Outdoors

Seth Boster: Lake City is a historic Colorado town you can’t miss

The day is finally here.

I'm visiting with the mayor, who has the look I'd expect of this mountain town's mayor – shorts, T-shirt, white beard and ponytail poking from ball cap – when the town clerk comes in with an important message.

"They're dropping the railroad car now."

Down the street, some of the 400-odd residents have gathered around a mechanical crane.

Some wonder: Has such a thing happened here? At least not in recent memory. How strange to be looking up at something other than the mountains! The law here is that nothing can rise more than two stories, else the views be obstructed.

Now wary eyes look up, only making quick glances down at the pamphlets that a little old lady has distributed to provide more information about "Hinsdale County Museum's most ambitious renovation project."

Slowly, the crane lowers the car onto the tracks that men worked so hard to build: Beside the museum, they had to fill the gravel base, drive spikes into the timber ties, cut narrow gauge steel and weld it to the existing tracks, expanding to make room for one more historic car.

Applause breaks out. Success! People wrap their arms around each other for pictures with the car, its splintered wood body and metal wheels intact after a long trip over two mountain passes. It has returned safely to its original home, the sole town of this county that considers itself the most remote county in the Lower 48.

Let the visitors have their day on their rented ATVs. They zip down the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, the only paved stretch through town that leads to the high country glory that is the Alpine Loop. But on this gravel side road, the townies rejoice over this momentous event.

Grant Houston smiles for pictures and takes them, too, for the surefire front page story coming to the next weekly edition of The Silver World. He's the mustachioed, bespectacled editor of the paper and also the go-to source for history in Lake City, a community staple who's been around for 63 years, longer than most.

"I love the history, and after a while, it becomes who you are," he tells me. "I adopted it."

So do the others who settle in Lake City. Take, for example, Harvey DuChene, the historical society's VP who has been taken by the area's great, ancient rocks. His "Geology 101" lectures have gained quick popularity.

He and his wife were lifelong city dwellers until their move in 2003. "She always said she wanted to live in the mountains," he says. "This is the best I could do."

The Silver Thread starts off U.S. 50, crosses the Blue Mesa and ribbons through open sage fields and then forest. Follow a shimmering stream and look ahead to the sharp monoliths in the sky, and know you're close to Lake City, "a peak experience," reads the welcome sign before the first off-roading outfitter.

Prone to paradelike lines as they rumble west, the OHVs are fairly new to town. Voters on multiple occasions declined to let that noise and dust infiltrate their residential premises. But they relented a few years ago. No longer could they deny the tax dollars to be had by the Alpine Loop's four-wheel allure.

Mayor Bruce Vierheller is like most, conflicted. "But it's working," he says.

The town could use the money, after all. The school, with a K-12 enrollment of about 100, still doesn't have a gym. Though that hasn't kept teens from winning state track titles – what better training grounds than out the back door? And that certainly hasn't kept families from moving for the school with consistently good marks from the state. That's to do with the student-teacher ratio, parents say, and maybe also to do with the lack of distractions.

"My kids have been on a bike since they were 6, and they just go and explore," says mother Kristie Borchers. "And you don't have to worry."

Hinsdale County is 96% public lands, including four wilderness areas, keeping away the neighborhoods and commercial chains that would threaten the timeless character adored by Lake City's devotees.

But for all of its remoteness, visitors are plenty in the summer. For three months or so, it is "North Texas," the century-old homes flying that state's college colors.

The Texas migration is far from a recent development. Houston – the last name "pleases our visitors to no end," he says – would have nostalgics know that the seasonal bustle is deeply ingrained in Lake City's history, arguably more than mining.

Why, there's even a record of the first Texans to town: the Wuppermans, arriving in the 1920s. In diaries, they described Lake City as "a town full of widows," as the mines were no more and the black-lunged men gone with them.

The Wuppermans, after their haul from the lakes and rivers, would enjoy scenic fish fries. "See, the Wuppermans invited their friends," Houston says. "That began the shift in the economy."

Houston's father was tapped Lake City's first game warden in 1955 amid concerns of the Texans depleting trout populations. His mother opened a gift shop, and over the years more opened, decorating the main street that is also today not without ice cream parlors and galleries.

This is the touristy basecamp for the growing masses of Colorado peak baggers; they pick from five fourteeners along the Alpine Loop. Recreation has bred older traditions, too, such as Vickers Ranch.

"People will badmouth Texans, but I say they put me through school," says Paul Vickers, the fifth generation of his family to run the town's oldest outfitter, renting cabins and hosting horseback rides and big-game hunts in the hills.

His great granddad won a wager for the land. That's the story he's been told anyway. He's more familiar with the wily ways of his dad, who ran the ranch while also sitting as county judge, Bobo the Australian shepherd his trusted adviser in the courtroom.

Lake City's courthouse claims to be the longest operating in the state, though Fairplay also contends that. There the town's darkest tale is told, that of Alferd Packer the cannibal. The chairs in the room still are arranged as they were in 1883 when Packer was sentenced to be hanged until he was "dead, dead, dead."

Packer was near a stream "as pure and beautiful as ever traced by the finger of God upon the bosom of the earth," the judge said. "Your every surrounding was calculated to impress upon your heart and nature the omnipotence of deity and the helplessness of your own feeble life. In this goodly favored spot you conceived your murderous designs."

The history is kept, and those romantic descriptions of the land continue. Vickers can't think of a prettier place to be than here near mountain-framed Lake San Cristobal, the state's second largest natural lake.

He reflects in a rocking chair at the ranch. "Out of college I worked in retail management, and people were in those stores because they had to be there, not because they wanted to be there. What's kept me going here? It's a happy occasion. People are here because they want to be here."

People want to be in Lake City because it's an escape from everything else. Once people came and went by trains, and now they come and go on scenic byways, and all the while Houston and others stay put, making sure their town is as focused on what it was, what it is and what it wants to be.

Houston leaves the railroad car drop with another story to tell. There's always something to add to the next Silver World, he says. "I can't fit it all in!"

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