Welcome to A People's Atlas of Nuclear Colorado

To experience the full richness of the Atlas, please view on desktop.
Jeffrey Beall, Huerfano Butte, with Badito Cone visible on the right, Huerfano County, Colorado, 10 June 2012, Wikimedia Commons

Essay

Huerfano County Nuclear Memories

“He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. . . . for authentic memories, it is far less important that the investigator report on them than that he mark, quite precisely, the site where he gained possession of them. . . . in the same way a good archaeological report not only informs us about the strata from which its findings originate, but also gives an account of the strata which first had to be broken through."

Walter Benjamin, "Excavation and Memory," in Selected Writings Volume II 1927-1934, eds. Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 576.– Walter Benjamin

"Mom, I can't breathe so good!"

We lived in a former schoolhouse in the former town of Lester, Huerfano County, CO. Population four: my parents, younger brother, and self. My younger sisters were yet to be born. It was 1984, and I was five. 

When we first moved in that summer I raced around on a plastic trike like the kid in "The Shining." There were bears in the hills and lizards in the house. Mysterious unmarked box trucks crept up the gravel roads to destinations unknown. Massive earth-moving machinery appeared on occasion to push mounds of excavated red clay dirt back into decades-abandoned strip mines. Punctuating an otherwise bucolic isolation, week-long furies of chugging and beeping flattened red mounds and ragged pits into fields of mudcrack. 

As Autumn crept in, the schoolhouse's uneven heating and insulation reduced our living space significantly to two rooms. We wore our coats all the time indoors. I remember tugging the blue velour blanket on my parent's bed, gasping. I woke up in an oxygen tent.

I was one of at least ten kids in the county to develop sudden-onset asthma that year. During the Rocky Flats Congressional hearings of 1992, the community recalled the box trucks and the earth movers, and rumors spread of a connection. If nuclear waste up North had been stored in leaky drums and dumped in ponds, perhaps it had also been dumped in the strip mines and leached into the groundwater. We had only hearsay, speculation, and asthma.

——

"Kids, I don't think we should be here."

My younger brother held up the antelope femur. Not fresh, but bits of red still showed where sinews remained at the ball-joint. The other end was broken off sharply, and the entirety glared back like some massive fang.

My brother and I were hiking with my mom, exploring the remnants of a strip mine. Down below, a massive wooden spool balanced atop a two-story structure that had presumably once guided buckets of ore down from the shaft above. We had seen the spool structure several times from the road, and hiked here looking for the expected shaft, invisible from below.

We were now only a dozen yards or so below that shaft. Pale against the fragrant piñon pines, weather-greyed wooden beams framed a dark hole in the mesa, from which we could now see a tangled ossuary of sun-bleached pronghorn and rabbit bones amidst the chunks of lignite and feldspar gravel leading up to the mine. And something had coughed.

The cough came again, from above and to the west, but it was impossible to say how far away. Too close. We had been too busy watching for snakes to pay attention to the bones until we were right on top of them, and had unknowingly wandered right up to the mine shaft a mountain lion apparently called home. "We need to leave now. Slow. Try not to make too much noise."

Our descent seemed to take hours, each sliding rock and broken twig like a gunshot in the still high-desert afternoon. The cat shrieked, eerie and keening, otherworldly. Was it farther away than before? Were there more than one? We didn't speak, just sweated and tiptoed. We were almost out of the trees, entering the open hardscrabble plain punctuated only by chamisa and cholla cactus, when we found the footprint, a single large cat paw in the dust of the trail, mere inches from the unmistakable diamond print of my own size-four all-stars. She had been following us the entire time.

——

"Whoa, check it out!"

It was a few months after the cougar incident, mid-August. Unexpectedly heavy summer rain in the mountains had catalyzed the fleeting appearance of greenery across the valley. Rain in the desert can be violent; we were driving to town the back way, traffic on Highway 69 having been temporarily disrupted by a fresh arroyo undercutting the asphalt.

The route took us below the mountain lion's mine, past the decaying structure crowned by a giant spool. But the rains had done their work here as well—the structure now gaped emptily, two huge brackets jutting like horns as a testament to its absence. Whether due to the rain or some other force, the spool itself had become unmoored. After a two-story drop, it had rolled nearly two hundred yards, to come to rest in an arroyo where it now glared like a fallen moon, a surprisingly intact and incongruous disk jutting from tawny sand.

