It all started with pretty Connie Larson who runs the Home Cafe along with Norbie, her husband, on the main drag of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Cripple Creek is one of the biggest "ghost towns" in the Rockies, and has been since the gold petered out sometime in the Twenties. Most of the folks packed up and got out before the dust buried 'em all. We were knocking down a bowl of chili at the Home Cafe and listening to Norbie's record of Norbie singing "My Life Ain't Worth A Dime," coming out of his own jukebox, watching Connie pushing the Coors Beer toward us over the linoleum-covered counter. A couple of local old-timers squatted on the stools, arguing about whether the winters were as cold as they used to be or whether all them guys going to the moon has loused up the weather once and for all, and maybe brought on all them California earthquakes.
"Well, I'll tell you ... " Connie chirped in her clear nasal Rocky Mountain twang, ". . . I've lived here all my life, and I say if you want to see a real ghost town you've got to get up t'Victor." She passed a beer to one of the old-timers who glared at it sourly.
"I always thought Cripple Creek was some sort of a ghost town." I said, breaking crackers into my chili.
"It ain't, really. There's a couple hundred people living here these days. Course, if you compare it with the old days when I guess there was about 100,000, back around 1905, it sure is a ghost town. Ain't really, though. Y'ought to go up to Victor. Now there's a ghost town." She fed the jukebox again so we could all hear Norbie twanging out "My Life Ain't Worth A Dime." I wondered how a girl must feel hearing her husband singing a song like that, but I kept it to myself, which is wise in these parts.
"How do you get there?" I asked.
"Drive up the Rangeview Road about five miles or so, and you go right into Victor. Stop in Zeke's Place. You can't miss it. It's the only place in town that's open."
"Well, I'd better get going before it gets dark," I muttered as I fished in my jacket for some change and my keys.
"Y'coming to the dance tonight?" she asked as she banged away at the old cash register, " ... Saturday night, you know, and all them good ol' boys come in from the hills. Norbie's singing."
I knew I couldn't miss an event like a Saturday night dance in Cripple Creek, with Norbie singing "My Life Ain't Worth A Dime." Live.
"Yep. Got to get-up to Victor first."
I drove out of Cripple Creek onto the Rangeview Road in my Hertz Impala, which was beginning to gasp in the high altitude going. When you do much driving in the high Rockies you begin to understand why Bugatti, among others, put altimeters in his cars and adjustable carb mixture controls. It's like leaning out a Cessna 180 at altitude. After all, I was already well over 7000 feet Mean Sea Level and still climbing, and every minute the air getting sharper and more cutting. The Rangeview Road is precisely that. It crawls up past the old Molly Kathleen Mine, which in its day was as rich as they come, and still bears good ore-it just costs too much to get it out these days,_ and that's why Cripple Creek ain't no more. You double back and start climbing straight up, with Cripple Creek below you like some badly-weathered movie set receding in the purple haze. Higher and higher, and to someone born on the plains of Indiana there isn't much more exciting driving in the world than up in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
The mountains around Cripple Creek have a stark, alien look to them that makes you feel as though nothing much has ever really changed or ever really will. The sky is a light, chill watercolor blue, and the sun doesn't generate as much heat as it looks like it should. The Impala was really gasping now. In fact, it took damn near full throttle to move it up past 35 or so. The road is pretty good gravel, what there is of it, being not much more than a lane-and-a-half wide, with a sheer drop off to one side or the other, and sometimes both. If you don't know much about gravel driving this is not the place to learn. Apparently some try it, though, since I spotted a '69 Ambassador wedged between an outcropping 'way down the slope after it'd gone ass-over-teakettle some 400 feet straight down. Whoever he was, he must have had a pretty exciting ride there for a while. (Come to think of it, the Cripple Creek Classic for Formula One cars would be a hell of a tourist attraction and might give a few of the better Europeans a grey hair or two, especially if they think Monte Carlo is rough.) Moreover, there wasn't a living soul to be seen anywhere. If you are feeling the squeak of over-population, you might find the country around Victor stimulating, if it wasn't so spooky. It's truly great hermit country.
After what seemed a lot more than five miles, at least figured by non-Colorado standards, the Impala wheezed into Victor. Connie was right. Victor made Cripple Creek look like Chicago with the retail shoe clerks' convention in full swing. Flat, clapboard, grey sagging storefronts, rust colored shingles, and old turn-of-the-century red brick buildings huddled together high up in a crease of the Rockies. A couple of sagging pickup trucks parked together on a lonely side street in front of a rusting Coors Beer sign that read "Zeke's Place" was the only action I could spot.
