Seeing Things: The Eery Side of Mountain Magic
Solitude was the name of the game. Solitude and training. Jes and I drove for five miles up the canyon, and then snowshoed for another six when the snowpack got too deep to drive. It was cold and icy, and still held the bootprints of someone (a giant) who had hiked down the road a few days prior. The lack of new snow and existing prints meant we didn’t have to cut new trail, an awesome discovery considering it had been a while since either of us carried 40 lbs. on our backs for any amount of distance.
We had originally planned to hike Huron Peak, but reset our expectations once we learned about the long winter route and multi-day time requirement. Our new goal was to reach Winfield, an old ghost town once home to about 1500 people during the boomtown mining era. What remains of it is maintained by the Leadville Ranger District and is used as a museum in the summer months. I could sit for hours there, or any ghost town for that matter, imagining it full of life.
Covered in snow, however, Winfield felt isolated and forgotten, the dead thing in an otherwise sleeping canyon. Tired and ready for lunch, we set up camp about a quarter mile from town and rounded out the day with several additional, lighter miles (read: tons of photos) up to the Huron trailhead basin. We reveled in the thought that we had neither seen nor heard anyone all day, nor had we come across fresh or even day old tracks. The solitude we sought was ours. As night began to fall, so did more snow. It spit through dinner (and a thieving spoon gnome incident) and then, as we were talking about going to sleep, there was silence. The wintery silence that comes directly before or after a snow squall, silence that deafens and absorbs all other sound. And just as suddenly as the wind died down, I realized we were canopied by a stunning, starry sky.
We must have spent 45 minutes shooting astrophotos and light writing. By the time we called it quits, a slight breeze had begun sighing through the canyon and neither of us could feel our toes. I was tidying up the kitchen when I noticed some headlamps through the trees and across the creek. I called Jes over- she could see them too. Six or seven individual lights at first in a cluster, began to form a line not dissimilar to the line of headlamps seen on an early morning hike up Longs. They moved as hikers might, in one direction up a trail. But suddenly they stopped – all of them. At the same time. We turned our headlamps off to avoid drawing attention to ourselves.
Were our eyes playing tricks on us? Not exactly shimmering, looking at the lights was more akin to watching a star cluster – hard to define when looked at directly and better observed with peripheral vision for short periods of time. Because it was night, depth perception was non-existent. Were they larger and farther away, or smaller and relatively close? Were they lights on a building or some other structure, and the motion merely the optical illusion of windblown trees?
The breeze had died down again, and in that vacuum the lights began to silently sway. Still individually lit, they fluidly moved as one – like the lulling of a boat on the ocean. Occasionally they would stop, or a few of them would float out of place before returning to the line and then the swaying would begin again. We freaked. It’s probably more appropriate to say that I freaked. Jesica, being the engineer, was still sure it was something explainable and was mostly concerned that it might be mountain rapists. Having established the echo-y quality of the canyon earlier in the day, I assured her that we would have heard a group that large. Headlamps off, I grabbed my camera and she her keys, and we quickly walked to a wider section of the trail to figure out what to do (and more easily see if anything was going to follow us). The snow on the trail was deep without snowshoes. I half heartedly suggested we could head back to the car – but traveling six miles at night, without proper clothing or snowshoes was impossible. We were exhausted and freezing, so it would likely result in one or both of us getting hypothermia. We decided our only option was to try to get a slightly closer look.
Nothing had changed. The lights were right where they were when we fled to the trail. No closer, no further, still dancing. I snapped a few jittery photos that revealed nothing. The only way we were going to find out what or who they were was going to require us to cross the creek, head into town, and possibly up the hill on the other side of the canyon. We agreed that we didn’t have the energy to investigate that far (or any idea what we would do if we discovered the source was, in fact, mountain rapists or paranormal). It had been almost an hour since we first noticed the lights and we concluded that if whatever it was had any intention of coming closer, it would have by then. So we went to bed.
The next morning was beautiful. After eating a bit of food, I followed our tracks from the night before out to the creek bank to see what I could discern in the daylight. Turns out we were camped directly across from Winfield and that we had been staring at it (or just to the north or west of it) when we were watching the lights. As we hiked out we stopped for a bit in the center of town. Just as the day before, there were no new tracks or even the impression of old ones beyond our own. We didn’t hit new tracks until after we reached our car. According to the Leadville Ranger District, the canyon doesn’t have electricity, Winfield doesn’t have lighting of any kind (solar or otherwise), and the mines haven’t been operational for quite some time.
X-Files rerun or man-made? It could have been anything…or nothing I guess.
I’m making plans to go back.