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Know the West

The Leadville-Indy 500


(This is a sidebar to an HCN magazine cover story on the New West's servant economy.)

Leadville, Colorado

Dead of winter in the highest town in the nation (elevation 10,152 feet), and it's the kind of morning that requires willpower - at 5:30 a.m., still dark and so cold that the snow squeaks under boots. Alma Perez, a single mom, is starting her ski-country work day by dropping off her daughters, Vanessa and Karina, ages 6 and 4, at day care. The Center, an old school-building here, has been converted to long hours of full service child care because the need is so great.

This morning is especially hard, because Karina cried and didn't want to be awakened so early.

Perez hugs and kisses her daughters, then boards the bus that idles outside The Center. It's a big, city bus that would fit the streets of Denver. Gathering more workers at a succession of stops, the bus grinds through Leadville, going by the snow-covered tailings piles left by the mines that have closed or cut back. Eventually the bus is packed.

For a hundred years, Leadville's mines defined the region, producing the fortunes of two Colorado governors, some senators and the eventually philanthropic Guggenheims. Now mining is mostly bust, and a couple of thousand people - more than half the local winter workforce winter - commute over the Continental Divide, to jobs in the neighboring ski counties.

Perez makes her daily commute to Vail, the nation's busiest ski town, taking twisty Highway 24 over two passes, the highest of which, Tennessee Pass, hits 10,424 feet. Leadvilleans commuting to the other ski towns go over higher ground, Highway 91's Fremont Pass at 11,318 feet. Every morning and evening it's rush hour over the passes. The locals call it the Leadville-Indy 500.

Several hundred inches of snow can fall in a month here and avalanches cross the highways. A few nights ago, Highway 91 was shut down by a blizzard and no one could get home from work. As the storm eased, Highway 24 was blocked by a semi-truck that jackknifed on ice in thick fog.

This morning, in Perez's bus, frost seals off the windows. The heater and the auxiliary heater roar and some people have lap blankets anyway. The bus rumbles on the snow-cobbled highway, past the drifted meadows of Camp Hale, where the Army does its winter training because the bad weather is so reliable. Perez, 25, has quick, intelligent eyes, but her schedule wears on her; she can't help dozing.

Today the weather is relatively good and the commute takes an hour. The sun is just peeking over the mountain as the bus leaves Perez at the resort hotel in Vail where she's been cleaning rooms for two years. She won't make it back to The Center and her kids until 6 p.m. or so, after dark. Then she'll take the kids home to her snow-banked trailer, feed and bathe them, put them to bed, lay out their clothes for the next day.

- by Ray Ring, HCN senior editor