amsterdammed

After a few months of ‘study’ in London, myself and a few friends decided to leave the UK behind and see what else Europe had in store. Due to time constraints, we had to keep our destination close, and we settled upon a city all of us had on our lists – the largest city in the Netherlands, Amsterdam. We booked a cheap flight out of London’s well-located City Airport, and after boarding our small plane on the tarmac with an old-school airstair, off we went on the hour-long flight to the Netherlands.

Later that night, the rain lashed the window in our hostel, smearing the lights of the city‘s Centrum district into an unrecognizable blur. Our night out had ended early, with a torrent of icy spray that intensified as the wind started to gust. So far the city had proven that, while arguably more sociable than London, it had lost none of the appalling February weather. Despite this, the four of us in the room decided to crack the window a smidge, rolled up a legally obtained joint, and ruminated on our first impressions of the city we had just met.

Amsterdam is a city built on canals, much like a drier version of Venice. The innermost and oldest of these canals, the Singel, served the city’s moat in the Middle Ages. As time went on, the city outgrew the moat, and the former siege defense began to serve a more commercial role. Over time, one canal became 11, providing the growing city with ready access to water transportation for everything from the bustling warehouses of the Dutch East India Company to the rows of picturesque houseboats that have made the city so famous. Today, the canals continue to serve not only as transport, but as an attraction in their own right, with tourists from all over the world stopping on the bridges to photograph the annoyingly photogenic waterways.

The next morning, we were nearly mowed down by three or four cyclists on our way to the hostel’s cafe for breakfast. Amsterdam has a well-earned reputation as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. The bicycles are everywhere, stuffing the three-deck bike parking garage outside Centraal Station and stealthily cruising down seemingly every street and alley in the city. The Dutch have a love affair with the bicycle, even going as far as to create their very own kind: part cruiser, part commuter bike, almost always black, and with a very European philosophy of riding. You won’t find any spandex-wearing Lance Armstrong types on carbon fibre speed machines tearing up and down the bike lanes here; the Dutch are much more relaxed about their cycling. Don’t let it catch you off guard however, since most of the time the last thing you’ll hear before getting plowed into by one of these bikes is the ding of a bell, maybe a few curses from the rider as you step out into the street unaware of the approaching metal steed.

One of the things that Amsterdam is most famous for is, of course, its tolerance. The Red Light District is the place in the city where this policy is most apparent. It’s hard to hide from it here; prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, and the ladies of the night are there for any interested parties to size up – at street level, through full-length windows. This is a strange part of town after dark; the towers of the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in the city, are quite literally across a square from several ‘storefronts’ full of red-light windows.

Just down the street, the sweet smell of cannabis floats through the air from one of the city’s famous ‘coffeeshops’. Their specialty is not coffee; for a cup of joe, one would go to a café. Amsterdam has a thriving business built around pot, one that brings in nearly £2 billion a year for the merchants in the city. Technically, marijuana is still illegal in the Netherlands (mostly to comply with international treaties), but since 1976, the Dutch government has had a policy of non-prosecution on the basis that it essentially has bigger fish to fry. Amsterdam once had a big heroin problem, big enough that the government could not fight it within its means. They decided that pot wasn’t nearly as big a problem as the hordes of junkies in the Red Light District, so in looking the other way, they freed up piles of cash for fighting the epidemic of hard drugs. The results have been more than encouraging: since the policy went into effect, there are now only around 600 addicts in Amsterdam, almost all in rehab programs. Not too shabby. Now, the 360 licensed coffeeshops in the city keep locals and tourists smiling while making huge sums of money (via taxes) for the government.

A coffeeshop experience, whether one partakes or not, is one thing that is uniquely Amsterdam. There are few other cities I have been to (Denver and perhaps San Francisco) where the sweet smell of ganja is not uncommon on the street. The Dutch style of toking is to roll fat, cone-shaped spliffs, almost always with tobacco as well as weed. The procedure is simple: first, walk up to the counter. There will be a menu of sorts, but no visible product; (advertising or overtly showing that you sell weed is against the law) simply choose what kind of bud/hash/edibles/etc. you’d like and tell the man behind the counter. He will weigh it out in front of you and hand you your prize. From there, find yourself some kind of smoking apparatus. No self-respecting coffeeshop would be without at least rolling papers for its patrons, some even have fancy water pipes and vaporizers for check-out use. After you’re sorted, find a comfy spot on the couch and smoke ’em if you got ’em.


It’s always 4:20 in the coffeeshops of Amsterdam.

As you walk out the door (possibly in a bit of a haze), make sure you watch for the bikes. They’re everywhere – this is Amsterdam, after all.

