We skipped a trip to Mexico in 2021 because of COVID and came back in March 2022 during my nieces' and nephews' spring break. And what a magical time that proved to be (we've typically gone earlier in the winter) at my favorite little lagoon, Popoyote Lagoon — a refuge for the American crocodile which has also become a refuge and nesting zone for a plethora of birds. If you happen to have been following me for awhile, you'll have already read how the roseate spoonbill population has exploded over the years I've been hanging out at this lagoon. There are vastly more birds and also vastly more mangrove branches and other foliage making the photo shooting ironically more difficult in spite of the burgeoning population. I found a few holes in the foliage I could focus through, but they were few indeed.
I think I will not find myself here in the month of March again, making this an extra special year, and a real highlight for my decade of visiting. So I'll share with you a fair bunch of the photos I managed to capture. Although it will be hard for you to picture in your head the photographing challenges, please admire all of them for how tricky they were to get! And know that I was able to get a passable photo of only a tiny fraction of the birds actually present.
Let's start with my favorite baby ... yes, of the ones I could see I had a favorite — this little spoonbill that I nicknamed The Baron, as he was always looking over the edge of the nest and spreading up his wings, just itching to take that first flight.
They're cute but a little gangly.
This one in a nest of older chicks has some personality, too! This nest I could photograph because Erik held open a hole in the fence wide enough for me to fit my lens through. Thick foliage plus a chain link fence to overcome!
We'll come back to more spoonbill chicks, but now check out these baby snowy egret chicks! How sweet are they?! The layer of gray feathers mixed with the white is kind of a cool look.
We'll come back for more egrets, too. But here is one more species whose chicks I saw — wood storks. This first pic, with the tiny little head barely sticking up above the nest, my arm nearly fell off holding up my heavy camera and lens, as I had to shoot basically straight above my head, and after I saw it pop up once, I waited and waited and waited for it to pop up high enough again to snag a photo. And alas .....
These are some older wood stork chicks. One of the cool things is that for all the bird species, the nests held a variety of ages of the chicks from sleepy, newly hatched ones to demanding teenagers.
Wood storks are rather fascinating birds and it seems pretty obvious how they got their name. Here's one sitting in its nest quite well camouflaged with the wood branch beside it.
They are quite large birds; it's amazing how they manage to squeeze their nests into this area in such dense foliage among a high density of other nests. See more wood storks in my post from 2020.
In addition to so many babies, I had the pleasure of spotting a new bird species I hadn't seen before: the yellow crowned night heron. I watched this couple building their nest each day and am a little sad I was there too early to see their chicks, I bet they are cute! But this was another shooting situation that just about took my arm off. There was one little hole that I could see them through the thick foliage. So I had to stand in a precise spot holding my lens up for ages until they moved just right into the spot of open space. I wanted to get photos of them interacting with each other, which meant, of course, I had to stand and wait even longer for such actions to take place, lens up, finger on the shutter button waiting for that magical fraction of a second when all factors came together. But I think it was worth it. These might not be world class photos, but I'm super pleased considering what I went through and how beautiful the birds are.
For the longest time, the pair would only "pose" in tandem, never looking at each other or interacting.
Then they only faced opposite directions. I'm not sure the caption for this one, but the one with its wing open is saying something to me. I presume she's the female, as she's a tad smaller than the other one. It's like she is showing me her wing like a ballroom dancer might hold up her gown for all to see its folds. The way she's got her leg extended out contributes to my sense of her being a dancer, perhaps getting ready for a tango.
I also waited for ages to be able to get a photo of them with their top feathers splayed out. This was about the best I managed, which isn't awesome and their feathers aren't as far out as they can get, but it's something.
Finally they face each other. By the time this moment happened in the tiny space available to capture them in a photo, my arm was literally trembling from the strain of having held up my heavy camera/lens combo. The hole in the foliage was so small, and these birds were more camouflaged than the white egrets and pink spoonbills, a number of people walked by me pointing and talking about the spoonbills, I'm sure wondering why I was focused at a tangle of trees instead of the magnificent birds, haha. A couple people kindly pointed out some spoonbills as if I couldn't see them.
And then, poke! "Get out my way, Bub!"
Okay, as promised, now back to the spoonbills and egrets ... at feeding time! Lots of noms to be had from the throats of mom and pop.
These snowy egret parents I actually felt a little sorry for. Their growing children look very demanding!
