Chapter 1 – Arriving in Leadville

St. Joseph’s Leadville

The rain fell steadily as I sat in the parking lot of a department store in Leadville, Colorado. As I dialed my longtime friend and confidant, Cindi, my heart felt heavy as the surroundings of this bleak day engulfed me.

 “Cin, I think I found a place; the landlord wants $500 to hold it”. “I’m scared, it’s finally here and I am scared”.

The weather didn’t help, nor did the rain pelting my windshield as I sat in desolation; the 14,000 ft. mountain peaks a short distance away, not even visible.

“Mare… have to do it”, Cindi scolded. “Think of the alternative; sitting on your back porch in Chicago with strangers walking through your alley. You’d be miserable yearning and wondering what could have been if only you had the guts”! Cindi is acutely aware of my frustration living in Chicago in the popular Wrigleyville neighborhood. As lucky as I am to live there, the building sits directly on an alley frequented by pedestrians. I often complain about the closeness of urban living and long for solitude.  Cindi knew me all too well and was the only one who can tell me it’s okay. Although I was single with no commitment of any kind, taking this step felt monumental.  “Thanks, Cin,….. here I go, straight into the unknown”. The pit, however, still penetrated my gut; it felt uncertain and vulnerable, but I pushed on knowing it was the only choice I had. Backed by Cindi’s words, I left the dreary parking lot and drove back to 3rd Street in downtown Leadville toward the house that was about to become my home for the next four months. 

Four months in Colorado; what’s the big deal, right? Well, it is a big deal. I grew up in a bubble consisting of a large Irish family, a lake cottage in Wisconsin, and a Catholic education. During those days Mom’s didn’t work so we spent summers at the lake. As soon as the school year ended in June, my parents pulled up in the station wagon and all seven of us siblings piled in and off we went. Times were carefree and fun. Summers consisted of boating, experimenting with drinking, minor sexual encounters and the formation of life-long friends. Since the parents had their own agendas, the kids ran around free and wild. Those summers at the lake lasted all through high school. Then one by one all the kids in my group began to go their separate ways.

 During those days, I struggled with the intense programming from 40 plus years of Irish Catholic culture. I never knew about choices or desires. I felt stirrings, but whatever came up was abruptly crushed and I came to feel incapable of any real freedom of choice. A large part of my generation was raised in a box; some more than others. Everything was designed to keep us safe and close to home. We enjoyed a good life in our box, blanketed with safety and security; it was easy because we didn’t know any better.

By the time I hit high school my heart began to stir. All I wanted was to leave Chicago and travel to the mountains, oceans, or anywhere that lead to adventure and knowledge. In 1974, I graduated and promptly applied to three universities. I got accepted to all of them. Finally, a ticket out of the city and independence. Approaching my parents with my plans sent the entire dream in a downward spiral. Coming from working families themselves, they felt girls didn’t need a higher education. Apparently, marriage was the preferred choice for their daughters. I was heartbroken as all my peers left me for universities that fall.   As everyone dispersed and went away I remained on the south side of Chicago.  I tried attending Chicago State University because it had the word “University” in it. At least I was in some form of advanced education. But taking the bus to the east side of the city felt heavy and depressing. The preferred option for girls was secretarial school. My parents, aunts & uncles pushed it for all the girls in the family so we would be exposed to profession men who would marry us.  Depression engulfed me as I received postcards from my friends who were fortunate enough to go away to school. As most of them came back, guess what, they got married. Just want my parents planned for me. Except I never got married. I did go the secretarial school and worked in the city for years burying my loneliness with drinking and partying.

After bouncing around secretarial jobs for 10 years, I took the Illinois Real Estate test and became a realtor. My father suggested this career path because it was a nice job for a housewife. I would have done anything for him, so a realtor I became. A housewife! Farthest thing from my mind, but what the heck, I suppose it’s a possibility, so I went along with the program. At the same time, I worked at a popular concert venue in the city called Park West.  Concerts, rock n roll, sex, drugs…. you get the picture. Tons of fun, but what a downward spiral I found myself in. As I buried my spirit, the rebel in me flourished in a negative fashion. Instead of funneling my yearning for adventure to learn new things and think outside the box, I took a different path.  I had the city in the palm of my hand as I worked, not only a secretary but began to flourish in the bar business.  Cindi and I both worked at Park West and we easily got into bars and clubs all over town.  Not only did we get in, we got back stage passes. Festivals, Petrillo Band Shell, large venues, small venues, we knew everyone and had a blast.  It wasn’t until I turned 40 that I began to wonder if there was something else. Something that could lift me from this dark existence of earning no money in real estate, scrapping for cash tips at the club, and waking up with hangovers. I didn’t believe in myself in any shape or form and buried it with more partying.  As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know enough to realize that I didn’t believe in myself; I was lost…  Living in the mountains was not only a dream come true, it was crossing that bridge of fear.

