Category Archives: Journals

The Terrible Mill

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

The Terrible Mill. The sinister sounding name was what intrigued me from the git. Even before I ever saw it, I could picture it in my mind, a large skeleton of a building, looming quietly on a hillside above the long forgotten town of Ilse in which ghosts roamed and winds moaned. Such was what I pictured the first time I first went to the mill back in the 1980s. What I found was interestingly different. The town was nowhere to be found, save perhaps one home, still occupied, with another modern dwelling nearby. And the mill, oh the Terrible Mill! There it sat, a quarter of a mile away from the houses, not a skeleton so much as one large, rusty square of wood and tin. Three glorious stories of rambling corrugated steel and wood beams and scaffolding and ancient cement jutted out of the hillside, right beside the road.

We roamed discreetly around the backside of the mill, keeping a careful eye on the houses lest anyone protest our intrusion. But once we had climbed through a broken window into the dank confines of that old place, all cautions were forgotten in the wonderful splendor of a building time forgot. We rambled at our leisure up one side and down the other, exploring endless passageways, chutes, large rooms, small rooms and halls. And there were wonderful, crooked but solid stairways, one of which led to the very top of the mill and the greatest treasure of many: a small sparrow hawk, trapped in the uppermost room. Catching and exploring his sleek and refined shape, returning him to the outdoors, and watching him fly away from us was an experience like none other.

Seven years later, we returned to the mill. As it is with ghost towns, one can never know how fast they will deteriorate. We took a back way in, different from the last time, and I felt an assuring pang of excitement when I sighted the old mill from around the next bend. We passed the first of the two houses, and lo and behold, there sat a sheriff’s blazer. It wasn’t there the last time, and my heart sank at the thought of not being able to see the mill after such a long drive. But we respectfully took our chances, and stopped to ask permission. A small, affable man, not at all resembling a sheriff, gave us permission to explore and take photographs. His father once worked at the mill.

How amazing and refreshing it was to find the Terrible Mill held up well over those seven years, with virtually no change at all. There it was, all three stories still there and holding. The wind, as before, whistled through cracks in the walls and rustled the tin roof – but the building stood strong.

My first mission was to find my favorite staircase, the one leading to the top. It was still there, scaling the side of the wall up, up a good hundred feet, and so crooked that I had to half climb it, hanging precariously on to the supporting wall. Even in its dilapidated position, its steps worn and slick from the hundreds of feet that have climbed it through the years, it was strong and sturdy.

Hardly anything had been moved. The old iron bed was still in the office, complete with mattress and the old shoes looking like someone just took them off before retiring. The bedside table was still there too, although a previous visitor had spilled the bottles of vitamin B to the floor. The old lab looked almost exactly the way I last left it. Samples were scattered in small brown packets, mixed in with old bottles of acid and other mining chemicals. The old bottle of salad dressing, still half full, lay exactly where I’d swear I put it. A box of wire mesh, looking like a giant brillo pad, still leaned against the wall. Even the old empty cans of cat food lay untouched, just as I’d seen them seven years ago, and the cat, whose petrified carcass we found when we pulled a Persian rug from the rafters back then, still lay prone on an old piece of cardboard in a doorway.

We wandered back down to the bottom story, where ore once rumbled down chutes to be melted by a large drum furnace, and eventually found our way out of a large sliding door. As we climbed carefully across the barbed wire fence, I felt a sense of duty relieved. It was as if I had just been to see an elderly aunt, and was leaving with the assurance she was doing just fine. In all the hussle of influx to this state, amongst all the construction and destruction going on, all the people old and new who have no appreciation for how this state came to be and the people who toiled so hard to make their dreams come true here, there are still some quiet corners in which to take refuge. I can rest easy knowing this, and that it is still possible for time to stand still in certain spots if you know where to look.

Thanksgiving and My Back Porch

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Every single day I count my blessings for the love of my family and friends, my health, the beautiful planet on which I live, and every positive thing that has been bestowed on me. You know what I’m thankful for today? My back porch.

