shadow tribe gladly pitched in with their stone axes to help quickly clear a landing pad for the rescue. By "quickly," of course, I mean in PNG jungle time: two days.
See the little kids of the shadow tribe standing around wanting to help while the men cut down trees:
I said it sounds like that would have been a very painful experience. He said, “Oh I can tell you, that was really incredibly painful during those two days waiting to get out of there.” But he wouldn't have mentioned the pain unless I had asked.
"It was tough conditions all the time, really tough," he said. So I asked, “What was the most uncomfortable aspect?”
“Well, it suited me quite well.” Getting a complaint from him is as difficult as raising a sign of alarm. “I didn’t mind it, I really liked the work, the solitude and independence it gave me, it gave me a lot of confidence in myself. Although those things got me fired from other jobs where I told it like it was instead of what the company wanted to hear. Working alone I had only myself to answer to. Why should I tell anyone else anything but the truth?”
Now sitting in his office full of bookshelves as we Zoom, his phone rings at regular intervals, rerouted after a few rings to voicemail. He sips on water, though not much more than I do. He even tolerated radiation for throat cancer in such a way that shocked his doctor, who had prescribed three months of therapy and recovery time after the radiation. Trevor had quit therapy and was back working after two weeks.
He often takes a minute to chuckle at a memory before relaying it. The stories he’s most fond of are of the feats of others, rather than his own, namely the helicopter pilots. They sometimes landed and took off from places Trevor was convinced were impossible, even after having spent so much time landing and taking off as a passenger, regularly moving base camp and getting resupplied by helicopter every seven to ten days.
He recalls one rather thrilling ride when his favorite pilot, who was fresh out of Vietnam, executed a perfect take-off at a 45 degree angle, basically redlining both the motor and the rotors. The pilot was so excited, he explained to Trevor all the numbers and specifications about how everything worked perfectly, so Trevor suggested they go back to a site they’d passed up earlier because he (Trevor) thought it would be impossible to land.
The pilot knew so precisely what was needed to perform this, he told Trevor they had to get the fuel tank down to having only just enough to get back to camp, so they flew around for 20 minutes just using up fuel before descending through the canopy, where there was just enough room underneath the canopy for a helicopter. Not really descending, though, “He just drops the helicopter down through a hole in the trees” and then hovered beside the stream while Trevor jumped out.
While he was collecting his sediment samples, the pilot had fun doing laps back and forth beside the stream underneath the canopy. To leave, he revved up the motor and rotors again like a race car at the starting line, then "just flat-out acceleration and shoots the helicopter up vertically straight up through the trees."
Another time after a pilot picked him up from his sampling spot, they’d just barely gotten into the air when the pilot told him to get out, the copter was losing power. So Trevor jumped and then the pilot just disappeared. He waited there in confusion for awhile until the pilot came back. But instead of picking Trevor up, he pointed downstream and dropped a machete out of the helicopter. So Trevor had to spend about thirty minutes hacking his way along the river to where he finally saw the chopper was waiting for him on a little island. It had gotten caught in a downdraft which is why the pilot made Trevor bail, but Trevor didn’t know why at the time as he was grudgingly muscling his way through the jungle.
His time in PNG was ended by a case of appendicitis, at which time he had to fly to a hospital in Australia for surgery. He had a subsequent assignment in remote Indonesia. The living and working conditions weren’t as rough but he had more engaging cultural encounters, he says. There, a parasite entered his blood stream through his skin and shut down his kidneys. By a stroke of luck he got medical treatment at the British Embassy in Jakarta, where he was told he would have been dead in the next 24 hours if he hadn’t gotten proper treatment. But this isn’t what ended his days of high adventure in what were some of the wildest places on earth at that time.
It's a common end to even uncommon tales. The lives of many an explorer were becalmed and domesticated when their heart strayed into the territory of a woman and let itself be captured and drawn into a different realm of adventures in family life. After he was married he got offered many jobs to other exotic locales around the world. He would have been keen to take them but was quickly told by his beloved, “That wasn’t going to work.” So he never took any more.
Trevor met my dad after he was married and working a more civilized job. The two of them eventually worked on many consulting projects together in the synthetic and alternative fuels industry. That’s how I came to know him, and many years after my dad passed away I looked him up to learn more about his early adventures I had heard him mention in passing.
I asked what kind of tools the natives used to cut down the trees – stone, wood, metal? He gets up from his office chair and disappears off screen for a few seconds and comes back holding a stone axe with a beautifully decorated wooden handle. In his living room he has two large bows hanging on the wall. Not souvenirs, they were ones his porters carried as they made their way through the jungle, similar to the one the man below is using.
