Heartbreak Highway

The winds have warped the fences in the ghost town of Model, touted in the early 1900s as a settlement that would turn southeastern Colorado green with crops. Many of the homes look as if the residents left quickly, leaving their belongings behind.

Debi Boucher

High above the arid plains of southern Colorado, two B-24 Liberator propeller-driven planes practiced formation flying in 1944. Pilots and crew members needed the training before flying missions over Germany and the Pacific. One pilot had difficulty holding his position – dropping back, pulling ahead. Then his plane struck the other, and both crashed, killing all but one airman, who parachuted to safety.


The wartime tragedy is commemorated in a roadside plaque just outside the ghost town Model on U.S. Highway 350, a dead-straight, two-lane strip of asphalt between La Junta and Trinidad that has plenty of stories to tell. The man who helped place the plaque in August 2004 is Korean War veteran Larry Carpenter, of Estes Park, who travels with his wife to military aircraft crash sites across Colorado. World War II was a deadly era for military aerial training in the state: 402 men and four women lost their lives. The Model crash, which killed 18, was the deadliest air crash during that war.


The Carpenters have investigated 50 crash sites, and Larry remembers his first encounter with that wreckage. Pieces of airplane were sticking up out of the grounds of a private ranch. There wasn’t much else left of the machines because, after they went down, German prisoners of war imprisoned near Trinidad were ordered to clean up the area.


The road Carpenter traveled to find the crash site follows the old Santa Fe Trail, a 19th-century route for trade and war. A century ago, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway made 20 stops along this route. Towns grew around the sounds of whistle and brakes, as towns always did when the railroad burrowed deeper into the frontier.


On her fourth trip along Highway 350, Colorado Springs photographer Debi Boucher and a friend stepped out of their car to walk around one trashed-out, abandoned railroad town after another – Timpas, Delhi, Thatcher, Tyrone, Model.


Each is marked by a roadside sign with just the name: no elevation, no population count, no incorporation date. The only distinction from one to the next is the degree of desolation. But Boucher sees something more: visions of hard work, risks taken, love lost, loneliness.


“These old buildings tell a story. Flesh and blood lived here,” Boucher said between stops. “It’s not hard to imagine the thoughts of a person who lived here. Nothing was easy, especially for homesteaders. You fed yourself, clothed yourself. You gave birth and watched some of your children die. Your husband left in a storm to tend the herd and never came back.”


For the rest of the story see the November/December 2019 issue of Colorado Life.

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