Things are different above 10,000 feet.
Visitors to Leadville, Colorado learn that lesson quickly, huffing and puffing while climbing a single flight of stairs, withering under the harsh glare of the sun or succumbing quickly to a drink in one of the many saloons along Harrison Avenue, which doesn't seem to have changed since the nation's highest settlement was incorporated in 1878.
Despite the challenges presented by life at 10,200-feet, Leadville embodies human stubbornness in the face of natural elements and the town's stalemate with thin air remains a tremendous source of local pride. A bumpersticker testifies to this bullheadedness: "We're here because we're not all there."
The current population may be a modest 2,643, but in the roaring 1880s, as many as 15,185 residents called Leadville home. One travel guide published in 1885 reported that widespread rumors that "Leadville is dead" were greatly exaggerated.
The real downturn didn't come until 1893, when the price of silver, Leadville's leading commodity, well and truly cratered. Since then, the town has turned to adventure tourism as an economic way forward, with hotels, restaurants and shops catering to visitors, not to mention a very popular century-race series.
But Leadville's cyclic victories have come at great cost to its mountain-top environment. As precious silver, gold and zinc were hewn from the range, miners pushed further and further up the Rockies, at times even above the timber line. Without regulations, there was little incentive to properly dispose of mine tailings or old equipment much less headframes or ore bins.
Today, the relics of those mines are both monuments to booms past and, as tourist destinations in their own rights, the hope for booms to come.
On a recent visit, I toured many of the mine sites with author and local historian Roger Pretti. While the tunnels have been largely backfilled -- no sensible person would attempt to enter the area's dilapidated structures -- there was still a whiff of danger to the expedition, which by its very nature involved trekking on and around the private lands just off the county roads wending through the backcountry.
Official tours of the district are still in the works. Gail Dunning, owner of the historic Delaware Hotel downtown, says she's hoping to have guided tours ready by next spring, when the summer season gears up.
Until then, pack plenty of water, some sunscreen and a steely resolve.
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