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August 20- 26, 2009

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In the Valley of the Curse
Touring with Smitty and Tinker Bell
by Lance N. Porter

Fair warning: Smitty doesn’t tell you about the curse until it’s too late.

But let me back up a little and start at the beginning.

My friends Mike and Alyson Prins invited me to join them for a few days at a house they rented for the month of July in the quiet and charming Rocky Mountain town of Redstone, Colo. If you’ve never heard of Redstone, don’t feel bad. No one has. The sign at the edge of town says “Redstone — the Ruby of the Rockies,” and it is an undiscovered gem. (To get there, exit Interstate I-70 at Glenwood Springs, take Highway 82 to Carbondale, then Highway 133 to Redstone.)

Mike and Alyson booked our first day’s activity, a five-hour Jeep tour, before I arrived. The tour company was Crystal River Jeep Tours, located in nearby Marble, Colo. Marble owes both its name and its existence to the quarry — still in operation — that provided building materials for the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“They have four jeeps,” Mike told me. “The coolest one is a 1959 Willys. I hope we get that one.”

We showed up at the tour company’s office/art gallery in Marble a few minutes before 10 a.m., when our tour was due to start. We hit the jackpot in every way. Not only were we assigned to the 1959 Willys, our guide was the owner of the tour company, Glenn Smith — known to one and all as “Smitty.”

Meeting Tinker Bell
The first order of business was an introduction to our transportation for the day. It turns out her name is “Tinker Bell.” Smitty has owned Tinker Bell since 1981, and restored her four years ago. Remarkably, the engine and transmission are original. The tires are the same type used on Willys Jeeps in World War II. Smitty installed an elevated rear seat of his own design, which lets the passengers in the back of the open Jeep easily see over the driver and the passenger riding shotgun. Additionally, the rear passengers are free to stand up for an even better view, using the roll bar to brace themselves.

Smitty admits to only one mistake in the restoration process. In order to make Tinker Bell scratch-proof, he finished her with a textured coating that is normally used to line the beds of pick-up trucks. This finish has no UV protection, so Tinker Bell quickly faded from belle-of-the-ball red to an orangey pink. She’s a thing of beauty, nonetheless — and as tough and sure-footed as a government mule.

Into the Lead King Basin
The tour we booked was a five-hour trip through the Lead King Basin, named for the Lead King Mine, one of many that dot the backcountry behind Marble. Mining activity began in this area around 1880, and it mostly died out by 1920. There were definitely minerals here — the Black Queen Mine produced roughly $100,000 worth of silver. But access was always a terrible problem. Most of the ore was carried out by “jack trains,” strings of pack burros capable of negotiating the narrow and treacherous trails. As the mines began to decline in production, it wasn’t economical to continue to work them.

Access is still a huge problem. As soon as you leave Marble, you come across a sign that says “Four-wheel drive vehicles only.” The gravel and dirt roads that go back in here are narrow and rough, and there are steep drop-offs with no guard rails. Even in a Jeep, the roads are precarious at best.

The payoff for coming here is the scenery. The Lead King Basin loop is completely surrounded by majestic mountain peaks. It is a fantastically beautiful tour.

The Ute curse
It wasn’t until we were well underway that Smitty casually mentioned the curse. Before the miners came here, this valley belonged to the Ute Indians, and they considered it a sacred place. As so often happened in the West, the government opened this valley to mining by ordering the Utes onto a reservation in 1879. But the Utes did not go quietly. According to legend, they tried to set the valley on fire rather than turn it over to the whites. When they were thwarted in that, they put a curse on the valley, decreeing that anything white people did here would end in failure.

We figured that the curse must have lost some of its power over time, because our tour came off without a hitch. You bring a sack lunch with you on this tour, and we stopped to eat in an area known as Coors Falls, because it looks so much like the falls shown on a can of Coors beer. It’s a beautiful place for a picnic.

The Town of Crystal
The second major stop was in the town of Crystal. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Crystal was a thriving community providing for the needs of the miners in the valley. At one time, Crystal had a saloon, blacksmith shop, general store, schoolhouse, barber shop, post office, newspaper — even a brothel. The 1900 census listed the population of Crystal as 101. By 1910, the census listed a population of four.

It’s tempting to think of Crystal as a “ghost town” — but that’s not quite correct. After the mines gave out, people began using their cabins in Crystal as summer homes. Today, the cabins in Crystal are all still privately owned, in good repair, and they’re occupied by their owners in the summertime. Roger Neal, the official historian of Crystal, has spent more than 50 summers here. His sister and brother-in-law spend their summers in the cabin right across the street. There are also cabins available for rent.

There’s an old mill on the river in Crystal that is essentially a ruin, although it has been stabilized to prevent further decay. It is said to be one of the most-photographed sites in Colorado.

The Curse strikes
The tour was almost over, but I didn’t think I had a good picture of Smitty at the wheel of Tinker Bell yet. Seeing me snapping away,

Smitty joked that, if I kept taking his picture, I’d break my camera.

We all chuckled, of course. But after we parted ways and headed home, I tried to review my shots on my camera’s digital display — and it wouldn’t show me a thing. I looked in the viewfinder and the readout said “Busy.” I tried to take a picture — nothing doing. I turned the camera off and on, replaced the battery with a fresh one, tried everything. No dice. Fortunately, I was able to recover my pictures from the memory card. But the camera never worked again.

It was Mike who reminded me about Smitty’s joke. But I don’t think Smitty’s face caused the problem. After all, the camera wasn’t broken. All its parts were still intact.
It acted more like it was cursed...

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