To meet him today — an expert in computer database programs and a court witness for minerals evaluations, dressed in crisp professional attire, blonde hair, pale skin, slight frame — the last thought that would cross your mind is that those bows were from his job, like emptying out your cubicle when you leave a job and taking the office stapler with you as a memento. Those were a part of the world his personal day-to-day living experience took place in.
He says he plans to retire next year, and I hope he will. He’d like to travel around a bit, maybe go back to Indonesia, but not PNG. "The Australian government pulled out too soon," he says. "The country wasn’t ready to run itself yet." And indeed it’s now one of the most violent countries on the planet. Tribal warfare is endemic and now guns are being imported and so revenge killings are no longer you shoot one guy with an arrow, their tribe shoots one of your tribe with an arrow in return, and back and forth. Now Tribe A shoots 20 people of Tribe B in retribution, so then Tribe B ups the ante and mows down 30 from Tribe A, who has to up the ante by burning down an entire village, etc.
What I would call my "top list" of places/experiences I've most wanted to see since I started dreaming of seeing the world still has a couple un-checked boxes, and one of them is to see a traditional sing-sing in PNG at Mt. Hagan or Goroka. (Another, if you're interested, is to travel the Karakoram Highway.)
I could still have the opportunity to see these things, but the opportunity for me or anyone to explore places completely off the map, not having any idea what we might encounter, like the "golden age" explorers (my favorite reading genre, btw), is no longer available. So I really enjoyed speaking with someone who had that uncommon experience. I hope you enjoyed a little overview of our conversations and the interesting photos. Which aren't over yet ... below are photos of some of the native people he encountered. My favorite is this first one, if you look closely you can see that dangling from the ends of his headdress are bits of soda cans. A lot of Western materials were used as adornments when the native people first started encountering them. I remember seeing a photo of a man with a ballpoint pen through his septum, the way this man has a stick.
Above, a man surveys his banana fields. Below, a market day, where locals gathered to trade goods. Although clearly some of the people have had access to Western items (clothing, and I believe that's an umbrella in the background), this was in the region Trevor said the Australian administration had no real idea of what or who was here.
Although the photo of the man with the soda can bits is my favorite depiction of a tribal custom in the form of the headdress, I think this one below might be my favorite photo of the ones he shared with me. Beautiful women and girls he crossed paths with. The scanned film photo is really grainy, but it looks like the woman in green has facial tattoos.
Lastly, a picture of Trevor standing in a creek bathed in golden jungle light, isolated from the rest of the world — in his happy place.
please note all photos may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
I love visiting cemeteries all over the world, and some of the most humble ones are here in the gold- and silver-rush mountains of Colorado. Lots of simple wooden markers and crosses mixed in with higher-class and better-weathered stone ones. Some of these old cemeteries are still in use with new burials yet today. The expansive Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville is one with this interesting cross-section of types and classes of markers, there are even rows and rows of nothing but divets in the earth, no markers remain at all.
Compare this to the city of mausoleums we saw at Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, where even the poorest resident lies in eternal opulence compared to these simple forest graves. But I think it's interesting how different cultures, countries, ecosystems, societies, take care of their dead. Another interesting story behind a tombstone, should you be interested, is in my Tuesday Tale about Papa Dang's Grandfather.
Reading some of the headstones in the Evergreen Cemetery prompted me to look up some of the history of Leadville that I wouldn't have otherwise known about. It was late in the day when we arrived, purely by randomness, just driving back from exploring around some lakes. I had actually read about it and wanted to try to find it, but as so often happens to us traveling, we happened across it without looking. But because of the hour we didn't spend a whole lot of time there, I could certainly spend more if we find ourselves back in that area.
The graves are scattered through the pine trees. Something about this grave touched me in particular. It's spooky, it's lonely, and yet somehow victorious, still attesting to someone's life so many years later even though that person's name is long worn away.
I am drawn most to the old wooden markers. You can still make out the last name on this one, not sure about the first. I wonder about the trees inside the box ... I presume they grew after the grave was dug. Probably a fresh mound of soft dirt made for a good sprouting spot for a couple pinecones. Somehow it makes me happy for this person that he/she has some living company inside the representation of their death.
Noticing gravestones and markers led me to investigate some history once I got home to learn more about who and what was referred to, such as the monument below referring to the Homestake Mine:
Sourced from the Colorado Central Magazine website: In February 1885 ten miners at the Homestake Mine 15 miles northwest of Leadville were killed when their cabin was engulfed by a huge snowslide. Their remains went undiscovered until late April, when two locals, curious as to why the miners hadn't been seen since mid-January, hiked to the site and found the cabin, outbuildings, and mine entrance covered by snow.
A 1948 Rocky Mountain Empire Magazine article states that a letter was discovered in the cabin rubble, written by victim Horace W. Mathews on Feb. 21, 1885. "Snow, snow, snow! Will it ever stop?" Mathews wrote with haunting irony. He went on to describe mining as "certainly a dangerous and uncertain business, but there is something about it which draws a man on, ever hoping to become rich suddenly." The letter's date, along with Mathews' alarm clock, which had stopped at 12:25, indicated that the slide probably occurred around February 22.
