14 December 2103- I sit in my chair with a bad case of “saddle ass” following an impromptu 350 mile mini-road trip this morning. I awoke before dawn and had a quick breakfast of smoked hog jowl and coffee before firing up “Basil” my Range Rover and heading east on Interstate 70 for a look an up close and personal look at a few dots on the map.
Most of my wanderings lead me to the mountains or the desert- to mining camps and their associated ghost towns. Today marked a rare trip (only my second) to the barren, endless sea of prairie to the east of Denver. I’ve never had much interest in the prairie. It’s flat. It’s windy. It all looks the same. But, recently I’ve grown to appreciate the plains a little more. There is something beautiful and clean and pure about the austerity of the flat lands that make up eastern Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska (and I imagine a few other of those “square states” on the map). I learned this on my first exploration of the flats around a month ago when I visited the ghost town of Keota. A long drive down a dirt road surrounded by nothingness is quite soothing- a welcome respite from the high-pressure of the city. Clean. Pure. Refreshing. Desolate. Alone. Just the right ingredients for a proper road trip.
Humming east on I-70, serenaded by the angleic voice of Lemmy from Motorhead, I reached my first stop- Deer Trail, home of the World’s First Rodeo which was said to have taken place on July 4, 1869- seven years before Colorado became state. A quick trip through the town left me wondering if that was the only event to have ever happened in Deer Trail. The town has several well-laid out blocks with full-time residents, a school and business district, but there is no indication of any kind of “life” in Deer Trail. Every storefront and shop in the business district is empty…very empty. The vintage advertising faded in the windows and painted on the walls leads one to believe that Deer Trail died suddenly overnight at sometime in the 1980’s. Was Deer Trail the victim of an undisclosed nuclear attack by the Soviets? Did Deer Trail fall victim to some macabre infestation ala “The Crazies”? A gas station along the interstate appeared to be the only viable industry left in Deer Trail, the small ice cream shop next door appears to now be a private residence. The Deer Trail Tribune building has burned. What looked like the grocery store was guarded by a squirrel standing on his haunches looking at me. Not much going on in Deer Trail, but the community church and United States Post Office were well maintained and still open for business. (The three images below were taken in Deer Trail, Colorado.)
Leaving Deer Trail with a strange and unsettling feeling that I was being watched, I hopped back on I-70 and headed for my next destination- Agate. Just past the bend in the interstate I took the Agate turnoff and amid forceful winds and a sorrowful, gray winter sky I stopped for a quick look (that’s all it takes) at Main Street. More of the same as I had found a few miles back in Deer Trail- evidence of habitation both past and present, but largely desolate and forgotten. There was a school that had the look of the 1950’s that apparently still served the community. The grocery store was long abandoned, as were a handful of other storefronts. A sign advertised the Agate Motel, but closer inspection revealed the Motel had been converted in to a private dwelling. A fat black cat lazily crossed the road in front of me, stopping briefly to give me a scowl for interrupting his lazy jaunt. But, like Deer Trail, the community church and post office were still alive and kicking. (The photos below were taken in Agate, Colorado)
Further east I went, this time towards the town of Genoa. Genoa once boasted a small bit of fame- A tower was constructed in the 1920’s atop a promontory point, and was marketed to travelers as “The Highest Point Between the Rocky Mountains and New York City!” where a visitor could climb the tower and “See 6 States” from the observation deck (Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma…and some other state I can’t remember probably Delaware). Today the tower still stands, and the signs still exist, but the black spray paint “CLOSED” across them and the locked gates clearly indicate the tower is no longer open for tourism. The rest of Genoa is equally as dismal. There are several blocks making up the town, and from the looks of it, at some distant point long ago, Genoa must have been a fairly decent place to call home. There were several empty storefronts, and even a few two-story business buildings. One shop had a crude epitaph “1922-1994” painted on it’s facade, apparently marking the birth and death of the business it once housed. Today Genoa is another one of the creepy “almost” ghost towns that litter the plains. The business district is entirely dead, although, oddly, someone still takes the time every year to hang up Christmas decorations on the light poles. An old man peered at me from under the hood of an old Dodge truck next to a sign that read “Mile High General Store”. The garage and gas station are long dead. The “Farmer’s Hotel” doesn’t look like it has seen a farmer in many moons. The two story schoolhouse was shrouded in overgrown pine trees, and a 1950’s vintage travel trailer with no tires sat curiously in the front lawn. The grain elevator creaked and some sort of loose metallic sounding apparatus banged distantly in the wind. No other sign of life could be found in Genoa…except for at the community church which had a full parking lot, and at the post office where an oldish woman, with a handful of letters, came out the door and stopped dead in her tracks and looked at me as if startled to see someone actually driving through town.
