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Independence Day

Mountain Life

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Normally, I would have slept late, then driven into Ouray in time for the parade, the picnic in the park and the infamous Main Street water fights. But this Fourth of July the pull of the high country was just too strong.

Late snow locked much of Yankee Boy Basin in a white vice, while just below the snow line wildflowers bloomed and the aspens flashed mid-summer, dark-green canopies.

Four inches of snow had fallen overnight, and it looked as if it might storm again as we ground through town and up the old mining road in four-wheel drive. We bumped past the Camp Bird Mine, tucked against its protective cliff, wary of the avalanches that come off U.S. Mountain. The Camp Bird was the last big mine to close. The mill was dismantled a few years back and shipped to a gold mining operation in Mongolia. A few of the Victorian houses remain, including the steep-gabled superintendent’s home and the schoolhouse with its white siding and gingerbread trim.

Another mile up the road we passed the ghost town of Sneffels, surrounded by towering piles of rock, beached freighters of toxic, rusted tailings. Most of the buildings are skeletons now, having been picked apart board-by-board by souvenir-hunting jeepers.

My ski partner, Todd Cline, is a native of Ouray, blond and boyish in his mid-twenties. His parents are teachers, not miners, but Todd and his brother have scrambled all over these mountains, courtesy of the miners’ audacious ribbon roads, some steep as elk trails, that offer a way up to nearly every creek and ridgeline.

At 11,400 feet the snow stopped us, melting back reluctantly to allow light and air to marsh marigolds along the creek. We parked on a gravel bar next to a familiar pickup, the only other vehicle up this high this early. We weren’t surprised. Soft-spoken Ouray carpenter Rick Blackford gets out more than most local skiers, especially when there’s new snow. He often skis alone, which worries people, but it’s his choice. He’s been doing it for 30 years now.

Todd and I caught up with Rick on the Emma Rollers, giant cascading benches off the north flank of Mount Emma, ski terrain as white and smooth as the folds of cloth on Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” We hiked the rest of the way together, skis strapped to our packs, kicking stair steps in the steep final pitch to the ridge.

From the knife edge at 13,200 feet, we looked down on Telluride’s airport¿an asphalt Band-Aid on a green sheep pasture¿and back north at the great, horseshoe sweep of Yankee Boy Basin, crowned by Mount Sneffels’ jaggedpyramid at 14,150 feet.

We couldn’t see Ouray around the corner 5,000 feet below, or Telluride off the other way, but we felt the pull of both towns, linked as they are by history and the hundreds of miles of tunnels honeycombing the mountains. Silver was discovered first, then gold. Both towns hummed with populations pushing 5,000 in the 1890s. (Telluride has about 2,000 people now, Ouray fewer than 1,000.) Sarah Bernhardt played Telluride’s Opera House. One Ouray mine owner bought his wife the Hope Diamond. Greed and high culture combined for a time on the Continental Divide.

When the silver crash of 1893 turned Aspen overnight from the “Queen City of the Rockies” to a virtual ghost town, Ouray and Telluride survived on gold, copper and zinc. The mining is finished now, replaced by skiing and ice climbing. And in summer commercial jeep tours crawl up the passes separating the sister towns, giving visitors an eagle’s view of tundra and crumbling time.

Both towns draw on their past for Independence Day celebrations. At dawn on the Telluride side, the crew at the Idorado Mine sets off a dynamite blast so powerful the shock sets babies to crying and windows rattling all over town. Volunteer firemen roast whole beef halves in Town Park and, come dark, shoot fireworks between echoing canyon walls.

Ouray closes the highway between Victorian storefronts to allow teams of men, women and juniors to pummel each otther with water from high-pressure fire hoses. Contestants are swaddled in motocross pads, slickers and helmets, every seam sealed with duct tape. And still survivors of long bouts stagger away bruised from head to toe. It’s crazy and riveting, and the encircling crowd, well lubricated by then, usually gets soaked as well.

Below our perch on the ridge, fast-moving clouds tore themselves apart on the crags, pooled like fog in the deep holes. We would learn later that the parade went off bravely despite a pounding hail, little girls on the dance squad marching in leotards and parkas. Rick dug out the cherries. “Gotta have cherries on the Fourth of July.” And these were good ones, dark and sweet, from orchards two hours north (and 8,000 feet down) in the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison.

We felt wild, high and free. And that was before we swooped down the Emma Rollers on our “winged boards.” Yankee boys indeed. Where the miners of old would have given their eyeteeth to get down out of the mountains and into the comforts of town, we chose the heights. Mostly, those men despised the snow. It mystified them, buried their roads, entombed unlucky animals and friends. It avalanched in the night during storms or sometimes on the brightest days, weeks after the last big dump. But for the mailmen and a few Scandinavians who coasted their long, wooden “snowshoes” down to town on weekends, snow was the enemy.

We had the luxury of loving it, loving it especially in July when it had the texture of soft ball bearings and we knew it would cushion our turns and seduce us into letting go, like draftsmen sketching swiftly with no fear, independent, almost, of gravity. We gave silent nods to our intrepid miners, and to the visionaries of 1776. Then we stepped in ski bindings and shoved off the top.

Down near the cars, walking again, skis on shoulders, we confronted a jeep full of tourists. They stared with incredulity. One finally spoke up. “You boys skiin’?… How the hell’d you get up there?” We smiled and kept moving. If we hurried, we might just make the water fights.