Most houses have a back porch, or a back room, or even a spare bedroom, that kind of serves as the innards of the house. Here are the lightbulbs that light our house, the seeds for next year’s garden, board games we play with friends and family, the linens, our mushroom and berry gathering baskets, and the fresh water we bring from the spring on the mountain. There is paint back there, and wrapping paper, and shelves for the overstock from our pantry. Flower vases in which we put our beautiful bouquets. And outdoor plants who are patiently waiting out the winter by the sunny windows. The porch holds hidden Christmas gifts, the cleaning supplies, and the laundry area where everything has its place.

Our porch looked pretty sad when we first got here. It was painted light shit-brown with scars from dogs who clawed the doors and chewed the door trim, furniture that scraped the walls as it came through, dirt tracked onto the bare plywood floor by endless footprints, dead flies, spiders, and a lot of cobwebs. Earlier this year we painted it sunny yellow with nautical gray trim and a bright woven rug. I have wind chimes and other what-nots hanging in there, and shelves loaded with boxes and coolers, but also important things like clothespins, candles, and my trusty little red toolbox.

My porch is accessible through a door off the kitchen. It’s a wonderful, century-old door with a window in it from the days before the porch was built on. When you look through the window, you can see our green plants lazing about on the sunny yellow shelf. In winter, we open the door when we do the laundry because it helps warm the house. But we also open it when the woodstove makes the house too hot. In summer, the back door opens to let in the sunshine from our yard. Otherwise it remains closed at this time of year, but just going out there to retrieve cat food or a can of tomatoes gives me a very homey feeling.

I’ve always wanted a back porch. My great-grandparents had one, and that is where my great-grandpa mixed his crock of whiskey eggnog and invited all the grown-ups to have a taste. We had one on back of our old house in Pasadena, and I had a teeny one in the first house I ever rented. My stepmother used to have one off the kitchen, in a wonderful old house she and her family moved deep into the woods outside of Flagstaff. My in-laws have a really cool backroom that is accessed through a secret door. In these places, I and dozens before me have held secret conversations, snuck out for a cigarette or a drink, spent time in solace while idly folding laundry, and peeked out to watch birds and squirrels and random cats from the windows.

Sometimes, even looking for the damn batteries is kind of fun, ratting around and finding some other important item you’ve been looking for in the process. “Dang, so that’s where that is,” you might mutter to yourself. Nobody will hear you. Nobody will hear you going over your shoulda-woulda-coulda list as you organize the shelves. Nobody will really care what you are doing back there as you stash some gift or other secret thing only you know about in a cupboard behind the rag bin. It’s a marvelous place, that back porch of mine. It makes me feel like I have truly come home.

the fyre journals

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

Maude: “It’s the loveliest gift I’ve ever received.” She throws the beautiful ring into the seawater.

Harold: “Why did you do that?”

Maude: “That way, I’ll always know where it is.”

You know who you are, the one who incessantly saves everything. Everything you ever wrote, read, got invited to, received a commemorative doodad or dance card or ribbon for. The one who said “One day I’ll make a scrapbook,” and maybe you did, and even then some years passed before you realized you had seven or seventeen scrapbooks and 12 boxes of journals. They were full of maps, brochures, notes, business cards, concert tickets, articles, clippings, greeting cards, scraps of wrapping paper, bingo cards, plane and train tickets, crushed flowers, stickers, bookmarks, directions to parties, nametags, foil from a chocolate candy, certificates of achievement, obituaries, wedding invites, event programs, postcards, letters, Sunday funnies, old wallets with equally old driver’s licenses, speeches, food stamp cards, membership cards, library cards, casino player club cards, even old credit cards.

For friggin’ YEARS you have hauled this crap around. Every so often, usually during a move, you may sit on the floor sorting through your ephemera of memories. These items have come with you through your life stages and now remain for you to remember who you were and who you have now become. They serve as some sort of papier mâché suit of armor, one that each time a piece gets damaged or worn out, you simply remove it and replace it with a different piece. Over time your armor becomes thick, and sooner or later it will wear you down if you don’t carefully peel away the parts you no longer need.