I decided it was time to leave Genoa when a Ford truck with a burly and not so friendly looking cowboy pulled up next to me as I was taking photos. He said nothing, just glared at me, and I realized by the look of things, I must have been on someone’s property, although I saw no signs. I’m not the sharpest marble, but I can take a hint, it was time to go.
I continued my eastward trek, getting dangerously close to the hell known as Kansas. A hot, windswept place I knew vaguely from my youth. As a youngster, I was punished every other year or so with trips to “Kansas”, I never knew what I did, but while other kids went swimming and to Disneyland, I was strapped into the seat of Chevrolet and found myself being roasted in a convection oven of heat and wind, surrounded by senior citizens and wheat fields in this hellish place. I’ve feared the east and Kansas ever since.
Luckily, today I would stop at Arriba, then turn north so as to avoid Kansas Territory and it’s inherent sufferings. Arriba is located ten or so miles eat of Genoa…hell maybe it’s 20, it all looks the same out here-flat and gray. Pulling in to Arriba I was surprised to see human activity, there were people milling about the parking lot of the all-in-one gas station/cafe/general store. But, a quick glance of the situation and I realized it was a crew of pipeline workers who were as lost and out of place in this strange land as I was. They had stopped to ask for directions, and the startled employee of Arriba’s all-in-one everything shop just stood in the front door agape at two full-sized trucks full of people and me and Basil the Rover in her parking lot. We were the most activity Arriba had seen since the fertilizer truck blew a tire in 1974 and crashed and the State Patrol stopped by town to investigate. Just like Deer Trail, Agate and Genoa, Arriba was a haunting reminder of a far off time. The storefronts were all empty, an assortment of animals both domestic and wild scurried about the streets. An out of place looking teenager dressed like a “big city gangsta” walked down the dirt road past the boarded up “Hair ‘n’ Head” salon. To it’s credit, Arriba had two finely maintained churches and clean and tidy post office where a white haired woman sat staring out the window from behind the counter. (The photos below were taken in Arriba, Colorado)
I traveled straight north out of Arriba on County Road 43 so as to avoid Kansas. County Road 43 led me out of Lincoln County and into Washington County where I hoped to find Thurman, a small reportedly “great” ghost town dating to the 1880’s. As Basil and I rumbled down the dirt road I stopped to check my maps, and realized I had passed Thurman, so I turned around and headed back a mile or two, thinking I might have missed it while I was daydreaming about boobies and beer (which I was at the time). But, to my dismay, I hadn’t missed Thurman. Thurman was right where it was supposed to be, the only problem was Thurman wasn’t there. It seems that the new owner of the town site felt it a judicious and prudent decision to bulldoze the historic school, stagecoach stop, and general store which had weathered the elements for the last 130+ years. A clump of trees, a pile of boards, and a couple of foundations marked the sight of Thurman. Sadly, in the last 10 years numerous historic buildings and ghost towns have fallen victim to overzealous morons with bulldozers. (Below is a photo of Thurman “was” for 130 years before the bulldozers arrived)
Disappointed I left the sad remains of Thurman and passed by the pioneer cemetery just north of town with it’s dilapidated sign reading “THURMAN C M T R” and dotted with a few headstones. After a short drive I reached Anton, a small community, now mostly abandoned that served (still does) as a post office for the surrounding farms. Largely vacant since the “Dust Bowl” days of the 1930’s Anton still hosts the only grocery store for miles in any direction and an interesting assortment of abandoned buildings. The buildings look like the small dwellings often found at railroad sidings, but I could find no evidence of a railroad. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. (Below are photos of Anton, Colorado)
