The mountains of southern Colorado have almost always been a quiet place. Peaceful, rugged, beautiful, isolated, so much space and so few people, just as it’s almost always been. Almost. There was one time when it was different: in the 1880s they struck silver in these mountains, and the people poured in. The Colorado Silver Boom: towns of thousands sprang up overnight, railroads blasted into every secret valley. But places like this, that have been alone for so long, they sometimes like to keep their secrets. Some began to say that there was something in these hills that would keep them lonely forever. And they may have been right, at least, the railroads never got past that terrible place they called Slide Rock. But that was a long time ago, and tall tales are tall tales, right?
Welcome to The Camp Monsters Podcast.
Every episode we sit up here by the fire and try to scare each other with tales of that thing we thought we saw on the hillside above in the twilight, or the time we felt certain someone was watching us, when there wasn’t anything around but the rocks and the trees ... Every part of the country has tall tales of its own, legends to explain that creepy feeling that sometimes comes down from the hills. We’ll travel the country and tell some stories of the things that live ... just beyond the firelight.
While you listen, remember that these stories are just that: stories. Sure, some of them are based on the testimony of people who claim to have seen these creatures, but it’s up to you how much you believe … and how to explain away what you don’t. So come closer to the fire and let’s hear this week’s legend.
Careful!! ...there you go. Are you alright? These rocks make bad footing, especially in the firelight. They’re alright to sit on, though. Go ahead ... pull up a rock.
I love a clear night like this, up in these mountains. That’s something about southwest Colorado ... it’s a trek to get here but once you do, you may end up with a valley like this one all to yourself. And when this fire finishes dying the stars will light up the whole sky. Even with no moon, all these jagged peaks leaning in around us will be silhouetted in starlight. You’ll see it soon ... the fire’s burning down.
It’s funny, on a night like this, how any kind of light carries such long distances. Look away from the fire now, over there across the canyon ... see those two lights on the mountainside over there? They’re hard to pick out, see them? Just dim orange glows about … oh, how far apart? It’s hard to judge distance up here when the air is so clear. Guess I must have been wrong about us having the valley to ourselves. Those must be other campfires, burning low just like ours, with other people around them, telling stories just like us. We shouldn’t be able to see those fires at all, burning so dim and so far away, but there they are. Kind of like the mountain is staring back at us with two smoldering eyes, huh? That reminds me ...
Shhhhh! Hear that? A rock slide up the valley some place. Always has seemed strange, way out here away from everything, that a rock that’s stood in one place for thousands of years should pick this particular moment to let go and thunder down into the valley below. Quite a coincidence. Coincidence is one way of looking at it.
While you’re in this part of the country you ought to take a ride on one of the scenic railroads. There are several of them, some with old steam engines and antique passenger cars and all of them with the most spectacular views. Of course it’s easy to offer spectacular views when you follow the routes those trains do, across deep chasms on spindly trestle bridges, clinging to the narrowest ledges blasted into the face of sheer cliffs. Oh it’s all perfectly safe now, just… maybe don’t look down.
It wasn’t always safe. Far from it. In the 1880s they found silver in these mountains, you see, silver by the ton, mountains practically made of silver, and all of it going to the first railroads that could blast their way in. And blast they did, from all directions and as quick as they could. Nitroglycerin, dynamite, TNT: these explosives had just been invented, the technology was very young and like many young things it was powerful and… a little unstable. Unpredictable.
There were accidents. You can still see the signs of them blasted black into the cliff walls on the old railroad grades. Mountains of silver make human lives cheap, after all. Temperamental explosives too roughly handled, fuses that burned too quick or too slow, charges that squibbed and exploded too small, forcing men to creep back up to the blasting face with a thousand-foot drop inches to one side and tons of unstable rock groaning and cracking on the other.
Oh, that rock. It was the rock itself that the workers learned to fear most. It could let go any time, all at once, and slide away like ice under your feet or knock you over the cliff or bury you where you stood. Bury you… maybe alive; maybe for days; maybe forever.
There wasn’t much time to waste on rescue efforts. There was silver in these mountains-- silver that would go to the quick. Even if they managed to pull you out from under your rocky tomb, there were no doctors at the blasting face. They’d give you a little water and set you down on a ... what else? ... on a rock, and then everyone would get back to work. If you were still alive when the train puffed back to camp, well … maybe you’d live a little longer. If you were strong, maybe you’d even get better. Maybe you’d get well enough ... to go back to earning your dollar a day at the blasting face again.