Look at how sinister the middle child on the right is! Whew, I'm glad he's not a predatory bird who could hurt me, or I'd be scared!
I don't know how to properly convey to you the overwhelming cacophony that filled this small lagoon teeming with baby chicks of several species all crying for food and crying for whatever other reasons and parents calling for whatever reasons ..... Here is a photo to try to illustrate the density of nests throughout the lagoon. I can see eight nests and three species of birds in this one shot, just taken with my phone camera. Now imagine everywhere I can see in the lagoon is as dense, and a lot of those birds are making noise. Also notice at the bottom of this pic the egret looking silly preening the underside of his wing.
If you don't remember me saying this in the past, I reiterate that in 2012 there was but one spoonbill couple in the lagoon. Then ten years later it looks like above! I consider this a special experience in my life to have witnessed this population grow and flourish from one couple to more than I can count.
These spoonbill couples were so close to each other, the bottom pair could hardly stand up underneath the other nest. Neither of these couples had chicks yet.
And some more spoonbills. I may not see them again here (because after ten years, I may not be returning during their nesting season), so I'm cherishing all the photos I managed to procure this year. A sweet pose from a couple and a silly pose from a bird looking at me upside down:
Visiting the same place each year for a decade and photographing the same animals has also provided an opportunity, I just realized, to chart my "progress" with photography equipment and skills. My first posts were with a point-and-shoot. Then I had a consumer-grade DSLR camera and lens. Then I got a pro-level lens and mid-grade camera, and finally a pro-grade camera to go with the lens. I think in addition to the upgraded equipment, my skills upgraded in tandem. I'm kind of embarrassed to leave up the photos I posted from the first few years! But I didn't start this blog to show off photography, even though it has evolved into a very photo-heavy blog. I guess I rely more on photos than words to convey a lot of my travel narrative these days.
I didn't snag many photos of crocodiles this year. This whole lagoon is here because of the crocodiles, as a refuge for them! But there are several reasons why it was difficult to obtain good shots this year. Here are a couple, though, just as a nod to remember the reason that this amazing little lagoon is protected.
Lastly, a couple other birds from a different nearby wildlife refuge: first a pelican and then a new bird I was introduced to, the black crowned night heron.
In my post from 2020, our previous visit, I mentioned how happy we were to find our friend, Noel. This year we were very concerned because we knew that Playa Linda had largely shut down during COVID and we wondered if his business survived. We were saddened to walk to the food stalls and discover him missing. We asked around about him, and someone told us he still lived there but no longer had a food stall. We asked that man if he could relay a message, and we wrote an email address that Noel could contact us at. We walked back to our hotel feeling pretty skeptical that he would ever receive the message.
The following afternoon, while Erik and the rest of the family went to play pickle ball (something my knees do not allow me to do), I was going to read the book I brought in the cool hotel suite, but the maids arrived just then to clean. I didn't want to tell them to go away and I also felt awkward just sitting on the couch while they cleaned. So I decided to go to the lagoon, though I hadn't planned to that day. As I was walking past the food stalls on the way to the viewing areas, I heard, "Shara? Shara?" I looked around, and there was Noel! He had received our message but didn't have a way to email us. So he had come to the beach and had been there all day on the off chance we might walk down there. The only reason I did was because of the maids coming to clean.
So a happy reunion. We spent another day driving around together, sightseeing, and he took us to a delicious local's restaurant for lunch. OK friends, I hope you enjoyed a little time with me during baby bird season in Ixtapa!
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This post was started to show some photos from a particularly forlorn cemetery near me, the Caribou Cemetery. But while I'm at it, I decided to include some photos of the surrounding area. (and as usual, it got a bit out of hand — "some" = quite a lot) Caribou is actually responsible for the name of my town, Nederland, because the gold and silver were mined at Caribou at over 10,000 feet above sea level, but transported down to a mill that lay 2,000 feet lower in Nederland, which in Dutch means "lowlands," so it's all relative. I used to volunteer at our town's Visitor Center and we got quite a few Dutch visitors, and they always wanted to know why our town at 8,200 feet above sea level was named after their country meaning "lowlands."
