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The Hollow Heart of Pewabic Mountain

Originally published in Academy of the Heart and Mind in May of 2022

In the spring of ’87 she left me, so I packed up my things and went east. I wandered far from civilization, across ragged hills and barren deserts, across the open byways and empty ravines that mark the contours of the great and endless West. I was alone for a time, and in that time I found solitude. And the further east I went, the farther I seemed to get from my troubles and woes and worries.


Now they say that sometimes nature holds elements of itself that no man can truly explain. Kinda like a mystery that leaves you figuring, maybe something we just ain’t meant to understand. And though I had seen plenty of strange things in my day, never do I ever remember seeing something as odd as I did then, as I came down out of the Rocky Mountains towards severance, and once again my fortunes suddenly turned.


By then it had been a year, and making my way down out of the Loveland Pass I encountered Silver Plume, a mining town of no common birth, where the land was upthrust like mightiness and the world was a bowl for only the sky to see. Around the town were a hundred hordes of sentinel pine trees, and in the folds and valleys that surrounded the town, a vast and open green. As I came by I saw that the town there had built itself completely on the sloped back of a large mining operation, and stopping I saw what kind of fortunes these men had made just driving and blasting at the earth. The town was hardly bustling, but its people seemed to prosper, so I inquired about their continuing work. With complacency, the foreman told me that on account that there was no more lodging, there were no more hands he could hire. So I continued on my eastbound journey, only dimly aware of what I might find.


Eastbound and down I went, hard away from the Continental Divide, where the land spilled in heaps and dollops, with big mountainous peaks hardened by their bristling blanket of conifers. Between everything laid little patches of snow, and in the valleys where the road ran the water was cold and hard, so pure I filled my canteen right there in the stream and found it cleaner than the pump had been back in California. The peaks to either side of me were simply immense, as if God had carved the Garden of Eden somewhere else but left this place just for himself so he could privately escape to it. My journeys through the land had revealed to me the immense beauty of the West, so as I crawled along the little road, I took note of the natural beauty of Colorado and humbled myself beneath the roots of the hills, the trees, and the little singing brooks. By midday I had crested a small ripple in the land which I expected would conceal more mountainous terrain, but instead, I found the place of my forbearance.

Before I saw the town, I heard it. Enormous clangs came bellowing up the valley as I rode, and it wasn’t until I mounted the crest of an oat laden hillside that I entered the realm of a sprawling mining operation, wholly underway in the heat of a green and brown smoldering vale.


At first glance, the place seemed strange. The entire town was just built in a sliver-like valley between two steep hillsides, almost as if someone wanted to build their entire fortune inside the eye of a needle. Across one mountain, the southern one, was almost nothing. A speckling of homes on a bald plateau, a few barns, and a few trees, and on the far end of the valley, a large green patch crossed over by grazing animals. This spot was a beautiful hot spring, and it made the place seem almost fertile.

But on the other mountain, the one adjacent to this one, was a monstrosity. Out in the open sun, sprawling mines had ripped up half a naked mountainside, leaving only a dynamite lacework of mining roads, boreholes for mineshaft entrances, and everywhere an upturning of ugly yellow dirt. Timber beams were laid down in stacks beneath the earth, taken singly from the backs of the aching beast, and placed down into the dirt in bulk to prevent the land from taking back its livelihood and wrath upon the town. In front of me, the dark heart of the earth had been cored down to the bone inside the mountain, exposing only wormholes leading to its insides, and the people in the town lived under the oppressive shadow of what they had created in a grasping attempt for gold. And what the people had removed from the mountain and could not use they piled in humongous heaps about the mountainside. Piles so goddamn big it made everything in the town look just stupid.


But despite this monstrosity, there seemed to be a livelihood about the town and the citizens that lived in it. People walked in and out of saloons and candy shoppes, a church with a high steeple sat nestled alongside pleasant houses with little gardens around them, and a single striking brewery, the operations of which I could smell from here, took its place by the river, with an operation of cargo workers taking supplies to and from a large black train stopped just nearby. Though the town had cloven its matron mountain clean in half, scored her lungs and broken her insides, it seemed the people in the town took nearly no notice of it, and perhaps prospered by it. So unknowing what I might find within the place but willing to investigate, I made my way down the embankment, tied my horse up in front of the brewery, and walked inside to ask about work. And work aplenty I did find.