Speed, greed, cheap labor, cheaper explosives: these aren’t the stuff that safety inspectors’ dreams are made of, and these terrible accidents were happening all the time, so often that some of the men began to say that they were more than just accidents. Tired workers crouched around campfires just like this one, in that peculiar purple light right after sunset, saw these mountains towering all around them so ancient and remote. Some folks got the idea that the mountains resented these men scurrying and blasting around their flanks. There were whispers of something in these hills, something causing the slides and the accidents… Some swore they’d seen lights at night, two at a time, high up on the cliffs above, dim lights, glowing like low smoldering fires or… or like two enormous eyes, dozens of yards apart. Whenever men saw these eyes, they said, there was bound to be a big rock slide the next day.
Still they blasted on, past places with names like Burro Bridge, Animas Forks, Red Mountain, Corkscrew Gulch, Cement Creek, Silver Lake. Then they came to Slide Rock. Of course Slide Rock didn’t have a name when they got to it ... it was just a massive outcrop of dark gray rock, the color of shadows. But it earned the name they gave it.
Men saw the lights, “the eyes” they all called them, every night at Slide Rock, smoldering like embers high up on the face of the bare cliff where no fire could possibly be. And someone came up with a name for the creature behind the eyes: the Bolter, the Slide Rock Bolter. Every morning weary men would glance up at the fissures in the rock above and wonder which jagged crack traced the outline of the Bolter? Because no one ever saw any sign of the creature by daylight … until the rocks began to fall. Then those lucky enough not to be in its path would swear they saw a terrible face leering out of the rubble as it tumbled down, and a great mouth gaping out of the dust at the bottom of the slide, ready to swallow up the men below.
There was something wrong about Slide Rock, it was too hard to drill, they say, and its pieces almost too heavy to move, hard as granite and dense as lead. Every blast of TNT seemed to cause a slide, and every slide seemed to wait to come down until men had ventured back up to the blasting face. And there were other accidents, one after the other: derailments, premature explosions, sickness in the camp.
Men started disappearing. Now that wasn’t as unusual as it sounds: despite their hard work many were in debt to the railroad company, which charged them large sums for their room and board. If they tried to quit without paying their bill the company would keep their blankets and whatever other meager possessions they had. No doubt they slipped off at night, taking the long walk back to civilization. No doubt that’s why every dawn found fewer and fewer men in camp, fewer and fewer to head back up the tracks to the black mass of Slide Rock. More and more began to believe that the Slide Rock Bolter would stop the railroad from ever making it through these mountains.
They were wrong, of course. No, no: the railroads were never completed, but you can read in any history book that that was because the price of silver crashed, not because of some ancient, malevolent creature of the mountains. As the people left and the railroads were abandoned the old stories of danger and horror that the workers used to tell about the Bolter became tongue-in-cheek tall tales to entertain tourists. And there’s nothing really scary about a tall tale.
Oh … another rock fall. They make a lot of noise, don’t they? A lot of noise. But the kind of noise that makes you want to whisper, like something is listening. Like if you say the wrong thing, these old rocks around us might start to move …
Yeah, when the silver ran out the people did too, for the most part. There was nothing to keep them out here except nature and peace and beauty. People who love those things have always found ways to make a life out here. Sam Manuel was one of them. Sam had moved out here for the mountain biking, every chance he got he’d be up in the mountains, riding these old abandoned railroad grades as far as they would take him. And Sam had plans. He’d tell anyone who would listen that with a little investment this area would be the greatest mountain biking destination in the world. And he didn’t just talk. He started actively raising money to open and maintain a lot of the more remote old trails. He said the further you went into these mountains the more beautiful they got. Every once in awhile some old local would warn him about Slide Rock, tell him it was impassable, that it was the end of the line, that it would ruin all his plans somehow. They’d tell him the old tall tales about the Slide Rock Bolter. Sam would just smile and nod … and plan his next biking trip.
The day that finally brought Sam Manuel to Slide Rock was a hot one. The insects were noisy in the brush and the bushes themselves popped and crackled in the sun. The air had the sharp smell that the mountains get on a hot summer day, dust and sage and pine drifting up from the trees in the valley.