The landlord, Kyle, owned a house on 3rd & Harrison Street right in town. It was bright and pleasant with a Victorian flare. It had one story with modern finishes, hardwood floors and a big kitchen window overlooking Mt. Massive, the highest mountain range in Colorado. This view soon became my refuge as I watched the sun rise over the horizon every morning. I pulled my truck into the driveway with my German Shepherd in the back. “Ok, Kyle”, I said to the guy standing in the yard. Kyle had a smooth easy style and seemed to take things in stride. He stood about 5’7”, slim and 40ish with striking good looks. He had a wife in Denver who refused to live in Leadville and Kyle was reluctant to give it up. I came to learn this quirky little town with two stop lights gets under your skin. And once that happens it doesn’t let up. Leadville has a way of casting a shadowy spell on its inhabitants and no one can really explain why.  I heard a few years later Kyle did eventually leave and went to be with his wife in Denver.

“Here is $500 to hold the house”.

“Great”, Kyle replied, “uh, who’s this”? “Oh…..well, that’s Max. He has a little trouble walking, but he travels well”.  Max and I had taken several cross-country road trips over the years and just two days earlier we arrived in Leadville from Chicago. At 12 years old and 85 pounds Max possessed the stern look of a serious German Shepherd. He is intensely focused on me and watches my every move. I met Max at a local Shepherd rescue in the city and brought him home as an emaciated two-year old.  He was skin and bones with rough, dry fur that stood up straight. Max latched on to me like no dog or human ever has.

“He looks scary, but he’s really a lover. Is he a problem?” I asked Kyle.

“No, no…..he will enjoy the yard.”

“It is a nice yard, I love it”. “What’s in the garage”?

“Just a lot of junk, most of it was here when I bought the place”. The garage looked like an old horse stable from the booming mining days of the late 1800’s. Behind the house the leafy petals on the Aspen trees had a yellow glow as they fluttered in the late summer breeze. I felt a connection to my surroundings as I breathed in the fresh mountain air.

The Garage

 I gave Kyle the check and told him I’d be back on August 23rd. I enrolled in Natural Resource classes at Colorado Mountain College, to keep me busy while in Leadville and they began on the 24th.

“The 23rd”? Kyle asked. “Yes, classes begin the 24th”, I replied

“The only problem is the house is rented through Labor Day weekend”. Kyle said.

“But school starts on the 24th, I need to be back here in time with a place to stay”!

“Oh, don’t worry”, Kyle assured me. “I can set you up with something temporary until after the holiday”. 

“Ok”, I said knowing this house certainly was worth the wait.

                A couple hours earlier I sat in the Burro Café disenchanted with the town I chose to make my temporary home. After staying two nights in a cabin just outside downtown Leadville, anxiety seemed my constant companion. I found the cabin online and thought it might make a suitable spot for a long-term situation. Fortunately, I had the sense not to commit until I saw the house. It sat up on a hill overlooking the highway and I awoke to semis buzzing by at 50 mph. The photos never show the highway! In addition, the small insects, garbage in the yard, and general filth of the cabin were my first impression of Leadville.

                Leadville, Colorado is a former silver mining town where Doc Holliday was once a law man. It is situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet and is the highest incorporated city in the United States.  The housing stock consists of small intricately painted Victorian style homes. Harrison Street is the main drag with small business owners occupying the shops along with historic hotels, shabby taverns, a coffee house with wireless internet, a post office, municipal building & a great steak house called, Quincy’s. And, of course, the Burro Café.

 After driving around trying to get a feel for the area, I headed to the Burro to experience a local establishment. I entered only to find the counter full. I felt out of place and didn’t want to hide at a table.  The goal was to talk to someone who might give me insight about the town; a table took away that option.  I walked out not knowing what to do next. Leaving the restaurant, I looked up and down Harrison Street and saw nothing! This one street old mining town felt lonely and in the rain it looked very bleak.  Reluctantly, I turned around and walked back into the restaurant just as a seat became available at the counter.