If you are hoarder such as myself, you find a time every few years to dutifully and carefully examine your suit of armor and do away with the parts that no longer serve you. A large trash can, a box for the stuff that really should go somewhere else (like to a relative or friend, into a different file, or even on EBay), and a cushy chair with ample light makes your work area. And then you begin an emotional sorting out of your life, good and bad. It’s a rollercoaster, one that can tug at your heartstrings, make you laugh out loud or make you cry. And then you wonder where the things you are discarding should really end up.

the fyre journals came to me recently during such an evening. I started out just burning my discards to save on trash hauling and to warm up the house. But as I sat there, watching my memories being licked by flames and finally turning to gray ash altogether, I became mesmerized by the beauty it all. Flickering spires of yellow, orange, blue, white, purple and black caressed each piece, folding it into itself until it was swallowed up altogether. There went my rather dull daily planner from 1998. A note someone wrote to me that no longer holds much sentimental value. Art doodles that, let’s face it, will never be of interest to a gallery or go in a coffee table book. Copies of copies of copies I kept when one or three would have sufficed. My little Vogelzang wood stove welcomed these tidbits into its mouth and gave them blazing new life even as it destroyed them forever.

The site was truly beautiful in its own way. I sat on the floor into the wee hours, sipping wine and watching my past playfully slip away into the flames. My camera was the only other witness, recording the final destination of the things I chose to let go. They told their own story as they drifted into their ashen oblivion. When it was said and done, I felt vindicated, a little tipsy, and like I was holding a much lighter load.

You can view what I did by looking on my professional Facebook page, Jan MacKell Collins and looking for the fyre journals album. Here is the link:

And if you ever find yourself needing to let some of your life go, I highly recommend creating your own fyre journal. All it takes is one little match.


The Towns We Love to Love

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

There’s nothing quite so good as waking up on a sunny morning and hearing, “Wanna go 4-wheeling?” For me and my companion, whoever says it first, it’s nearly the same as hearing we just won a cruise. Except the only cruise we ever seem inclined to go on is the cruise we take over hundreds of miles of back roads. Yup, there’s nothing better than roaming a countryside without the luxury of pavement, eating out of a cooler, finding ghost towns, and collapsing at the end of the day either at a remote campsite or an historic motor court with plenty of cold drinks on hand.

These days, that last part is definitely a hit or miss situation. In the 30+ years we have spent—together and separately—bumping over faded pathways and careening around rock slide corners, we’ve seen a lot of old towns come and go, but mostly go. There are places where as recently as 20 years ago, lots of buildings were standing but now there are none. Places where vandalism, theft or new development has reared its ugly head with no respect for our past. Places that make us sad, but also places that make us happy because they are still standing and well-preserved. But having watched some of our favorite towns fade away, we’ve become a little more secretive about where they are, a little more vague about where we’ve been, and a little more hopeful that our beloved towns might last a little longer.

Prior to moving back to my native state of Arizona from Colorado, I spent decades rambling over precarious mountain passes, barely passable roads and overgrown trails in search of Colorado’s past. Unfortunately, with each passing year more fences appeared. Roads were gated. New homes were built right next to, and sometimes even on, cemeteries where the graves of the very pioneers who got us here lay forgotten. In the last five years I was there, aghast at no longer being able to access a place or encountering some new property owner who was too greedy to even recognize the true treasure they had, I heard myself muttering, “This is not the Colorado I fell in love with.” Now, in Arizona, I am quickly learning that the state has been too slow in preserving what they have left. Lots of ghost towns are still highly accessible, but the search and the trip to find them often yields nothing more than an empty field.

Fortunately, there are several alternatives to fighting against our places of the past facing imminent destruction. Evidence of this is becoming clear and more common in Colorado. One idea is to have a caretaker on-site during the months the town is accessible. They do this at Ashcroft, located near Aspen. The caretaker lives in what looks to be an original one-room cabin with no more than a bed, some furniture, water and some pegs to hang clothes on. For the right person, it’s the dream job of a lifetime, waking up each morning to the succulent scent of wild flowers, which are protected by law, and looking out the window at the magnificent old two-story hotel with its false front, which is also protected by law. Both laws would likely be violated on a regular basis if it weren’t for the caretaker.

