I struggle to keep up with my husband Jack as we whack our way through smothering brush somewhere along Slumgullion Pass between Lake City and Creede. My lungs are working hard in the thin mountain air. Alferd Packer, the man this area is best known for, weighs heavy on my mind as he has for much of this summer. A hundred years ago, during a particularly harsh winter, he led five prospectors through here. Weeks later, with everyone freezing and facing starvation, he murdered the group and cannibalized them.

We have been on the Pass almost every weekend this summer of 1976 hunting for the stagecoach swing station noted on the antique Colorado map Jack found in a used bookstore. Swing stations supplied fresh horses and were usually little more than a corral and maybe a barn and cabin.

Finding the ghost station, even with Jack’s map, isn’t likely. The route has probably been obliterated by the Rockies harsh winters and fierce growth of the summer months. Or asphalted over into the present day two-lane Slumgullion Pass. The Pass itself is open only a couple of months each summer. It’s August now and there are still quite a few patches of snow.

This could have been an adventure, but Jack always plots our trips so thoroughly that all the life and sense of discovery is lost. We are relentlessly bound to his yellow-highlighted routes. I’ve stared at his maps, trying to understand his fascination, but I can make no sense of them. He says I am too stupid to read a map.

Last night we slept in Lake City, our sleeping bags on the living room floor belonging to some artists we met last summer. We headed up the Pass while it was still dark this morning. As the sun slowly lit the sky into shades of blood orange, Jack pulled our jeep off the winter-buckled road. This spot looked no different than anywhere else we had stopped this summer, but I have learned not to ever question him. We grabbed our canteens and set off into Alferd Packer’s wild.

There are no trails. Jack sustains a steady pace, never looking back to see if I’m still here. Snarls of creeping brambles twist around my boots and I stumble over tree roots and rotting logs. Prickly tree branches snag my hair and scrape my face. In spite of the raw chill, I am clammy with sweat.

After an hour or so, the trees suddenly become spindlier and the brush thins. Then mounds of weathered lumber with exposed rusty nails appear, clustered where a crude building must have once stood. Split railings, probably a long-ago corral, lay scattered about. I pick up one of the horseshoes that are strewn everywhere. Weeds knot through piles of wagon wheels.

A quiet hangs in the air.

Visions flash at me: Harnesses stripped off a sweat-soaked heaving team. Skittish wild-eyed fresh horses being rushed to replace them. Men in waistcoats and ladies corseted into long dresses stretching their legs before being hurried back into the coach. Clouds of dust as the stagecoach raced away again.

Grey jays eye us pensively from the aspen trees and a faint breeze swirls the pale green summer leaves. Clumps of Colorado blue columbine, my favorite flower, poke determinedly through the thick undergrowth. Some small critter, maybe a pica, chatters.

The sky is so blue.

Jack stands motionless, his eyes closed, his face raised to the sun. A look I have never seen before, a kind of hush, settles over him. I wonder if he is imagining the same scenes I am or if he is just satisfied that he conquered his map. I try, but am unable to reconcile his utter calm with the man who berated me for hours a few nights ago because I forgot to pick up his suit at the drycleaners.

The jeep’s canvas sides tremble and slap in the wind on the way back home to Denver. Holding the horseshoe in my lap, I fantasize about the ladies who might have been passengers on those stagecoaches. Maybe some of them were traveling with their husbands. Maybe some were bravely leaving childhood homes to teach school in unruly mining towns. Maybe one of them hopped on a stagecoach not sure where it was going but figuring that anywhere was better than where she was.

Mary Zelinka lives in Albany, Oregon. She has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for over thirty years. Every day she has the privilege of witnessing the remarkable strength and resilience of domestic and sexual violence survivors. Her writing has appeared in The Sun Magazine, CALYX, and Persimmon Tree.

Photo by Mike McKniff