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gilman: a primer

«First in a two-part series on Gilman»

gilman

High in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado is a small town clustered around one of the largest zinc mines in America. You see it first coming around a bend on Highway 24, houses and buildings clinging precariously to the side of Battle Mountain. The road to the town is gated, padlocked shut to passersby on the highway. As they get closer, the buildings below start to look different: the windows are shattered, the paint on the outsides peeling, the streets they line overgrown. This is the town of Gilman, and it’s been vacant since 1984.

main street

In 1887, a mining speculator from the nearby town of Red Cliff named John Clinton set up a camp around the Iron Mask Mine and several others on the flanks of Battle Mountain. This camp, appropriately called Clinton in its infancy, was soon renamed Gilman after the well-liked superintendent of the Iron Mask, Henry Gilman. By the turn of the century, the collection of mines at Gilman (including the Ben Butler, the Iron Mask, and five or six other smaller shafts) were sending out gold, silver, and lead ores via the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway’s famed Tennessee Pass route, which reached up the gorge in 1882.

The town nearly didn’t make it past the turn of the century. In the wee hours of 1 August 1900, Gilman was reduced mostly to cinders in a fire that claimed nearly every structure on the mountain. That day’s Rocky Mountain News tells the story:

“The town of Gilman, of 600 inhabitants and the center of the mining industry in Eagle County, was wiped out of existence at 2 o’clock this morning. The fire originated in the Lacknor residence from causes unknown, and owing to the unusually long dry spell and high wind was soon beyond the control of the fire department of miners that was quickly organized. This morning with the exception of the Iron Mask Hotel, little of the mining camp is left…no lives were lost, and only three or four persons were scorched.”
– Rocky Mountain News, 1 August 1900

In the years following, the town rebuilt itself, eventually boasting everything a small mountain town could want; a hotel, a small hospital, post office, even a two-lane bowling alley that was the only place for leagues between Leadville and Glenwood Springs. 1912 saw the arrival of the New Jersey Zinc Company and the consolidation of the remaining mines in the area into one: the Eagle. The company’s arrival heralded a new era for the town; it had always been a mining town, its purpose defined in the dirty faces and tired backs of the men who worked there, but now it took on another name: company town. New Jersey Zinc opened up a general store on Main Street, pumped money into a municipal water system, and kept the mine in the black. As the miners worked deeper into the gut of Battle Mountain, they found that the sulfite ores they were mining (mostly sphalerite and siderite for geology nerds) contained high enough levels of zinc that the smelters simply refused to buy it. Gradually this problem became an asset after the installment of new equipment to extract the zinc; it was useful for coating steel to make it resistant to corrosion, and aside from a stretch in the 1930s when copper/silver ores briefly became the mainstay again, zinc was king at the Eagle Mine. By the end of the 1950s more than 4500 tons of zinc ore were leaving the mine every month.

The 1950s saw the beginnings of signs of trouble in Gilman. A strike over pay in 1954 pitted the unionized miners against the non-union surface workers and bosses, and opened wounds across the picket line that would never heal. For two weeks, the Eagle was worked by a skeleton crew of surface workers and hired NJZ scabs from out of state. Eventually, the union came to an agreement to resume work, but even then, the battle lines between the miners and the surface workers remained until the mine finally closed for good.

outsourcing? nah.

1957 saw the first closure of the Eagle Mine, as falling zinc prices forced New Jersey Zinc to suspend work at the mine until more favorable economics prevailed. Though the price of zinc once again rose enough to keep Gilman alive, the influx of cheap foreign minerals and the substitution of plastics for many of the roles zinc was used for (ie: cars) caused the New Jersey Zinc Company to shut down the Eagle mine for good in 1978. The company gave the 154 workers still living in Gilman only two weeks to pack up and wait for word on new assignments. Some found new mines, some headed for the burgeoning ski industry in the Vail Valley. A Rocky Mountain News two-part feature on the closing interviewed two miners who found work as janitors at Minturn Middle School. Others simply packed up and left, heading off to try to find themselves and their families a new life after spending years underground. State assistance grants were debated, but little help beyond unemployment checks ever found the miners and their families.

A skeleton crew clung on for another seven years, maintaining the complex workings within the mountain and doing exploratory drilling in case the mine were ever reopened. It wasn’t. The end finally came in the early 1980s. The owner at the time, Cañon City businessman Glenn Miller, had been trying to find enough money to keep the mine open, but his backers fell through. Eviction notices began going out to the remaining residents in 1981, whittling down the remaining workforce in Gilman to only six men in the final days of the mine. In June of 1984, the US Environmental Protection Agency took over the mine’s electric bill – which totaled almost $60000 in back services – until the final three electrical transformers in the mine (which contained extremely toxic PCBs – polychlorinated biphenyls) could be removed and made inert. After they were pulled, the final miners simply turned off the lights and walked out. The Eagle Mine, once the largest producer of zinc in the country, was now silent. Gilman was gated off, the last residents evicted soon after.

