"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Marble Mountain

On our last day in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Shelley and I went on a day adventure.  We headed towards Marble, a nearby, small town with reportedly good hot springs and hiking.  Well, when we got close to Marble, we found out that the hot springs were dried up, and we admitted to each other that we were pooped from two days of outdoor exertion and neither of us really felt like hiking.

So we set off simply driving through the tiny, mysterious town of Marble instead.  The town got its name and very existence from the extensive marble canyons it inhabits.  It is the marble capital of the world.  All the marble from the Washington monument and most of the famous statues in Europe came from Marble, Colorado.

We were amazed as we drove on the bumpy dirt road (which is the only road) at the pool-table-sized slabs of marble lying by the side of the road and lining the riverbed.  There is a rumor that when the train first tried to deliver the marble to Washington for the monument, they underestimated the windy-ness of the roads, and many slabs slid off and still lie where they fell today.

Once in town, we followed a small, green sign that said, “Museum.”  The Museum ended up being closed, as was apparently most of the town, but it was attached to the “Marble Charter School.”  Kids in costumes (it was Halloween, after all) scrambled in and out of the building, and around to the playground out back.  The sounds of their laughter and shouting were the first signs of life we’d seen in this town all day.  We wondered how many students were in that small school, and what life was like for them in this tiny ghost town.  We wished aloud for a local to talk to.

Our wish was granted.

We parked at a marble gallery that was closed but still had statues in the parking lot on display.  We oogled at the handiwork, and found ourselves wandering to the back of the building, where we found a sort of workshop. 

My favorite sculpture in the outdoor gallery

Another pretty cool one
Just as we were snooping around the machinery, we heard, “Hello.”

We turned to see a stout man with thick, dark skin, dirty jeans, and a baseball cap.  He smiled as he came out of the trailer behind the workshop, presumably his home.

“Hello,” I responded nervously.  “We were just admiring the work out front.  Are you the artist?  I hope you don’t mind us looking around.”

“Yes I’m one of the artists.  This is my shop and studio."  He lumbered over to us.  "Do you want to see inside?”

“Yes please,” we said together.

The man, Juan, unlocked the back door and took us in to the basement studio.  Hunks of half-chiseled marble statues, wine racks, and lamps stood silently waiting to be finished all around us.  The light was dusty coming through the window.  

Shelley asked about the artists, and he explained that he once was the only one, but now there are five artists working out of this space and selling their wares upstairs.  He motioned up the stairs with his head, and we followed him up to the store area.

Juan in his workshop

 While Shelley looked around the shop, I asked Juan for his story.  “How did you end up in Marble?  Are you from here?  Did you come to be an artist?”

“No,” he shook his head slowly.  “I grew up in Detroit.  I got into a lot of trouble as a kid and got shipped out to Arizona for corrections.  While I was there, I decided I wanted to go up to Alaska as soon as I was released.  But then I had a buddy who said, ‘Hey we’re going to Marble, Colorado, you should come.’  So I came here with them one night when I was 18 years old.  I woke up the next morning and looked around, and I never left.”

“Wow.” I responded.  “So how did you start carving?”

“Well I needed a way to provide for my family.  I already had a daughter.  I have four now.”  He jerked his head slightly to the back of the building, towards the trailer out back.  “One day I was walking along the riverbank and picked up a piece of marble and thought, maybe I’ll do this.  So I carved it, sold it, and just never stopped.”

“So you’re completely self-taught?”

He nodded.

“Do your daughters go to the little charter school we saw up on the hill?”

“They all started there.  One is still there.  One is at home.  Two are at the high school in town.  My wife started that charter school.”

“Really?” I widened my eyes with interest.  “I was a teacher at a small school back east before I left.  But probably not as small as this school.  How many students does it have, and what grades?”

“Oh I guess there are about 30 students there now, from Kindergarten to ninth grade,” he tilted his head in thoughtful response.

We chatted a bit more.  Then Juan led us back downstairs and outside.  Before leaving, we asked him where exactly the marble comes from.

“Oh the quarry, up on the hill.”  He jerked his head towards the mountain behind him, which really was a mountain, not a hill.  “Just turn right at the stop sign and drive up three miles.”

“Can we see it?” asked Shelley.

“Nah.  The public can’t go in.  But you can drive up to the gate.”

I got a mischievous grin on my face.  “Is there anyone working up there right now?”

He squinted one eye at me in suspicion.  “Well, no.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

“Thanks,” I smiled.  “Thank you so much for your time, Juan!”

We said our goodbyes and excitedly hopped in the car to drive up to the quarry.  We found it three miles up the windy, mountain road, just as he said.  We parked the car at the end and slipped past the fence with the multiple signs warning NO ENTRY, NO PUBLIC ACCESS, and WE WILL PROSECUTE.

It was an incredible sight.  Except for a generator humming quietly in the work trailer, there were no sounds.  Various shapes of marble hunks cascaded down the side of the mountain.  A gaping hole opened up into the side of the mountain, leading in to the mine.  The air was cold and the wind was quick.  I had a constant prickling on my neck, either from the chill or the paranoia of getting caught.

View down the valley from the top of the mine.  The small building
is a barn from the 1800's that is for sale

The overflow of marble down the mountain.  Notice
the size of the work trailer on the road for scale.

Entrance to the mine

As close as I got to going inside the mine (despite some VERY strong
temptation to go further)

The "punch clock."  Each keychain has a miner's name on it.

Another, higher entrance to the mine
Me on a marble mountain
While the day brought neither hot springs nor hiking, it was one of those magical travel days that you can't possibly plan for.  What a crazy feeling - standing amidst all that precious stone, like a real live treasure mountain.  And meeting Juan - my favorite part of traveling continues to be the fantastic connections I make with unique souls who are willing to share their stories.  Thanks, Juan.  And thanks to the silent, nameless miners who gave us "permission" to explore their site. :)

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