Last Chance, CO
A Ghost Town
You can listen to the podcast version of this story here.
I didn’t plan on writing this so soon, but it was clear, the second I stepped out of my car, that I had to.
Because I’ve been waiting to visit Last Chance for a while.
No, it’s not a gay bar. It’s a ghost town. In Colorado, about an hour or so east of Denver. And no, it’s not one of those “preserved-by-a-historic-society-and-turned-into-a-tourist-trap-museum” kinds of places. It’s a real, bonafide ghost town.
And I was so worried I’d missed my chance.
With every visit to an abandoned place, there’s always that degree of uncertainty once you lock down a location. Will it still be there? Will it still be intact, still standing, still look the way that I’ve dreamt it looks in real life, based on the hours and hours that I’ve spent perusing it on Google Images? Or will it be totally destroyed, either by nature or by wrecking balls?
One time, I drove an hour outside of Miami to the abandoned Broward County Women’s Correctional Facility, but when I showed up, what looked to be an Amazon warehouse stood in its place. Gigantic, beige, and uninspired. I pulled around to the back of the complex and found the old road that used to loop the perimeter of the prison. All that was left was concrete. The rest was overgrown. I stood and stared into the reborn field of tall grass and listened to the sounds of the wind and the traffic squirreling by in the distance behind me. In this instance, as disappointed as I felt, I was able to quickly realize that the demolition of that particular abandoned space was probably a good thing. Memories of the correctional facility that, at one time housed Aileen Wurnos, probably weren’t too joyful. I got into my car and left and never thought about it again.
But with Last Chance, I was a bit more hopeful that I’d be able to explore — something. Anything.
And I did. But it was nothing like I expected.
As my car tumbleweeds down I-70, my eyeballs tighten on the horizon, massaging the plains and inviting any extraneous abandoned spaces to make themselves known. This activity causes me to miss my exit, which I don’t realize until a few minutes after the fact. The GPS demands that I take the next exit, which I assume means that I’ll turn right back around and head to the original exit I was supposed to take.
My car leans into a far-left veer, almost like a rollercoaster turn, and as it straightens itself back out, I see a huge building in the distance, blue and cream-colored. At first, it looks like a semi showroom, a large plate of glass covering the entire backside of the facility. I look down and notice that the exit I’m approaching is the same one I need to flip back around on anyway, so I descend off the interstate and begin to creep down the gravely back road. My car slows and idles as I stare at the tattered remnants of what clearly used to be a race track.
I’d tell you all about the track now, but I think you’ll have to wait until a later date.
Meanwhile, some three hours later, I’m back on the road, spinning tires on the dirt-laid S-CO Rd. 197 to Last Chance, and my anxiety mounts. “Did I just drive an hour and change outside of Denver for nothing? Will I get in trouble for being here? What’s left?”
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names cites that Last Chance, Colorado is one of six towns across the country with the namesake. Last Chance also makes an appearance in Idaho, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Iowa, and California. As the name suggests, it was just that: leaving Denver, it was the last chance motorists had to get gas, food, or a bed before hitting the empty plains for miles and miles and miles. Officially established in 1925, the marketing behind Last Chance stoked the coals of its popularity through the mid-1960s when the first portions of I-70 opened to the public. The interstate bypassed the town by almost 40 miles, and by the late 1970s, it was almost forgotten about completely.
The last US Census to capture Last Chance’s population data was in 2000, at a whopping 23 people. Today, the town of Woodrow carries the mail for Last Chance, though as I roll up to the dinged parking lot on the corner of U.S. Highway 36 and CO State Highway 71, I’m immediately struck by the gaggle of bygone mailboxes scrunched together, neighbored by an official US post office box that looks as though it’s still active.
I park my car parallel to the row of inactive mailboxes and hop out. The wind hollers across the plains, and I’m drawn back into my childhood in the mountains, sleepless nights saturated with endless gusts and gales blasting through the Continental Divide, up and over the Rocky Mountains where I grew up. My sister’s bedroom window would scream during these powerful storms, a heavy, whining wail that I can’t fathom didn’t leave her with some sort of lasting trauma.
I look around as I close the car door. In many instances, I’m not afraid of… bending, shall we say… the rules a bit and sneaking onto private properties. But on the Colorado plains, where folks wear guns like jewelry, it’s a different story. However, I scan carefully for “No Trespassing” signs and can’t find a single one, so I begin my march towards the three structures I can still see. In their various forms, they resemble houses, but after posthumous Googling, I realize they were a house, a motel, and the motel office. There was also a gas station (overgrown, hard to see) and a diner (Dairy King, not Dairy Queen) that is now just a bunch of empty trailers.
My body moves up the slight incline with ease, stepping carefully through the stickers that puncture the sides of my socks and boots, listening to the sound of the dust beneath my feet. I think about A. R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn, a strange little play about a motel on the side of a highway that follows a number of characters simultaneously, separated by time while occupying the same space, ghosts to each other and themselves. How did the owners of this motel cope with the loss of business? What happened to them? Where are they now?
It’s a question I ask myself a lot when roaming the ruins of America. The untold stories behind these forgotten landmarks remain sticking points in my side, a large part of why I let my imagination run amuck when I’m exploring. I poke my head into the former office and see not much is left but a chair or two. Despite the hot heat radiating off the plains, I feel a chill on my left shoulder and glance over at the dodgy motel. I carefully make my way down the path and step inside. The world goes dark.
The plains of the 1940s come into full view. We’ve just won the war against the Axis of Evil through the brutal murder of hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States has just embarked on its Baby Boom. I hear the sounds of 1940s-style sex echo through the abandoned rooms, filled with shame despite a clear desire to connect. An era of women keeping marriages and pregnancies because it’s culturally unacceptable not to.
I stare at the few pieces of remaining furniture, chairs mostly, and happen upon a mattress that’s clearly been slept on, a not-so-uncommon occurrence in these spaces. I listen to the sound of the plains outside, the crickets, the cicadas, the howl of the wind. I recognize that this will be a short visit.
(A short video:)
Inside Last Chance, CO: A All-American Ruins Ghost Town
Read the story about Last Chance, CO on the All-American Ruins blog:* Listen to the bonus episode of abandoned: The…
I make a few photographs, stumble back to my rental car, and climb in. I sit in the stillness for a moment, listen to the muffled sounds of wind rage, and try to imagine how life felt here before it dissolved. This one’s hard because I can’t. I can’t imagine losing something like an entire job, small business, career, lifestyle. I notice a “For Sale” sign staked firmly in the ground in front of the remains of the ghost town and look it up.
That’s it. $15,000.
It cost more to replace the roof of my 1100 square foot house.
The listing reads: “Take a look at this quaint piece of land located by the busy intersection of Hwy 36 and Hwy 71. This could be a lucrative location for a gas station, convenience store, or other small business, as there is nothing for several miles in all directions. There used to be a house, a bustling motel, and a restaurant on this lot, many years ago. The structures still stand but are not able to be salvaged. The location is great for travelers and commuters alike to make a quick stop to refuel and grab a bite to eat…”