Sometimes the best of both worlds are reached when an old ghost town is revived by residents. Such is the case with places like Bonanza and Crestone, north of Alamosa. Both have been occupied in recent years by summer dwellers, but now even a few die-hards are known to stick it out the year through. In some cases, towns are also protected by private owners who are often descendants of historic figures. Take Greenhorn, an 1840’s circa rest stop that later blossomed into a fur trading center and, even later, a small resort complete with a restaurant and zoo. The Fossceco family, residents since 1916, still own the land and have done their best to save the community’s buildings from falling apart.

St. Elmo is another classic example, albeit also a reason why historic preservation laws should be more stringent. Property owners obviously love their little town, with gracious signs asking visitors to stay in the street and avoid trespassing. But although more of the town remains than most other ghost towns, fires in the last two decades have destroyed some of the historic buildings. To make matters worse, newcomers in recent years have threatened the town’s historic fabric by expressing a desire to build modern homes amongst the old ones.

A lesson could easily be learned by observing what they are doing at Turret, another classic ghost town nestled up north of Salida. At Turret, the old town plat has been utilized to sell lots to new owners—with the agreement, however, that all new construction will follow the town’s historic aesthetics . That means no modern architecture, no electricity, and plenty of respect for what made this town what it was.

One place in particular that seems to have stood the test of time is Animas Forks, despite having no caretaker. Located between Lake City and Silverton, Animas Forks has managed to keep many of its buildings, including a landmark two-story home with a beautiful bay window. Although the town is located a good long way from civilization and lies in the path of some favorite off-road trails, and although hundreds of people walk into the house and to have their photo taken from the bay window, somehow it has prevailed.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ludlow, home of heart-wrenching, emotional strikes in 1914 that took the lives of several men, two women and eleven children. Situated on a remote county road between Walsenburg and Trinidad, the abandoned buildings of Ludlow are largely overshadowed by a beautiful granite monument depicting a miner, his wife and their child. In 2003, the monument was severely damaged when vandals chopped off the heads of the adult statues, including the woman’s arm. To the descendants of strike victims who still live in the area, the act was like vandalizing a veteran’s memorial wall. Supporters of the monument worked hard to raise funding to restore the statue, and a memorial event commemorated their efforts in 2005.

Thankfully, History Colorado (aka the Colorado Historical Society) continues to play a bigger part in preservation and stabilization efforts these days. Seems one can’t access any of the better known ghosts without seeing a sign regarding preservation efforts by the CHS. Sometimes the signs have obviously been there awhile, but they illustrate two wonderful ideas: the state is working diligently to save historic buildings, and the signs serve to deter vandals no matter how deserted the area appears.

Boggsville, Empire and Iron City are just some of the places receiving funding from the state. Founded in 1866, Boggsville served as the last home of explorer Kit Carson, as well as the county seat of Bent County. Since 1993, the state has been working to slowly but surely renovate the buildings at Boggsville, and the project is nearly complete. At Empire, located north of I-70 on the way to Blackhawk and Central City, four buildings that include Colorado’s oldest hotel, the Peck House, have been added to state and national registers. A rough and rocky road just before St. Elmo leads to the only remaining building at Iron City, a power plant that went under in about 1917 and was recently restored. A sign explaining the structure’s history ends with a most appropriate statement: “The historical heritage of the state of Colorado can only be preserved by the citizens themselves.”

So what to do? You can start by remembering the old adage about visiting ghost towns: Take only pictures, leave only footprints—unless the place is slated for demolition with no archeological digs or documentation planned. In that case, photograph what you find, carefully remove what artifacts you can with permission, document and photograph where you found them, and donate them to the nearest museum. There are indeed those wrapped in government bureaucracy who insist this last idea is wrong, and further submit that historic structures should never be moved in order to protect them from destruction. Better to know exactly where their history occurred, they say, than to move a building and confuse people as to the site of its original footprint. Let it fall. I disagree. After years of leaving something in place only to see it up for sale in a local shop or on EBay, I prefer being the rogue historian who saves a piece of history and assures it is preserved for all future generations to enjoy.

