The Lure of High Country History
One of the best things that happened to our family during the early 1950s was the acquisition of a sturdy secondhand Jeep that we bought soon after our move to Aspen. During offseason, as soon as the last guest left our Edelweiss Bed and Breakfast Inn, we would pack kids, dog, lunches and cameras into our “new” vehicle and head for the high country. The Jeep opened up a whole new dimension of wild mountain ranges, unmapped miners’ trails leading to abandoned cabins and mine works. But most of all it enabled us to learn about the rugged beauty and fascinating history of our newly adopted homeland. Those were the times of free and unhampered mountain roving, when few people ventured into the remote ghost towns and faraway high destinations that attract visitors and local adventurers today. It was on such a late spring outing that we found the first of several cast-iron oven doors, rusted, aged and beautiful. It lay among scattered remains of a disintegrated stove that was emerging from a melting snowbank. The entire surface of the “Guaze Door,” copyrighted in 1881, displayed oak and acorn designs embellished by lacy scrolls. Beside it, nestled in a wad of matted grass, was a tiny, high-buttoned shoe. A sprig of green moss grew out of a hole in its curled-up toe.I was ecstatic. The kids were doubtful. After all … an old shoe? A rusty little door? Wasn’t it junk?”These are treasures,” I insisted. “Think of cooking on this old stove – venison stews, sourdough biscuits, chokecherry jelly, more than a hundred years ago.”The family caught the spirit and we let our imagination fly, recreating the miners’ lifestyles and, in the process, becoming local history buffs as well as treasure seekers.There were some rules to follow. We were not to destroy or remove anything that could be of use today. We knew that a few Basque shepherds were tending sheep in the high valleys and that they used some of the mining cabins as emergency shelters if they were stranded overnight due to inclement weather or injuries.Roofless cabin relics, abandoned mine and mill sites, and trash dumps were considered past salvaging in those early jeeping days, so we searched around them for treasures.Though we did find collectibles now and then, our trips were geared toward learning more the history and lifestyles of the pioneers who settled in this wild, beautiful part of our state. With maps, camera and books written by earlier Aspen adventurers, we searched for remaining evidence of isolated settlements and forgotten mines.It seemed that in every direction, no matter where we bounced and crawled in four-wheel drive, we’d find isolated homesteads. We discovered that wild gooseberry and currant bushes thrived on ground where ashes and cast-iron debris were dumped. We searched for telltale bushes, lifted up the lowest branches and often came up with discarded oven legs and doors. One small door still had bits of see-through mica (or isinglass, as they called it in those days) attached to its peek window. We also learned that almost every cabin site had a rhubarb patch growing on a protected area near the cabin or behind the shed. This favorite hardy spring “tonic” was commonly called “pie plant.” The first shoots of rhubarb were a welcome addition to the winter staples of salt pork, wild game, beans, rice, tinned milk and mackerel, biscuits and coffee.A window overlooking the finest view, a “settin’ bench” leaning against the weathered log wall and a faded, wind-shredded curtain led me to believe that a woman had once made a home in a cabin high above the Crystal River Valley. Sure enough, a few tattered strips of Victorian floral wallpaper and a hand-embroidered tablecloth, chewed by pack rats and stuffed in a corner, convinced me that a miner’s lady once lived in that high-altitude claim.One day while prowling about in a roofless cabin, with its four walls barely standing, I played a favorite game: “If I lived here, where would such and such be?”This strategy usually works well, and in no time I dug a blue and white spatter-ware coffeepot from under fallen-in floorboards where the stove once stood. I found the ubiquitous rhubarb plant thriving next to the one-holer outhouse by the woodshed. On the trash heap I found shards of a stoneware jug and a small medicine bottle, sun-purpled with dregs of a crystallized residue staining the glass.Back in the cabin, I probed the pockets of a pair of moldering overalls that still hung on a wooden peg next to the gaping doorway and pulled out an empty Prince Albert tobacco can. The door was a wonder of magnificently weathered pine, but the hinges and knob were a real surprise. They were fashioned of thick leather, cleverly cut and fastened by the builder, who improvised with what he had on hand in the absence of hardware supplies.It didn’t take much imagination to picture the hard life led by the cabin’s owner. A steep, rocky trail led to his diggings a half-mile above his homestead. We concluded that it was a summer camp, for several avalanche paths crossed his precarious route, which we judged to be more than 10,000 feet in elevation. We left with feelings of respect and awe. Hardy, courageous, lonesome … those pioneer prospectors. And so few actually fulfilled their dreams of riches.Because most prospectors were poor housekeepers, we were able to find out much about them. They tossed their waste materials, old clothes, broken crockery, empty bottles, and food tins right out the front door or kitchen window, whichever was handiest. Obviously getting rid of debris wasn’t on their minds; hitting pay dirt was, so they drew their dreams of rich mother lodes about them, never bothering to tote and bury their trash.Once we found segments of the Aspen Daily Times clinging to the inside walls of a crumbling cabin near Castle Creek. The logs, chinked with a combination of mud, sand and straw, had been covered with unbleached muslin, which was plastered over with local newspapers … yesteryear’s insulation. We couldn’t have been more thrilled if we had discovered the Rosetta stone. Eagerly, we deciphered tantalizing bits of news on the front page, dated May 23, 1892. A typical headline of that era read, “Lily Starr and Beth McGrath were arrested by Officer Mcginnis for speeding their buggy on Main Street in front of startled passersby.” Today, artifacts are few and far between. But we still have the joy of searching for historic sites, and hiking along faint trails to the crumbled cabins where ghosts of the past still linger. These treasure hunts and the sheer beauty of our mountains lead us back to the high country each summer. Still hooked after all these years!Jony Larrowe has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1950. She was formerly married to Harry Poschman, and they ran the Edelweiss Inn from 1950 to 1966 in the location where the Hotel Lenado now stands.
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A driver looking to squeeze one last four-wheel drive up Aspen Mountain discovered that it’s not the ascent but the descent that poses a challenge.