There is much literature on Caribou and I love the area, and someday I may make my own post about its history. But today we're just going to visit the cemetery and some environs. The first photos here depict all that remains of the town of Caribou that was once home to 3,000 people. The first photo shows the skeletons of a couple stone buildings in the distance; now in 2022, that is all that stands. The second photo shows the waning remains of a wooden cabin from some years ago which is now almost wholly digested by the plants. When I first moved here, it was still standing, the only other remnant besides the stone structure, and I've watched it melt back into the earth. It is a beautiful landscape, though, and I can hardly begrudge the flowers for taking back their land.
So I got on a local mountain cemetery kick this summer, 2022. All the old mountain communities in my 'hood are mining communities established in the 1800s, which experienced varying levels of success and longevity. Like so many in Rocky Mountain Colorado, Caribou was a boom-bust town. The rich lodes were discovered in 1869; by 1870 the place was packed; and by the latter 1890s it was all but deserted. Mining was revived on and off in subsequent decades for different mineral veins, but one would assume the majority of the graves in Caribou Cemetery were dug during those 25 or so heyday years in the 19th century.
I have seen photos from the early- to mid-20th century of some of these headstones, some marking the resting places of locally famous characters. But in a devastating turn of events, nearly all the headstones were stolen some decades ago.
Who can fathom why, or what the loathsome thieves did with them, but they robbed all of us of our local heritage. I mean, if they denoted legendary Egyptian pharaohs or something, while it would still super-suck it would at least be a little understandable. But why these 19th century miners, most of them living obscure lives in the bowels of the earth?
Well, as a result, we are now left with a hillside reclaimed by nature with but the fewest and most humble remains. I did not even know about the vandals when we visited the cemetery. I knew it existed, I knew one access route was closed; we found another access. I just thought it was a pity at the time that it hadn't been kept up like so many of the other mountain mining community cemeteries. It was haunting, beautiful, lonely, mysterious, peaceful. But now that I know why the gravestones are missing and no one kept it up, it is also sad, I'd even go so far as to say tragic.
But here are a few headstone foundations and stones, any engravings wiped out by erosion, toughing it out in the throes of high-altitude nature.
And this admirable aspen, not daunted in the least by a metal fence. It looks so intentional in its growth around the metal rods, as if purposefully telling them, "I will prevail!" No headstone remains within the fence, so it almost looks now like it was built to pen the aspens like livestock.
Added September 2023: since I first wrote this post, some work has been done to clean up and restore what is left of the cemetery. You can read about the work HERE and support it, too!
The cemetery spills down a slope from a hilltop toward a valley that we often drive with our 4x4 vehicles. Caribou creek meanders through this valley creating a willow heaven for the moose's appetite and a peaceful brook to relax by, and apparently a pretty good fishing spot judging by the anglers we run into.
This extended region around Caribou townsite is known as the Caribou Mining District. Within it lies, among many others, the Pandora Mine, which basically overlooks this valley. It was part of the WWI revival of the area, extracting tungsten, which was a highly sought mineral during the Great War used to harden the steel of gun barrels. We have visited these meager ruins, mostly just some machinery for a hoist at the headframe, several times but I only now took the effort to do the research to figure out what mine this is. Like the 3,000-person bustling town of Caribou reduced to nearly nothing, I was surprised to see photos from 1966 of this mine, long abandoned by that time. I'll replicate my experience for you.
First are the remains that we find today. The top photo is from the hoist; the mine shaft is directly beneath it (to the left) but now filled in, as nearly all shafts are by now.
Now my surprise at finding the photos below in the Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder, collection — a bunkhouse for the workers. The forest has certainly reclaimed that building, so completely it makes me wonder if it was actively torn down. Next time we are there, we will try to see where this bunkhouse could have been.
And this pic matches the first one in my series, showing the machinery inside the shaft house, which now just sits in the open air.
According to thediggings.com there are 80 claims and 46 mines — 29 "producers" and 17 "occurrences" — in the Caribou Mining District. And the Anchor Mine is another one of them still accessible by a combination of 4x4 road and walking. I couldn't find much information about it online but one source says, "In 1936 the mine was worked for gold on a small scale and then the company quit." On the Mines Repository site, there is a scan of an undated typewritten letter on yellowing paper that is a sort of testimonial from someone who knew the mine since he was "a boy," and says, "There is very little of the vein matter that would not pay to run through a mill ... one that will be likely to yield large and steady returns if accompanied by good management. The work that has been done so far has been done with no equipment. The winze [a shaft driven downward into an ore body] should be opened up on a large scale with machinery." It seems pretty clear that the site was never expanded into a large operation; I don't know why it was abandoned.
