Category Archives: Ghost Towns

A Day Observing Natural Phenomenon

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It was never the most ideal setup for a storm chase. The convective environment was not too strong and the storms were poorly organized. It ended up being a fairly major day for severe thunderstorms with strong winds in the Southern Plains, as well as Upstate New York and parts of New England.

However, traveling about 90 miles to observe what did happen in Northeast Colorado would only cost me half a day. It was also my first chance to hit the open road since COVID-19.

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It turns out, a panoramic view of several different storms is beautiful and inspiring even if it isn’t damaging property!

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Maybe it was the relaxed pace life had taken over the past two months. Or maybe it was the amount of time we have all started spending in front of screens during this strange period. This storm chase felt less like a mission to get to the best storm possible. It took on kind of an artistic feel.

It is easy to imagine the lone barn in front of an approaching storm, or the seemingly abandoned tiny town of Last Chance, CO with storm clouds gathered all around it as a painting or large photo hanging on someone’s wall for decoration.

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I would later catch up with the one storm that did produce large hail, which I would had to quickly escape to avoid car damage.

After returning home, another storm would pass right over my house right around sunset.

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As a child, weather was the first thing I became deeply fascinated with. The cycles of the seasons and the way the atmosphere moves around transporting warmer, colder, wetter and drier air impacts everyone. On a day to day scale it can often decide what people are doing with their day. On a longer time scale, it impacts business, food supply and health.

My pursuit of meteorology as a career ended up being kind of a disappointment. What began as a desire to investigate and understand the atmosphere scientifically got lost in a sea of equations, coding, and later egos and corporate buzzwords. Observing the weather through a screen caused it to eventually lose its luster. Seeing powerful lightning up close and hearing the raw power of the thunder put me back in touch with why I love the weather so much.

That evening, after the storms passed through, I took a walk through City Park.

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The orange-y lights shining onto a wet sidewalk adjacent the a lakeshore made me feel as if I were in a different place. I imagined the lake, which is not too big in real life, was the shore of one of our Oceans or Great Lakes. I imagined the high rise apartments nearby to be vacation rentals and I imagined crowds of people once again flocking to the beach.

I couldn’t stop staring at how the lights of different colors were sparkling on the water, gradually shifting with the slow movement of the lake.

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I wonder why I had gone years not noticing things like the way the water makes the light twinkle. Are our lives that out of balance? Maybe recent obsessions with things like yoga, meditation, low carb diets and workout “boot camps” are just our attempts to get our lives back into balance, ways to push back against all these forces in our culture that have lead to unhealthy lives. 

I think about all the beautiful experiences we have with the natural world and wonder if we are obsessed with technology. Technology has undoubtedly made our lives better. Technology has made the whole concept of storm chasing possible. However, I am not convinced all technological developments have been beneficial. To me, there is far more beauty in the air and in the clouds. There’s beauty in the smiles we give one another, the relationships we form and the feelings we get from experiences. There is beauty in love and passion. There is even beauty in things often held in less regard, like causal sex (when consensual of course), some drug related experiences (when not taken to a destructive extreme) and anger when it is born out of the passion associated with fulfillment (when it doesn’t lead to violence of course). At least those things feel more meaningful than staring at screens all day to me now.

Unlike many other people who are old enough to remember a world before people could pull a device out of their pockets and look up whatever they want, I am not “wowed” by technology for technology’s sake. I’ve seen plenty of people impressed by the latest technology, often doing things like moving data around and producing charts.

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Charts like this one, as is the case with scientific investigation in general, mean nothing unless something is learned and something is done based on them.

Technology has the potential to help us work more efficiently, improve our health and even form communities. But, let’s not forget who is in the driver’s seat. Technology and computers are here to enhance our experiences with the world around us, not the other way around. Thank God we occasionally have these moments, where thunder claps louder than any of our devices or when wildlife interrupts our travels, to remind us.

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Places that Used to Be

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Many different types of images come to mind whenever anyone talks about “ghost towns”.  I think of all of those images of abandoned, and partially decayed buildings that are pictured on the cover of books about ghost towns.  I think of that abandoned cabin you see while on a hike.

