I drove west out of Denver up the ribbon of I-70 that ascends the Rockies, entered the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel -- one of the highest man-made bores on the planet -- and passed a sign announcing the Continental Divide. Under all that rock, the mountains seemed enormous and the highway seemed almost comically impermanent.
My goal was to visit a number of ghost towns and the ruins of long-shuttered mines, abandoned after the boom and bust cycles that have touched the extreme elevations of the state since the end of the Civil War. But truly deserted corners were harder to find than I expected -- instead I found monuments to the iron will of the people who dared to settle some of the highest peaks on our continent.
Central City, 38 miles outside Denver, was, for a brief time, in contention to become the capitol of the state. A mining boomtown dubbed the richest square mile on Earth during the roaring 1880s, its downtown would seem frozen in amber but for the small-scale casinos that occupy the storefronts along Main Street.
It's here, on the very first day of my trip in search of "ghost towns," that I'm informed by locals that the phrase I'm using is none too popular in the high elevations of Colorado. These may not be flush times for many of the small towns that dot mountain passes, but abandoned they are not. Community, I quickly learn, is not defined by declining population statistics but shared civic responsibility; here, that means betting on casinos as a way to generate revenue for historic preservation.
Higher in the mountains, I reach Leadville, once so prosperous that it was the second-largest city in the state. According to an 1885 encyclopedia of Colorado, when the population was roughly 16,000, Leadville had 5,000 men directly engaged in mining, along with 52 physicians, 96 lawyers, 13 hotels, 10 lumber yards, eight schools and three separate Masons lodges.
"Mining companies," the guide says, "there are hardly enough figures to enumerate them or the mines in the vicinity."
Today, all but a handful stand abandoned, as the town tries to rebuild its economy on tourism, a challenging task for a destination without a ski resort --the closest Ski Cooper is 10 miles north of town and about a sixth the size of Copper Mountain. One success story is the Leadville Race Series that invites runners and bikers to test their endurance above 10,000 feet.
I pressed on to St. Elmo, where many of the mining settlement's original structures still line the main drag. ATV riders outnumbered tourists that afternoon, though my guide, Melanie Ward, said that in season this largely empty town is bumper to bumper with visitors. Not bad for a place that saw its population fall from 2,000 to two after the mines closed.
After an overnight in Salida, a happening community stuffed with bars and art galleries, a sort of Ithaca-in-the-mountains on the Arkansas River, I set out for Turret, a remote boomtown that seems to have as many new homes and cabins as it does historic structures. A blunt message was painted on the sign of one building: "Welcome to Turret, Gateway to Browns Canyon Wilderness, Now Go Home."
I didn't take offense. To me, the sign was a declaration of the spirit that ran through all the towns I'd seen, boom or, more accurately for now, bust: We'll be alright as long as we're here.