I breathe in. I breathe out. In. Out. In. These breaths come so quickly and forcefully that I sound as if I’m in the throes of an asthma attack. Or maybe I’m a pig that’s found the perfect wallowing mud. Or perhaps this is the sound of monkeys mating. A tortured turkey? Whatever. I don’t sound good but I don’t ease up on the effort until my oxygen-deprived body tops out in the thin air of 14,058-foot Handies Peak.
The view is unimpeded, almost everything existing at a lower elevation than me. In each compass degree of that view, mountains cut harsh lines across the sky. They are snaggled teeth of geologic history and mystery, forking themselves toward the heavens. Between the mountains are valleys, some that I can see and others hiding behind other peaks. From here, they appear as Sound of Music caricatures of themselves, airbrushed by distance of rocks, trees, and historic mining shacks. They are just green carpets.
It’s mid-morning. The sky is clear, except for a couple white clouds, mini-cotton balls floating in an aquamarine, upside-down sea. Also on the mountain are Paige and Geoffrey Dunmore, a newlywed couple from Salt Lake City, Utah, who share with each other (And me!) a love of running far and getting high. Paige arrives to the summit, and I notice she’s donned a windbreaker and a fat grin. Through the stiff and steady breeze, I hear her summit reaction, “Holy sh&t!” I think, now THIS is trail running.
The San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado make a tough but exquisite playground. Once mostly home to the Ute Native American tribe, the range became of interest to white folks when valuable metals were discovered in them in 1860. Miners by the thousands inhabited the San Juans starting in the 1870s, filling to brimful the mountain’s three main towns, Silverton, Lake City, and Ouray as well as dotting many gullies and mountainsides with roads, adits, mills, and homes. Gold, silver, zinc, and more were plied from the hills for almost 100 years, until the market prices of these metals declined so much that business wasn’t profitable.
Bryon and I huff and puff our way along a trail contouring the flank of Canby Mountain. He’s my boyfriend and he knows that the gray clouds furling up and forming angry banks cause me angst, so we’re running hard. As a 22-year-old, I became scarred for life by being too high and exposed on a mountain during an intense lightning storm. Because I studied the map this morning, I logically understand that the trail we’re on, which connects the tops of two gulches by way of the edge of Canby Mountain, is short. At this moment, it feels interminable.
I round a corner and feel the trail dropping away underfoot. Below me a couple hundred vertical feet is Stony Pass, the high point of a dirt road carving a north-to-south-ish path into and out of the mountains. Once we make it to the road, we’ll divebomb it to our car. The decreased aerobic effort of the downhill is nothing compared to the relief of knowing we’re now headed away from the clouds.
I turn around and realize that Bryon is nowhere to be seen. He likes to stop and smell the flowers, so I know something on the trail has captured his attention. Just as he pops into my view, a whirly-gig cloud poofs around him. He dances out of the cloud and down the rocky trail to me while I flush with another wave of anxiety.
Stony Pass’ altitude is almost 12,600 feet. Even though we’re now lower than the mountains around us, I still feel like I’ve showed up to school with no clothes on, that is to say exposed, in the impending climactic doom. Bryon takes this fine moment to read the interpretive sign at the pass. It describes the road’s history as the first road into and out of this part of the San Juans and a passageway for miners, equipment, and valuable extractions. As he reads the sign aloud, I fixate upon a hole in it that’s about the diameter of a golf ball and melted around the edges. “Is this what I think it is?” I ask Bryon, sticking my finger through the hole. I don’t need his confirmation to understand that lightning once struck this fiberglass.
Downhill I run and I don’t stop until I’m three thousand feet below, back at the car, and about half-wet from the dousing that has just begun. I can tangibly feel the distance we’ve put between the bellowing, belching sky. I am again at ease.
When mining declined in the San Juan Mountains, tourism arose. ATV’ers, Jeep-ers, and dirt bikers now compose the greatest portion of the tourist demographic. After that are the pedestrian types, the hikers, peak baggers, and strange breed of critters called trail runners.
Every July, hoards of gaunt yet muscle-y mountain women and men descend upon Silverton for the Hardrock 100, a 100-mile running event that makes a grueling but never ugly circuit through the mountains. The 120 people who start the race each year take between 24 and 48 hours for their respective journeys. And, they don’t stop for longer than it takes to change their shoes or eat 500 calories in one of the approximately dozen aid stations which supply food and drink to these laborers. The mountain lifestyle lives deep in these Hardrockers, as they are nicknamed.
Angels, I decide, made Hematite Lake. Its turquoise color and the manner in which it perches so purposefully and perfectly in the cirque of Hematite Gulch make it seem like it should also be bound by pearled gates, singing choirs, and the gentle hands of something immortal. I decide not to share these thoughts with my adventure companions today, Bryon, Paige, and Geoffrey, lest they begin to worry about the altitude killing too many of my brain cells.
The cirque is littered with adits and other mining debris, so much that, if it weren’t 100-year-old stuff, I’d be offended at the volume of trash. But I love spotting the shards of white china, pieces of purple glass, rusted axe heads, and bed coils that still spring when I press on them. They transport me into history, well, my imagined version of history since I have no idea what happened in Hematite Gulch.
I envision the repetitive clacking of metal on rock somewhere above me, the beers these miners must have lugged all the way up here to drink, how chilly the nights here at 12,000 feet must have been even in the middle of summer, the hurrahs and huzzahs that must have echoed among the rocky walls when someone finally, finally found something of value.
“It was a precarious life,” Bryon says, and we all murmur in positive response. I think, it’s always a precarious life.