COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Eric Swab was glancing at aerial satellite images of his next destination, another remote wilderness along Pikes Peak, when he spotted something peculiar. He squinted at his computer screen: two white smears through the pines.
Maybe, just maybe, he thought he was looking at forlorn mining residue. This is the kind of thing that thrills Swab, who at 78 is showing no signs of slowing down in his quest to uncover the secrets of the mountain’s deep past, reported The Gazette.
The white smears “looked different enough,” he said, “to where I thought it would be worth looking into.”
So off he goes with his weekly hiking group, pushing his round gold-rimmed glasses to his temple, fastening his safari hat, strapping on his snowshoes and entering into an untrodden area, the location of the smears plugged into a navigator.
The group is composed of a dozen fellow retirees, similarly aging and ever eager for the chance of discovery with a historian of Colorado Springs’ great outdoors. Swab has published extensive research on how an old railway became the Manitou Incline. He’s written a yet-to-be-published book on Fred Barr, the man who laid Pikes Peak’s premier trail. In preparation for a presentation, he has a binder stuffed with notes and grainy images of structures that used to stand on the mountain.
It is through rugged exploration that Swab builds his understandings.
“It wouldn’t be an Eric hike if we weren’t bashing through bushes and boulders,” says one from the group, Rick Weaver.
Says another, Bob Lojewski: “If you aren’t bleeding in at least two different places by the end of an Eric hike, it’s not an Eric hike.”
Says another, Debbie Bloch, whose company Swab particularly appreciates for her keen ability to spot artifacts as small as a quarter-sized arrowhead: “You’ve got to get off trail to find the treasures.”
Swab stops the crew to ask a question: “How many of you are old enough to have been on Pikes Peak in the late ’50s, early ’60s?” Did anyone, he wonders, see the F-94 Starfire fighter jet once displayed atop the mountain? Swab points ahead to a gravel spot where he says the jet’s remains are buried; he once ventured over to find stray bits of wire and plexiglass.
The group comes to a grassy plain, where Swab passes around a scanned copy of the 1890 homestead patent for the man who first owned the parcel. The view of Rampart Range is clear beyond, and Swab points out a ridge where underneath lurks evidence of his greatest fascination: the Fremont Experimental Forest, an initiative that began over a century ago to research ways to revegetate the hillsides ravaged by fire and logging. To Swab’s knowledge — based on a 1924 Department of Agriculture article he tracked down — eight rudimentary stations were built along Pikes Peak. And one is in the place beneath that ridge where he found collapsed log walls and remnants of a weather tower.
He has yet to find and confirm the other seven sites.
“Probably not in my lifetime,” he concedes, as he concedes also to the improbability of finding another major intrigue: the complete route of the Fremont Trail, what he believes to be the earliest known path constructed on Pikes Peak.
And still, he tromps on. His steps are steady and determined as he ascends a ridge, digging his poles into the ankle-deep snow, ducking under pine branches and stepping over trunks and boulders, appearing unburdened by the pacemaker he got a year ago. Later, he’ll be among those brave enough in the group to take a slippery slope down into a gully to observe a frozen waterfall. “Come on, ya wimp!” he’ll shout to a younger hiker.
But now, he’s leading the way up the ridge. At the top, he sadly reports to his fellow hikers that a former group member’s health is declining, and that death is imminent. For a moment, tears are shed. Then Swab moves on to a lighter topic: the iron stake jutting up from the snow, with the year 1921 inscribed on its cap along with “PLOT 4.”
“This is the mystery monument,” Swab tells the hikers, as they circle around it. “Can anyone tell me what it means?”
Their guesses aren’t quite as good as Swab’s. He’s hunted down another object like this in another remote elsewhere, with this one’s cap reading “PLOT 6,” and he’s studied enough to know that these were corner markers for some boundary. For what, exactly, he knows not — “I would like desperately to prove it was part of the Fremont Experimental Forest,” he says. “But I haven’t found any connection.”
Alas: “A mystery,” a group member says over the stake as Swab nods and leads the way to the next stop. It’s an old cabin, a swinging door still attached, an old dirty pot inside. Its past is yet another mystery to Swab. He’s noted some 250 abandoned cabins on his adventures, “and I might know something about 40 of them,” he says.
Rewards from the search
As much as he would like to spend his days leafing through material at the library and sifting through historic records by the Bureau of Land Management, he can’t. He has an obligation at home to his beloved wife of 56 years, who has Alzheimer’s disease. He drops her off with a caretaker on Tuesdays, the only days he sets aside for himself. These are days for searching.
The group stops for lunch, sitting on the stone foundation of what Swab knows to be an old lodge belonging to the Cusack family, the early 20th-century owners of the town of Cascade.
Later, near the end of the nearly 7-mile trek, a hiker will point out a concrete slab sticking out from the earth, and Swab’s guess is a loading dock, from the days when the Pikes Peak Highway was under construction. “There’s stuff everywhere!” he says with boyish elation.
Now, he’s hiking up a ridge he’s proud to say he’s never hiked before — a heart-pounding climb riddled with spiky yucca. A possible reward awaits at the end: the mysterious white smears he spotted on his computer.
Breathing heavy at the top, he veers to the hillside, following the navigator’s coordinates.
And there they are, the white smears.
There they are, nothing but two rock slabs.
Oftentimes, that’s how it goes for Pikes Peak’s mystery hunter.
But the climb has granted him a grand view of the mountain, and he looks out to it as he catches his breath. “Well,” he says over the rocks, “that’s all right.”
And he carries on.