The Leadville community raised funds for an elaborate funeral service, businesses closed to honor the dead, mines closed to allow workers to attend the rites, and in September 1886, this memorial was raised in Evergreen Cemetery.
And after spying the gravestone below, I wondered what happened at the Wolftone Mine.
What happened was two miners, one being J.H. Berryman, were taking out old timbers in the mine, hauling them up in the cage that descends into the shaft to carry miners down and up. It was theorized that the timbers the men were bringing up must have slipped and caught in the cribbing. The engineer operating the cage felt the jar and stopped hoisting. He waited for a bell signal from the two men, but got none. So a bucket was lowered with a man in to check on the miners. Sadly there were but two mangled bodies underneath a pile of timbers.
An inquest was held to determine if the Wolftone Mine was at fault in deaths. Although it was ruled merely an unfortunate accident, the Wolftone bore funeral expenses for both men.
Now this tombstone below got me super curious, "One of the first settlers in Colorado in 1858." As you may have read in one of my other articles on Colorado's mining history (such as THIS one), 1858 was the year of the first big gold rush in region. Colorado was not actually a state yet, that came in 1861. Where did he come here from and what did he do ... pan or mine gold, or come on the heels of miners to provide services in mining towns?
There's a copy of the 1860 census for the area that is now Lake County, where Leadville is located, reproduced by the Leadville Historical Society online. While there is actually a William Campbell listed in it, his listed age is way off. However, this reproduction is prefaced by the historical society as, "This project is dedicated to all of the census-takers who originally compiled the Lake County censuses. Their trials and tribulations were equaled only by their errors and omissions!" I find this humorous. So who knows if it's the same guy.
There wasn't even a cemetery at the location of this gravestone in 1863, the listed date of death. The Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1879 and the graves from the original city cemetery were moved here. Though, one imagines they probably didn't get every body, especially any unmarked graves.
I saw several similar gravestones that all had "erected by the Woodmen of the World" engraved at the bottom of them. I thought maybe this was an organization like the Freemasons or something. I looked it up ... all these tombstones came as part of a life insurance policy offered from 1890 to 1900 by a fraternal benefit society, Woodmen of the World. All things considered, they're pretty nice tombstones to get with what was touted as "affordable" life insurance if you don't mind sharing your epitaph with the name of your insurer. The monuments were ready-made, so when a member in good standing died, the local monument installer had simply to carve the deceased’s info onto the blank space.
In all the mining town cemeteries there is a significant presence of Freemasons, always with their own section within a cemetery. The symbol at the top of this tombstone is the symbol of Freemasons. I like that his birth town is listed, that's one bit of curiosity satisfied (yet only a tiny bit).
A couple other graves I found picturesque ... the first one because of the spots of lichen.
And of course there are the babies — always noticeable in these old miner's cemeteries because the cemeteries are often relatively small and the baby markers relatively numerous, the ratio of adult to baby graves stands out.
For all these graves with headstones, even for some of the shortest lives, there are yet an estimated 1,300 unmarked graves of Irish immigrants in the Evergreen Cemetery. You can see below what this section of the cemetery generally looks like — rows and rows of sunken rectangles as the only evidence of the bodies laid below. It's rather creepy, actually, this anonymous field of bones. The pine caskets and small wooden markers long ago rotted and decomposed.
A memorial to these Irish immigrants is currently under planning and fundraising. As planned, a spiral pathway will lead to the top of a mound where a sculpture will sit, reminiscent of ancient Irish burial mounds. The names of each person in the plots will be carved into glass walls or onto plaques. Their names and ages can be obtained thanks to Catholic Church records.
The Go Fund Me page for this memorial makes some poignant statements about these individuals:
"They made their way across North America during the late 1870s and early 1880s, to one of the greatest silver rushes in North American history [knowing there would be jobs for them]. There, they found themselves segregated to Leadville’ East Side, working the mines and smelters at ten thousand feet above sea level. Their wages were three dollars a day, their shifts ten hours. These were desperate, transient, uneducated, unskilled, and mostly young people. The poorest of these immigrants, without any resources or family, were buried in the 'Catholic Free' section of the cemetery, with a crude wooden slab to mark their burial. The average age of death of those buried there is twenty two. Half of them are children twelve years old or younger. These were the children of the famine generation, those orphaned, exiled, and cast adrift in North America. ... By naming them, we are centering the intense trauma and suffering that this generation of Irish immigrants brought to North America."