Today, the town still holds clues as to the people that once called it home. The decaying company offices on Main Street are strewn with papers left behind when the mine closed; inventory sheets, order forms, time sheets, even employee records. These records help tell the story of the miners who worked the Eagle. Take, for instance, Jose Nemicio Martinez, who applied to work for New Jersey Zinc on 29 November 1945 at the age of 42.

Mr. Martinez was an American, born in San Juan Pueblo, a small town in northern New Mexico. In fact, many of the miners at Gilman came from New Mexico; the company’s log books are full of names like Sena, Lopez, and Chacon; places like Rancho de Taos and Truchas. Martinez had worked on his family’s farm in San Juan Pueblo until the start of World War II, when he entered the service of the US government as a worker at Alameda Naval Air Station in California. After the war, he came to the rugged mountains of Colorado to find work. He was a shoveler at the Eagle, making $.89 a day to heave ore from mountain to cart, or cart to mill, or wherever else it needed to go. Martinez lived as many miners did in nearby Red Cliff, making the trip up the road to the mine every day. He had a wife, Esequela, and two children; Pedro and Rosalie, all of whom continued to live in San Juan Pueblo. It’s easy to imagine Martinez sending what he could of his wages back home to his family from Colorado until his brief time in the mines was cut short. Martinez’ pink slip lists ‘Mother sick’ as his reason for leaving – records indicate he returned to San Juan Pueblo at the beginning of 1946.

The town is officially off-limits today, owned by a real estate investment group from Canada who are waiting for the economy to become more favorable for Gilman’s redevelopment. Its fate has become a local political issue. Long story short: the previous owner, a developer by the name of Bobby Ginn, purchased the site with the intent of building a private, exclusive, VIP ski resort and getaway. This was to be no Crested Butte or even Aspen; lift tickets here would start in the six-figure range and come complete with your own luxury condo, private transport, perhaps even an on-call helicopter to whisk your incredibly wealthy self to the tops of the nearby peaks for fresh powder. A championship-grade golf course would sprawl out on the valley floor, and at the center of the resort, an opulent hotel and residences complex that some have likened (in blueprints) to an Austrian castle.

In order to develop the site (due to zoning laws), he coaxed the nearby town of Minturn into annexing Gilman – by offering the small town what amounted to $180m (144 times Minturn’s annual budget) in assorted benefits: $50 season passes to his hypothetical luxury haven, new sidewalks, a new water treatment plant, scholarships for local kids, et cetera. Minturn agreed; after all, if they had refused Ginn’s offer, he could have simply gone up the road to Red Cliff and offered them the deal, leaving Minturn out in the cold. As all of this was coming together, however, the economy tanked and suddenly the market for incredibly expensive ski retreats dried up. Ginn’s venture went into receivership, after which the current owners purchased the property. There were other problems too; the town’s soil still needed remediation, the sheer size of the site meant that demolition would be a pricey endeavour, and unfortunately for prospective developers, the town sits on a mountain that has so many tunnels and shafts in it that it more closely resembles an anthill than a ski resort. Heavy equipment would be dangerous to operate, with sinkholes already appearing in the town due to subsidence.

sinkhole

Regardless of the eventual fate of Gilman, it remains an important part of Colorado history as one of the largest mining operations ever undertaken in the state. Its ores found their way to smelters and refiners all over the country – including the now-abandoned Globe smelter which gave Denver’s Globeville neighbourhood its name. For us, it is a place to respect, to explore, to document. Though the town is officially a no-man’s-land, as is so often the case in exploring the off-limits, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Stay tuned for part two.

parting the iron curtain

next stop:

Life on the road is all about beginnings and endings. Many of these transitions are never really concrete; the ambiguous dividing lines between legs of a journey, for instance. A lot of times these are only acknowledged (or noticed) after their passing. Sometimes it’s easier to tell when these lines we’ve made for ourselves have been crossed. You can feel it that split second after you step off a train to somewhere new and strange, it’s late, and you’ve still a ways to go before you sleep. Or the first time you use a foreign language with success, when you realize the strange sounds coming out of your mouth are being interpreted and responded to by native speakers in a predictable fashion. Traveling is all about these sorts of moments – moments that change your perception of the world around you.

Our time in Berlin had finally run out. The road called, in this case one made of steel, and we headed to Berlin Hauptbahnhof for a ride to our next destination. We were bound for Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. The city of Vaclav Havel, the Velvet Revolution, and…goulash and beer? Something like that. Off the S-Bahn, down the escalators, and onto the platform we went. What would it be like in Prague? Would we find a holdover from the cold war, a Kafka-esque caricature on the Vltava? Or would it be westernized, more like the cities that we’d been wandering around in for a week and a half already? Before long, we’d find out. A string of scarlet-and-white Czech Railways carriages silently hissed onto our track. Time to boogie. We hopped aboard.