“Idaho Springs we call it” the foreman at the bar said. “Riches’ square mile on Earth on accounta that mount-n’ you see across town. Pewabic Mount-n’ it’s called. People been diggin’ and findin’ gold so offen n’ this area you’d a needa whole nation a’ Arabs n’ Orientals jus’-oo sell it all. This here hill just keeps givin ‘er up, anna Colorado gov’ment just approved further min-n operations startin’ nex’ summer. Two dollars a day for alla gold you c’n bring out, counted out to you singly for yer hard work an’ toil. Gotta family? Send it all to em’. Gotta dream? Put it all there. Can’t never do no harm.”


So I enticed the man on the nature of the work, and though he promised it would be tough, he also reassured me through his thick Kansas accent and a chortle of laughter that he could have me put up in the bunkhouse within the hour. Hell, he’d even throw in a sample of brew from atop the mountain if I gave him news of out west. So I did, and the man thanked me for it with a hard, dark amber, which shrunk away my woes and worries as I drank.


The foreman led me to the bunkhouse, and it was spacious, with room above and beneath the beds to store things, and even a little table with a good electric light. I was given two metal tags, one to place on a board outside the mine entrance and the other to keep in my pocket at all times. That was how they found people during cave-ins, he said. Introducing myself to the other inhabitants, I found them warm and a bit friendly, and an easy man who named himself Cleaton gave me a stick of gum as a welcome gift.


“Dinner’s in the tavern by seven. Don’ miss it. I’ss always good” he told me.


I smiled. “Thank you”


“Don’ thank me yet!” he cried, stepping into one of his boots. “This ere’s hard work. Man the o’er day just fell right in-o a pit fifty feet deep an’ died like that. You think we ain’t gone down ‘ere to pull ‘im out you’d be wrong but hell if I ever gon’ lose my life fallin’ down like that”.

Cleaton ran his hand heavy along his slackjaw stubble of a chin, and gave me a sideways, thoughtful look. “Anyways. name’s Cleaton. You’ll be with us t’mmorra at Blue Montana Mine, start around seven. We’ll get you up.”


And so it was that, in the summer of my thirty seventh year, I found myself in the company of some of the greatest, warmest men I had ever had the honor to call friends. We worked hard, we played hard, and we fought for that indelible right to dig underneath Pewabic Mountain. We dug deep, and in time we were rewarded with every treasure we found hidden inside, buried in a time long before the dawn of man.


That summer was hot, and heavy, and filled with the pollen scents of the mountains. The wind would blow amongst the pine trees and the quaking aspen would whisper unto each other certain spriggan voices of an elder green. The land was awake with both eyes wide open, and on days off I found myself wandering bewildered amongst the creeping hills in amazement, in the same way the first settlers in the area must have felt not so long ago. Everywhere the land was an open garden of nature’s untethered mind, with big rocky grey-white boulders standing out like white rooks between endless fields and forests filled with pine trees, the trees standing like sentinels against the hard blue skies and fields of brown. Beside them stood their aspen wives, petite and homely and filled with wonder, and beneath these stood little flower children. Whites and violets and magentas with gentle green stems, the flowers themselves were innocent. In areas where the land was softest you could find cinquefoil and columbines and sometimes pale pink roses, stunted, hardworking things that might put out a single flower after a few years of steady growth. And as July rolled over into August, the rains would come, and soon the aspen wives and rose children and soldier pine trees would be matted with a thin gossamer haze, and when it passed, only sunshine.


But August didn’t last long, and before I knew it, fall was upon us. Soon the quaking aspen wives exchanged their mellow green skirts for ones of quaking ember, and their pleats became a solid sheen of flowing mountain gold. The soldier husbands continued their vigil pointing rifle tips at the empty sky, and they gave stern, worrying looks at their boulder commanders for word of the enemy’s approach. But despite all their efforts, word of the attack never came, and in a week or two the women dropped their pleated gold skirts to reveal naked, skeletal undersides, and the men knew that they had lost. The children either died or grew older, and in time left the land altogether, and before the end of fall only the men were left to defend the homeland from the encroaching icy gheist of winter. And then when the hills shivered, the wives did not cluster together as they had in the spring and the summer, for their warmth had been lost with the changing of the guard, and the men knew that they were the last line of defense against a beast much greater than they were. And then the land was wholly empty. For the men knew that they were truly and utterly alone.


