It was not unlike the end of a disaster movie.
I was lying in a strange bed in the storage attic of someone else’s home, my nine month old son taking a midday nap on my chest, when I heard murmurs of voices below at the front door. My wife soon rushed into the room with the command for all of us to leave immediately. The rescue helicopters were coming in fifteen minutes.
We’d spent the last two days unable to escape our small mountain town, Jamestown, Colorado. Two nights earlier, heavy rain transformed the usual meandering James Creek into a torrent of destruction that took out the electricity, the water system, phones, and internet. The roads and bridges leaving town were destroyed. We were a township of three hundred neighbors trapped at nearly seven thousand feet high in the Rocky Mountains.
It would take at least fifteen minutes to walk to the town park where the helicopters were going to land. Not knowing when we’d be allowed to return to Jamestown, we had to take every essential we could gather. My family and I weren’t even in our own home.
The journey to the park was frantic. My wife wore our baby in a fabric carrier, hauled luggage, and handled our dog on a leash. I had two more large bags and our other dog.
Rushing along Mesa Street at higher ground, we could see downhill to the creek’s attack on the town. Houses were enveloped in muddy, moving water. Uprooted trees and cars littered the townscape. Entire roads were washed out. Bridges no longer existed.
Wooden boards were laid over a rushing stream so we could cross to the safety of the park. That stream did not exist days earlier. It was once a dirt road to more homes.
We crowd of neighbors, friends, and strangers readied as the Chinook military helicopter landed in the park, fierce with wind and noise echoing off the surrounding mountains. Jamestown’s emergency volunteers directed us across the puddled, muddy park grounds to the helicopter. We formed into a hurried line of frightened passengers carrying overstuffed bags, ushering children, holding down hats, and pulling leashed dogs. The National Guard helped us through the chopper’s rear hatch.
Inside, two utilirarian rows of red seats lined the sidewalls facing each other. Sheltered from the blowing of the blades, the roar of the double motors filled every sound wave in the air.
My wife threw down her bag, and took a seat along the left side. Our baby boy in the carrier on her chest held tight to her shirt. Our white miniature poodle, caked in mud, had jumped on my wife’s lap. I, with our other muddy dog, a silken windhound, threw down my bags and buckled into my seat.
I turned my attention to my baby. He was scared. He wasn’t crying, rather he repeatedly turned side to side attempting to make sense of the chaotic environment. The engine roar was louder than anything his ears had experienced in his nine month life. My wife and I tried to sooth him. She held her mouth to his forehead and sang so he could feel her voice. I tried to maintain his gaze with a smile of reassurance.
The last few Jamestowners buckled into their seats. Unannounced, the Chinook lifted with the rear hatch completely open. A uniformed soldier stood at the portal gripping a strap secured to the wall.
My attention was forced between my baby and the view out back. Jamestown, ravaged by floods, receded in perspective. The artist in me took out my iPhone for a quick shot. The mountains grew smaller as we took flight. The town and geography I knew well appeared unfamiliar from above.
I had never seen my son terrified before. I’d only seen him startle or cry from uncertainty. In the helicopter, he never wailed like you’d expect a frightened baby to cry. I’ll never forget the look in his ultra wide eyes, the shape of his opened mouth with his lower lip sticking out. Heartbroken, there wasn’t much I could do for him but fake my smile. My wife covered his ears from the intense sound, which seemed to help. Mid flight, he began to relax, though he remained alarmed throughout the ride. I hated it.
Other passengers were clutching their children with tears flooding their cheeks. Teenage brothers cried. A young girl studied everyone’s faces. Adults held hands. Seven confused dogs sat amongst the loose baggage strewn across the muddy floor. Photos were taken with phones.
It was the final scene of a two day long disaster movie. The rescue helicopter rose into the Colorado sunshine as the storm clouds broke above the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. The camera pulled back and the music swelled. There was a great sense of relief, but not an ounce of joy, for left behind was an unknown amount of ruin in a mountain town loved by its residents.
Nestled along James Creek at 6,926 feet elevation in the Front Range of the Rockies, the old mining town is home to a variety of Coloradans — outdoor athletes, creative artists, reclusive mountain folk, and well-to-do nature lovers. It’s a community of differences that comes together with great acceptance.