As I mentioned, we only had time to explore a portion of the cemetery. You can see from this map at the entrance how extensive it is. We hope to find ourselves back in the area in the future and will spend more time here.
please note photos may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
Another summer in COVID. Which actually is little bother to us since there is so much to see here in our own state that we can drive to, and we tend to stay in self-catering units anyway. We're not quite ready to brave the international travel scene again, so the main trip I had planned for us was a trip to Leadville, another mining town about a two-hour drive away. You can read about all the wildflowers we found HERE!
We traveled there with our 4Runner hoping to explore 4x4 roads and find mining ruins like we found around Fairplay and Breckenridge and as we do around our own neck of the woods. Find these we did, several of which were on a scale to dwarf any ruins around our home turf, such as the New Monarch ore bin, one of the best preserved in the Leadville mining district.
Whenever I go to write a post on Colorado, I get sucked down a nerdy rabbit hole into reading lots of history, some of which I have shared. I'm going to share more now, I can't help myself. So dear readers if you're interested, I'll tell you a bit about Leadville, the most dramatic boom-bust town and arguably the most important in Colorado's mining history. The upshot of a lot of the research is realizing I need to go back and see a lot that I didn't before. It's also the upshot of being there during COVID, as a lot of the museums in town weren't open. It's the heritage of my state — I'm drawn to it. If you just want to see the photos, scroll on down a ways.
In spite of the name "Leadville," silver mining is what made the kings around here, though lead production was second only to silver. At 10,150 feet above sea level, Leadville is the highest incorporated town in North America, with a backdrop of some of the highest peaks in Colorado, over 14,000 feet. Below, Erik and I overlook the town from Venir Shaft ... you can just pick out the little dots making up Leadville in the valley. The very tallest peaks are actually out of the frame to the left.
The first load of placer gold (taken from the surface such as with sluice boxes or panning, as opposed to hard rock mining) near present-day Leadville was discovered in California Gulch in April 1860. By the end of that summer thousands of people had ascended into the gulch in search of sparkling fortune, a veritable swarm of optimistic humanity.
But the boom was short-lived — by 1865 placer miners were already leaving in droves as the deposits were becoming depleted.
As yields of gold were plunging, the Civil War at this time was eliciting more demand for gold or shares in gold mining companies, which it turned out had little in proven reserves. Then the Indian War broke out on the Great Plains in 1864 disrupting transportation of the gold to the eastern states through 1865. Stamp mills were failing. Numerous factors conspired to bust the gold rush by about 1866.
By 1868 mines and mills had closed, miners lost their jobs, towns dried up, and people left both the mining region and Colorado itself. So from the time of the discovery of gold in the region in 1858, which led to the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861, Colorado’s first mineral boom had gone bust in roughly ten years.
During those heady golden years in California Gulch, the miners began to find what they called “black cement,” “black sand,” or “the damned blue stuff.” All they understood at first was that the mysterious substance clogged sluices and frustrated placer mining. About the time Colorado became a state in the union, 1876, two experienced miners from the South Park area decided to rework the old placers in California Gulch. They used hydraulic mining to recover gold, but as they did so, they noticed the dark rock that had frustrated the placer miners. They decided to take samples over to an assayer in Alma, who determined that the mineral was a rich silver-lead ore with substantial amounts of iron.
Well these two, rather than brashly announcing their find, quietly went to work. First they began to acquire claims high on Iron Hill near the gulch, which they discovered as the source of the rocks they had assayed. Then they searched for a place to sell the ore they might produce, and came into contact with an ore buyer from St. Louis. He came to Iron Hill and was so impressed by the content of the ore that he immediately obtained wagon teams to carry the product over the mountains to railheads from which it was shipped up to St. Louis for smelting. Although still turning a profit, they all recognized that transportation was very expensive.
And so, as the drum roll begins, heralding the next boom, in 1877 the company buying the ore decided to erect a branch smelter north of California Gulch, known as the Harrison Works (the main thoroughfare of Leadville now is Harrison Avenue), to provide a local ore market. It was getting difficult to keep the silver secret now as ore emerged from the Iron Hill mines and the Harrison Works smelted it to bullion.
Suddenly the news of silver in them thar hills spread like a wildfire and by mid-1877, hundreds and then thousands of miners were once again making their way to California Gulch. They overwhelmed the existing community of Oro City located in the steep-walled gulch; a new community arose around the Harrison Works which would become Leadville. It went by several other names until 1878 when the town petitioned for its first post office. Horace Tabor became the post master and gave the town its name after the lead ore found in the area. You, my readers, met Horace back in my post about Buckskin Joe when he was married to Augusta. But it was here in Leadville where he made his fame with his second wife, Baby Doe. But we'll get to that story in a bit.
Almost overnight, Leadville blossomed into the second or third largest city in Colorado. Its ore production dwarfed everything that Colorado had produced in the previous two decades combined, and by the early 1880s was the largest silver and lead producing center in the United States. There was even talk of moving the state capitol to Leadville.
