The Underminer

Updated: Feb 1

While camping in the stunning San Luis Valley along the Rio Grande, we drove up to Creede Colorado one lovely morning. The valley is magnificent in all directions. Creede itself is a comely old silver mining town that has been resurrected with boutiques, restaurants, and fly-fishing shops. Leaving right from Main St. is the old Bachelor Road that loops high up into the hills and to the old silver mines and ghost towns from a century ago. Just a mile or so out of town it already felt like we had stumbled onto a Hollywood movie set with massive mine works and rail trestles clinging to the towering cliffs. Up and up we went into the mountains, passing one ruined mine after another.


Eventually, as the road peaked and began down the other side of the valley, we came to a fork. With no sign to follow, I went left since it was going down and not up, which by this point seemed like the most likely way back toward town. But the road narrowed and became a single track just barely clinging to the side of the steep mountain face. There was absolutely no way to turn around. In fact, there was a sign ominously warning you not to try it.


With no other choice, we drove on until we arrived, unexpectedly, at TheLast Chance Mine (is this the most common mine name in the world?). Weirdly, I was suddenly gripped with a premonition that we might never leave this place, that we were about to be abducted and forced to work the mine and no one would ever hear from us again. I began to turn the truck around in the narrow parking area to head back to the fork, but as I craned my neck around, suddenly there was a crazy old coot right in my window waving me in to park. Where had he come from?


The whole scene was like something from Scooby Doo where the kids have been warned over and over not to go near the Last Chance Mine, and what do they do? Once the old coot had the Mystery Machine carefully backed in, we emerged timidly. Cletus, and I’ve no idea what his real name was but he looked like a Cletus, with a long white Rip Van Winkle style beard and slightly crazy eyes, began giving us the long history of the mine from the first discovery of silver ore to the present day. He spoke in a Texas drawl that was rather discordantly dripping with honey and yet still delivered at a staccato machine-gun pace. Clearly, he had given this same speech hundreds, or possibly thousands of times before so it was oiled to perfection. It was fast, probably for the sake of efficiency, but it lacked no energy or passion. He relished in the telling and seemed to not need to even breathe until it was complete.


Having been given the oral history for free, we had no choice then but to actually go into the “gift shop” (lots and lots and lots of rocks), "the museum" (a 10’ X 10’ shack with old lanterns, etc.), and then finally insist that no, thank you, but we don’t have time to tour the actual mine ($15 per head, and again, probably a lifetime of servitude in the dark tunnels), or to rent a pick axe and go down to the rock pile to hunt for treasure (pay for what you find by weight). The rock pile looked like a landslide just moments from sweeping 1000 feet into the valley below, though that still seemed preferable to serfdom in the mine.


We managed to wander around long enough to make a good showing. I picked up a few rocks that were for sale, eyeing them with what I hoped looked like the careful examination of a real gem connoisseur who had then noticed some small but critical flaw before returning it to its tray. Once we thought we had put in a passable amount of time, and Cletus seemed to be busy with something, we bolted for the truck. As luck would have it, another vehicle, also probably confused by the unmarked intersection was just approaching and Cletus leapt back into parking marshal mode. It was our chance and I gunned it for freedom.

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