by Michelle McAlister
Sometimes you can find hope in the most unlikely places.
I have a photograph taken 30 years ago ingrained in my head: My twin sister and I are posing behind one of those propped-up cardboard scenes where tourists are encouraged to snuggle up to the painted display and center their own, smiling faces in the holes. A proclamation of “Cheeeeeese!” usually follows. In this photograph, I am a burro, smiling absurdly, saddled with bags of fool’s gold and pickaxes strapped across my sway back. My sister is a Gold Miner, her shy youthful grin a paradox with the miner’s gray beard, coveralls and the wrinkled cardboard hand that clutches at the rope around my neck. And as we smile, our dad is captured in the same photograph standing off to the side, absently gazing out towards the nothingness that surrounds the ghost town cemetery we are in. The empty blue of the Colorado sky holds his attention, a yellow plastic bag in his hands. Contents, unknown.
Our dad was obsessed with crumbling ghost towns, failed prospectors’ lives, buried cowboys and Gold Rush outlaws. He even picked up the same wishful, foolhardy hobby of gold panning, hopelessly sifting through the silt at the bottom of the icy Colorado River searching for the elusive nuggets. We spent our childhood years traversing the dusty ghost towns scattered around Colorado. But among all the ghost towns our dad dragged us to, Cripple Creek is the one I remember most.
Out on highway 67, at the base of Pike’s Peak, 44 lonesome miles southwest of Colorado Springs, Cripple Creek sits alone at an elevation of 9,500 feet. From a distance, high on a vista off highway 67, before descending down into the valley, Cripple Creek looks like a bowl of wilted salad; various shades of crispy sage in a basin with low rolling hills dwarfed by the taller Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Our dad had told us that Cripple Creek, Colorado was a land of possibilities—a turn-of-the-century mining town where “Hope” itself hollered, beckoning men from across oceans and deserts to come, and claim their fortune. That it was a place where a man could find himself and then lose himself—the unsuccessful, starving self. Thousands came hot and hurried, tortured by the fever of possibility. This is the place where our father searched for the past, and where we watched him slip into it.
Thirty years later, my sister and I had our own obsession: we wanted to return to Cripple Creek to find the exact spot in the photograph where we once posed, where our dad once stood, his peaceful expression forever captured in the photo. Cripple Creek is a land of finished souls, and we went searching for his. We had to find that very spot—it was all we had left. Going back to Cripple Creek would be an intangible journey—a vision, a feeling, a way to be close to what we had lost.
So in our quest to stand where we once stood, my sister and I flew into Denver, rented a four-wheel drive pickup and headed up onto mountain roads ravaged by roots, floods, fires and general lawlessness. We clamored up back road paths passing tall pines and forests of Aspens—the same trees that so many hopeful prospectors and outlaws had passed two hundred years before us. Traveling through the wilderness, the ghosts of Colorado appeared everywhere. We passed a lonesome, dilapidated cabin sliding down the mountainside, threatening passage on the road. I wondered what family had built that defunct cabin, from where they had migrated, and what native tongue did they abandon for the promise of gold in the hills of Colorado?
Journeying to such far off, tucked away places where people packed up their dreams and hopes left us with a feeling of despair, unease. We passed other ghost towns along the way—unfinished and unsuccessful. We found we had the same questions, preoccupations as the miners and journeyers before us: would we strike gold or would we fail?
When we finally made it back to Cripple Creek, nearly 30 years later, we breathed deeply. Returning to this childhood haunt was arresting, moving. The same vistas seemed smaller, sometimes bigger—but never quite the same as we remembered them. We got out of our rented pickup and walked the Piñon-juniper brush studded land where we inhaled the crisp, pungent scents of Douglas Firs, Ponderosa pines, Engelmann spruce. Worn burro trails guided us as we explored sunken, long forgotten graves, finding the creepiest, loneliest. Fallen wooden crosses, rusted wrought iron grave dividers, red and grey granite, crumbling marble, and weathered wood were once our playthings, and now, as adults, it struck us that these were lives lost, long gone. The baby graves saddened us the most. Chipped, sunken stones simply read, “Infant Son,” “Baby”, “Our Darling”. Ornate wrought-iron fences outlined infants’ graves in the tiniest rectangles, framing a tiny bed beneath layers of Colorado snow. We ran around the cemetery, reading each maker, stake, and stone, searching for the youngest, and then the oldest. Standing in the Cripple Creek cemetery, the swiftness of time sunk into me. People slip away. The lives we lived die—smoldering into nothingness.
Our own father had died when my sister and I were just 12. Before he passed, his disease made him short of breath, commanding his body to frequently pause and rest at odd and inconvenient times. But while he was preparing to leave us and life he’d given us, he managed to keep up with our visits to Cripple Creek, where we paid our respects to strangers’ graves.
I often think about how things would be different had he not died so young. He would be ours. He would look like us, and we could look in his eyes and see our own, the same shape, same hint of blue. Returning to Cripple Creek as an adult, I couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t preparing us for his end, taking us to the place where so many men had met theirs. Seeing the final resting place of so many adventurous, optimistic men, women and children, we couldn’t help but think of life’s brevity, finality. Did he find comfort in that land of hope? Did he feel at ease surrounded by the souls of other men? Was he, too, searching for a better life, chasing the lure of something unattainable? I contemplated the hold that the Colorado ghost towns had on my dad. While he struggled with alcoholism for years, I wondered if he knew it would finish him. But I think, after all these years, that I finally figured out what drew him to visit the old cowboys, the old hopefuls who crossed the country from across the Atlantic, from different continents, leaving their families behind, their own familiar air: They were all searching for something greater than what they already had. Gold rush towns level the playing field—it’s all hard work and luck, and everybody has a chance.
We felt defeated since we hadn’t found what were looking for: the old cardboard cutout of the burro and the Gold Miner—the place where our last photograph with our father was taken. Holding up the old photo, we tried to match up the vistas just so, the scrub brush on the right, the sun’s position high in the sky—but none of it mattered. Sometimes, when the living leave, all you have left are their footprints, showing where they once stood, and we couldn’t even find that.
As we headed out of Cripple Creek, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains loomed behind us. We passed a pack of tattered burros staking their own claim on an abandoned cabin’s front lawn, staring vacantly out into the nothingness of the blue Colorado sky, knee-deep in weeds. We all checked each other out as we drove by, exchanging prolonged empty glances. But our dad taught us that Cripple Creek, Colorado was a land of hope, of possibilities, so we knew that one day, on some other journey out into the Sangre de Cristos, we would find that spot where we all once stood together. After all, we had to have hope—the same type of enduring, relentless hope that built Cripple Creek.
Michelle McAlister‘s story won the Gold Award for Family Travel in the Third Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.