Gerald Keep – 10/25/2018
Sometimes I look at the rolling ridges of Tennessee and take pride in my mountain heritage. But my childhood memories were not of these soft green hills, but of the higher, jagged teeth of the exposed formations out West. My ancestors homesteaded in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park.
I spent my first 10 years in the soft green farmlands of flattest Ohio but my heart was with the relatives we visited every summer in Colorado. The epitome of the Mountain Men was my great-uncle Tim. He was my Mamaw’s younger brother, closer in age to my mother really, and consequently close to my family. He spent much of his career with the National Park Service fixing the snowplows that kept the pass open over the Continental Divide. When the 14-foot poles with the orange flags on them finally got buried in snow, it was time to take a break for the rest of the winter. He asked to spend his last few working years in Death Valley National Monument so he wouldn’t have to see any more snow.
Earlier in life, he was on the crew that did the US Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountains. During that time, he claimed a piece of land for his own, tucked away off the Big Thompson Canyon. Not sure how many acres it was — maybe a hundred or even a thousand if you counted the “vertical acres” that were so plentiful there. It had a played out gold mine and a serious outcropping of beryllium, so he called the mines his “retirement fund”. One of my favorite childhood memories was when we camped out at his mine.
It was hard to find, just a cattle gate across a jeep trail along side the canyon road. Then it was a 3-mile hike up the steep mountain and we had to leave all the vehicles there except for Uncle Tim’s jeep, which could mercifully carry the heavy equipment up the rough, washed-out remnants of a trail. We kids started up the mountain first with just our canteens, with the adults following in the jeep. I realize now they did this to sweep up any stragglers, but it felt like we were striking out on our own into the wilderness.
Half way up we came to a low meadow where the jeep trail disappeared. Somehow my older brothers knew we had to make a 90-degree turn to continue up the trail and in my fuzzy young memory, it seemed right and familiar. I still marvel that we didn’t get lost in the mountains. At the top, there was another meadow. Someone used to run cows up there and a prominent feature was an old collapsed barn, maybe 30 feet on a side. They told me not to go in there because it was unsafe, and besides there were bats living in there now. We camped next to the spring, where a pipe had been driven into the mountainside and gave a steady flow into a cow trough before spilling out onto the ground and away. First order of business was to dig latrines not too far away.
We didn’t bother with tents, just sleeping bags and a fire to keep away wild animals. The night was refreshingly cool and there were no bugs. The sky was amazing. By day, low clouds raced overhead, faster than you could run. By night, the black velvet skies were unbelievable. This is one of the few places I could ever see the Milky Way.
In the morning we hiked further up the mountain to see the beryllium “mine” which was really just a pale greenish-white outcropping about 20 feet across. The rock showed hexagonal crystal knobs. Then, we went on up to the old gold mine. This was actually a rough tunnel cut deep into the granite side of the mountain. There was a vertical shaft not very far in that the adults made sure we stayed clear of – it was supposedly about a 20-foot drop and the only rope was back at the camp. We tried to shine flashlights down it, but couldn’t get close enough to see the bottom.
When it was pointed out to us, we could see the vein of gold high up on the wall of the tunnel. It was a dull dark line, sort of brown, in the lighter grey granite wall. Uncle Tim told us they had abandoned the mine because it cost more to get the gold out than it was worth, but when the price of gold went back up, there would still be a lot of gold in that mine. It inspired us to try panning for gold a time or two in our later, teenage, years, as the streams were supposed to refresh every 50 years or so, and we had just as good a chance of finding a new mother lode as they had back in the gold rush days. We heard stories of other people panning for gold all summer and paying for their year’s college tuition.
Anyway, we camped a second night, ate s’mores, and told ghost stories. I told a ghost story which I made up on the spot. This was my first ever effort at creative writing. It went like this:
“Once there was a man who brought his dog up here. That night, it got away from him and went off up the mountain barking at something. He chased after it and followed it up to the gold mine. He could hear the dog barking inside the mine, so he went in after it. It was dark and he was in a rush, and he ended up falling down the shaft, never to be seen again. Now if you go up there at night, and listen carefully, you can still hear the dog barking at the bottom of the shaft.”
After that, it seemed like nobody could get to sleep, just lie in our sleeping bags and watch for meteors, and listen for sounds of wildlife. But we were exhausted and of course we really fell asleep pretty fast.
Then in the morning, we started back down the mountain with our canteens on our hips and the jeep coming along behind. It would not be long before the summer was over and School Days would come again. Not everything we learned came from school. That mountain taught us something about who we are.
As a child you absorb everything you see as being normal, and it becomes a part of yourself. We went back to camp at Uncle Tim’s mines several more times over the years and I grew to understand how special the place was. I had learned self reliance from those trips, given the example of people who had the courage to strike out on their own in the world, to launch endeavors like that tiny cattle ranch in the mountains, and to wrestle a living from the very rocks of the mountain itself. With that example burned into my soul, I never took the beaten path in life, and always looked for places no one had ever tamed before. No challenge seemed too great in my later years, as those mountains had taught me what true human spirit could do.