It had been a steep ride and Sam stopped where the grade crossed the face of a massive gray outcrop. He knew this must be Slide Rock, the color and quality of the rock darkened here; the rock itself jutted out above the eroded surroundings, impossible to miss. The way was blocked, by a landslide, just as he’d been warned … but as Sam walked his bike closer it didn’t seem so bad. He could see the grade continue beyond the slide, which wasn’t a big one. He’d seen much worse on some of the old rail beds in these mountains.
Sam took another drink of water, wet his hand and wiped it across his gritty face. He listened to the insects chirring in their hiding places. The sun was just past noon, the rocks around him seemed to pulse with heat. He looked up at the dark bulk of Slide Rock towering above him. One thing was odd. He shuffled as close to the edge of the cliff as he could and craned himself out over hundreds of feet of emptiness, straining to look up. As far as he could see above him, Slide Rock was dark, dark gray, but the rocks of the slide that blocked the path were a scabby red, different than anything he’d seen. He picked up one of the red rocks, and dropped it, it was scorching hot. From the sun, he supposed.
But Sam was determined to ride this trail out; to put Slide Rock and its legends and the locals’ talk behind him. He tested the rocks of the landslide with his foot, pretty stable. So lifting his bike onto his shoulder he carefully began to make his way over the slide of blood red rocks. And he almost made it.
A step or two from solid ground on the other side he felt things start to move. It wasn’t one unstable rock slipping, the whole slide let go, all at once everything was moving, sliding toward that awful edge just feet away. As quick as he could think it he was almost over, suddenly he could see all the way to the rocks and the tops of the pines hundreds of feet below. He twisted his body, churning his legs up the slope against the slipping stones, feeling his toes begin to kick into thin air at the bottom of every desperate lunge. His bike was gone, he clawed at the sliding rocks with both hands seeking any solid thing that wasn’t there. His legs kicked out over the edge too far to lunge back, first one, then the other. He fell on his face in the sliding rocks and every moment stretched out as he felt his body slip off into space … his stomach, his chest, his face felt the sliding rock under it tumble away into thin air and he opened his mouth to scream.
And found himself lying on top of his bike, safe on the other side of the slide. He scrambled to his feet in shock, so quickly that he nearly fell back over the cliff. He pressed himself against the rock wall furthest from the edge and listened to the stones of the slide rumble and thunder down to the valley floor. The sounds they made went on for a very long time and seemed too loud for such little rocks to make.
Sam stood there listening until long after the slide fell silent. Listening and wondering what had just happened. He had gone over the edge, he was certain he’d gone over. He ran his hands over his body, moved his arms and legs. He did a funny little dance and forced himself to laugh out loud. It seemed impossible. Part of him was convinced that he had gone over, that this was a dream he was having on the way to the valley floor.
When he’d recovered enough to trust his legs he walked his bike down the grade on the other side of the slide. He’d walked for awhile before he realized that something was wrong. The grade stretched on ahead of him, curving along the face of hills and cliffs, winding its way slowly downward. He looked back: Slide Rock was safely behind him, towering like a dark gate above the summit of the grade.
The books, the maps, the locals, the legends, everything said that construction on this line had stopped at Slide Rock, had been abandoned right there. But here he was walking on proof that they were all wrong. The legends were just legends, the railroad must have been pushed out a little further before the collapse in silver prices stopped it. Ahead of him stretched untold miles of uncharted trail, and Sam felt the thrill of that.
The rest of the day’s ride was the greatest of Sam’s life. Down from the heights of Slide Rock and into the maze of valleys and canyons below, but with regular glimpses of the Rock to keep his bearings. The ride was exciting; the scenery incredible; even the heat died down once the shadows began to lengthen in the valley. By the time he stopped at the edge of a dry creek bed that emerged from a narrow slot canyon, he realized that he wouldn’t be able to make the ride out by nightfall. He realized, and he didn’t care. He hadn’t planned to stay out overnight, but as always he was prepared to. He had more than enough water for the night and tomorrow. And he couldn’t wait for tomorrow. He was on fire with plans and dreams. That day’s ride had confirmed everything he’d felt about this area as the ultimate mountain-biking paradise. Just clear the trail at the foot of Slide Rock and throw this whole heaven open to every rider in the world...