And so came that winter, a most curious winter had I ever experienced. I had spent the previous winter in the San Luis Valley, so I wasn’t wholly unware of the danger a Rocky Mountain winter could bring. But this one was different somehow - fiercer. At times the mines were inaccessible in the winter months, as the pilings of snow were relentless. It was days like these that we would all sit around the town and wait, and if the weather cleared head over the mountain into Central City and Blackhawk, where the hard earned money of the men was blown away at the casinos, something I always shied away from when I could.


“Ya know, it’s not so bad once you get used to it,” a grizzled man said to me one frozen afternoon as we sat huddled around midday whiskey while most other men lost their fortunes on the other side. “You just have to keep a sharp eye on your provisions every step of the way. And then when we run out of something, say biscuit flour, or shovels, or cigarettes, we notify Denver as soon as we can. It’ll come up by way of the train and pretty soon we’ll have everything we need again. Besides that, just sit tight. Work if you can, but conserve your strength. There’s plenty a’ beaver and elk and other things around we can shoot or trap when we got to. Winter here’s not always as bad as they make it seem.”


And so it was. Winter wore on cold, sodden, and heartfelt, and when meat dwindled it came to anyone not working that day to rove out into the timbers and bring back fish, beaver, elk, or anything else that came by. One evening a single man shot two elk in one day, so several of the men spent the rest of the day carting it back, jerking and salting it, and storing it away in a shed somewheres. That night everyone got a bit of the elk in their stew at the boardinghouse, and everyone went to bed warm and easy. But most nights were nothing like that at all, and on days when no one managed to shoot an elk, or when the work in the mines was impossible, everyone just went to bed colder somehow. And on the hill above the town, the steaming heated pools wafted little clouds all above us, mixing hot mineral ghosts with the smoke, soot, and ash of the people in town.


As the seasons waned, the snows receded, and eventually the caverns would open to us once again. When they did, so too did the horrid dark within them, and it was on those demon days, when the men were sent silently into the mountainous heart with little comfort but each other, that the mountain revealed its true nature to us, with us underneath and the rock walls all on top.


Inside the hollow heart of Pewabic Mountain, where gold and gems and other finery could be found, there always came a pervasive feeling of emptiness. What men had done to the mountain made many of us feel queasy, uneven. People knew there was a holy and sacred treasure sewn into this place, and instead of caretaking it like Adam had in the Garden of Eden, we stole it, hounded it, gutted her out, and left the mountain to die. All of this and more was made infinitely worse by the cold frosts on the surface of the mine, and the mournful sadness of the tragic nature of man turned from wrath, to envy, to a shimmering icy blue.


The mines were warmer in the winter than one would have expected, but that did very little to stave off the feeling of fear one had when entering the darkness underneath the mountain. The tunnels were lit as best as we could make them, with lantern lights held aloft against the deep wherever people needed them, donkeys tied to mine carts and men with little leads to pull them along. In the warmer months the darkness had seemed contemplative, simple, aware of what men had done to create it, but resolute to let it happen. But in the winter, the darkness became rude, angry, pervasive, and intent on swearing and pushing us out. With the cold outside to harbor it, the men to drive it onward, we as a crew became a slave to this ever-present, ever-changing darkness. Whenever men went alone into the ruminating beast with lantern light held aloft, it seemed as if the whole hill had a single black eye bearing down on top of them, and suddenly the mines would shift and grumble in the dark in a way they never had, as men drove boreholes into the rock, turned their rods a little, drove on again, and repeated in an ceaseless, never ending fashion. In the darkness the mountain would come alive with righteous envy, well aware of our agony and full-determined to extract a blood price from us, the cost of which we never originally paid. And in this darkness, men stumbled on and lost themselves, and the mines made clear to us that through our blasting, gutting, scraping, and scalping, our time of reckoning was long last at hand.

It was a sunny day, same as any other. It was in the middle of March, probably not quite April. That morning the mines were the exact same as they had been the day before, just maybe a little warmer, and a little wetter. Some of the men heard a grumbling far beneath them in a place they could not fully identify, and within minutes everyone in Virginia Canyon had been called to the surface, on account of a collapsed section in tunnel three of the Summertide Mine, the mine just adjacent to ours. Earlier that morning, one man, a man who I’d seen around regularly but never bothered to say hello to, whom all of us had come to know as a shy, kindly sort of fellow, was buried alive and alone under ten feet of rock and dust and dirt. And for several more days the men would do excavations to find try and find his body. And for several more days all those searches were in vain.

