DISCOVERING TIMBERLINE

The first commercially available television sets in America were produced in 1938 and for a population whose only electronic in-home entertainment had previously been sitting around a radio, they were an instant hit. Now they could actually see the person they had formerly only been able to hear.

It was a revolution that would eventually become the root of all evil, at least according to parents-a-plenty.

By the time I made the scene on Planet Earth, television was commonplace in most American homes. My parents had one sitting proudly in their living room. It sat on a cheap stand complete with wheels so that it could be rolled into the dining room where we would occasionally watch some program or another during dinner. We had four channels: two, four, seven, and nine, and all of them were in brilliant black-and-white. There were no remotes; we actually had to walk up to the television to select one of those four channels.

The advent of television is both a blessing and a curse. It certainly has caused billions of people to lose sleep and spend too much time indoors. It has stifled conversation and been the impetus for the creation of "TV dinners" and the "TV stands" on which to eat those so-called "dinners." It caused my brother to stare zombie-like while his favorite programs hypnotized him.

But maybe it isn't all that bad. After all, if it wasn't for the television in my parent's living room, there's a good possibility that you wouldn't be reading this sentence right now.

My obsession with history and specifically with Colorado's mining past was born as a direct result of sitting in front of that television at the impressionable age of ten years old.

 

Unbeknownst to me, one afternoon, as I sat on my parent's living room floor watching that hideous box, my life was about to change forever. I can remember that day forty years ago like it was yesterday. I sat watching an episode of The Brady Bunch, appropriately named Ghost Town, U.S.A. I found myself absolutely dumbfounded by the idea that somewhere far away in the high mountains there could exist a place that now stood completely abandoned with only the sound of the wind in the trees to break the abject silence. Where once there had been hundreds or even thousands of people hurriedly going about their business day-in and day-out, now there were only crumbling stores, empty schoolhouses, silent saloons, abandoned streets, and caved-in gold mines.

As soon as the final credits faded from the screen that day, I ran to my father and asked him if ghost towns really existed. He told me about an abandoned place that he had visited years earlier.

He called it Caribou.

 

In an instant, everything changed, and I became a photographer, a writer, and a historian.

I begged him to take me to Caribou, and that next weekend we set off, just me, my father, and a dream (we took the Subaru; the dog stayed at home). We climbed higher and higher into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Finally, after what felt like the longest drive in a ten-year-old's life, we reached the very much living town of Nederland. Soon, we turned onto Caribou Road. Surely we must have been close!

And then, he stopped the car. A meadow surrounded both sides of the road; an open field, and nothing else.

There was no saloon with dusty, unwashed whiskey glasses waiting to be filled. There was no sheriff's office with a cell key still hanging on a rusty nail, waiting for a prisoner that would never come. There was no church waiting for its Pastor who had moved on a hundred years earlier. There were no cabins, no mills, no abandoned railroad bed.

There was just an empty meadow, and great disappointment.

That winter, I began reading every book I could find on the subject of Colorado's ghost towns. In particular, I read all I could find about Caribou. I learned that we had never actually reached Caribou. Instead, we had come across another ghost town called Cardinal, precisely two miles below Caribou. When summer came around, we set out again, and this time we reached our destination.

 

Sadly, by the summer of 1980, little remained. There were two stone foundations (which are part of the Potosi Mine and built in the 1920s; they are not a part of the original town), a miner's cabin with a unique curved roof, the remains of the New Jersey mill, overlooking the townsite, and the badly vandalized cemetery.

The television fantasy that first introduced me to the idea of a ghost town was not to be the reality of what I would find in my adventures in the mountains. Too much time had passed, and too many vandals had come before me. Then and there, I decided that I was going to do everything I could to preserve what remained. And so, I asked my parents for a camera, and I set out on a journey that has lasted for more than forty years.