Here are some views of the mining cart tracks that emerge from the mine shaft and run through this small building. I'm not positive what the building is, but there is a chute at the bottom which makes me consider it could be an ore bin.
The state of this building has declined since we last visited it with that side wall leaning over precariously. Its saving grace might be the trees it's basically leaning against, they might help keep it from completely collapsing.
Some machinery left all by itself.
It's a very peaceful setting and two of the buildings have been maintained.
This might be the original cabin of the first miners? I don't know, but it's quite large for a wooden cabin. It sits at the edge of a pleasant little hillside meadow.
Can you find the little forest troll peeking at me??
Lastly, we'll head back toward the Caribou townsite but west of it for some hilltop views of the area, most of which is contained within the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
And how do we get to these beautiful lookouts and old mines, exploring our nature and history? With Pinzy and Chewie, of course! Pinzy in the first photo and Chewie in the second.
Lastly, I'll tack on a few wildflower shots from the area. Several of my favorite wildflower fields are in this area and it is a common happy hour destination for us in the summer. Whipple's penstemons are some of my local favorites with white and purple varieties. The red is Indian paintbrush which grows quite profusely.
There are also a lot of blue columbine up here, Colorado's state flower.
I am also very partial to mariposa lilies, which in 2022 had a superbloom year; they were everywhere!
A less common flower is this gentian, but there is an area at Caribou where they are particularly plentiful.
Blanket flowers often seem to me to have a lot of personality. This one among the ubiquitous red paintbrush.
And lastly a moose in the area. It's not uncommon to see them here, but I've rarely managed a photo.
Some pockets of water at the beach in Salinas, about a half-hour drive from Pirabas, were not just warm, but actually hot. The waves were a gentle size along the nearly flat ocean floor, and our volunteer group ran down the beach and into the clear, undulating waters, splashing each other and screaming, all of us momentarily transformed into six-year olds. After awhile, though, we disbanded and each fell into our own world.
I walked and walked and walked along the water’s crystal edge and truly felt like I would walk off the end of the earth. The white-sand beach stretched on for miles, and I was completely alone on its surface. I began to wonder if I had been born again near the beginning of time — a solitary creature born from the ocean, its great salty womb still forming the rest of life — and the sun was all mine, and the sand and the sky. I ran and skipped, and laughed out loud. (original photos are film, by the way, I've put pictures of my pictures in these Pirabas posts, so not the greatest quality)
I thought for some time of never turning back, of abandoning the world. Never before had I felt it would be so easy. I could just walk away on powder-soft sand. But I never follow through with such grandly romantic ideas. I walked back to the group, collecting handfuls of perfect sand dollars along the way. George had found a dead fish in the water and brought it to the van for us all to see. It was long and silver, about as thin as the width of a thumb. It had horrifically sharp teeth protruding from its mouth, and it made us all shiver in the hot sun.
We sat audience to a marvelous sunset. I wandered off again in the dusk and gazed out at the ocean. I had come to Brazil to see the people, but the only things then in my field of vision, in my whole perceptual arena, were pure white sand, water, and sky. I felt like the heavens could just pour down on me all the secrets of the universe, as if the condition for this gift was this particular solitude. Something about standing there with the land stretching on and on the length of a continent, the water stretching on and on the width of an ocean, and the sky stretching on and on to cap the planet. It felt weird to be standing inside of my time-constrained body amidst the timeless elements that persist before and beyond comprehension. I thought then of the quote I think of most often in nature, one that speaks deeply to me — Emerson's: “I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing; I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me. I am part or particle of God.”
In the darkness the sun left behind, I moved my limbs to remember I was human — not necessarily because I wanted to remember, but more through a feeling of obligation to all that I had been for several decades. I moved through the slow, graceful movements of Tai Chi, parting the air like water. My arms and hands traced out circles with supple shoulders, elbows and knuckles, while my feet calculated a square box with measured steps anchored at the heel. I put my hand to my ear in the Monkey Listens pose and tried to hear the sound of humanity in the footprints that meandered through its grains like the sound of sea in a shell.
