SILVER PLUME, COLO. -- Peering up at the unforgiving mountains enveloping the old Colorado mining town of Silver Plume, it's easy to comprehend how Daily Herald sports writer Keith Reinhard could have disappeared in those rocks without a trace in 1988.
"Gosh, look at that mountain. How can you find somebody up there?" says town clerk Jodi Candlin, 43, who grew up in Silver Plume and is raising her kids here, just as her parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great grandparents did.
"It's so steep and there's just so much of it," says Karen Mayhew, the substitute postmistress who moved here with her husband, a retired judge. "It's really rough terrain."
The town with its handful of dirt streets boasts as many as 200 residents in the summer, when Reinhard said he was going for a hike, never came back and eventually was declared dead. But the population drops to 100 during the winter, when the only business open during daylight most days is the post office.
Daylight is a precious commodity here in the winter, when the sun's low path across the sky keeps it perpetually hidden below the mountain ridge for some of the residents.
"They know which day is the last for the sun and which day it's coming back," notes Mayhew.
The KP Café, owned by Ted Parker, Reinhard's longtime friend, closed a few days after December's big winter solstice celebration and won't reopen until June. On Friday nights in the summer, the cafe becomes an impromptu community center.
"People will bring their fiddles, guitars, harmonicas, whatever they can play. There are a lot of good musicians in town," Mayhew says, adding, "That's where stories get told."
Reinhard's story goes like this: About to turn 50, the colorful sports writer with a wild mane of gray hair took a 90-day leave of absence from the newspaper business and moved to Silver Plume to write. One August afternoon, he told people he was going to hike up to Sunrise Peak. When he never came back, a massive search party went looking. A rescue plane crashed, killing one of the volunteers, and the search was called off without finding a clue.
But the mystery won't die.
"We think he's in Mexico," grumbles the town's burly, bearded maintenance man, who joins the post office chat but doesn't want to be quoted by name. "His little escapade killed a man."
Silver Plume sits alongside I-70, and the idea that Reinhard faked his disappearance and hitchhiked out of the town has legs among some locals.
"I think he's alive and well," admits Gary Regester, a photographer who has lived in town since 1977 and remembers telling Reinhard not to attempt a hike so late in the day. Regester knows the mountain and the town. So does his black, mixed chow dog Zippo, who pads down the snow-packed, deserted sidewalk ahead of Regester, opens the door to the post office with her paw and pushes her way inside so her master can retrieve photography equipment shipped from Hong Kong.
The mountain Reinhard told people he was going to climb is dark, wet and foreboding even in the summer, says Regester.
"There's many places, if you are at all disoriented, you'd drop 40 feet," Regester says. But he explains that he's grown more and more skeptical of the official story as two decades have passed without anyone finding evidence that Reinhard was on that mountain.
"I walk the ridge and cut down every once in while, thinking, 'What if I find him?'" Regester says.
Rumors that Reinhard is alive clearly irk Parker, who spends his winters in warmer climes.
"He was always devoted to his kids," Parker says, confident that Reinhard, who would now be 71, wouldn't duck out on them or his future grandchildren, including one named Keith. If he were alive, Reinhard would have come forward or even been forced out of hiding after his story ran on TV's "Unsolved Mysteries," says Parker, who has no doubt that Reinhard's body is still in those mountains.
"I spent a lot of time up there after it all happened," Parker says. "It's 13,000 feet. It doesn't look as rugged as it is. But you'll kick a stone and you'll hear it hit a tree and then five seconds later, you'll hear it again. It's pretty awful."
While Parker speculates that Reinhard fell to his death as the sun disappeared on a moonless night, the mountain holds other dangers. A bridge is named after an 18-year-old student who was jogging behind the local high school when he disappeared. Searchers found what was left of his body two days later and shot the nearby mountain lion that had remnants of the teen's heart in its stomach.
In his last letter to his boss and friend Bob Frisk, the Daily Herald sports editor in 1988, Reinhard wrote, "I love these mountains and want to live in them before I die in them."
Whatever happened to Keith Reinhard, his story still lives in these mountains outside Silver Plume.