“He was a good guy goddammnit,” I can remember Cleaton telling me. “A good guy.” And he took off his hat and he patted his eyes. “Kid used to tell me how hes’a-gonna go out east with his wife an’ kids once he saved up enough for a home. To hear him tell it he almos’ had the goddamn money too. C’you believe that, man? Boy was about to leave us here this May an’ go out east. An’ now he’s dead. Dead and gone” Cleaton ran his hand through his hair and went on for a while about the man’s family; a pretty wife and two ripe little twins. “Who’s supposed to raise them now?” he tells me.

So I sat, and I prayed. I prayed to God almighty for a vision I didn’t never pray for before that time nor anytime thereafter. I went off into the woods and I prayed atop the soul of Pewabic Mountain, and I asked God to tell the land it had won. But all around me, all I could see were the bare bones of the aspens and the little soldier pine trees, boulders, sticks, and the corpses of the rock, and I knew that if God had spoken a response to me that day, it must have only been to tell me to leave, for I could plainly see there what we had done to the place, and I knew there could be no other searching of the soul. For that day at least, the land had surely won.

I arose the next day determined, but as the spring snows continued in scattered pieces, I relegated myself to another bottle of whiskey by the fire. The following day became much the same, as on the day after, and the day after that. Dangerous work, I knew it, but it paid well, and the more I put away now, the better off I’d be next season, and the one after that. I’m a reasonable man, I think to myself. Why don’t I just stay a bit longer and put away enough for an estate instead of a homestead?  Pretty soon I decided it’d be best to give it at least into the upcoming summer, since the pay was steady and I didn’t really need to leave. And this single action I do regret, for it led me due-heartedly into my next grand folly, the one I alluded to when first we began to speak.

You see they say that sometimes nature holds elements of itself that no man can truly explain. Maybe like a mystery that leaves you figuring, just something we ain’t meant to understand. And though I had seen the Rockies, the heartache, the hills, and the gold, the byways of the west and the expanses of California, the lands beyond hope and the places beyond reason, it was this here single event that left its mark on me, a mean ugly soul-bearing torment that few a man would ever know. What we heard, what we felt, what we experienced…well, I guess I don’t have any explanation for it. I guess I’ll just tell you about it. See if you can make sense of it in a way I never could.

It was about four o’clock that afternoon, June the twenty fourth, and us men were just sitting down in a tunnel near the section of mine that had fallen in inside Summertide. Sittin’ other side of the wall, our side, not theirs. A few of the guys was eating and a few of them were just resting. One of the men - I forget his name, only his face - he goes down a tunnel to relieve himself since the toilet cart is too far away, and he comes back hollering and screaming in the dark. Says there’s someone inside that there wall of the tunnel. Says someone’s trying to get back out.

“What you goin’ on about?” we’re askin him. “Dontchya know it’s been three months since that boy was buried?” But the man’s insistent, worried. Says he heard a knocking and maybe a voice, says there’s got to be something, otherwise he wouldn’a heard it.

So the four of us go back there with him, and we take a look at this wall. The thing’s smooth as a belly-bottom, harder than a block of iron. One of us takes a kick at the wall and we all stop to listen. All we can hear is the pitched sound of the miners in the tunnels above, all of them shouting at each other in an effort to do their work. “Nope” we say. “Ain’t nothing in there. Musta been something else you heard”.

So we go back to work and we work until dusk. As we go out the guy asks the incoming crew to keep an ear out, and even though they laugh at him the man remains silent. I remember thinking to myself, maybe something ain’t right. Maybe he’s been eating food with something bad in it for him, maybe its gas, maybe he’s spent too long in the mines and don’t know how to handle it yet. But I keep these thoughts to myself cause, well, you never know what a man’s gonna do.

We keep going. Time after time after time. We go in when it’s sunny, come out when it’s well past dark. We work hours and hours to get the gold the people in the far away cities need, and by lantern light we find it, bundle it, and ship it into town. Pretty soon I’m getting weary of it, and I’m thinking about moving back eastward again. But pretty soon I’m hearing shouts in the mine and stories afterward. Someone else heard something down there near tunnel three. Someone says it’s a knocking. Someone says maybe it’s that boy, and he’s trying to find his way back out. I say they’re playing with us again.

But as the men continue to move in an’ out of the mine, shift after shift after hungry, angry shift, so too are stories arising of a sound, a hard icy knocking sound like a gavel on a sounding block, or a hollow rock on an echoey rock wall, or a stranger’s fist on a tavern door at night, or a stone anvil being hit with a big stone hand. Something ain’t right and the men are getting anxious. People start saying something’s wrong with the mine and that we better quit. People start saying how there’s work in other areas of Colorado including down south, outside of Leadville. Maybe we’ll all go there once they shutter up the haunted mine.