It was, a great little bar, nice and dark with a bowling machine and a bartender named Art working the taps. Art sported a Wyatt Earp mustache and the laconic way of a man who sells beer in a ghost town. I'd like Art to meet Toots Shor once, to talk over saloon problems they have in common.
I squatted at the bar and began work on a Coors. Art didn't say much, since they don't ask many questions of a guy showing up in Victor, unless, of course, he begins making a suspicious move or two. Over the cash register I noticed an ancient photograph of Victor when it was the hot spot of the high Rockies. I guess Zeke is holding onto the lease, figuring Victor will come back and when it does he'll be in on the ground floor. I don't know why I'm laughing; he may be right. What with the Hackensack River drying up and the earthquakes, and all.
There were two other guys at the bar and I got to talking to the one next to me, who turned out to be Marvin Bielz, exminer, who was talkative. His brother, next to him, didn't say anything, just kept drinking ... steady, like he meant it. "Hell, man, if you want to see a real ghost town y'got to get up to Independence. There ain't nothin' there. Nobody goes there. Not even them guys who come around here from the TV, lookin' for ghost towns." He looked over at his brother for some kind of confirmation, but he just kept drinking and staring straight ahead. Must be easy to have a secret sorrow in Victor.
"Yep. You get up to Independence, man, and you'll sure see yourself a real sure-fire ghost town. It's such ghost town even the ghosts have left, 'cause the pickin's are so slim."
The way Marvin said it I knew he was speaking the truth. He kind of shuddered every time he said 'Independence'.
"Y'coming to the dance in Cripple Creek tonight?" he asked amiably, easing out a fragrant burp. The high altitude does that to beer drinkers.
"Yep. Figure I'll make it." I was picking up the lingo, and what with my naturally squinty eyes, seemed to be accepted. I paid for the beer and left a quarter for Art and got back out into the Impala. Marvin had told me to turn at the Elks sign and go past the big red house, through the Victor suburbs. The suburbs of Victor look like a lot of abandoned railroad cars with cattle grazing around in the scrubby weeds. Victor petered out and I began climbing the road to Independence, up again, and now the Impala was really giving me trouble.
Independence is about three miles farther up in the sky from Victor and the only living soul I saw on my way up there was a gigantic sullen-looking bull who stood by the side of the gravel road, with his head, about the size of a Fiat 600, extending out over the road, waiting to hook anything that might pass by. He'd probably been waiting there for some time, looking for action, and I think I caught him in the middle of a nap since I got by him before he could nail me. But I could tell he was sure mad the way he hollered after I passed. I could see him in the rearview mirror trying to make up his mind whether to light out after me or not. Then he figured he'd get me on the way back, since the road to Independence is a dead-end street.
I crept along the side of a high, barren hill, around a bend, and was in Independence. I cut the switch and sat there for a couple of minutes, just looking at one of the damndest things I've ever seen. God Almighty, I thought, this is a ghost town!
All around me and stretching ahead for a mile or so, vacant, yawning, leaning grey houses, barns, factory buildings, and all the other edifices of a past civilization were slowly collapsing into the spare soil of the Rockies. I got out of the car and climbed up a slope into one of the houses. Sad, old shelves hung crazily. A sink full of leaves. An icebox, door ajar, a collapsed sofa. Somebody had just picked up and left. I rummaged among the rubble and kicked up the yellowed pages of the Denver Post for Sunday morning, April 4, 1937, probably the day on which the family who lived here decided to pack it in and get out - 1937, the middle of the Depression. The light, which was getting thin and watery, made the house inside look like a set for some kind of future horror movie. For a moment or two I felt like I was looking at the future of us all through the eyes of an archeologist of, say, 3000 years from now. It was the wreckage of our time, and it reminded me a little of Pompeii, because like Pompeii everything was just left there, the way it was. There were hundreds of houses around me, all empty, yet filled with the ruined artifacts of life. I read a bit of the Sport page of The Denver Post: "Indianapolis, April 3, (AP). 'The 500-mile Speedway race 'season' opened in Indianapolis Saturday with the first official an announcement from the Speedway office that Mike Boyle, Chicago racing enthusiast, will have two former winners of the local classic in his three-man team for this year's event. Boyle's announcement was that Louis Meyer, winner of the race last year, and "Wild Bill" Cummings, winner in 1934, will be aces on his team. The third member, the veteran Chet Miller, who has threatened to break into the ranks of the winners for several years' ... " Damn, I thought, that's 34 years ago. Another headline read: "Detroit Redwings, World Champs, Favorite For Stanley Cup. Coach Adams says: 'We got a lot of class'." I thought, coaches don't talk like that these days. I folded up the paper carefully, gently, and stuck it in my jacket pocket. I wandered out of the building into the bitter cold air of ancient dead Independence, a town that died for good. In a little gully two cars lay rusting in the weak sun. I slid down through the weeds toward them. One, lying on its side, still had a few shreds of upholstery and a cracked, swollen steering wheel. An Essex Super Six sleeping side by side with a dead Willys Overland.