He made camp at a good level place on the side of a valley, safe from the threat of flash floods or falling rocks or anything like that. There wasn’t much moon but, just like you see around us now that our campfire has died down, the stars alone provided quite a bit of light once his eyes got used to the dark. He stretched out and began to coast his mind back through his triumphant plans for this beautiful place, expecting the sleep that generally follows a hard day’s ride to overtake him quickly … but some time later he was still lying there, not dreaming so much as … listening. For what he didn’t know. He hadn’t heard anything to surprise him, no sound of an animal or anything nearby that should have put him on the alert. And yet he was listening, and staring, he realized. Huddled against the solid rock behind him, staring out across the valley and up at the peaks behind. Up at Slide Rock, silhouetted dark against a swirl of stars, unmistakable in its outline. Sam didn’t understand where this uneasiness was coming from, he’d camped out countless times before … maybe it was something about the starlight, how cold and vast it made everything seem. How lonely and forbidding it made the mountains that had been so hot that day, so warm at sundown…
So it was with relief that he saw the campfire. On one of the ridges across from him, way off in the distance, so far and so dim that at first he kept losing sight of it when he looked directly at it, and could only catch it again when he looked away. But there was no mistaking it, the quality of light was so much different than starlight, so much warmer. It chased away all his loneliness, all his groundless fears, just knowing that there was someone else out there somewhere, even if they were miles away. Over in the direction of Slide Rock. Practically on top of it, actually. They must just be coming into the valley from that way. He hoped he’d run into them tomorrow on his way back.
These pleasant hopes had almost put him to sleep when he saw the second campfire. He had to look again to be sure of it, squinting his eyes to be certain it wasn’t just a distortion in them. No, no there was another campfire. Oddly close to the first. It was hard to judge from this distance, but the two fires seemed to be just some tens of yards apart. And Sam began to wonder. Wonder why both fires had first appeared smoldering, without any flicker of flame. Wonder who would light a fire at such a tinder-dry time of the year, much less two of them so close together. Wonder how high those fires were up the side of Slide Rock, and how anyone had gotten up there. Sam began to wonder … how he could avoid meeting whoever was up there as he rode out tomorrow. And he began to wish for tomorrow even more fervently than before.
Tomorrow began with a massive rock slide. Sam awoke to the rough thunder of huge stones striking and grinding over each other, opened his eyes to total darkness, tried to move but couldn’t, felt crushing weight on his chest and huge invisible stones sliding and booming inches from his head. He tried to cry out and heard his own shout coming toward him as from far away, but getting louder and louder until it was a shout and he lunged with his whole body ... and struck his head on the stone wall that he’d rolled against in his sleep. He groaned and rubbed his face and looked around: the sky still full of stars but paling where the sun would rise in an hour or two, his little campsite still just as safe and clear as last night, no sign or sound of rocks falling anywhere. Instinctively he looked across the valley for the twin fires he’d seen, but they had gone out. He felt the chill of the night and knew he wouldn’t sleep again. He turned on his headlamp and began to pack for the ride out.
If yesterday’s ride in had been wonderful, today’s ride out was even better. The sights that had flashed by in evening shadows yesterday as he coasted downhill were crisp and clear in the growing light as Sam worked his bike back up the gentle grades. There were birds singing in the morning cool and once, Sam turned a bend and startled a little deer that skipped lightly out of the path as he approached. Perfect. The sun rose to paint the rim of the world above Sam in pink and orange which dripped slowly down into the valleys. He made good time and it was well before noon when he recognized that he was starting that last long climb back up to the summit at Slide Rock. The day was just turning hot.
If you’ve never experienced a big landslide close at hand it’s a hard thing to describe. It’s more than just something you see, you feel the vibration in the earth as well as hear the clash of the rocks coming down. You smell the dust and get that feeling of being in the presence of something unstoppable. It makes you feel small.
As small as a single stone falling through space and bouncing on a barren stretch of trail. That was the first thing Sam noticed, just ahead of him, and Sam knew what it might mean. It was too late to stop, the trail was too narrow to turn quickly, so he stood up on his pedals and pumped with the surge of sudden power that fear brings. As he accelerated he heard other rocks landing, a pebble pinged off his spokes. Just as he passed where the first rock had fallen he felt the roar begin, and rocks bigger than pebbles bounced off his back and helmet. He rode as he’d never rode before, pounding up the slope as fast as desperate legs and lungs could carry him. The rocks stopped tapping on his shoulder just as the roar behind crescendoed, but Sam pedaled on until he was well out of the danger zone before stopping to look back.