 It always feels good to talk to people……go sit down and see what sort of conversation you can strike up I told myself with desperation and hope.  As I sat down ordering the cheapest item on the menu a handsome local man sat down next to me. What have we here…that didn’t take long.  He ordered fruit and oatmeal, certainly not the cheapest thing on the menu. I gave him a quick glance prior to striking up a conversation.

“So, where do you live”? I blurted out. Knowing where others lived may give me an insight to the housing situation in this town. “I live in town on the east side”.

“A house”?

“Yes, I run the Mountain Launderette here in Leadville”, he replied.

“Oh yeah, I drove past that a couple times, it seems to stand out”. I saw this laundry mat several times wandering up and down Harrison Street. The building stood out because it had large colored floral designs on the exterior making it very inviting.  “I am attending Colorado Mountain College this fall and am looking for a place to live for four months. Things seem pretty dumpy around here”. I said, hoping I hadn’t offended him.

“Yeah”, he sorted of laughed. “It is hard to find a nice place in Leadville, there are a lot of shady landlords. My name is Scott”.  Scott had that Colorado warmth to him. He was mid-thirties with black curly hair and had a guarded but warm smile.

“Hi, Scott, Mary”, I replied. “I am getting a little depressed here. I stayed up the road in one of those cabins the last two nights and it was pretty bad”.

“Like I said, Leadville is tough for decent housing”, Scott reiterated.

“Mary, why don’t you call my friend, Kyle, he rents out houses and may have something for you”.

As Scott gave me Kyle’s number, I felt a ray of hope. “Wow, thank you, I will call him right away”. My conversation with Scott made me feel a little better. After admitting to him I was nervous and scared, he told me his own story about forcing himself to go to South America for the summer. He was leaving the following season and had an equal amount of trepidation. “You have to force yourself to do it”, he said. I knew exactly how he felt.

As he got up to leave he offered a sincere “Good luck” then walked out.  I never saw him again. Wow, what a lucky break, I thought! But I knew it was not just a lucky break; it was divine intervention. One thing I learned from my journey through radical self-inquiry is if you remain open, angels will line up to show you the way. “Thanks, Scott”, I said with gratitude.

 When Kyle said the house was rented through Labor Day, I saw no other choice, so I agreed. Now time to go back to Chicago and figure out how to pull this off.


Doin’ Time in Leadville

The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before. 

Albert Einstein


At the ripe age of 42 I decided to go to college. Since I lived in Evanston, Illinois at the time, I chose Northwestern University. In the Fall of 2000 I tested the waters by signing up for one evening class. My first subject was English 101, a course in reading and writing essays. Never writing anything prior to this, with the exception of my sad and dreary journals, I went into the course shy and curious. It turned out I had a lot to contribute but felt too intimidated to speak up. My writing, however, earned me an A in the course. Who knew! I attended 12 years of Catholic school and one year of secretarial training so good grammar and decent writing skills came more natural than I expected. I never considered myself a writer, only a student who wrote for classes.

The slow path through Northwestern worked out fine for me. Taking one class a semester in the early years while working as a Realtor fit nicely into my schedule. After 3 years I decided on an Environmental Studies major and developed a plan to actually get a Bachelor of Science degree. My family was not academic in the least so college after high school was out of the question. I tried, but could not find the support to go to school, so I did what many of my female peers did at the time; go to secretarial school. The clear cut direction to finding a man to marry! That way an education was not necessary. Of course, I strongly rebelled, but that is another story.

I always longed to go away to college and began plotting a semester away sometime in 2006. My goal was Colorado. I took road trips to areas I thought might be fun to live in and visited schools that reflected my area of interest. In July 2009 I stumbled upon Leadville and the Colorado Mountain College. They had a Natural Resource Management program that I found most fascinating. I enrolled for the Fall semester and began plotting my journey.

This blog tells the story about that journey and the internal struggles I dealt with getting there, being there and coming home. I started writing my story about Leadville in 2010 and it has tugged at me ever since. Like many writers, the story is in pieces in my notebooks & journals. It’s time to face it. Revisiting the Leadville experience is difficult because to me the intensity goes deep into my gut. That is probably why I have ignored it for so long. It’s hard to go back and visit those journals and experiences that had such a profound affect on me. I hope to write about my efforts to believe in myself enough to transfer my story from my heart to my head and into a narrative.