Colorado's Most Amazing and Punishing (and Magical) Race
In 1976, when Ken had just arrived in Leadville, he heard about the annual Boom Days burro race. You get a burro, load it with a 33-pound pack, and run behind it 11 miles up the Mosquito Pass trail, then turn around and run back into town. "Man, I've got to try that," Ken thought. No matter that he knew diddly about burros or could barely run five blocks from his house to the town's library. It was the same way when he started at Climax: He'd never touched a stick of dynamite in his life, but that didn't stop him from setting off a five-pound bomb his first day on the job.
If it sounds cool, why not? That's the teenage logic Ken has obeyed ever since, oddly enough, he stopped being a teenager. He became a burro racer in his 30s, an ultramarathoner in his 40s, hopped on a Harley in his 50s, a rodeo bull rider at age 60. Now, 66 years old, he's spent time as a soldier, scientist, elk hunter, miner, state senator, GOP national delegate, and U.S. Senate candidate. The second half of his life seems almost pathologically manic, especially when you consider that he spent the first half pumping gas in a spit-chaw Okie backwater.
He was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and soon made it his life's mission to get the hell out of Shawnee, Oklahoma. He married right after high school, then wiped windshields at his dad's garage while his wife, Pat, was in college. As soon as she graduated and began teaching school, he did a tour in the Army, then got his biology degree from Oklahoma Baptist. His dream was to become a doctor, until he found out that medical schools were charging $1,500 just to apply-a dizzying sum in 1960s Oklahoma. He bitterly resented feeling jackrolled by the med school mafia, so he said to hell with medicine. In the heat of that disappointment, he convinced Pat to load their car and move to the nearest big city on the map: Denver. "Man, it was a revelation," Ken says. "Bars on every corner, a horse track-Sin City! And I was loving it." In the Flower Power afterglow of the early '70s, his hillbilly accent and striking resemblance to Johnny Cash came across as True Rustic, and Ken found a way to make it pay. "I got a job selling insurance, and me talking like a hick, I made a killing."
That first year in Denver, Ken and his wife agreed the city was no place to raise their newborn son, and they moved to Leadville. He signed on with the Climax mine. It was making a fortune, he'd heard, and spreading it around. Mining paid so well, it became virtually the only job in Leadville: Plumbers, carpenters, and accountants all left their trades and hired on at Climax, until getting a toilet fixed required a long-distance call and a two-day wait. Of 4,500 Leadville residents in 1978, 3,000 were working in the mines. Besides, big bucks for blowing up boulders sounded cool to Ken.
For decades, Leadville had been sitting on something better than a gold mine-a "moly" mine. Molybdenum is a mineral that strengthens steel, so when you're building tanks, Uzis, or battleships, you need moly by the truckload. And if there's one product in the world that will never go out of fashion, it's killing machines. Leadville had 75 percent of the market.
"First night underground, the outgoing shift boss tells me, 'We left an eight-pound bomb in car five.'" What's that? Ken recalls thinking. He jumped right in, though, and soon felt at home with more dynamite under his coat than a suicide bomber.
The market that could never take a dive took a dive in the early '80s. Moly production in Eastern Europe had ramped up, and prices were plummeting. With Reagan talking arms treaties with the Soviets, Climax was done. The company never closed the mine for good; it just sent everyone home and waited for a chance to get back into the game. Two decades later, it's still waiting.
"One thing I'll never forgive the damn company for," Ken says. "By the time you get into your digging clothes, with the self-rescue belt, the steel-toe boots, the helmet, it takes a half hour. And that's when they tell us we're laid off. I had to go back down to the locker room and spend a half hour taking that shit off, thinking about how I'm going home to tell my wife and son that Daddy doesn't have a job anymore."
"It's not hopeless," said an economic developer Leadville hired to come up with an emergency strategy. "You've got two things going for you: the mountains and Leadville's heritage. What you've got to do is use them in a way that will make visitors stay overnight."
Well, no shit. But how? Leadville saw every other post-industrial city in America grabbing for the same life ring: They were all trying to abracadabra themselves into vacation spots. Leadville was tempted to resuscitate the gaming business of its wild yesteryear, but the townsfolk voted it down. Slots would bring big money to the city, no doubt, but it wouldn't be their city; what was the point of saving Leadville if it was no longer the Leadville they loved? They didn't want to spoil Leadville's old-time, Main Street character, nor live off human gullibility and addiction. The irony was bittersweet: Leadville had once been the wildest shoot-'em-up city in the West, and even as recently as the '40s, State Street was so notorious for knife fights and gynecoccal prostitutes that soldiers from Camp Hale were forbidden to go near it. But Leadville changed all that. Flophouses were converted to family homes, brothels became cafes, and Leadville became a safe and neighborly place for miners to raise their kids. Backsliding now would have been another form of defeat.