Willoughby: Life at a self-imposed solitary safe distance in the Rockies | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Life at a self-imposed solitary safe distance in the Rockies

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
A miner’s cabin decomposes above Ashcroft, near timberline.
willoughby collection/courtesy photo

NPR reporter Rae Ellen Bichell recorded an interview with Billy Barr. He lives between Crested Butte and Ashcroft, at an abandoned mine in Gothic, at around 10,000 feet elevation. Bichell intended to pick up ideas about how to survive social distancing, in Barr’s case living alone.

Barr enjoys his near-solitary existence. In the winter he sees, rarely, a few backcountry skiers as they pass. And he makes occasional trips to Crested Butte. He recommends a daily routine. His routine includes gathering weather and animal information for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the Rocky Mountain Biology Laboratory. Also, he loves movies and maintains a large collection.

The interview reminded me of men who lived in the surrounding area during Aspen’s mining era. Surely you have seen remnants of their cabins and wondered how they survived.

Miners built most of those cabins within walking distance of their “office,” a mine. They occupied high elevation cabins — a few above timberline — only seasonally, because winter snow would just about bury them. But other cabins, such as those in Little Annie Basin, sheltered residents year round.

My father knew a few miners who preferred a nonsocial existence, and rarely visited town except for provisions. Not slaves to a boss, they worked just enough to survive. In those days the government did not tax mining claims, and they built their cabins without expense, using local trees and rock. For heat, they may have splurged on a woodstove, which doubled as a cookstove. If they used glass at all, one window sufficed. They relied on nearby streams and melting snow for water.

More gregarious miners worked alongside others. Married miners with families occupied some cabins. I have heard of one birth in a Little Annie cabin.

Billy Barr’s dependence on routine to survive social distancing reflects necessary habits of the mining era. Miners in large operations worked from sunrise to sunset. Nighttime added the expense of fuel for lanterns, and made “early to bed” an economic choice.

We know little about the cabin hermits, other than what we learn from the diaries of Charles Armstrong. He lived in a cabin at Highland, a stage stop at the confluence of Conundrum and Castle creeks. He surveyed mines in the Conundrum and Castle creek valleys, and occasionally on both sides of Taylor Pass.

Other mountain hermits likely followed Armstrong’s seasonal routine. In the fall he spent hours cutting and splitting piles of wood to feed his stove through the winter. Winter brought hours of snow shoveling, and most of those cabins could not support much snow. Looking at cabins 50 years ago, I saw that most roofs caved before the walls gave way.

Putting food on the table took up much of Armstrong’s time. Fishing took advantage of a plentiful resource, and most miners lived within an hour’s hike to a fishing hole. Hunting supplied meat that could be stored over time. It appeared that deer and elk could endlessly supply all who wanted meat. Armstrong trapped smaller game, such as rabbits and martens, for fur and food.

Staples such as flour, sugar, coffee, alcohol and tobacco required a trip to town when supplies ran out. Newspapers noted the comings and goings of miners who did not live in town. They would spend a night or two in a boarding house or hotel, enjoy the company of others, and catch up on local news, mining innovations and the outside world.

It did not take much time to clean a small abode, but cooking absorbed a large portion of the daily routine. Feeding the stove, boiling water for coffee, butchering game, plucking duck feathers, baking bread or cornbread, and cleaning up took much longer than the preparation of packaged food does today.

Billy Barr has movies. Miners enjoyed newspapers. They would pick up multiple editions during trips to town, and read through them more than once before nodding off to sleep.

One thing hasn’t changed about how miners and we survive social distancing. As the Irving Berlin song says, “I got the sun in the mornin’ (and the moon at night.)” Howl on.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.