As the silver industry boomed spectacularly, men who would become some of the wealthiest in the country arrived and made their fortunes here, such as Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss immigrant who invested in his first Leadville mine in 1880, and I think we all know how well that went for him, founding one of the most illustrious family names in America. Horace Tabor, a well-known name in Colorado, made a fortune on the Matchless Mine, though he did not invest so wisely as the Guggenheims.
And so hooray hooray everything is peachy keen in Leadville, people are getting rich, but slowly, for several reasons, silver prices started slipping by a couple cents a year in the late 1880s, though hardly anyone noticed as the fortune factory continued. Then in 1893 two things happened, but only one of them is typically talked about in articles on the silver bust. I had only heard of the one even after previously researching some on Colorado mining. That one is the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which devalued silver in the U.S. that had previously been propped up by the government. I was therefore very interested to read the following in the article, The Mining Industry in Colorado.
"Then on June 26, 1893, came disaster. On that day, the British Parliament accepted the report of the Herschell Committee, which recommended that Her Majesty’s Mints in India cease the coinage of silver rupees. Overnight, the price of silver plunged from 80 cents to 64 cents an ounce, then continued sinking to 60 cents an ounce. Almost instantly, the American silver industry began shutting down. Mines closed, mills closed, and smelters closed. Railroads curtailed service, banks failed, and real estate investors sold their holdings at heavy losses. Thousands of people lost their jobs. In mining, unemployment soared in all the silver regions, reaching 40% to 50% in the larger communities, and nearly 100% in places supported by only one or two mines.
By July, virtually the entire silver industry had come to a halt. The Silver Crash of 1893 was a catastrophe in the West, and especially in Colorado, where silver production formed the backbone of the minerals industry and the state economy. Later in the year, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 put even greater pressure on the industry. Some historians believe that in Colorado the ravages of the Crash created an economic crisis equal to or worse than the ravages of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The psychological impact of the collapse was also so great that innumerable historians have written–incorrectly–that it destroyed the silver industry in Colorado and the West. As 1894 began, the price of silver finally stabilized at about 60 cents per ounce, and the silver industry gradually came back to life. The mines, mills, and smelters reopened; so, too, did many ancillary businesses. But there were significant changes that were quickly evident. The most obvious change was in wages. The price of silver was now lower than it had been six months before, and as the industry rehired workers, the wages offered workers were lower as well. So, in effect, hardrock miners, mill workers, and smelter men bore the brunt of the silver collapse. That, of course, had important consequences. The 1890s witnessed a dramatic increase in unionization and the beginning of a virulent labor-management war that would last for at least a quarter century."
Up to this point, most of the information I've imparted has come from the extensive article sponsored by the National Register of Historic Places titled, "The Mining Industry in Colorado." I've excerpted some direct quotes into my post, but it's messy to denote them (save the one above) amidst a lot of paraphrased and other-sourced material, and it's not like this is a school research paper, haha. So just know, that is my primary source for the above history. Another prominent source for this whole post is Leadville.com.
But now let's go back to the story of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor, who were dramatically affected by the silver crash. Potentially the most famous mine in Colorado is the Matchless Mine because of the legendary drama of the personal lives involved. Baby Doe Tabor is known by most Coloradoans, I think, and her association with the Matchless, but perhaps not beyond our state, although there have been two operas written about her. I saw one of them performed at the Central City opera house, which is actually the town in which she lived with her first husband. So for those who don't know, I will summarize this story:
After moving to Leadville with his wife Augusta and working as the postmaster, Horace Tabor was already mayor of the town by 1879 and making a fine enough penny as a merchant and mine investor. The Matchless claim was bought in 1878 by other folks who did not see a big return on it. Tabor bought into it in 1879 and spent a heck of a lot of money to gain exclusive title before it had even produced anything substantial because it lay along the east-west trend of the ore discovered in several nearby "bonanza" mines and I guess you could say he had a suspicion it would pay off.
Sure enough, a shaft dug near a corner of the claim in 1880 hit a rich vein of silver. By January 1883, the mine had produced what in today's dollars is about $485 million in silver ore. The was quite a meteoric rise in fortune.
Meanwhile, over in Wisconsin, a beautiful Elizabeth McCourt had married one Harvey Doe, Jr., and they moved to Central City, Colorado, to work the Fourth of July mine (near where I live) which his father owned an interest in. But Harvey was barely able to make a living much less a profit, and he stuffed his new wife into miner's clothes and made her personally work a shaft in the mine. (!) The rough men of Central City, save for her own husband, expressed their affection and appreciation of her beauty and gritty spirit by giving her the nickname Baby Doe — the miner's sweetheart. It stuck.
