Monday, September 21, 2009

Then and Now

Cricket McRae

Recently my guy and I drove to Leadville, Colorado, which, at 10,200 feet, is the highest incorporated town in the United States. The census from a year ago shows that in the previous seven years the population declined from 2,821 to 2,743.

It was once a real boomtown. More than once. First came the rush to find gold in the west, but after that panned out (literally), Alvinius Woods and William Stevens discovered an abundance of lead carbonate with an extremely high silver content. The second rush, for silver, put Leadville on the map, and in 1893 the estimated population was 60,000.

The town is rich in history. The Unsinkable Molly Brown played by Kathy Bates in Titanic? She lived in Leadville. Charles Dow and Edward Jones of the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Financial writers from Leadville. Houdini, John Phillip Sousa, Oscar Wilde and Jack Dempsey all appeared at the Tabor Opera House. Three prospectors named Jesse James and Bob and Charley Ford made a lucrative living robbing the local stagecoaches.

Historian Ann Parker has set her Silver Rush mystery series in Leadville during the height of the silver boom. Ann is meticulous about getting the details right, and Silver Lies, Iron Ties and Leaden Skies are all excellent reads. I'm tapping my foot, waiting for the next one.

I lived in Leadville from 1972 to 1977. Molybdenum fueled the local mining boom then. The Climax mine is the largest underground mine in the world, but demand for the mineral slackened, and it closed in 1995.

I hadn't been back for 33 years, but my memories were strong. I wondered how reality would shape up against them. Trying to go home again is futile, right?
Instead, I found myself disconcerted by how few things had actually changed. My old house looks the same. You can still get breakfast at the Golden Burro, a pair of sunglasses at Sayer & McKee Drugs, and a drink at the Silver Dollar Saloon.

Thank God for that last.

Because the familiar places were also depressingly older and dirtier and rattier. No growth means no upgrades and little maintenance. And, of course, the saw about how you can't go home again is really about how we outgrow our pasts. I'd expected to touch base with my home crafting roots, since Leadville was where I got up early and baked sourdough bread before school, where I learned to knit and where I read all about pioneer skills. Instead, there surfaced only-child memories of shyness and feeling out of place, moving and being the new kid yet again, pets gone so long I'd forgotten to miss them, and a myriad of other tiny blows to what I normally think of as a well-adjusted psyche.

What do you do with those blows? If you're a writer, you document them. I knew my homecoming wasn't particularly unique -- but it was emotional. Emotional and universal? Well, take note! At some point it will be exactly how a character feels, exactly what a story needs.

Now Leadville survives largely on tourism. Things like hiking, biking, camping, skiing, and white-water rafting. The town also mines its own history with museums and walking tours. I hadn't realized extreme sports were part of the recreational menu, but when we got there the Leadville 100 had just finished.

The Leadville 100 is an ultramarathon trail run. One hundred miles, in thirty hours. That's like four marathons in just over a day -- at altitudes ranging from 9,200 to 12,620 feet. About 500 people from all over the world enter. About half finish. The male record is held by Matt Carpenter, who finished in 15:42:00 in 2005. Ann Trason finished with a time of 18:06:24 in 1994.

The very concept of this event, which still takes effort for me to even get my head around, has sparked ideas for a new character. Ideas I really like.

I'm glad I made the trip "home," and I'm glad I made some new memories to blend with the old ones: playing the highest golf course in the U.S., a two-mile hike almost straight up, getting snowed on in July sitting by Windsor Lake, incredible but possibly certifiable athletes.

And a bittersweet undertone I think I can live with.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great post! I feel the same about going home, even though my hometown is more prosperous than it was when I left--it's nearly unrecognizable to me now. I guess we all would like things to remain true to our memories of them.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lisa Bork said...

Sounds like Leadville is a unique place to make memories. I don't know how athletes compete at that altitude; I can't even breathe.

Alan Orloff said...

Nice post, Cricket.

It may be tougher to breathe, but your golf ball sure goes a lot farther!

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I recently met Ann Parker and heard her talk about her book Leaden Skies. It made me want to see Leadville for myself. After this lovely post, I definitely want to visit!

G.M. Malliet said...

I visited Leadville at some point - must have been about the same time you lived there. Wish I'd known then our paths would cross one day.

It is a fascinating place. Thanks for the memories!

Cricket McRae said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. Since we moved around so much when I was a kid I don't really have a hometown, but Leadville was close.

No kidding,Lisa. I already live at a 5,280, but that hike to 12,000 was rough.

Alan, you're right. The Rockies keep their baseballs in a big humidor so they don't constantly fly out of the park!

Sue Ann -- Ann is lovely isn't she? I love her books.

Funny how things work out, Gin. Looking forward to our paths truly crossing at Bouchercon.

Keith Raffel said...

Even if you live in the same geographic location as your hometown, you can't go back to it. Here in Palo Alto, my hometown had $30,000 houses, Shirley Cobb Books and Peninsula Bookstore, the Little Big Game at Stanford Stadium Thanksgiving morning, the Palo Alto Times -- now all gone.

GutsyWriter said...

How was the altitude affecting your health after such a long time? Did you feel sick?

Cricket McRae said...

Keith, those kinds of changes were what I expected to find -- the weird thing was so little had changed.

GutsyWriter, I was lucky that I already live a mile high, so the increase was only a mile more. Like going from Seattle to Denver, for example. So I didn't suffer from altitude sickness, but I certainly moved a little slower. ; - )