Archive for April, 2014

Early last September I made a solo voyage into the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Armed with my cheap camera, a few maps, and enough “magic plastic” to ensure I wouldn’t run out of gas, I headed to parts unknown.

I had been to the San Juans once as a child and didn’t remember much, I did remember they were rugged and beautiful and unlike the other mountain ranges in Colorado.

Weaving my way through a never ending maze of road construction and detours which, historically, plague Colorado every summer do to myopic government bureaucrats, I finally made it to Silverton…nearly five hours behind schedule. Silverton would be my base camp for the night before I set out in the morning for the fabled ghost town of Animas Forks.

One of the many great old buildings in Silverton.

One of the many great old buildings in Silverton.

I stopped by the historic “Bent Elbow Saloon and Restaurant” and managed to score the last chunk of prime rib, a bowl of the second best potato soup I’ve ever had, and cold beer right before they closed up for the night. As the staff cleaned up for the night, I watched a group of  middle-aged Polish tourists take numerous shots of hard liquor and toast all things big and small in the world, which is the jovial custom of most eastern European cultures. The Poles left and as I finished up my dinner their laughter and merriment could be heard fading away as they walked down the dark and dusty main street of Silverton. I tipped the bartender and made my way back to my motel room.

Silverton

Silverton

The next day after a simple, but great breakfast at “Mattie & Maude’s”, I hopped in my Dodge Charger R/T and began my quest for Animas Forks. My maps showed the road to be dirt, but maintained, I had read several accounts stating the road could be navigated in a 2-wheel drive vehicle…then again I had read several more stating a 4X4 was required to make it in to Animas Forks. I figured I’d give it a shot.

I had been warned the night before that a few days earlier snow had made the road in to Animas Forks impassable, and that I should proceed with great caution because the steep, narrow road drops off sharply into the gorge of the “Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio” (the River of Lost Souls in Purgatory” or, as it is called today the “Las Animas”.  But, I’m young…well, not really anymore, but I’m not quite “old” yet, headstrong and tend to make stupid decisions when I’m on a “quest”.

 

Anyhow, I began my climb up the road towards Animas Forks in my Charger- a 2-wheel drive, high-performance street car with very little ground clearance.  I covered the first 8 or 9 miles with ease, the road was flat and level and was well-graded, then the road rose sharply towards the sky and became very narrow as it began the climb towards Animas Forks and entered the gorge of the river.  A few hundred yards up the incline a large sign warned “4X4 TRAIL BEYOND THIS POINT. HIGH GROUND CLEARANCE REQUIRED”    My heart sunk…piss!  I had driven halfway across the state and had suffered through the indignity of waiting in road construction all day the day previous, only to make it to within 3 miles of Animas Forks to find out I needed a 4X4!!!

The road to Animas Forks before the steep ascent

The road to Animas Forks before the steep ascent

 

I made the executive decision to go on- one of two things was going to happen, I would make it in to Animas Forks in the Dodge, or I would get stuck trying. Luckily for me, I made it in, experiencing only one slight “ah-shit” along the way, when I scraped hard over some rocks that had come down in the snowstorm a few days earlier, which resulted in a dented muffler and a slightly different exhaust note on the Dodge.

 

I made it in to Animas Forks, truly “a ghost town above the rest”  situated at timberline at roughly 11,200 feet elevation.  Animas Forks once boasted itself to be “the highest city in the world” but that was just the farcical dream of the locals…the town is however way the heck up there, and if you have bad lungs or are a flatlander from the midwest, you’re bound to get altitude sickness and spend the day feeling like you drank a bottle of cheap vodka the night before.

My First Look At Animas Forks, Way Up at 11,200 feet!

My First Look At Animas Forks, Way Up at 11,200 feet!

The mine at Animas Forks

The mine at Animas Forks

Cabin at Animas Forks

Cabin at Animas Forks

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Animas Forks is well preserved- partially by the climate, partially by it’s inaccessible location, and partially by man.  I was thrilled to see so many structures in such a fine state of preservation, but I was somewhat saddened to see “The Walsh House” had been fully renovated and preserved by a historic society in recent years. Many of the photos you find of “The Walsh House” show a ghostly, abandoned two-story Victorian with a large bay window looking out over the mine across the creek.  “The Walsh House” now sports plexiglass windows, refurbished or replaced siding, and a gaudy coat of “Forest Service” brown stain has been slopped on every square inch of the structure. I understand this was done to preserve the home for future generations to enjoy, and I truly admire the hard work that went in to restoring the home, but it doesn’t look “right” in the middle of a decaying ghost town.  It’s photographic appeal has been severely diminished in my opinion, but still is a very worthy subject.

The Walsh House

The Walsh House

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I spent the morning walking around Animas Forks, checking out each building, snapping photos, and taking a walk through “The Walsh House” which is open for public exploration, and is nice place to escape the cold winds…even if it is that damn modern plexiglass keeping the wind away!

