Elwayville: Heaven is a Ghost Town

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Every Friday night in the winter when I was young, we would drive up to Vail to spend the weekend where my dad and his friends volunteered on ski patrol. Most of those nights, we would listen to ghost stories on a weekly radio show, staring out the window into mountainsides of frosted trees and imagining devil-worshipping masses, cauldron-boiling witches and werewolves wandering in the snow.

Maybe that’s why I tend to think of ghost stories more in the winter than I do around Halloween. Snowbound skeletons and Donner Party phantoms feel closer in the whiteout of a blizzard than when the full moon is waxing in the fall. And the chill gets even deeper when you add to that the frozen, horrific, cabin fever-bound beauty of Stephen King’s The Shining, set in the Stanley Hotel of Estes, Colorado, where at least three ghosts reportedly walk the halls.

In a state where even the ghost towns don’t die—everlastingly propped up by the Mile High miracle of real estate set up in and around even crumbling buildings—Colorado remains a haven for spooky legends and things that go bump in the big outdoors. Consider the tales of the two spirits who haunt the former Peck Hotel (now a private residence), in Empire, Colorado, where my parents once stayed on a bike tour, and fought all night for control of the sink faucet and room lights with a stubborn ghoul.

Or better yet, the stories from Silverton, which in the cold clutch of winter seems a setting for some Dracula-like apocalypse of plague and fear. (For good reason—after the 1918 influenza outbreak, they stacked the bodies like cordwood in the town bar.) The cemetery is one of the most fascinating in the world, where long gone dwellers from the last turn of the century are marked with simple truths such as, “Died in Avalanche, 1913,” or “Killed by a stray bullet in a bar fight,” on their headstone.

A friend who worked for Silverton Mountain in the office just above that tavern said that late at night, long after the little town had gone to bed, she could still hear the piano and laughter from downstairs. And she would get a little shiver looking in the mirror behind the bar, imagining all the reflections that had stared out from it over the past hundred-plus years.

Of course mountain communities have always done a better job than others commemorating, and celebrating, how the past informs the now. We mountain-town dwellers mark the departed with crosses on the peaks in Switzerland and Austria, the photo-strewn shrines in Aspen, or the prayer flags fluttering in the wind in Nepal. We say the souls of dead climbers fly free in the wings of alpine ravens. In a fit of dark humor, we name avalanche paths after those lost to them.

Anyone who has ever lived in a mountain town knows someone who perished too early, from a slide, a suicide, or even out for a lazy day of fly-fishing when they slipped on a wet rock and their waders filled with water, dragging them down. They also know how those shadowed faces keep contributing to the conversation, and how everyone who remembers the deceased are always happy to share a story they liked to tell.

I’ve always loved looking at black and white photos of the long-gone early days of Leadville, downtown Denver and the roadside meadow that became Vail. I imagine I am also a bit haunted by my own photos of earlier days now. All of this reflection makes me think of the song “Dearly Departed” by Texan Shakey Graves and Denver-musician Esmé Patterson with its incredible catchy chorus: “You and I both know that the house is haunted, and you and I both know that the ghost is you.”

Being that “Big Ideas” is the theme of this issue of Elevation Outdoors, I decided to kick off the New Year by compiling some high country ghost stories—in and about ski towns specifically—as well as writing some of my own. I was partially inspired by the melancholy beauty of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. In that lovely opus of high-country fly-fishing, the narrator writes, “I am haunted by waters,” to summarize his intertwined love of the sport and personal tragedies.

I feel the same way about the mountains. And I have my own ghost stories (both real and imagined) to tell. So far, I have a story about a spectral snowplow driver, one about a zombie outbreak that sends a small group of AT skiers into the high country, a phantom folksinger, a peak dwelling wraith, and one about what may be on the other side of that Silverton tavern mirror. If I can get that last one down to 800 words (the length of this column), I’ll share it with you in time for Halloween.

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