Essay by Erik Moore
Changing West – August 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
THE BLACK CLOUD MINE CLOSES. It is hailed as the death of mining in the area.
Mining hasn’t died here. It only sleeps until those loveable Merlins of the market, playing spin-the-bottle with the world economy, once again create conditions conducive to profit. There are plenty of minerals left in these mountains and when we need them, we’ll go get them.
The mining perspective and way of life — on the other hand — really is fading. After twenty years of running diamond (bit) drill rigs all over the West, Alaska, and Mexico, I find the industry at a standstill. Zinc, lead, gold, copper — nothing sells. The machines whose scale so casually dwarfs the human body sit empty. All the men are gone.
And I’m looking for another line of work.
Mining has always seemed to me to be a win-win situation. It creates jobs and raw materials, and even provides improvements in living standards by building the support infrastructure, roads, power lines, and buildings we need. Come to think of it, these are all the things that make a ski area or an Aspen or a Breckenridge possible.
I like working with nature and machines to help produce things that everybody needs. That has always been an honored vocation in the West: Taming the land, as it were.
But today, that phrase makes some people’s skin crawl. Their experience does not include the deadly implacability of the natural world (except perhaps accidently). To them the natural world is a benevolent source of recreation and æsthetics and in some blissfully vague way, food. Mining and ranching or working timber or steel are just not considered very nice.
Today, aside from the construction trades, most of the work around here is in the “service sector.” But as for myself, I’m not eager to trade my drill rig in for a smile.
Perhaps, that’s merely because I’m temperamentally unsuited for such service work (which I have occassionally engaged in somewhat disagreeably). But I’m certainly not the only one who finds service work undesirable.
For if the world truly valued good service, it would certainly pay more for it.
Although there is certainly nothing dishonorable about waiting tables and generally getting paid to please someone (any more than there is anything dishonorable about mining or ranching), people in the recreation industry tend to be underpaid, undervalued, temporary employees without adequate benefits.
Once upon a time, Karl Marx talked about a dictatorship of the proletariat based on worker control of “the means of production” (mines, oilfields, factories, etc.) — since in political terms, it has always been true that the people who have the gold will rule.
And these days, it seems to be just as true that the people who wait on the people who have the gold will not rule. Thus, there is a matter of balance to be considered.
Mountain folk, ranch people, miners, and timbermen generally view tourists and greenhorns with a sense of bemused tolerance. Tourists are not necessary, they are often funny, and they make you appreciate what you do and where you live.
But people who make their money off tourists, real estate, and recreation think differently. They happily open the valley gate to the vast hordes of Vicarians who prefer their experiences packaged, safety sealed, and decorated with hyperbole.
Look what happened in Crested Butte: In the late seventies I drilled in the Keystone Mine for Amax. They were about to begin large-scale underground mining for molybdenum inside Mt. Emmons. Then the market went south and they suspended operations. People whose main activities included skiing and lying around naked at the lake were overjoyed.
But then some really, really rich Vicarians moved in, and the price of land and housing soon left the recreationalists with no choice but to pack up and follow the miners on down the road. Mining paychecks, however, could have withstood the invader inflation.
OK, so the recreation and service industry has its drawbacks. Isn’t that better than trashing nature for a buck?
People who earn their living making and growing things are different than those who make a living off of each other. Real ranchers, long-time miners, and their ilk rarely feel that they can “conquer the mountain.” Their life experiences have forced a sense of humility before the forces of nature, a sense that Vicarians do not share. The mindless whims of nature are something to fortify against, to understand and to deal with in order to survive.
Vicarians live in the land of television, sports, movies, and games. Been there, done than, got the T-shirt. They want to see the Marty Stouffer brand of wildlife. Nature should look like those phony digitally manipulated colorized coffee-table photo books that absurdly romanticize predators.
The difference between Vicarians and the working people I’m talking about is that the fake experience is preferable to the real. Groom the mountain, stock the lakes, manage the elk herds, build cement outhouses. Service me, feed me, entertain me, wire me. Have a nice wilderness experience but make sure to pack the cell phone.
It’s not just silly and crass and commercial and ultimately empty. It prevents the possibility of seeing the mountains with clear eyes. You can love our mother, the earth, but she is a cold and heartless parent sublimely indifferent to the constant death and suffering of the transient creatures that pick a living off of her skin.
WARNING: The following statement contains graphic heresy and may be offensive to Vicarians, environmental commissars and others:
There is nothing that all the people in the world together can do that will have the slightest lasting effect on this planet. The Truly Ancient One can only be harmed by alien space invaders, comets, asteroids, supernovas, and such. We are hardly in their League.
Obviously, it is stupid to foul your own nest, and it is true that some people are piggier than others. But it is laughably arrogant and ignorant to presume that we can virtuously command this rock that spawned us.
The presumption that we have to protect and manage by law the affairs of a 4½-billion-year-old community like this planet is a political con job.
The true agenda is to control other people.
But it sounds so much better to claim you are “Saving the Earth,” “Saving the Rain Forest,” or “Saving the Wilderness.” We’re not telling people what to do on public lands; we’re “managing the forest.” We are not the State taking control of public resources and calling it a park. We just want someone to keep the riff-raff out.
Managing recreational resources is about one group taking power over another.
Unquestionably, some of us have to clean the camp sites, wait on the tables, and guide the tours. But when those are the only industries left in Central Colorado, then this place will undoubtedly become what others think it should be — and dream it should be — rather than a place created by those who live and work here.
When all we have left is the recreation and service industries, then we will all serve the culture brought in by visitors, tourists, and skiers who do not live here. And our values, thoughts and ideas will fade as surely as the mining industry. It is a matter of balance. Now I repair computers and make willow furniture and occasionally take an out-of-state drilling job.
I hope that my new neighbors can see this mountain valley for what it is and not merely another item on a checklist of experiences or a good place for some profit-making hustle. And then if someone wants a gravel pit or a beryllium or gold mine, or to run sheep or cows, or to use some trees to build things, maybe he won’t get such a hard time.
Erik Moore of Salida, who restored the Yellow House in Maysville, discovered he wasn’t cut out to run a bed & breakfast there. He now has that property for sale, and designs web pages, among other things, to get his daily bread.