The slide had been as big as it sounded. Rocks were still booming along down in the bottom of the valley when Sam looked back. The trail downhill was completely blocked, right at a narrow spot with a cliff to one side. Well. It would complicate Sam’s plans to open the trail up, but better to know about the danger spots now than later. And at least he had made it past the slide, and wouldn’t have any trouble getting out of the valley.
He kept riding up the grade. The trail followed the cliffside, looping out and back around ridges and outcroppings. For awhile he’d ride with a view of Slide Rock ahead and above him, getting closer now, seemingly just a turn or two away. Then the trail would veer into a little canyon or behind a hogback and Slide Rock would be hidden for a stretch. Every time it came back into view it seemed so close, the next outcrop seemed to be the last before the final climb up to the rock itself, but every time he rounded the next outcrop there proved to be just one more to get around. He laughed at this familiar feeling, who hasn’t hiked a steep ridge and had that repeated feeling that the next hump just has to be the summit?
Sometime after noon Sam stopped laughing. It was a hard, hot ride. He hadn’t noticed it being this long on the ride in. Yesterday’s excitement must have made the miles pass faster than he’d thought. His water was still holding out, but he no longer had a lot. He determined to push on past Slide Rock in the next rush. The ride out after that would be easy; he could cover the last few miles with his headlamp if need be. As he climbed back on the bike, he heard a rock fall booming somewhere in the valley. He looked around, but it was impossible to see where. Not on the trail ahead, he hoped. He wished he had more water.
Sam learned hard lessons that day. He learned that no amount of water is too much to pack when you’re adventuring in dry places. He learned that not all tall tales are meant to be grinned at. And he learned what the railroad workers had learned a hundred years ago-- that there was something wrong with Slide Rock. There it was in front of him, tall, dark, unmistakable, dominating the whole valley. And there it stayed in front of him, all the rest of that day and into the starlit night, always right there, always just a twist or two of the trail away … but never closer than that.
When exhaustion finally rolled Sam from his bike into the middle of the narrow trail late that night, Slide Rock was still there in front of him, massive, staring at him grimly in the starlight. Sam drank the last of his water and stared back, and had been staring for a long time when he realized that he was staring into a pair of eyes: glowing, smoldering eyes the color of low-burned coals. The same thing he’d seen the night before, but from much closer this time. Now there was no mistaking that the lights hung on the side of Slide Rock, high above the trail, on the face of the bare rock where no fire could possibly be. And for the first time in a long time, Sam remembered the name that the old tall tales had given to the creature behind those eyes: the Bolter, the Slide Rock Bolter. And Sam wished he’d never come to Slide Rock. And he certainly wished he’d never seen the eyes of the Bolter. The last thing he heard before the sleep of total exhaustion slipped over him, was a rock fall somewhere in the valley. It was impossible to tell where. Sam Manuel no longer cared.
But this story has a happy ending, of a sort. Sam was found two days later, wandering down a dry creek bed miles away from Slide Rock, dehydrated but otherwise unharmed. The rescuers found his bike as well, abandoned at the base of Slide Rock where the old railroad grade ends in a blank wall of bare, gray stone. No landslide of red rocks. No hint of a trail beyond. Just a bare wall and a jagged, naked cliff. So one moral of this story is about the ever-present threat of heat exhaustion, and the dangerous confusion that it can cause. Sam took another lesson away from it but then, what can you do with a guy who believes in tall tales?
Hmm. Our campfire is almost gone. It’s awfully late, I suppose we ought to finish it off and turn in. Those two campfires across the valley have been put out... both of them.
No, you’re right, let’s put another log on the fire. It’s gotten chilly out here.
Camp Monsters podcast is a part of the REI podcast network. It is written and performed by yours truly, Weston Davis, and recorded and edited by Nick Patri in the very cozy and campfire-like confines of Cloud Studios in Seattle, Washington.
Be sure to listen to the next episode of Camp Monsters, which is all about one of the very last vast frontiers in North America, and the sort of … friends? … you might find there.
And if you enjoy these stories, please subscribe, rate, listen and spread the word. It is your support that keeps us recording. Thank you. And goodnight.
- For info on track worker wages, see 1896 entry for "Other Trackmen" on page 237 of this 1908 report.
- For interesting study of railroad injuries in Colorado 1884-85, see this article.
- For more info on long-abandoned Silverton Railroad that inspired some of the place names in this episode, see this article.