Better yet, joining local historical societies, History Colorado and Colorado Preservation Inc., the state’s leading preservation organization, will help keep you up to date and get you involved not only in finding ghost towns, but assisting in their preservation. Using a five-point criteria (significant events, significant persons, unique architectural points, geographic importance, and/or important discoveries related to prehistory or history), the History Colorado accepts nominations every year for everything from Indian campsites to trails to bridges and mountains to structures and even whole cities. To contact Colorado Preservation Inc., access their website at History Colorado can be accessed at

In 2012 Anaconda, the last of over 20 abandoned towns in the famed Cripple Creek District of Colorado, was bulldozed and molded into the latest pit for a gold mine.


There’s a Reason They Call Them “Ghost” Towns

Perhaps some of the most intriguing things to find at a ghost town are the pieces left behind. These give forth a sense of presence and a vague link to who was there before. In the highest country of the west I have stood, the heel of a woman’s shoe or the porcelain arm of a tiny doll in my hand. In these desolate places I look around me. Even if my imagination lets me see the town or camp or whistlestop that used to be here, I can also see how barren this land must have appeared to pioneers from all walks of life. And yet they came, stayed, lived in these places. They made or brought furniture along, often from far, far away. Shelves and cubbies were built to hold dishes and blankets and books. If a woman was along, tailored curtains were likely to replace rags over the windows, and there might even be a garden of flowers or a landscaped path. Later – a week, a month, a year or decades – they moved out. Those with spirit lovingly packed their belongings and took them along. Others left, intending to come back, and never did. Some just plain walked out the door and left their former lives behind for good. A few died there and their bodies lie under a forgotten stone while their spirits have moved on.

Or have they?

There are places – Jerome Arizona, Old Town San Diego, Cripple Creek Colorado, Virginia City Montana – that rejoice in their haunted histories. Ask the locals, especially the long-time residents, and chances are enough ghost stories will come forth to fill a crypt. Ask the ones who know the back roads, and stories of the long-dead local communities are likely to surface as well. The faded paths of the west are fairly riddled with triumph, but also plenty of tragedy in the way of broken dreams, horrifying accidents, fatal illness and a plethora of other maladies that make history colorful even as it is heart wrenchingly sad. It is of little surprise to learn that the spirits of many remain, looking for that lost child, waiting for a loved one return, or just plain failing to realize they were blown to bits in some mine. Others, I suspect, might just be hanging around for the sheer fun of it, looking after loved ones or trying to bring closure to some unfinished business. That perhaps explains why, for almost a year after she died and sometimes still, I have felt my mother tweak the curls of my hair.

There are stories like that everywhere, told by people who know good and well there really is something hiding in the closet, that there really are such things as ghosts, and that they did indeed see a pair of boots walking themselves down the stairs of an abandoned house. Like them, I believe, if only because enough experiences have come my way to make me know it is so. Like hearing the little girl clapping her hands and singing at the London Mine in Colorado, just like MaryJoy Martin said she would in her book Twilight Dwellers. The supper-time recording of metal pans and utensils being rattled in the Depot dining room at the Cripple Creek District Museum, which could not be explained even when we tore the room apart during extensive restorations. The time my folks found a shoebox hidden in a cupboard at our house in Pasadena, California, where a woman named Norma was said to have died. They were painting the kitchen, lamenting that if they only had $100 they could go somewhere fun for the weekend. The shoebox they found was full of cards. The inside of one of them read, “Go kick up your heels and have some fun. Love Norma.” Inside the card was a hundred dollar bill.

As residents of this part of the timeline, we have a tendency to think of ghosts in the modern day sense, as if they haven’t been haunting people, some of whom are now dead themselves, for years. It is easy to forget that some ghost stories go way, way back. Like the one about the fellows in Cripple Creek who watched in horror as a fellow miner, now dead with his shattered leg slung over his shoulder, arrived above ground in the hoist at the Mamie R. Mine and gave forth an eerie grin. That was in 1898. Or how long that lady of the evening has click-clacked in her high heels across the lobby of the Hotel Montezuma in Flagstaff. She died in the 1940’s. Think of the generations of people who have heard the whisperings and footsteps at the famed Whaley House in San Diego. Some of those tired souls have been put to rest by the occasional friendly psychic or a good sage cleansing, but many more remain.