Inside the Walsh House

Inside the Walsh House

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I returned to my Charger and began my descent back down the valley to Silverton. As I rounded the first bend in the road I pulled off the shoulder to let a pair of heavily outfitted Jeeps up the hill.  As they slowly navigated the rocky road past me, their occupants stared out the window in bewilderment at the sight of the crazy man smiling at them from his two-wheel drive city sports car.  One guy even shook his head and gave me a thumbs up. I waved and made my way on down the hill back to Silverton and rambled on down the road to the next stop on my journey.

The Dodge on the "4X4" road to Animas Forks

The Dodge on the “4X4” road to Animas Forks

Lonely Cabin High on the Hillside

Lonely Cabin High on the Hillside

Old suspension bridge over the Las Animas River

Old suspension bridge over the Las Animas River

 

 

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I set out in late December of 2013 between Christmas and New Year for a long road trip and some soul searching following some problems in my personal life back in Denver…not the type of problems that land a guy in jail, just woman problems that lead a fella to drink grain alcohol and use harsh words and get down on himself and the world around him.

I chugged down U.S. 350, a 73-mile long stretch of two-lane blacktop that cuts diagonally in SW-NE direction between LaJunta and Trinidad, Colorado. My old Range Rover humming along at a slow, spirit cleansing pace over the low hills and rises that make up this desolate stretch of road.

Ruins of places that “once were” dot U.S. 350, tucked in among the sandy buttes and dry washes.  A tumbledown house here, an abandoned school there. A crumbling adobe building with an outdated radio tower in disrepair.  A concrete foundation.  In the days prior to “The Dust Bowl” of the 1930’s, there were numerous small farming and ranching communities along this route, but today, not much but these few traces remain.

As I continued on down the road, my thoughts lost in the open the expanse around me, another small town appeared on the road ahead of me. This was the largest of them I had seen so far on U.S. 350, and as I approached, I assumed it must still be occupied.  As I pulled off the shoulder of the road and hopped out with my camera, it became clear that this place, like the places I had passed before, was entirely empty.

 

The residential district of Model 1913

The residential district of Model 1913

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After snapping a few shots of the vintage advertisements on the side of the abandoned general store, I climbed back in the Rover and had a look at my map.  I was in the town of “Model 1913” a town founded in 1913 and proclaimed to be a “Model” community, hence it’s unusual name.  Unfortunately, Model 1913 lasted only a few years and was about empty by the time Japanese bombs at Pearl Harbor drew the United States into WWII.

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Model 1913 General Store

Model 1913 General Store

Model 1913 General Store

Storefront in Model 1913, For Sale believe it or not!

Storefront in Model 1913, For Sale believe it or not!

I continued to walk around and take photos and look inside open doors.  It was a standard ghost town, buckets and cans, and bottles, a broken desk, assorted piles of rust and bird poop everywhere. Of course, what ghost town is complete without at least 20 modern era mattresses thrown in every available nook and cranny between and under buildings…

One of the many mattresses that inhabot Model 1913, just inside the door of this old shed

One of the many mattresses that inhabit Model 1913, just inside the door of this old shed

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Then, I noticed a strangely new and clean sign hanging from a post pointing the way to the “Model Post Office”.  I hopped in the Rover and headed for the Post Office, which appeared to be a dilapidated, abandoned looking house on the edge of town. Within seconds, as I began my drive to the so-called “Post Office” a vicious and seemingly rabid dog appeared out of nowhere at full sprint towards my Rover.  Being used to cowardly city dogs that are all bark and no bit, I naively slowed to a stop and started to talk to the dog through my open window.  The dog continued his charge towards me snarling and growling and that is when I knew this wasn’t a typical city dog.  I began to roll the window up as the dog jumped at my door barking and slinging dog slobber 47 feet into the air. I tried to drive forward down the road towards the “Post Office” by the angry canine ran in front of my vehicle and jumped at the bumper. So, I backed up, and the beast followed in hot pursuit snarling and spitting and lunging at my Rover.  I looked around assuming this must be the guard dog of the last lonely resident of Model 1913, and as I searched all the homes along the street, I could see no peering eyes.  The angry dog continued his assault on my Rover biting the front bumper, attempting to jump on the hood several times, and scaling my door barking numerous times.  I had made the decision to run the dog over if necessary to escape the street I was pinned down in, but finally, the dog backed down, growling and following me at a short distance as I backed out of downtown Model 1913.

The Model 1913 "Post Office" apparently still in service??? Looked rather abandoned to me, and was guarded by the meanest dog this side of hell!

The Model 1913 “Post Office” apparently still in service??? Looked rather abandoned to me, and was guarded by the meanest dog this side of hell!

 

My encounter with the savage dog left me feeling thankful, just five minutes earlier, I was out on foot literally 25 feet away from where the dog was hiding- that could have been a very bad situation for me!  Anyhow, I never did make it to the Post Office in Model 1913, but later research showed that it was in fact still open and serviced a few hardscrabble ranchers that still hung on in the hills surrounding the abandoned town.  I never found out anything about the dog, but I urge anyone who stops in Model 1913 to stay in their vehicle with the windows up.

Model 1913 quickly became one of my favorite ghost towns in Colorado, evil demon dag and all.

Adobe shack in Model 1913

Adobe shack in Model 1913