City of Gold

“City of Gold,” by Durango author, Will Hobbs, is the jumping-off point for a scavenger hunt and a dive into Telluride history organized by Wilkinson Public Library’s Jeanne Stewart. (Courtesy image)

The year is 1900, and your family — of which you, a boy of 15, are now the “man of the house” since Pa passed from consumption — has recently moved West from eastern Kansas to Southwest Colorado to make a living farming near Durango. Late one night, you’re awakened by something not quite right to witness the silhouette of a rider in the moonlight stealing away with your two mules. Life is hardscrabble and money is tight; if the thief absconds with Hercules and Peaches, it may very well spell doom for the farm. It’s time to think quickly. What do you do?

The intrepid adventure that follows is that of 15-year-old Owen Hollowell who tracks the rustler in an attempt to recover the family’s mules in the well-researched young adult novel, “City of Gold,” by Durango author Will Hobbs. As Owen embarks on a journey by foot, train, and horseback in hot pursuit of the thief, his mission leads him straight into the heart of the Wild West during the heyday of the gold mining era. In Telluride, the famed “city of gold,” he finds himself entangled in a colorful cast of both historical and fictional characters, including the notorious Telluride marshal Jim Clark and famed bandits, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The action-packed adventure, written for readers from ages “10 to 110,” according to the author, can now be experienced with all five senses, thanks to a new scavenger hunt based on the novel created by Jeanne Stewart of the Wilkinson Public Library. 

“This scavenger hunt allows participants, especially kids, to have a fun hands-on experience learning about Telluride whether they live here or are visiting, while developing communication, leadership and problem-solving skills,” said Stewart, the library’s youth programs specialist. “I want kids to know more about their home and visitors about Telluride while walking — plus to get exercise and stay safe — around town, visiting some of the more interesting landmarks that are mentioned in ‘City of Gold.’ This hunt is a wonderful tool to engage people with the book.”

The library is also offering 10 free copies of the book, along with directions for the scavenger hunt, which will begin at the library and end at the Telluride Historical Museum where participants can pick up a reward for completing the activity.

“The hunt takes participants around town visiting historical landmarks that are mentioned in the story,” explained Stewart. “With most of the story based in Telluride, it is a wonderful story for youth and families to read together, learning about Telluride's history in an exciting way.”

Published in July by HarperCollins, “City of Gold” is the 20th young adult novel by the award-winning Colorado author. For the book, Hobbs drew from his five decades of inspiration backpacking, hiking, and spending time in the mountains and towns of southwest Colorado, calling Telluride in particular “the most beautiful town in the known universe.” A former schoolteacher, Hobbs learned first-hand from his 14 years in the classroom he populated with over 500 books what fueled young readers’ imaginations.

“I could see from the books that hooked them and the books they quit on, how important it was to engage them as 50/50 partners, to respect their intelligence and imagination, to let them figure things out for themselves,” he recalled. “It doesn’t have to be non-stop action, but it’s crucial to keep up the dramatic tension.”

For “City of Gold,” he wanted the novel to be both a Western and historical fiction. He began with “more than a year of intensive reading and researching,” poring over works by local historians and diving into the world of hardrock mining in the San Juans and rough-and-tumble towns like Telluride, Ouray and Silverton.

“When I resolved to go prospecting for a story set in their mining heyday, I had a lot to learn,” Hobbs observed in the book’s author’s note. It wasn’t until deep into his research that the true tale of a mule carrying a herculean load up to the Tomboy mine jumped out at him as a story hook in Mel Griffiths’ “San Juan Country.” 

“Around the year 1900, a mule carried a 700 pound load up to Telluride’s Tomboy Mine, the core piece of a new compressor,” Hobbs related. “It was an astounding feat. Pack mules customarily carried 300 pounds. I thought that would be so great in a novel. Hercules should be his name. What’s his backstory? Stolen, maybe?”

Today, 120 years after the mighty mule of yore plodded his way up to the mine, the story it inspired brings readers of all ages on a time-traveling journey back to an era when gold glimmered in the eyes of the hopeful who braved daunting journeys of their own to try their luck at striking it rich in Telluride. Stalwart miners may no longer be churning out gold-rich ore by the cartful, but it’s never too late to travel on the wings of imagination into the colorful legends of the West.

“How I would have loved taking the Rio Grande Southern from Durango to Ridgway via Dolores, Lizard Head, and Telluride,” Hobbs said. “Even more, I wish I could have experienced the wonders of Utah’s canyon country when it was truly remote and undeveloped, like Owen and Till did on their journey with Telluride’s marshal in pursuit of their stolen mules. I don’t have the saddle sores to show for it, but I sure enough feel like I was with them through Bears Ears Pass and across the Colorado River, all the way to Robbers Roost!”