It's an American rite: For the last big fling of summer, you round up the kids, pack the car and head west toward a couple of days of freedom, get away from it all, breathe the fresh mountain air. At least, that's what I expected when I set out for St. Elmo, a semi-obscure "ghost town" southwest of Buena Vista in the San Isabel National Forest. Instead, what I got was throngs of tourists and the fetid odor of human feces -- and sadly, that last part is not even made up.
It being Labor Day weekend and all, I suppose I should have anticipated that anywhere in the mountains you went might be crowded. But I didn't. I'm not much of an outdoorsman (before this weekend, I'd never actually set up a tent before -- the tent and sleeping bags I took along were borrowed), and the idea of camping seemed so novel that it didn't even occur to me that a million other people might have the same idea. They did.
We also could have left earlier. As it was, the party of seven, which included me, my 7-year-old son, four friends and one's six-year-old daughter, took a while to get everything together Saturday morning, and by the time we got up to the mountain, it was coming up on 4 o'clock. At this point, it's probably opportune to add that one of the couples I was traveling with had a semi-large camper in tow (they affectionately called it "the glamper"), which pretty much left backpacking out of the question -- and by that point, it seemed every campsite on the mountain (and there were many) was taken.
Save for one. We finally found it at around 5 o'clock, and pulled into it literally seconds ahead of a guy and his wife who were equally desperate. After some fifteen minutes of negotiation (we were really sorry, but there was no way we were leaving), the guy finally gave up and went -- and that's when it became abundantly clear why this campsite, among all the other campsites on the mountain, remained the last one open: The deal-breaking odor of shit. Wafting on the cool mountain zephyrs like a turd on a birthday cake, it came from the outhouse, which was located directly uphill and upwind from where we were camped out.
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There was nowhere else to go, nothing else to do but make the best of it. We set up our tents on the upwind side of the camp in hopes they'd block the smell some, and that helped, as did starting a fire and, as the night progressed, getting blind drunk. At least that's what I did.
I preferred to attribute the ghastly hangover I had the next morning to the altitude instead of my own irresponsibility, so intrepidly sucking it up, I set out the next morning with the rest of my group to St Elmo, reputedly the best-preserved ghost town in Colorado. Legend has it that, after a decline in the mining industry in the early 20th century, most of the inhabitants left, and the ones who didn't then certainly did on the last train out of town when the railroad pulled its line -- leaving only one eccentric family, the Starks, once patriarchs of the town, to desperately hold on until they died out. Creepy.
Creepy, the town was not. Mostly well preserved (one building was a brand-new replica built by a historical society of a building that had previously burned down), it even had the general store open and selling various tchotchkes. Numerous structures sported fresh building permits, crowds of tourists milled around and the roar of ATVs reverberated relentlessly. Aside from the haunting stillness a ghost town promises -- which was entirely absent -- the main attraction seemed to be that the resident chipmunks were so conditioned to the presence of people that they would eat sunflower seeds out of your hand -- sunflower seeds that were cheerfully hawked for the kids by enterprising merchants.
If I set out to participate in a distinctly American pastime, what I got was perhaps not what I expected, but nevertheless turned out to be distinctly American: A stunning display of the beautiful outdoors that came off like a terrarium, a penny-arcade novelty with all the dangerous parts roped off and, for just a few extra bucks, all the comforts of home.