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Sometimes I think back to the recently abandoned town in West Texas I passed through a decade ago on a storm chase.  I even think of other, more recently abandoned, “21st Century” ghost towns.  Heck, sometimes parts of Detroit even come to mind.

But something felt creepy when I came across the site of not one, but three towns that used to exist, as recently as the middle part of last century.

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I looked around in all directions.  There were no buildings at all, not even one of those rotted out wooden buildings that appears to be on the verge of collapse due to neglect.  I looked far and wide along the valley for some sort of evidence that there were three whole towns in the area as recently as the 1960s.  Maybe an abandoned platform along the tracks.  Or even piles of wood, or rocks.  Nothing!  The only evidence anyone passing along this route would have that there ever was any human civilization in the area is a historical marker that marked what once was the site of the highest masonic lodge in the U.S.A.  It’s creepy enough that these towns appeared to be completely erased out of existence.  But, the only indication that these towns ever actually existed is due to the Masons, a secretive organization that many also find creepy.

Three miles up the road, is Fremont Pass, another place with echos of the past.

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Fremont Pass, it appears, is home to another “ghost town”, the town of Climax.  Here, I at least found some evidence of this town’s existence.

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This particular location played a significant role in history on two occasions.  As indicated by the historical marker, the Continental Divide is the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase.  In fact, this very location was an international border from 1803, when the Louisiana Purchase was signed, until 1821, when the Adams-Onis Treaty established slightly different borders between U.S. and Spanish territory.  The border would remain in a somewhat nearby location until the conclusion of the Mexican-American war in 1845.

Later, the Climax Mine would play a pivotal role in the U.S. efforts in both World War 1 and World War 2, as it sits on one of the largest deposits of a little known substance of molybdenum.  To be completely honest, I have no clue what molybdenum is.  All I know is that it is one of those middle elements on the Periodic Table, which, I am guessing is more than the average person knows.

What I did gather, though, was that like the three other ghost towns in the area, this is a place that was significant, actually quite significant, at a point in our history, but now it is basically gone.  In fact, the only real reason I know about Climax is related to one of my other projects.  I recently created an algorithm to calculate seasonal normals at any given point in Colorado for the purpose of planning out activities across this beautiful state.  To develop this algorithm, I needed to find as many reliable weather observation sites in places with different geographical features as possible.  Climax, it turns out, is the site of one of the highest reliable CO-OP weather stations.

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Not only was this weather station particularly helpful in developing that algorithm, it is also a great source of information regarding snowpack conditions at high elevations for the purpose of avalanche forecasting, as well as determining where to hike or snowshoe.  So, although that molybdenum plant re-opened a few years ago, in my world, this weather station is currently Climax’s most significant attribute.

The fact that places both rise and decline in significance is not a new concept.  Places like Egypt and Sumeria formed the cradle of civilization, only to eventually cede that power to other cities and regions.  Similarly, in today’s United States, we are currently seeing places like Texas and Florida gain province, while parts of the Northeast and Midwest decline.

This particular situation is strange though.  When I think of the “Fall of Rome”, for example, I think of a process that occurred over roughly two centuries.  The ghost towns near Freemont Pass were culturally significant a mere half a century ago.  Today, they are all but vanquished from existence.

I am also not accustomed to seeing this process occur over such a small spatial scale outside an urban area.  Most of Colorado is thriving, particularly the mountainous part of Central Colorado.  These three erased towns are only ten miles up the road from Copper Mountain Ski Resort, a resort that is so popular that it one of only three ski resorts to receive its own detailed forecast from OpenSnow (the other two are Steamboat and Vail).

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Roughly ten miles or so in the other direction, is Leadville, a former mining town that also appears to still be doing quite well for itself.

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When I think this all through rationally, I understand why the civilization left the Fremont Pass area.  The economy was largely driven my one obscure material.  When the price for that one material declined, the entire economy left.  Sometimes, though, it takes some time for information to process through the logical mind.  My gut reaction was still one of disbelief, as it still definitely feels strange to see a set of towns decline so quickly to the point of non-existance in a region that as popular and ascendent as Central Colorado.