One afternoon, one of the supervisors gets fed up with us and he says everyone in Blue Montana will be required to stop all work at 3:00 pm sharp, take fifteen or so minutes, and go listen to the rock wall that’s causing so much trouble. Says he’ll try and make contact with it, or see if maybe it’s an undiscovered passage or an echo maybe, try to prove to everyone they’re being dumb. So at three o’clock sharp that day everyone stops their work, gathers in a group, and descends. A group of off-duty workers filters down from the surface, including a few people from another mine who ain’t even supposed to be there. All of us just mole people headed toward the core. And everyone just sets up camp, takes a seat, and begins to listen. The supervisors going on and on about how it’s not even possible for someone to be alive that long, but then the men tell him to be quiet so they can listen for the guy. And then everyone’s just sitting there, staring at that rock.

Time goes by, feels like an eternity. Minutes turn into hours, hours turn into days, days turn into heartbeats, hollow, silent, and ready. The lantern lights are just there flickering, playing little shadows on the wall of the cavern. And the crew just sits there, staring, waiting.

Time goes by, and men are getting anxious. The supervisor keeps reaching into his pocket, taking out his watch and then looking back at the rock, and then his watch, and then back at the rock. He needs to give everyone a reason to believe they gave it a chance, so they’ll stop bugging him, and keep working. So he crosses his arms and stares. But the rock is just sitting there, silent, unawares.

Time goes on by, and pretty soon the supervisor gets up. He looks at the men and then he takes one last look at the tunnel wall and then he kicks it, and it makes no other sound. “You see here gentlemen? There’s a man buried on the other side there, sure. And we were never able to recover his body from the place, that’s right. But if a man’s been inside this place for three whole months, how’s he gonna come back out. The man ain’t movin’ boys. He’s dead. Now get your ghost stories outta your heads and quit your fearin’ and remember that there’s only one being you gotta fear on this Earth. And that’s God”.

But then it happened.

Right then and there in the darkness of the tunnel, it happened. The rock wall itself just started knockin back at us, starting calling out, started makin noise. First a few steady taps, then a few more louder ones and then finally a long steady crack followed by a splitting noise and more grumbling in the empty earth. And as we’re all standing there, just watching the thing, listening, another tunnel far below the earth gives way a little. Somewhere far away, a tunnel ain’t nobody in at all because we’re all gathered here staring’ at the rock. And in the silence of the humid tomb, we all just kinda hear one empty crumbling of yet another unsteady passage, followed by another, and another, and another. Within seconds all of us are aware of what’s happening and the men start bolting for the surface, tripping on each other and screaming and hollering. For we all knew full well what a cave-in means and why the forsaken wall had brought us there in the first place.

The mumbling continues, and the earth is just cursing at us and spitting out dust. By the time I reached the open sky there’s too many tags on the wooden board and not enough men left on the surface. So we do a head count, but it isn’t enough. Fifty three men went in, twenty two came back out. And the longer we wait, the more we realize the dust inside the mine has settled, it’s over, and no one else was making it to the surface that day. And suddenly there was no longer one man claimed by the mountain but a total of thirty two, all of them buried under rock and sand and dust and gold.

And all of us who remained were honestly just lucky; we were standing at the back of the crowd when it happened.

Well anyways, that was a long time ago now and it’s been about twenty years since those mines were closed up. As the story goes they had to seal off most the mines once the Argo drainage tunnel opened up, and during the war an intense flood occurred and the government called off all gold production in Idaho Springs shortly thereafter. Even after the war, they just never opened the mines again, and the mines are still sitting there, dark, deadly, and abandoned. Now I guess it’s just a memory for old men like myself to tell young people. Now I guess I’m just a story too now that I been down here in town so long.

But it’s funny, you know? The things we chase after and the way they finally catch up to us in the end. Kinda gets to ya. Some things are meant to be chased I suppose, others meant to be left well, well behind. But what’s the matter in worrying about that all when whatever you’re chasing hasn’t quite caught up to you yet?

Yep. You know, I seen this land change a plenty over the years as ever it really does, but I tell you one thing for certain. I ain’t never seen something so crazy in my whole damn life, as I did in grand old summer of 1889, deep in the Blue Montana, in the dark tunnels and dim crawlways that made up the underworld: the hollow heart of Pewabic Mountain.

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