I walked amid the lonely shacks, feeling strangely depressed and vaguely afraid. Believe me, ghost towns are not much fun.
I saw suddenly a cloud of dust approaching from the other end of Independence, and heard a rich fruity roar of a very loose six-cylinder engine. Good God! It hit me. This is too good to be true! Is it the altitude that's getting to me? A World War Two 4-wheel-drive Dodge troop carrier banged to a halt next to me. It was authentic down to the last black-out light and those big combat hood clamps, those flat heavy steel door panels, but it was painted a bright Woolworth enamel, Chinese red. Three guys squatted in the cab, looming high above me; ice-blue eyes, high cheekbones, no sideburns, short hair.
"What the hell you doin' in Independence?" the driver, a lean ferret-faced type asked with no malice. "Just lookin' around." I pulled my ten gallon hat lower over my eyes to let him know I wasn't a tourist.
"Not much to see here." The three laughed and scuffied in the cab.
"Where'd you get the truck? That's a real troop carrier, man. World War Two." I asked. They all three brightened instantly, sensing that anybody who dug 1941 trucks couldn't be all bad.
"Bet you don't know how much I paid for it." the driver, who seemed to be the leader, yelled at me, slapping his hand against the side of the door panel.
"I'll tell you this, whatever you paid for it you got a good deal," I answered, echoing his drawl. "That Dodge troop carrier is a real buster."
"Y'damn right!" he answered. "Picked it up for only 400 bucks, in Pueblo. Guy didn't know what he had on the lot. Right, Luke?"
Luke, who was wearing a Texaco shirt, laughed to show how dumb that guy in Pueblo was.
"You goin' to the dance in Cripple Creek tonight?" Luke asked after he stopped gasping.
"Yeah," I answered. "How come you painted the Dodge such a real bad red?" I asked, "You ought to paint her OD, with them big white stars on the side. And some numbers, like 3192 BTN."
"Dammit, Luke, I tole you we shouldn't a painted it red. Dammit, I tole you we should'a painted it that chicken shit green!" He reached out and belted Luke on the arm to show him how stupid he was for wanting the truck red.
"That's a 4-wheel-drive." I said, "I bet that sonovagun could go right up the side of a wall."
"Watch this!" the driver yelled. "Stan' back, boy!" He threw the Dodge into reverse, kicking up gravel and sand and old pot lids, and roared backward off the road and up the side of a gully 'til the troop carrier was damn near standing on its nose, screaming and throwing rocks in all directions, the three guys in the cab yelling and hollering over the roar of the motor. He cased it into neutral and the truck shot back into the road.
"See ya, boy!" he yelled, throwing it in low and wheeling that baby around like it was a 911. Luke's hand stuck out of the window suddenly, only this time it was clutching a 44 Magnum, and l mean blue steel, loaded cylinder, mean look and all.
"YAHOO!" Luke yelled, and squeezed off three booming 44 Magnum artillery shells into the mountainside. The three crashes rolled back and forth between the mountain peaks like some cosmic strike on an Olympian bowling alley.
"See you at the dance!" Luke yelled. The truck threw up a cloud of gravel and they were off.
That night at the dance in Cripple Creek, Luke, who was dancing with a short, fat girl and still wearing his Texaco shirt came up to me while Norbie was singing "My Life Ain't Worth A Dime" and said: "If anybody gives you any trouble, just call on me, boy."
I nodded. I was kinda glad they liked me.