See Crystal City. If You Dare.

The most interesting town I visited on my recent trip to Colorado doesn’t even merit a dot on the map.  And as you might guess, it’s not easy to get there.

First, drop off Interstate-70 about three hours west of Denver and make your way to Glenwood Springs, home of the world’s largest natural hot springs pool and of the Hotel Colorado, one of Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite stops.  Then proceed south on Highway 82 to Carbondale, your last chance at a Laundromat and a real grocery store for a long time.

Unless you want to end up in Aspen—and believe me, unless you’ve got a lot of extra money in your pocket, you don’t—exit onto Highway 133. You’ll soon reach the historic coal mining settlement of Redstone (population 130).

A small map dot, to put it mildly.

It’s an interesting place, filled with shops, restaurants, and early-20th century cottages.  It’s also the site of some really cool restored “beehive style” coke ovens, the quaint Redstone Inn, and the 42-room Redstone Castle, built in the early 1900s by infamous Robber Baron John Cleveland Osgood.

Now you’re getting close to the really fun stuff.

Just five miles further down the road is the town of Marble (population 131).  One of its claims to fame is the Yule marble quarry, cut into a mountain 9,500 feet above sea level.  Massive deposits of clean white marble were discovered here in the 1870s.  The quarry itself opened in 1905 and is famous for having supplied marble to build parts of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Highlights in town include Slow Groovin’ Barbecue Restaurant, which is excellent, and a gift shop owned by a talented marble carver.  When he’s not there, he simply leaves the door unlocked and relies on the honor system:  “Prices marked in red crayon.  Put your money in the box by the door,” the hand-lettered sign on the front porch says.

What really makes Marble famous, however, are a couple of nearby attractions that are exceedingly difficult to reach.  The first is the Crystal Mill, one of the most photographed sites in the entire state.  Constructed in 1893, it was built to harness the Crystal River to run an air compressor that, in turn, powered drills in the nearby silver mine.  Though the mill ceased operations in 1917 and is closed to the public, preservation efforts have kept it intact and lovely.

Albeit somewhat inaccessible.

Just “two curves and one little hill” further (as a hand-painted sign nailed to an aspen tree informed us) is the town of Crystal City, population 12.  And hardy souls those twelve folks are.  They live there only from June through September, when winter drives them back to civilization, and get by during the warm months with no telephones (cell or land lines), television, computers, or clothes washers and dryers.  Electricity for lights and refrigerators is supplied by solar or propane.  Water, “cold and delicious” I was told, comes from a mountain spring.

To get to the mill or the town requires a sure-footed horse, a high-clearance off-road vehicle, or a set of strong legs and lungs. Not to mention nerves of steel.  The trail is four steep, rocky and rutted miles, one way, with beautiful but terrifying views of the river far below.

And you don’t have to be brave only about precipitous drop-offs to make this trip.  Rounding the bend at the top of one hill, we came upon a yard littered with rusty snowmobiles and lots of other junk surrounding a Quonset hut dwelling.  The gate leading to it was chained and padlocked.  An American flag flew beside the third hand-painted sign we’d encountered that day.

But this sign wasn’t so friendly.  NO TRESPASSING, it read.  VIOLATORS WILL BE SHOT.  SURVIVORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN.

(August 26, 2012)

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