The train snuck out from underneath the station and onto the tracks headed for Prague. We were joined in our compartment by Colin, an American businessman from Portland sent by his company to help develop ties with renewable energy companies in Europe. The miles sped by as we chatted in our compartment, interrupted only by the ticket inspector who showed up soon after we left Berlin’s city limits. Kira and I settled in with lunch and a bottle of Bordeaux and watched the world speed by at 130 km/h, through the forests of northern Bohemia until we came upon the city of Dresden.

Dresden is a city which I fully intend to spend time in on my next trip to Germany, a city that rose from the horrific cinders of the Allied firebombing of February 1945 to become a modern, green city of three quarters of a million people. The scars are still evident; what buildings still remain from the prewar era are stained with soot from the firestorm. Today the only thing smoking were the handfuls of passengers clustered around the doors of the train, puffing down a cigarette before the conductor’s whistle caused them to leap back on board. This was Colin’s stop, so he left Kira and I the compartment to ourselves and with a handshake, our friendly train mate was off and on his way. For us: on to the border.

The forests and lowlands eventually gave way to the gorge that the Elbe River carves through the sandstone mountains which for thousands of years have been the traditional border between Saxony and Bohemia – and the gateway to the Czech Republic. Clouds began to roll in, and from the train’s route at the bottom of the valley we could see fingers of fog reaching among the trees. This part of Europe is staggeringly beautiful; it’s no wonder small spa towns like Bad Bentheim sprang up on both sides of the border over the centuries; it seems like a place as far removed from the urban conglomerations like Berlin as there can be. The train was quiet, families and businessmen alike settling in for a few hours’ nap before we reached Prague just past 9.30 P.M. On we went, the train slinking up the gorge and into Bohemia.

Eventually the signs on the station platforms flying past turned from German to Czech. Somewhere, miles distant now, we’d crossed over another one of those invisible boundaries, in this case the border between two now-Schengen states. Since 2007, there have been no border checkpoints between Germany and the Czech Republic, a sign of the former east’s western ambitions. The end of communism and the ‘Velvet Divorce’ between the Czech and Slovak republics meant the wave of western influence sweeping eastward would soon hit the banks of mighty Vtlava. Outside the train, the sun sunk down behind the hills, and we finally pulled into Prague under cover of darkness.

The doors open with a hiss, and I stepped out onto the platform and into the most alien place I’ve been yet. Culture shock is one of my favorite things, best when sudden and drastic. In this case, it came in several forms: the people on the platform speaking in strange, foreign tongues, the harsh greenish-blue station lighting, the darkness that hid the city streets around the train station from my prying eyes. At the station, we met up with a friend of mine from back home named Margaret. Margaret moved to Prague at the end of the previous summer, and had been teaching English and doing English-language tours around the city’s Old Town ever since. Her enthusiasm and ambition for traveling is matched only by her actions – when she tells me her goal is to live on every continent including Antarctica, I believe her. She may not exactly look like a seasoned hardcore traveler, but as with so many things, appearances can be deceiving.

Her apartment is down an old cobblestone street in the Nové Město (New Town) district and up an old, clunky Soviet-era lift in a remodeled block of flats. Though it may not look it on the outside, the apartment she and her flatmates share is as big, modern and comfortable as any I’d seen in the UK. The real attraction, though, is the view. From her roof, one can see Prague Castle standing sentinel over the sleepy city below, like a slumbering ancestral giant. From its perch it has witnessed war, revolution, renaissance, and everything in between in its more than one thousand years of existence. If these walls could talk indeed.

The next day, the castle got a little closer. I headed up the hill half expecting it to be empty; it was a Tuesday, after all. Upon arriving, it finally dawned on me that Prague is not unknown to the rest of the world; in fact, the masses of tourists now scurrying about in front of my eyes are among millions who now flock to this ancient city to see its winding streets and spectacular architecture. During World War II, Prague, though occupied by the Germans for the duration of the war, escaped the bombing that so many other cities of Europe endured. Because of this, there exists in Prague the feeling that you are in a very, very old place; one untouched by the passage of hundreds of years, tens of thousands of residents, and whatever régime you wish. The streets are narrow and nearly always cobbled rather than paved; the buildings crafted with a character that seems absent in anything less than two hundred years old.

Back at the castle, I managed to meet up with Kira and we descended the side of the hill above the roofs of the Malá strana (lesser town). From somewhere below, we heard the faint strains of a violin. Slow at first, then quickening, the music pulled us down the hill towards the alleys below. Its source was masked by the myraid passages between buildings, echoing off the time-worn brick until it reached us. Farther down the hill we found our musician.