In 1880 Baby Doe attracted the attention of the newly wealthy Horace Tabor, who had become at odds with his wife Augusta over how to live with their new wealth in Leadville. Augusta was a spendthrift while Horace wished to live lavishly. Baby Doe left her husband and Central City behind to pursue a liaison with Horace. Their affair soon became public knowledge, and of course rather scandalous, so in 1882 after divorcing their spouses, they got married.
The newly married couple flaunted their spectacular fortune by spending recklessly and throwing lavish parties at the mansion they built in Denver. They were one of the five richest families in the country.
Their fairytale ended in 1893 with the silver crash. Because of his irresponsible spending and unwise investments, Horace couldn't ride out the crash, he lost his fortune, eventually resorting to menial jobs to keep his wife and two daughters fed. He passed away in 1899 and legend has it that his last words to Baby Doe were, "Hold onto the Matchless. It will make millions again."
And so Baby Doe did just that. After Horace's death the mine was sold to settle the mining company's debts, but Baby Doe's sister actually bought back the mine a year later and granted Baby Doe the legal power to conduct all the business regarding the Matchless. The ore produced by its lessees declined in quality and quantity and eventually the mine was foreclosed on. By this time Baby Doe had moved into the little superintendent's cabin and was essentially destitute. Shorego Mining Company, owned by a wealthy Denverite, bought the mine to allow the now elderly Baby Doe to stay in her cabin and she was apparently being supported by benefactors including former fellow Leadville citizen, the famous Molly Brown, although Baby Doe was not cognizant of these generosities. In her mind, which became increasingly prey to dementia, she was a proud woman who did not accept charity.
In the winter of 1935, Baby Doe was found frozen in her little cabin. It appeared she had died of a heart attack some days earlier, alone and destitute yet holding onto the Matchless. Even though she was renowned for her stunning beauty, in the end it was her grit and pluck, as once demonstrated in her first marriage, that proved to be her defining feature.
Shorego eventually donated the mine to the city of Leadville for its historic value as the story of Baby Doe had become well-known by mid-century.
If you visit Leadville, you can tour the mine and Baby Doe's cabin, the house in which Horace and Augusta lived, and the Tabor opera house in downtown Leadville.
Below is an old photo of the Matchless ruins, I don't know the year, in the National Mining Museum.
It just so happened that one of the nights we were in Leadville, the historical society was having a free drive-in movie at the mine. They had a big blow-up screen and a sound system, concessions and free (and delicious) popcorn. Unfortunately it was so cold sitting in our camping chairs at 10,200 feet above sea level on a cloudless night, that once I finished my first bag, in spite of being offered another, I just sat still in my blanket cocoon, afraid that any movement would let in a chill. The movie was Into The Spider-Verse, which was such a funny juxtaposition of modern entertainment at this old historic site.
I took a picture of one of the buildings beneath the moon.
So the silver boom lasted 16 years and created some fabulous and lasting wealth for certain investors. And then .....
One J.J. Brown had been steadily working as a miner in Leadville in the 1880s, progressing from miner to superintendent. In 1886 he married a woman named Molly and for a time they moved up the hill a few miles to live in Stumpftown (more popularly called Stumptown). Today there are but a few remaining structures, the largest and most intact below. Reflected along with the building are the orange-colored tailings dump of a mine behind.
For some context of the grand landscape in which these high altitude miners lived ... can you find the cabin above in the photo below?
In 1892 J.J. was brought in as a partner in the Ibex Mining Company which owned the Little Johnny Mine. That year the company discovered gold in the mine, but like their savvy predecessors who discovered the silver, they kept this bit of information to themselves until they could buy the claims surrounding the Little Johnny, as they had determined that the gold vein traveled sideways under neighboring claims.
So when silver crashed in 1893 sending many mining companies spiraling downward, the Ibex Company was poised to start the next gold boom. When they announced the find in 1893, the grade of gold was shown to be so pure and the vein so wide, it was called one of the world's richest gold strikes to that date. It revived the mining town’s economy and in fact aided the entire state's financial recovery. By November of 1893, the Little Johnny was shipping 135 tons of gold ore per day. Move over silver barons, the Ibex Company's in town!
Nothing remains on the surface of the Little Johnny mine, but several other structures from the Ibex Company's holdings remain. The largest is the Ibex ore house, below. It's kind of hard to get a sense of scale, but it's very large, taller than the New Monarch pictured above. I read that it's the largest preserved historical mining structure in the Leadville district. I don't think there is any active upkeep, it's just well built! It sits amid mounds of mine tailings. In elevation, this is about 1,400 feet above the town of Leadville, nearing tree line.
A stone's throw away (if you have a really strong arm) from the ore house stands the headframe of the Irene Shaft, referred to as Irene #2. This is a later shaft sunk in the 1950s to an impressive depth of 1,750 feet. So its bottom is several hundred feet lower than Leadville. I'm not sure exactly when it stopped operation, but potentially not until the 1990s.