As much as they scare me if I let them (I recently let myself be chased out of the basement at Ft. Whipple Museum in Arizona as an overhead tapping noise followed me around), I love ghosts. They can’t hurt me I know, and may even teach me a thing or two. I like to think of them as long-lost invisible friends and it makes me feel special to recognize they are there even as others refuse to do so. Technology is already making leaps and bounds, what with EMF meters, infrared photography and ways to actually record the occasional voice of someone who has not been seen since the day of their funeral. Perhaps the day is just around the corner when we can see them more clearly, have a conversation with them, and record their story for them so they will be remembered. Until then, I will continue exploring their former homes and their favorite haunts, waiting for them as they have waited for me.Ashcroft Hotel, Colorado, 2005

Where is our West?

I cannot remember the first time I ever visited a ghost town.

I do know that I’ve been seeking such places, first as part of my family and later as an adult, as long as I can remember. My parents were inherent gypsies. For much of my childhood we spent countless days roaring through the back country of the southwest and even Baja. From the hot and dusty deserts of California to the lush mountains of Colorado, we traversed many a trail gone dim and found history and solace in some amazing places. The family hobby suited us.

At least part of my love for history stems from the fact that my parents had to find some way to keep me and my sister from acting like yard apes in the backseat. My mom would read to us on the road about where we were going or where we were. She always had a history book of some sort on hand, supplemented by local brochures. Because of her, our explorations led us to some stunning places during the 1960’s and 70’s. It was the perfect time to visit long-abandoned towns, ranches and whistlestops before they sank back into the earth and ceased to exist at all.

Some of my favorites: Bodie California, where it took us over two hours to drive 13 rough miles to a place that looked as though everybody just up and left. Animas Forks and a handful of other towns scattered over precarious Engineer’s Pass in Colorado. Also Carson, where I kicked an 1860 gold piece up with my foot. That nameless place in the California desert with just two buildings left, one of them tagged with a bright, mystical sun. Mogollon, New Mexico.

The treks to find these places have almost always began from a small but charming town, and these share an equal place in my heart. As a kid I loved playing Bingo at Lake City, Colorado. We had an awesome cabin at Big Bear California and I had the whole attic room to myself. A favorite memory is the lone road trip I took up the whole western side of Montana. Julian, St. Elmo, Jerome, Pinos Altos…the names run together like old friends who were at my party.

What freaks me right out these days is, it has come to my attention that I’ve been in this nomadic state of living for over 40 years now. I never outgrew it. I still like to climb to the tops of old decrepit mills, step into abandoned houses to see how people lived, dig around in ancient dumps and photograph lone tombstones standing in a field. And I still laugh like hell when the tires unexpectedly sink into mud or I stall out while crossing a river.

The trouble is, the ghostly western world of yesteryear is slowly fading to dust. Today’s rides down the history trails might yield only piles of what was, not what might have been. Sometimes there is only a bare patch of ground left. Other times a cemetery or a few buildings might mark the spot. If we’re lucky, the place has been carefully preserved and watched over. Or even fenced to prevent access. But the numbers of those few survivors are small compared to what has been lost.

The people who remember these places are dying as well. Some of them have been replaced by those who don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want to share history. Fences have been put up, buildings torn down, the land plowed under and new development planted over. Even as history evolves, scrambling to document it and remember it is a race unto itself. Can it be done?

Yes. Because for as many of those new generations who don’t know their history, there are still others who do. These are the preservationists, historians, writers, genealogists and history buffs who spend countless hours researching history, documenting it and then tracking it down. They are the ones who collect old photographs, postcard, diaries, documents and letters. They keep old maps, index newspapers and spend hours on the web. Then they go out and they find these places, standing or not, never quite knowing what the outcome will be, and they explore them and take pictures. They love history. They are like me.