I took a short 22 mile drive southeast of Anton on Highway 36 to Cope, Colorado. I was familiar with Cope having received a $275 and 6-point speeding ticket there two years ago for traveling 95 miles and hour in a 60 mile per hour zone on the way back from a funeral in Nebraska. Cope is a fitting for this small settlement, although it was named “Cope” after the town’s founder in 1880, I think “Cope” is all one could do if they lived there today. Cope boasted the standard eastern plains dead business district, abandoned school, and array of empty houses along with a few occupied residences. To my horror and heartbreak, on one of Cope’s streets I found a beautiful 1968 Oldsmobile 442, that had been converted into a chicken coop complete with cages in the back seat and chicken wire screens in the windows! This car would be worth more than all the real estate in Cope combined were it restored and put on auction. It is representative of a strange rural phenomenon I have witnessed countless times in my travels- People will live in tumbledown shacks and eek out a hand-to-mouth existence not realizing the “junk” abandoned in their barns and yards is worth thousands of dollars on today’s collector market. And, often is the case, that these valuable articles, be they cars or guns or whatever, are not for sale. The owners would rather be left alone, or the trinket of desire is not for sale for some sentimental purpose, or it is not for sale out of pure ignorance “Why that old car has sat here for 40 years, it’s just a junker, what would anybody want with that!” Being a lifelong Oldsmobiile man I snapped a few pics, looked around for any sign of life, and crushed having not found any, morosely drove away from the treasure mired in weeds, mud and chickenshit that will inevitably continue to rot away and become one with Mother Earth again. Cope did have a nice looking church with shiny, newer model cars in the lot, and a post office…with, as you guessed an orderly looking white haired woman peering out the window at me. (Cope, Colorado seen in the photos below)
From Cope I turned around and headed back to Denver. Along the way I found the almost imperceptible site of Arickaree. Arickaree was a popular watering hole for bison and hunting ground for Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians long before the white man ever trudged into the territory. After the pale faces arrived Arickaree served as a post office and school site for surrounding ranches and farms. Arickaree and most of it’s inhabitants disappeared in the 1930’s. Today one modern house (which appears abandoned) and a cluster of small old structures mark the site on Highway 36 between Cope and Anton. One of the structures is said to be the old Arickaree post office. (Arickaree below)
My final destination on the way back home to the shitty city of Denver was Last Chance. I had been through last chance numerous times as a child on my well to punishment in Kansas, and just a year or two ago on the way to the funeral in which I got my hefty traffic citation from the right honorable constable in Cope. Even as a child I remember Last Chance as being nothing more than abandoned buildings. A couple years ago it was a ghost town. Today I wanted to stop and see what was left, in 2012 a prairie fire ignited by a sparking rim from a flat tire obliterated much of the nothingness that surrounded Last Chance. Reports on the local news and online said much of Last Chance went up in flames as well, and since the site was mostly abandoned fire crews didn’t even respond, they just let the town burn. Well, honestly, I can’t say that I noticed any difference in Last Chance. It was still abandoned, and the only two things I’ve ever remembered about the town- the hotel and the Dairy King were still intact…and abandoned as they have been since the beginning of recorded history. Basil requested I take his photo next to the Dairy King. (Last Chance below)
In reflection I am sad by what I found on the prairie- Once small, but vibrant agricultural communities now nearly abandoned and forgotten. Farmers, ranchers and cowboys, small town mechanics and grocers and clerks replaced by gigantic corporate farms, dealerships, supermarkets and chain stores. Close knit communities that have lost entire generations to the city- the young and able having sought careers in the city. Crumbling reminders of former glory, now occupied only by the elderly and the poor. The one thing I can see in common with all these communities is the church and post office are all that remains- the faith of the those left behind and the hope of tomorrow’s delivery from today’s reality.
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