J.J. Brown's name might have been more famous considering his extraordinary wealth, but he was eventually eclipsed by his wife, the well-known survivor of the Titanic who was dubbed the "Unsinkable Molly Brown" for her courage in helping other survivors evacuate the ship, later establishing the Survivor’s Committee. Molly used the spotlight from her Titanic fame to promote women’s rights and she become the first woman to run for congress in 1914. Although incredibly wealthy and living in virtual opulence for the day (the house she lived in in Denver can be toured), Molly's standard and values always lay in service to others. She founded or participated in several philanthropic projects, volunteered during WWI, and was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1932. J.J. was also very generous with his money, in marked contrast to Horace Tabor and Baby Doe. Despite their shared values, J.J. and Molly eventually separated but remained friendly.
Okay, well I imagine you've had about enough Leadville history and biographies. Let's put in a few more photos! We've moved away now from the Ibex complex; below are abandoned and collapsing structures at the Venir Shaft.
It's a great location for an overview of the valley where Leadville lies and the mountain ranges behind. I read that Leadville was at one time referred to (at least by some) as Cloud City. It looks like we are so high up that the ceiling of clouds is just above our heads, as if we could maybe reach it with a tallish ladder. Erik looks like he's about to walk right on off the edge of the plateau.
But in fact he just sat down and we had lunch.
It was strangely difficult to identify a lot of the ruins we ran across from the internet (because we typically wander aimlessly and explore first, then learn about what we found later) — a problem I did not have with the things we ran across in the South Park and Breckenridge areas. To the best of my reckoning, the pics below are from the Tucson Mine in the Iron Hill area where the silver was first discovered. If you're reading this and you know differently, let me know! I have my idea because they look very like a photo labeled the Tucson Mine from the Mining History Association. You can see from the first pic how precarious so many of these abandoned structures are, soon to be only piles of planks.
Below is a headframe we ran across; couldn't tell you at all where we were at, haha. Just wandering. You can see Chewie over on the left for scale.
A tailings dump rises up like a mountain on the moon. No other structures around it, just a big hill.
Lastly, below are a couple historic photos of Leadville from the National Mining Museum, which I very highly recommend taking a visit to if you are in the area. Admission is very reasonable at $12 and it's chock full of interesting history and artifacts, and tons of really cool rocks if you're impressed with our planet's geological wonders. The photo with the burros I actually bought the print for a whopping $3 there. Burros were such an important part of Rocky Mountain mining life, I think they generally are not given their due credit for how invaluable they were as pack animals. They are standing in what was and still is the main street of Leadville (Harrison Ave.).
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
This summer, 2021, in mid-July Erik and I took our 4Runner, Chewie, on a trip to Leadville, Colorado, to explore some of the 4x4 roads around there, expecting to find a lot of old mining ruins. I'll tell you about its mining history in the next post. Leadville is only a couple hours driving time from our home, so not exactly an epic road trip. But this is what I love about where we live — there is just so much to explore and we don't even have to go very far. We stayed in an Airbnb about a 10 minute walk away from the main drag in town, which was perfect for evenings out.
We did find remains still standing of the 19th and 20th century mines, but I decided to make a separate post dedicated to the wildflowers we saw, as the profusion was unexpected and turned out to be a highlight of the trip.
In our home area it had been a fantastic wildflower season so far when we left for Leadville which is about 2,000 feet higher in elevation. The higher the elevation, the later the flowers are to bloom, so we happened to time our trip precisely at the peak. I just can't gush enough over how spectacular the flowers were.
Plus what was remarkable to me was how we saw flowers of every stage of summer all open at the same time. For example, in our 'hood, the shooting stars and columbines are early summer flowers and typically will be done blooming before the elephant heads open, but in Leadville we saw all of those blooming at the same time. Summers are very short at 10,000-12,000 feet above sea level, where we were seeing all these flowers, so I guess they don't have time to muck about and wait to open in a nice orderly fashion; it's just a free-for-all: "Everybody bloom!"
We came into Leadville in a very roundabout way from outside of Fairplay because I wanted to check out Weston Pass, one of several throughways between Leadville and the South Park area. It was mostly just a dirt road — you would want a high-clearance vehicle, but there was nothing technical about it. And, as (knock on wood) seems to be our typical luck driving off-road in Colorado, we encountered nearly no-one.
I've often said that it feels like the Front Range, where Erik and I live, was made for the world — everyone comes up to our mountain area from the Boulder/Denver area — and the rest of Colorado was made just for the two of us and Chewie.