——

"Mom what's that?"

I was "helping" her wash dishes, facing north out the window at the massive wilderness of the southeast side of Greenhorn mountain, twenty miles away. A slow orange fireball highlighted the long, early dusk as the sun dipped behind the Spanish Peaks. We were in the new house, our house, eight miles from Walsenburg, CO. My mother had paid to install the eleven electric poles bringing power down the hill. The promise of county water had lasted less than one pipe-freezing winter, and the water in the sink had been hauled from the town water supply to a half-buried concrete cistern (known to occasionally harbor giant orange centipedes), then hauled into the house in a stainless steel milk pail.

As we watched, the flaming arc met the darkness below, flared up for perhaps ten minutes, then disappeared in a slope that for once was wet enough not to burn. We couldn't even hear the crash.

The next day there was some debate about what we'd seen. Morbid scuttlebutt around town eventually revealed that a single-prop plane had gone down on the mountain, high enough to make immediate retrieval impractical. Both passengers were presumed dead, but it would be another day before anyone could get up to the scene of the crash—miles from any paved road and a thousand feet above the highest two-tracks, which themselves hadn't been maintained since the closure of the uranium mine they had serviced. The human remains were eventually packed down on horseback. The wreckage stayed on the mountainside.

——

The aging Ford F-150 creaked and spat gravel as we ground up another rutted incline, only to face the even steeper remains of yet another washed-out stretch of ungraded roadway.

"You think we can get back down this?"

"I guess we'll see!"

"You actually know where it is?"

"Should be right up here."

Emil gunned the engine and launched us up what turned out to be the last incline. We sat for a moment, filled with the giddiness of teenagers having pulled off something risky, then piled out into the crisp, portentous, fragrant heat of Colorado alpine forest on an August afternoon. This was definitely the place—crushed black slate claimed the remains of the roadway and marked a serpentine river to the larger flagstone jumble that rimmed the sealed entrance to the uranium mine.

The ambient temperature was several degrees hotter on the black rock—your position relative to the sun determined whether your sweat dripped or evaporated. We loaded larger pieces first, three-foot slabs that required four arms, overly ambitious and quickly flagging. I wore a hole in the middle finger of a glove, and we switched to smaller stones we could load solo. The shocks sagged and groaned as we stacked rock, thin and black, as evenly as we could over wheel wells. We stopped loading after a particularly loud "ping," and decided not to risk bottoming out halfway down the mountain. The truck bed was three-quarters full of slick, ebony stone from the uranium mine.

We crept slowly down the mountain, terrified of breaking an axle, the tracks from our own ascension providing a new threat in the form of now gravel-denuded grade. We'd have missed it otherwise—the blood-brown wreckage of something man-made. Amidst once-charred bristlecone regrowth the crumpled but distinct outlines of an airplane cabin resolved from the heat shimmer—all that remained of the airplane we had watched hit the mountain a decade before.

——

These vignettes are presented as a testament to the author's lived, embodied experience of Colorado's nuclear legacy, spanning decades and valleys, through figurative and literal strata. Knowledge, like memory, is fungible, iterative, conditional. Whether or not my childhood illness was caused by buried waste is uncertain; there is little official recognition, and much obfuscation, surrounding the disposal of waste from Rocky Flats. Cold war mineral extraction in the Mountain West left behind enormous ruptures in the earth, but forty years later this abandoned infrastructure had become a part of the scarred landscape, providing refuge for cougars, access to alpine forest for cadaver retrieval, and, years later, paving stones for my friend's sidewalk.

Growing up, this legacy of rupture was part of my expected landscape, rendered static through familiarity and ubiquity. In context, sudden changes in the quotidian backdrop were required to expose violent rupture a half-century past.

A new rupture is altering the landscape—as I write this in the summer of 2018, over 100,000 acres of Huerfano and Costillo counties have burned in the Spring Creek Fire, which according to the Denver Post is still only seventy percent contained. The few strip mines still accessible from the road are filled, visible only in cadastral maps and satellite images. Nothing I describe here will be recognizable a year from now. What remains are only nuclear memories.

Sources

Colorado Geological Survey. "Abandoned Mine Lands." Accessed July 6, 2018.

Benjamin, Walter. “Excavation and Memory.” In Selected Writings, Volume II 1927-1934, edited by Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, 596. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.

Continue on "Mobilization"