One week until Halloween so here’s my one and only, firsthand ghost story. I’ll park several caveats up front: I don’t believe in ghosts but I’ll allow there are many things I do not understand and/or have perceived so incompletely that they can seem otherworldly. This story concerns an event I simply cannot adequately explain and so I’ll call it a ghost story. Take it as you will.
I live in Colorado. My father was a geologist and in the course of his career, hauled me and my sibling all over the West to visit old mines, ghost towns, and occasionally pan for gold. I’ll admit I caught the gold bug more thoroughly than he did, and occasionally I still poke around in the mountains on both public lands and a couple of claims I own (and no, I don’t like the current gold mining shows on the Discovery Channel—they’ve unleased amateur-hour out West and now people with no knowledge or respect for laws or custom are jeopardizing access for everyone).
One place I’ve worked is near the mouth of Lake Creek where it enters the Arkansas River, about 20 miles south of Leadville, Colorado. In March 1995 I was up there pushing dirt around and it was snowing. Icicles on the hose-couplings. Elevation there is about 9200 feet above sea level so I was definitely pushing the season (which normally runs May-Oct, depending on snowpack; i.e., not much rain in Colorado, so melting snow is the primary source of water for washing gold from gravel). I was mining by hand, shoveling dirt into a device called a high-banker, which is basically a sluice box for catching gold but with a 5 hp pump and 2 1/2 inch, high-pressure hose, which enables me to pump water uphill to access terrace-gravels above the streambed—suspended deposits left there by glaciers about 12-20,000 years ago.
In addition to the gold-bearing terrace-gravels I was mining at this locale, there are hundreds of enormous granite boulders all over the hillsides, eroded remnants of the bedrock that underlies the gravels. Some of these boulders are enormous: anywhere from washing machine-sized up to mini-buses. The place where I was working was downhill from a cluster of these rocks, one of which resembled an eight-foot-tall refrigerator. Now, bordering the private claim where I was mining are public lands where greenhorns and idiots without any mining knowledge or situational awareness will undermine these large rocks and occasionally get crushed beneath them. I know of one such collapse that killed a 22-year-old man sometime in the mid-2000s—they found his feet sticking out from beneath a rock. But that’s not what I was doing: I know my way around up there pretty well and I had thoroughly checked the slope above my worksite for loose rocks—nothing budged, not even after much pushing and probing with a shovel and heavy, steel pry-bar. I started trenching laterally along the hillside, away from the large boulders on the slope above.
About two hours into my dig, the pump unexpectedly stopped and water ceased flowing into the high-banker. This happens a lot: no big deal, usually just a gulp of air entering the intake valve and breaking the suction necessary to lift water 150’ uphill through the hose. Odd thing was, the hose hadn’t “deflated” (when suction is broken, the pressure-hose normally lies flat like those firefighters use)—it was still full of water along its entire length. I walked downhill to the pump and found both the impeller and intake hose full of water, too—the entire system was still fully pressurized.
Couldn’t be out of gas: I’d been downhill to refuel not ten minutes earlier and the engine runs for almost two hours on a full tank. Figuring there must be something wrong with the engine, I fiddled with the valves before restarting it with one pull—nothing wrong there, either. Stepping back from the engine, I very clearly heard a man’s voice say “Wait.” Of course, I nearly jumped out of my boots—the tone wasn’t threatening, but hearing someone speak into your ear when you believe you’re alone in the woods is… unsettling. I spun quickly; didn’t see anyone. Walked along the willows that line the creek; nothing moving and no footprints. I know what I heard, but no one was there. Just the drone of the engine and the sound of rushing water.
After a few minutes my breathing and heartbeat returned to normal, and as I stood watching to make sure everything was working, I heard a boom uphill, so loud I was sure someone had fired a shotgun. The sound was so loud and so close I even ducked, figuring some idiot was out shooting blindly in a whiteout and could’ve easily hit me. I stayed crouched there at streamside for about five minutes but after my heart calmed down—again—and hearing nothing more, I started back uphill.
Even following the course of the hose, I was confused once I returned to the dig site: everything looked different. The boom I’d heard was from rocks falling. In fact, that enormous, refrigerator-shaped boulder (plus several others) had toppled into the pit where I’d been working and split. If I’d been there when it fell, it could’ve either crushed me completely or broken and pinned my legs from the knees down. That part of the gulch is a long 4X4 drive from the nearest highway; it would’ve been hours, possibly days before someone found me, and it was 30 degrees and snowing hard.
The placer gold deposits in that area have been worked since at least 1865, heavily during the 1880s, and again during the Great Depression. Rationally, I want to say this was all just coincidence, extraordinary good luck that the pump shut down when it did and drew me away from my diggings. That voice, though. I’ve heard rolling, shifting boulders in swift water make sounds that resemble human speech, except this time the sound was very clear and very distinct. “Wait.”
Rationally, I figure this was all just some adrenaline-and-frostbite-fueled semi-hallucination. But part of me still wonders if something or someone else was watching out for me. One of the old-timers who’d done backbreaking work not fifty feet from where I’d been working? Someone who’d faced similar hazards in that gulch and sensed what I could not? I don’t know, maybe my trenching—even though I dug away from the “refrigerator”—created slack in a static system; released the “pressure” holding those rocks in place and caused slope-failure. Dad was an engineering geologist—I ought to know the proper term(s) for what happened, but I don’t.
I’ve probably put 250 hours on that pump, and while it’s shut down on other occasions, that is the one and only instance where the system maintained pressure from the pump all the way up to the sluice box. That shouldn’t happen: in fact, the pump normally drains itself when the engine shuts off. I just can’t account for whatever it was that saved me there on Lake Creek, but save me it did.