Western Union

Marrying into the American West that occupied my dreams as a child.

October 2008

Like most boys, I grew up worshipping guns. Born into the era before the video game and the pixel-easy murder of a million people a day, I passed my adolescence playing old-fashioned war with my friends. Instead of the Airsoft BB rifles and high-tech paintball guns wielded by my stepchildren on the killing fields of Boulder (otherwise known as our backyard), we shot clumsy, spring-powered plastic bullets at each other from innocuous toy pistols. Lacking the advanced technology for the "kills" of laser tag, we hurled that special New Jersey ordnance known as the "dirt bomb." All of this was not only a rehearsal for manhood in the venerable American tradition of education through violence; it was also a conscious reenactment of the lives of Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Buffalo Bill Cody, those heroes of the frontier who had haunted my imagination since I'd first begun to read.

Everyone owns a myth of his or her origins, and when we don't have the one we want, we do like I did: cheerfully make it up. What did I, a suburban child, have to do with the dead-shot abilities of a famed trapper and soldier like Kit Carson? Nothing, obviously. But such invention of a persona out of whole cloth is also part of the American tradition. As a nation of immigrants with a continually reinvented and receding past, we specialize in adopting identities—and lineages—at the drop of a hat. When a child, I wasn't especially interested in belonging to the tradition of my actual forebears: pious, pushcart-driving Eastern European Jews who swarmed over the Lower East Side of Manhattan around the turn of the 20th century and then fanned out across the country, looking impossibly stranded and depressed in photographs of that time. I was an American child and I wanted American action, and so, in the backyard of our suburban home, I invented a past that included cowboys, Indians, running gun-battles, and copious amounts of preteen blood.

That was then. As an adult, falling in love in Rome, Italy, and moving to Boulder, I had the sense of being strangely beached between imaginary and real geographies. Colorado, after all, was the crucible for the Godec and Nelson and Pettingell families into which I'd married. My wife's families were Colorado, and were also that rarest thing, authentic pioneers: bred-in-the-bone, soaked-in-the-Stetson residents of an area—the American West—I'd dreamed of belonging to for the most formative years of my life. Judy's people were the beneficiaries of that thing which I, as a member of a tribe sentenced to 5,000 years of wandering partition, would never know: a spirit of place. They belonged to the land; they'd been judges, miners, engineers, postmasters, nature photographers, and county clerks. In the process, they'd even managed to have a thirteener, Pettingell Peak, named after them. As a 12-year-old, aloft on fantasy, I'd thirsted after the exact landscapes they sprang from, and yet as an adult new to the region I was forced to feel against my skin the many crucial ways these good people differed from me. More than once I posed the question: What was I, the inheritor of a learned indoor tradition of hair-splitting, gems of logic, and fine ethical distinctions, doing amid all this sagebrush, chaparral, and bluff Western candor?

About a year ago, piqued by this question, I decided to set out on a casual quest to find out the truth about a family that, unlike my own, had spent generations in the same bounded space, and had claimed that space through the sheer continuity of their presence. What had they endured in the process? And what had motivated them in the first place to clear brush, tramp up and down snowy slopes, rope and wrangle and dig for precious metal in holes in the earth? I associated them with a certain tough fair-mindedness, a stoicism and a dignity that was different both from the revved-up dramas of life on the East Coast and the blissed-out sunny serenities (and congestions) of California. They had qualities that were—I suspected—specifically Coloradan. How had these qualities taken root here? What had lain behind their flowering?

"He died up there," Judy says, gesturing over our heads to a switchbacked road set in a cliff above the city of Aspen. Turning our car off Main Street and heading over the wonderfully named "No Problem Bridge," we enter the narrow gravel road and begin to rise.

The "he" in question was Frank Godec, Judy's paternal great-grandfather. His death was reported in the Aspen Times of May 17, 1917, as follows: "Frank Godec was killed in the No 3 Tunnel of the Smuggler Mine by a cave-in...today." What the dry, factual tone of the death notice leaves out is that the text itself was first read by the miner's son, Joe Godec, as an 11-year-old boy returning home that particular day after school. As was the custom in small American towns at that time, the news of the day was posted in the window of the general store. It was a warm late-summer's afternoon, but we can imagine the stroke of cold going through him as he stared at the small letters in a certain dawning disbelief. (My busybody childhood mind, meanwhile, colors the town around him with the Deadwood-esque scenery of swinging saloon doors, creaking wagon wheels, and lean, squinty-eyed pistoleros in floor-length dusters bellying up to nearby bars.)

We've already spent awhile driving around the city. Having never been to Aspen before, I'd privately expected something along the lines of a country-and-western version of Florence, Italy—that is, a giant glove shop masquerading as a town. Yet I'm impressed, at least initially, by the exacting modesty of the place. Its working-class past lends it a saving camouflage, and its wealth—aside from the coolhunting shops visible on certain side streets—is by and large discreetly contained in the giant, polyhedral pleasure domes scattered through the hills above the city.

As we continue to rise on the corkscrew switchbacks, drawing nearer the mine, we move farther away from the original site of Frank Godec's home, on King Street below us. According to family lore, his widow sold the house after he died for "forty dollars and a sack of potatoes." With the money, she bought a car and set out for the comparatively wealthy burg of Pueblo, where both Judy's parents and Judy and her siblings were born. The miner's shack was razed long ago, and the original plot now contains one of those turreted fieldstone-and-timber Aspen palaces whose purchase price was surely worth the area's weight in natural resources circa the turn of the century.

We crest a sudden rise, now several hundred feet over the city, and the scrubby berm opens up to reveal the panorama of the mine itself. Set well back behind barbed wire fencing is the vast gray and brown apron of ancient tailings, and on the bluffs above the outbuildings, the American flag, and small turn-of-the-century railcars that originally ferried silver-rich ore to the smelter. We're again reminded both of the magnitude and the disfiguring nature of mining: literally opening up the veins of Mother Earth and letting her bleed out. The place, which fairly screams Superfund, was the site in 1894 of the extraction of the largest silver nugget ever found, a shiny behemoth that tipped the scales at a whopping 1,840 pounds. Today, a large antiquated-looking "Keep Out" sign on the fence warns visitors away. The sign appears to be original, and on closer inspection bears an injunction that neatly sums up my childhood fantasy of freewheeling frontier justice. It reads: "Trespassers who survive will be diligently prosecuted. This includes any government employee."