Then one morning we took a fishing boat to a haven of uncommon peace: Ilhe du Buraco, a small sand island. On our way there, we stopped at the island, Fortaleza. It’s a long and narrow island, and we landed far down from where Kelly and I had been on our first day. Our two teenage boatmen led us around the island; they were going to take us to see the boy-shaped rock that the old woman had seen in her dreams, although the rock had collapsed in the last year and no longer looked like a boy. Legend says that a boy was killed there by the waves of the sea, drowned, and the rock formed in his image. The formation was deemed to be the work of God, of miracle. It has become a shrine where people make offerings. Once a boy from Pirabas ate a chicken that had been left there as an offering and, we were told, he went insane. When the Donas heard we were taking a boat there, they gave us adamant warnings that we not mess with any offerings.
As we walked along the beach, the boatmen suddenly squealed and ran towards some bushes inland. They came back, quite excited, with handfuls of a small, oval-shaped fruit with a thin, bright red skin and a pit in the middle. They bit into one with obvious delight and bid us do the same. The flesh tasted to me about like what I imagine paste to taste like, and I remembered then a kid in elementary school whom I would spy eating Elmer’s glue. When the teenage boys weren’t looking, I dropped my fruit on the sand behind me.
I thought of the folktale describing the origins of guaraná, which has recently become recognized in America as an ingredient in energy drinks. The highest god gave a baby boy to an infertile couple who grew to be handsome and generous, kind and peaceful. The god of darkness became envious and turned himself into a snake, whereby he bit the boy with poisonous fangs while the boy was alone in the jungle gathering fruits, and the boy died instantly. The mother came to understand that she was to plant her dead son’s eyeballs in the ground. She did this, and from these eyes the guaraná plant grew. The pits of the fruit are black and they are surrounded by white flesh. I wondered briefly if eyeballs would taste much different from this mushy ball of paste I threw away.
Our guides then took us down the beach further to see two rocks that were in the shape of a heart.
They found a large crab in a tide pool there and managed between the two of them to grab it with sticks and put it up on the sand for us to see, where it chased us around with its snapping claws. From here the boys pointed out where, further down the beach, it is said that an incarnation of a Portuguese hero lived for awhile. The hero lived in the 1300s. He was so valiant and courageous that even after his death, his name was used to rally troops by saying he was coming to help them. People in Pirabas truly believe he has been incarnated several times throughout history. One of our boatmen, Cleumo, said his grandfather met this incarnate here on Fortaleza. The locals have many religious or mythological stories that we would catch only fragments of, and as far as I could tell, they carry a quite literal belief in legend and lore.
Then we chugged on for another hour or more in our rented fishing boat to Ilhe du Buraco, which we came to refer to as Gilligan’s Island for its isolation and lack of “luxuries.”
Once we hit sand and couldn’t go any further, we were stranded there for about 6 hours until the tide came back in. As we walked through the shallow water against the receding tide, it pulled very strongly at our legs, pulling us backwards, as if trying to keep us from discovering the magic of the island. Above the water line along the white sand beach was a small cluster of one-room palm-leaf houses on tall stilts. Several men were repairing a roof, passing enormous palm tree leaves up a ladder to be strapped down to the roof.
Underneath the raised floors were small fire pits in the sand. Chickens pecked aimlessly and dogs drank out of small tin cans. Large woven baskets hung from the floor boards, swinging in the breeze above the sand. The houses were completely open on the ocean side and had half-height walls on the other three sides. I could just make out pots and pans hanging from the ceilings inside. A hundred yards behind their huts, the jungle began in an abrupt wall of foliage.
I silently applauded their antiquated existence. They lived primarily off the bounty of the ocean and the land, they lived isolated from any conveniences. You might think that this was merely through happenstance or misfortune. But it was through choice. Not far from their cluster of houses was a little “resort,” owned by a hotel in Salinas, that hosted sport-fishermen. It consisted of 6 tiny sleeping huts (just room for a bed), a small kitchen hut, and one larger communal hut with tables and benches and lounging chairs, all the huts on stilts and connected by a narrow wooden walkway on narrow stilts. The resort had a generator to run the kitchen. The islanders, however, did not. They didn’t work at the resort — the two workers were shipped out from Salinas. The islanders tolerated the tourists, but kept to themselves and their own way of life, not even lured into the comforts offered by electricity. They didn’t buy their own generators nor did they ever ask to use any of the conveniences of the little resort (which were rather minor, really). They had one well from which they could pump the rainwater that seeped down into the ground. It seemed we had landed on a page that had been ripped from a tome of the lives of our long-ago forefathers.
