LA VETA • From the high gravel road, the Sangre de Cristo mountains appear to have been swallowed by a dark shadow that won’t soon rise.
In view are some of the 200-plus structures that Colorado’s third-largest blaze left in shambles. After more than two weeks of rage, the Spring Creek fire has laid down.
But on this cloudy Monday morning, the people of the valley below still wake from a nightmare. The town with the Spanish name for “the vein” is desperate for hope.
At the corner diner, a resident spotted two familiar faces and asked the question they’ve been asked countless times in the fire’s wake:
“Did Uptop make it?”
And once again, sisters Sam and Deb Lathrop shared good news.
Now up on Old La Veta Pass, they observe their ghost town’s welcome sign, the wood plank destroyed with the surrounding pine and aspens, but hanging on to the “o” in Uptop and “2” in 9,382 feet elevation.
“It’s strange,” Sam says, wearing bright colors that pierce the gloomy day and cowboy boots that match Deb’s. “We’re thinking maybe 80 percent of our 300 acres are gone, just like 20 percent of this sign is left.”
The forest at the summit is mostly black, but Uptop’s century-old log and stone structures and meadows are surrounded by a miraculous, green perimeter.
The one casualty is the old sawmill, the greatest remainder of the timber industry that brought about 100 people here after 1917. Now rubble is less than 50 yards from the cabin that once housed the employer and is now home to both Uptop inhabitants.
The Lathrops loved the mill. “It was so sweet, my favorite building,” Deb says. But knowing the devastation felt by so many friends, they do not anguish.
Since spotting the dreadful plume to the west June 27, the sisters spent days in fear. Homes could be rebuilt, they figured, but if Uptop was lost, history would be vanquished forever.
Firefighters had that in mind, too. They cleared burnable objects from structures. They set up sprinklers and formed ditches to stop the encroaching flames. To plot their next moves, they huddled in the train depot built by Gen. William Jackson Palmer’s men in 1877.
“For that first week, until I knew that that place was gonna be able to stand, I was up there pretty much every night,” says La Veta Fire Chief David DeTray. “That was definitely one place where I could step out of the truck and take a breath and just enjoy a quick moment.”
Peace is what the Lathrops found there in 2001. Sam had been looking for something like this since her husband’s death. One morning they were talking about their upcoming retirement from the corporate world, about doing “something totally different.” Later that day, Ralph died in a cycling accident.
Deb was also broken-hearted. She had split from her longtime boyfriend, with whom she was going to travel the world.
Then, she thought, why not do it on my own? She made no reservations, no plans — just the way the Lathrops like it.
“We never take for granted something great can happen,” Sam says.
In continuing the adventurous life they promised themselves, the sisters traveled from their homes in Massachusetts to La Veta, “a memory trip” from that time they came here to camp as kids. On the third night, they bought a place in town. Later, they couldn’t resist buying the abandoned settlement they later christened Uptop. Sam dubbed herself mayor, Deb the queen.
They had a lot to learn about their new home. On their first day, a Native American woman in the chapel told them she had been tending to it for years.
“Whenever I’m blue, I come up here,” they recall her saying, “because the spirit of my ancestors are here, and they are so happy.”
“That,” says Deb, “was the beginning of the magic.”
On their way to securing conservation easements and a National Historic District designation, the sisters learned of six tribes that roamed the mountaintop, never warring here, where they shared the medicinal plants. Asa Gray, the leading botanist of the 19th century, was believed to collect surrounding specimens for Charles Darwin.
Later, as Palmer’s train drew international headlines, famed writer Helen Hunt Jackson was known to frequent the summit. The trip, she said, was measured not only in miles and hours, but also in sensations: “the length of a dream.”
The scenery she knew is no more. But the Lathrops treasure what remains.
From their retardant-covered back window, they still see their favorite aspens — the family of three, and the one with the slight bend that is the first to lose its leaves in the fall and the first to green in spring. Out front, they still have the view of the mountain they do not call by its name, because that is the name of a man. “We don’t like mountains named after people,” Sam says.
To them, that is Moon Mountain for the way its granite face gleams at night. It glows by the sun in morning, and cyclists, hikers and drivers have enjoyed the display over the years.
The sisters’ property is far from private. They welcome regulars who leave pictures of loved ones and prayers at the chapel shrine. People have gotten married and renewed vows there. In the old dance hall, the sisters hold occasional concerts.
“We love sharing the land,” Sam says. “We don’t own this; we’re just its guardians. You can’t own this land.”
But they think they’re ready to hand it over. They put it on the market four years ago, as they felt it was time for ventures overseas. Then they took it off, feeling the land’s strong spell. Now wanderlust beckons again.
A new guardian could be best, they say. Though they don’t consider themselves religious, they do believe in a certain “balance,” an earthly order by which everything and everyone must come and go like the seasons. Maybe it’s their time.
And maybe, sadly, it was the fire’s time. Certainly, it’s time for a new wish.
Another Uptop structure that survived is the “wind wishes teepee,” its stilts dangling cloths with written messages that blow in the wind. The Lathrops hang wishes now and say them out loud, a gentle breeze carrying their voices to the mountains.
“May the land bloom again soon,” Sam says.
Then Deb: “Beauty in life and death. Phoenix rising. Life again!”