The Valdezes already know that: They lived in Colorado back in the '60s, long before gambling was legalized. Today they had to choose between casinos and the art museum. They went with Black Hawk, but Mae has some regrets about not making it to the Hamilton Building. "I was going to walk over there myself while Jim was at work," she reflects, "but there's so many homeless people. I thought, 'Well, maybe I'd better stick closer to the hotel.'"

Toward the front of the bus, Bonnie and a woman in a leather cowboy hat banter about somebody's recent divorce. The woman, Jenelle Callahan, is one of Bonnie's regulars. She's a dishwasher up in Black Hawk, and for the past three years, five days a week, she's been commuting to work by bus from her home near Broadway and Alameda. "It's subsidized," she says of the $20 round-trip bus fare. "I don't mind the trip. I can sleep, I can talk, I meet people. Can't do nothing but sit back and relax. It's relaxing going up here."

Bonnie has been making the trip about as long, back and forth, twelve hours a day, four days a week. During that time, she's seen plenty of repeat faces like Jenelle's. "Sure, I get a lot of regulars," she says. "A lot of them are employees, some of them are gamblers — some of whom come up here every day. I find that amazing."

Of all the bus-driving jobs she's had — she's worked for RTD and as a schoolbus driver — Bonnie says this one, with Coach America, is the best. "I don't deal with too many kids," she says. "I don't deal with too many drunks."

The toughest part of the job is in the winter, when the canyon road can get brutal, but even then, unless the road is closed completely (which doesn't happen often), she doesn't stop driving; she just puts chains on the bus. "Sure, there are days I wonder what I'm doing on the road," she admits. "Or what anyone is doing." Once her bus went into a slide and turned sideways on the road

But she's reluctant to talk about that. She'd rather talk about the positive parts of the job — about how, if you get in a jam in the canyon, "flagging down a bus is as good as flagging down a police officer"; your cell phone won't work there, but bus drivers have radios. Or about how the canyon road came to be, built up from the infrastructure of the narrow-gauge railroad that originally ran along Clear Creek. Or about how, even if this is a wildlife area, she still thinks it's unsafe not to have lights along the road. "How streetlights would bother the wildlife but a million headlights don't, I don't know," she says. She's so informed on the particulars of driving a bus along this route, it's hard to be sure if the 160 turns she mentioned are documented somewhere or if she just counted them herself.

Somewhere along those turns, the conversations die off and the radio falls silent. A few people sleep; some look out the window. Outside, the canyon slips past, illuminated in the strange, washed-out light of a mottled, watercolor sky that hasn't been able to decide all day whether or not it wants to be overcast, the sun straining through a paper-thin cloud with all the intensity of a brand-new dime. The light is fading when the bus pulls up to its last stop in Central City. For Bonnie, the trip back down the hill will be her last run of the day, but for the last stragglers getting off the bus — the working stiffs and the gamblers alike — the day is just beginning. Jef Otte


5 p.m.

The "Medical Marijuana" signs on the front door make it clear there's no casino inside 125 Main Street in Central City. But still, would-be gamblers keep coming into Gaia's Gift.

Before it became a dispensary in March, one of three in town, the building was home to the Central City Visitors Center. Before that, it was home to Mayor Willie's Casino, one of many casinos that have come and gone since gambling was introduced here. And even though it has since been stripped down to its stone walls, remnants of that incarnation remain — including the ornate wood-and-brass cashier's booth that has found new life as the dispensary's office.

The people who come in looking for blinking lights and buzzing machines instead find a lounge decorated with thrift-store couches. The only buzzing comes from the Nevil's Haze and THC-infused Rice Krispie treats. Every now and then, Gaia's Gift is visited by a drunk fresh off a losing table who wants to buy some weed. Since you need a medical marijuana card to buy pot here, just as you do at any dispensary in the state, those drunks usually leave disappointed.

Other visitors treat the dispensary like another tourist attraction. "People just come in and want to see what it's all about," says owner Sean Kittel, who moved up to Central City last month. "Since we opened, I have had more pictures taken right out front of our building than anywhere else."

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