The inhabitants of Ilhe du Buraco had shunned what modernity had come to their corner of the world. I desperately wanted to walk up to their palm huts; they were the picture of the long-lost fairy tale "idyllic existence." But I felt almost like an extraterrestrial there—the gulf between me and them was huge. I felt somehow that they should be left alone. Yet I spied on them from a distance through the zoom lens of my camera. I felt guilty prying and spying on them with my camera, and I didn’t want to be caught looking at them, haha. But nor could I go over and talk or gesture to them. I was immobilized and I was fascinated. Our expedition leader went over and talked to them, though Portuguese was their second language so it wasn't a super fluent conversation. He said they were kind of standoff-ish and recommended we not wander over to their huts. I would guess that the islanders are not so happy about the "resort" intruding onto their beach, but I have no idea how the arrangement came to be. Who owns the island? Are the islanders compensated in any way for sharing their beach with the resort, do they even have any legal claim to the island? Unfortunately I have no idea. I wish our expedition leader had gathered a little more information.
So I sat down-beach from the islanders simultaneously happy and sad. Happy to be there and to witness this way of life which I had never seen in person — it was kind of a "National Geographic moment" for me [as this was my first experience of this kind, though many more would come along in my life]. Sad that I couldn't interact with the islanders and see their huts up closer.
There was no one staying at the resort that day, so the two workers there allowed us to hang out in the big communal hut. One of our boatmen had emptied one of his father’s fish traps right before we left Pirabas. There was a little barbeque pit at the resort, so the teenagers skinned and gutted the fish and grilled it for us. We didn’t have any silverware so we just ate the fish hot off the grill with our fingers — which seemed particularly appropriate there. My eyes rolled back in my head when I tasted it. We were all momentarily stunned by our first mouthful. We became so consumed in pulling the soft, white flesh from the bones and savoring each bite as it melted in our mouths, that we ate in complete silence. I don't know what kind of fish it was, but it was mighty fine eating.
When the fish was all gone, we thanked the boatmen and retreated back into the silence. We each picked a chair inside the open-air hut and sat motionless, and it was as if there existed no sound at all on the whole earth except for the sound of the wind gently stirring the dead grass of the roof. I don’t know if I had ever felt such peace. One can find moments of relative peace at home, but there is always the hum of technology surrounding you, even in the mute threads of carpet, the digital panel on the oven. Here was absolute quiet. We lived on a sandy star at the edge of the universe, silently twinkling. We were nestled into an eddy of time, where the currents and noise of “civilization” passed us by. I found peace in the antiquity of the islanders’ existence, a comfort that the past has not been obliterated, that there is still some continuity. And peace in the wind, the sand, and the water, surrounding us with a hand so gentle we were nearly floating — bobbing and drifting on this notion of life
When somebody finally spoke, it was so jarring, it seemed utterly alien. The sound hurt, and we all jumped back. There was a moment where we were unsure how to proceed. But once the silence was broken, it didn’t seem easy to regain, so we pulled ourselves from our introspection, and let the beach tease out our youth. We built a large sand castle and ran the soft sand through our fingers and toes over and over.
When the tide finally came up and the boatmen said we had to go, we all felt as though we had been in a bubble all day that suddenly popped. We begged to stay longer, but they said we had to go. Reluctantly we gathered our things and trudged out to the boat with pouty mouths. At first there was a sad pall over the deck as the boat slowly chugged away. Somberly, we passed around bottles of guaraná and beer, which the boatmen had kept in a cooler on the boat. But as our hair whipped around our faces and the salt water sprayed up from the bow, lightly coating our bodies, we began to speak, in fits and starts, as if we had not spoken in years, and then the words began to flow and we talked about how amazing the island was.
I never even spoke with the islanders, but it was the Brazil I hoped still existed. The villagers in Pirabas were running away from a life like this as fast as they could. I wanted to jump from the boat right then and swim all the way back to America, swim with fish and whales, and not cross back over the land that heaves with inexorable change. I wanted to swim away with dreams, with only a pocket for reality.
But I stayed onboard. Of course, haha. I cried just a little on the way back, but no one knew it; they thought it was the salt of the ocean on my face. I cried because I was overwhelmed. It's far from the only time I've felt that way and shed a tear over it. But it might have been the first time. Just overwhelmed by the scope and breadth of human existences, the cultures, history, traditions, trajectories, coupled with the diversity of ecosystems on the planet.
Even after all the countries and cultures I've visited since this trip, the day on Ilhe du Buraco remains a memorable highlight.
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.).