Not anyone can live in a tiny Rocky Mountain town. Jamestown has no grocery store. No hospital. No Starbucks. Only one road is paved. To live in the mountains is to swap less convenience for a richer experience with the things that do exist.
The Mercantile Cafe, “The Merc”, is the only gig in town for a meal out of the home. Housed in a pioneer era building, it’s the hub of Jamestown, a gathering place for locals and visitors alike. The Town Hall next door is the home of local theater, swap meets, yoga, voting day, and any kind of event dreamt up by locals. There are two parks in town, a small one across from the Merc, and the large park (impromptu helipad) at the end of Main Street which recently received a new playground, tennis courts, and outdoor stage. Jamestown rounds out its amenities with a post office, a church, and a firehouse.
You can’t claim that there’s not much to do in Jamestown, for Jimtowners love to party. The Merc features live music several nights a week from bands all across Colorado and the west. Even when it’s twenty degrees below zero on a winter’s night, the Merc is happening.
Every warm weekend day throughout the year, Jamestown hosts hundreds of bicyclists from Boulder and across the Front Range. James Canyon is one of the most popular cycling rides in a state popular with cyclists. Some townsfolk don’t like the frequent bicycle invasion, but most enjoy their presence as part of Jamestown’s culture.
The Fourth of July is celebrated in Jamestown with all-American splendor. The day starts with a pancake breakfast in the park, followed by the town parade, baking contests, wood splitting, barbecue lunch and more events. All this under the sounds of non-stop live music from morning to night. (Fireworks have been banned in recent years due to the plague of Colorado’s other famous natural disaster: wildfire.)
Unlike the last few autumns in the Rocky Mountains, when the earth and plants dry to a golden brown, wildfire wasn’t much of a danger this year. Jamestown had been getting a lot of rain throughout early September.
Our New 9/11
The second time volunteer emergency responders came to the door that night, they informed my wife and I that regardless of the mandatory evacuation order, both roads out of Jamestown were impassable. We were to head to higher ground to the elementary school which was acting as a temporary emergency shelter.
Earlier, the evening started like any other. The baby went to sleep easily at a reasonable time. My wife and I watched a show on Netflix. We stayed up a little bit longer than usual, chatting on the sofa while the night rain made music on our home’s metal roof.
Browsing Facebook on our phones, friends were telling their memories of 9/11 twelve years earlier. Then reports of flooding came in from Boulder eleven miles away. We watched video of a flooded underpass on the university campus.
My wife went to bed and I stayed up longer to work on an illustration, but was instead drawn to the rain and flood news on social media. Boulderites posted photos of flooded parking lots and bike paths.
I saw a tweet that Fourmile Canyon, another local canyon of which we lived just two years earlier, was given an evacuation order to head to higher ground. We loved living in Fourmile on a house that sat directly on a creek. Nostalgia kicked in and I worried for our old house and our former mountain neighbors.
It didn’t occur to me that James Canyon could be in similar danger. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was because geographically, Boulder and Fourmile are a little bit south of Jamestown, more closely linked by the landscape. I had looked out at the rain falling under the streetlamp outside the Jamestown fire station. It was steady, but not particularly heavy. Perhaps the normal rain didn’t feel threatening.
Minutes later, the Boulder Office of Emergency Management tweeted a mandatory evacuation for Jamestown. I froze for a moment from the words on the screen, my heart picking up speed, my mind processing the next moments of my life.
I rushed to wake my wife, told her we had to evacuate. It’s a good idea living in the mountains to have a plan for possible evacuation. Unfortunately, we had never discussed one. Our packing was haphazzard and I trusted my wife to gather my clothes and toiletries while I prepared the dogs and other necessities.
We had no idea what was really happening outside in the rain. We had no clue that a mudslide had collapsed on our street, crushing a house and killing a man. We had no idea the creek had already been taking out sections of road, sweeping away trees and vehicles.
After shuffling into the car, we drove across a small bridge to the other side of the creek. In the dark of a rainy night, we couldn’t see any destruction, nor that the water had risen to inches below the bottom of the bridge.
It never occured to us that crossing the creek would seal our fate. It would be weeks before we could return to our home.
To be continued…