The most famous pass connecting Leadville to Fairplay is Mosquito Pass. Last year we started up it from the Fairplay side, so this year we drove up to the start of it on the Leadville side. Our intent was not to take the pass over but take a route that spurred off of it, Birdseye Gulch, which connects to Highway 91 across the Arkansas River. What we had absolutely no idea about was the extensive wildflower fields we would come across.
Fortunately it was later in the afternoon when we pulled into this area, and so a perfect place to enjoy a couple happy hour beers among the flowers. Gobs of yellow flowers that I think are arrowleaf balsamroot, but if you know differently, let me know!, and red paintbrush, blue columbine, white and purple penstemon, blue harebells, pink buckwheat, and loads of other flowers whose ID I don't know.
As I was lying down in the field with my camera, Erik said, "Your dad would have loved to take a picture of you," which is true — my dad was fond of taking pictures of me as a kid in flower fields when we were backpacking. So Erik grabbed my other camera and snapped a couple photos of me in a very happy place — happy physically, mentally and spiritually.
But the crowning wildflower experience, pretty much of all time, not just of this trip, was discovering what we dubbed "columbine heaven." We use COTREX to explore 4x4 routes around Colorado, a GPS program that you can use to pre-download maps onto your phone or other device and it has a pretty good database of off-road trails. Sadly, we've discovered that a lot of county roads shown on COTREX have been closed (gated off) by entitled individuals claiming the public roads as private property, which is really super uncool.
In this case, though, rather than the frustration of finding a mapped trail to be closed, we found ourselves driving down a trail that was not in the COTREX database. We figured we'd keep following it as long as it stayed pretty easy. As we came down a hill at tree line, I noticed a sea of blue off to the right. At first I thought I saw a columbine, but then I thought, "There's no way those are all columbines," for I've never seen such a vast open field of them before.
But, my friends, that was indeed the way. Gobs, gobs and more gobs of blue columbine, Colorado's state flower. We calculated that there must have been as many as 2,000 blooms fully open in this sea. I couldn't get a photo to properly illustrate the profusion. But here is me, taken by Erik, and some close-ups of some of the flower bundles.
The typical bunch had around 20 blooms, almost more of a columbine "shrub" than a "flower," and we estimated at the least 100 bunches just on the open hillside to the right of the truck. There were some more on the other side of the road, too.
It was so magical, and we were the only people there, I half expect that after we left, that sea evaporated, as if we had parted the curtains into a mystical realm that vanished behind our backs, and that we could never find it again. Probably all the locals know about it, but once again it seemed as if the world there had been created just for me, Erik and Chewie.
If you happen to follow me on Facebook, you will likely know that I love elephant heads, they are perhaps my favorite flower of all, and we saw plenty of those in bloom around the area at the higher passes.
At this little brook both elephant heads and columbines were in bloom, but the columbines were single blooms in miniature compared to Columbine Heaven. Still, to see two of my favorite flowers next to the same brook is exciting to me, I suppose I am easily amused. We didn't continue up the "road," but this made a nice happy hour spot one day.
I read a lot of articles and posts of people raving about the flowers at Hagerman Pass, so we checked that out. We did not take the hiking trails, which apparently are spectacular, but even the drive over was lovely, crossing the Continental Divide at 11,925 feet above sea level. Still snow in mid-July.
Well since this post is about nature, here are a couple lakes along our meandering routes.
One morning we took the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad (LC&S) ride — a 2.5-hour slow ride along a historic track built, of course, for the booming mining industry in the late 19th century. Originally a narrow-gauge track, like many railroads tying their fortunes to the brief abundance of mining towns across the Rocky Mountains in the late 19th century, its heyday was relatively short. It was converted to a standard gauge in the 1940s. The engine that now pulls the tourist carriages is a diesel engine.
The train's website and other sites advertising it make it sound like it is heart-pumping excitement ("adventure! adventure!"). I'm sorry, but if you're over about 10 years old, I have to say that "adventurous" is a little overstatement. (Although as we were sitting in our seats still parked at the depot waiting for the train to depart, the couple near me asked their toddler, "Who's ready for an exciting train ride?" I shot my hand up and said, "I am!") A lot of the mountain range views that generally are to be had were obscured to us by the heavy smoke of massive wildfires scorching the western area of the country.
Here the train is crossing over a 4x4 road that we had driven in Chewie just the day before.
It's a very fine, slow-paced scenic route on which it is easy for your imagination to jump back in time and put you onboard ... especially for me after having been to the South Park City Museum inside the period depot and inside the caboose of its train. The LC&S chugs for eleven miles up to a water tank before turning back, though the tracks continue another three miles toward the Climax Mine.
You can bring your own food on board, so you can have yourself a little train car picnic and top it off with an overpriced ice cream bar from the "dining" car. Yum.
So another summer during COVID passes feeling grateful for having so much to see right here in my own state. Stay tuned for more from Leadville.