Beyond Glenwood Canyon, the road opens into a wider valley-like setting but as I get closer to the Continental Divide signs marking the turnoffs to a variety of ski areas begin to emerge. Destination resorts such as Vail, Keystone, Winter Park and Steamboat Springs are Colorado’s new winter gold.
The snow flurries continue but at least the clouds are high, the visibility good and the snow is not sticking to the road. Though it’s not the right time to explore the numerous back country roads to be found here, they are numerous. Rocky Mountain National Park is just off to the north, and the Trail Ridge Road that leads along the crest of the Rockies is phenomenal. South of Highway 70 are a handful of Colorado’s highest peaks, wilderness areas and high country passes where the ghosts of the state’s mining past are scattered everywhere.
In 1849 and 1850, several parties of gold seekers bound for the California Gold Rush panning small amounts of gold from various streams at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in what was then the Kansas Territory. The gold nuggets initially failed to impress the gold seekers, but rumors of gold in the Rocky Mountains persisted, and several small parties explored the region.
The following year, another group of California bound gold seekers from Georgia found a small placer deposit near Pike’s Peak yielded about 20 troy ounces (about a pound and a half) of gold. This was the first significant gold discovery in the Rocky Mountain region. News of this discovery soon spread and precipitated the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. As a result, an estimated 100,000 gold seekers flocked to the region over the next three years. The immediate result of this population boom was Colorado statehood in 1876. It would also tie its future economically over the next century to the mining industry.
To encourage the further expansion and exploration of the western states for precious metals such as gold, silver, copper, lead and a host of other minerals, Congress passed the Mining Act of 1872. The act provided for the establishment of claims of what were known as unpatented claims, providing the right to conduct those activities necessary to exploration and mining, but they would last only as long as the claim is worked every year. It also provided the opportunity to obtain patents (deeds from the government), much as farmers could obtain title under the Homestead Act for fully patented claims. In essence, the land would belong to the claimant.
Along the Highway 6 corridor, the gold rush reached fever pitch in the early 1870s when gold was discovered in Oro City, not too far from present day Leadville. The boom was brief, however, because the placer gold mining was hampered by a heavy brown sand in the sluice boxes that made it difficult to separate out the sparse amounts of gold contained in it.
In 1877 Leadville prospectors discovered the heavy sand was composed of a mineral called cerussite which contained a good amount of lead. When the lead-based mineral was assayed and found to contain a high silver content, the silver rush was on. By 1880, Leadville had become one of the west’s largest silver camps with a population that soared to more than 40,000 within three years.
As a kid looking forward to my first rip over the Rockies I had no clue about any of this: all I knew was that this was going to be a real adventure. Growing up near my grandparent’s farm in rural Ohio had provided me with ample opportunity to explore all sorts of neat places. There were small creeks and ponds to fish, swamps that had a mystery to them and long rows of corn to play in.
It was mid June when we headed out of Denver and took what was then one of the country’s best cross-country roads, but to my mom it was the road from hell. There were five us in the car: my brother Don and I, mom and dad and my Uncle Bob. There was still plenty of snow along the road, narrowing it such that at points it was difficult to pass the oncoming traffic. The turnouts were minimal and as we got higher and higher, the drop offs got more and more precipitous. My mom’s anxieties were increasing with the elevation. Clutching the door handle, she kept yelling at my dad to slow down, get away from the edge, watch out for that car – and that was on the way up to the crest.
I’ve got no idea what the name of the pass was that we finally crested but the views over were fantastic. Stopping at a viewpoint, my brother and I scampered up over the snow bank and headed up onto the higher slopes. After a half hour of running about we were back on the road, my mom in somewhat better shape after 30 minutes of being on terra firma. It turned out the ride down was even worse. Dad is on the brakes continuously, going as slow as possible when we catch up with another car that is driving down what is a really steep road with really steep cliffs and he’s got a flat tire.
That doesn’t seem to faze the driver. Apparently he doesn’t have a spare and is bound to continue on. My mom is starting to go through the roof. The rubber is starting to fly off the tire and the driver is swerving here and there. But he doesn’t stop and there is no way my dad can get by. My mom continues to scream and finally when there’s no rubber left, the guy is still on the road, the rear left rim making screeching sounds. Sparks are flying off the rim and I’m not sure which is the worst – my mom’s awful wailing or the sound of the rim sliding along on the pavement.
Needless to say, eventually we got by the car, didn’t meet the fate worse than death my mom had assured us was just around the corner and somehow made it to California but I’ll never forget those moments. Traveling across America in the 1950s was not without its perils.
Today the roads are much wider, the opposing traffic separated from me not only by barriers but in most cases 50 yards or more of median space. The cell phone works almost all the way along Highway 70, there are plenty of towns to stop for help and I’ve got one of those fancy GPS-based gadgets attached to my windshield that can tell me not only where I am to the degree, minute and second, but can route me to most any gas station, motel or restaurant I want to go to in a minute or so.
It’s Saturday, March 15 and I’ve been on the road less than three days. The trip has been uneventful thus far but that storm at my back worries me a bit. The snow is catching up. With that in mind I keep my side trips to a minimum and make the decision to make it over the Rockies and stay the night in Denver just to be safe.
As I reach the crest of the Continental Divide I’m sorely disappointed. It has been 57 years since that trip west with my parents and it has been on my mind all the way up towards the top. Above me I can see the final headwall that marks what I think might have been the point where we had stopped on our way over a half century ago. But just as I savor the moment when I’ll reach that point we head into a huge tunnel, well lit and wide enough to allow three 18-wheelers to get through side by side and thoroughly disappointing.
Several miles later I’m out of the tunnel and heading out onto the eastern slopes of the Colorado Rockies. Beyond is Kansas and more adventures. Little do I know that in just a few days I’ll be in the middle of tornado lane with intense storms on either side of me, the worst flooding in what some on the national news are calling a lifetime event and worries of whether I’ll be able to make it across the mighty Mississippi.