Stories, commentary, history, and musings about my hometown of Fraser, Colorado. Not really a blog so much as a collection of writings that I add to now and then.
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My Favorite Mountains: The Divide

Note: this was published in the August 2010 issue of the Mountain Gazette.

The mountains I love the most consist of a stretch of the continental divide that runs between the Northern Colorado’s Arapaho Peaks and Berthoud Pass. It is a modest chunk of the Front Range, eclipsed in scenery by the Indian Peaks to the north, and in elevation by a slew of well-known 14ers to the south. My mountains are not jagged or very rugged —they have been described as “rolling gray elephants”, and some sections barely top 11,000 feet—but they hold sway over me for other reasons.

I was fortunate enough to spend my childhood in the shadow of these mountains and much of their impact on me was caused by the countless hours I spent just looking at them. I watched as they brewed a thousand dark thunderstorms that crept down their piney flanks and drenched our valley with summer rains. I watched as blizzards swallowed the whole range for days at a time, then watched as the weather broke and gales blew banners of snow off the peaks and into the cold blue sky. I watched the alpenglow fade in and out, the lightning flash silently behind them for hours on end, and the tundra turn from summer green to autumn gold to dead brown to dusted with snow—midsummer to early winter in just a few short weeks. Over time every crag, chute, outcrop, and cliff was eternally seared onto my brain, and each of the mountains that make up that ridge stares at me with an expression that I know well.

Eventually I entered these mountains, first with family, then with friends, creating memories that unfold within and atop this stretch of the Great Divide: picking wild raspberries with my grandparents along Ranch Creek; driving up in the fall to listen to the elk bugle; camping in a canvas tent with my Dad just once before he walked away from fatherhood; drinking my very first beer (Coors from a keg) at age 12 at the annual Mt. Epworth summer ski race; catching a glimpse of my first bear up Jim Creek; backpacking for the first time of my life up Cabin Creek; hiding from a fierce lightning storm in the boulder piles near Devil’s Thumb; clawing my way up James Peak after the death of my Grandfather because I didn’t know what else to do.

Much of this range is now protected wilderness, but it is far from untouched. Cars and snowmobiles can crest the ridge from both sides of the divide, and every pristine stream that runs west off of those mountains is quickly dammed and diverted under the mountains and into the thirsty gullet of the Denver Water Board. High above the timberline, one can see long stacks of lichen-covered stone that early natives built to funnel animals towards waiting hunters, and Ute or Arapaho teepee rings are visible in at least one sub-alpine meadow. There are remains of the first wagon road chiseled across this part of the divide around 1870, mounds of rusted tin cans and broken bottles that reveal logging camps of yore, and a few bits of mining wreckage left by prospectors who found no trace of mineral wealth so tantalizingly close to the lodes discovered only a few miles away in Central City, Empire, Caribou.

But the most striking signs of humanity all have to do with the railroad—testament to the power of shovels and dynamite—that was pushed over Rollins pass in 1904, including the crumbling foundation of a mountaintop hotel (and bits of wire that anchored it to the windswept tundra), petrified lumber and rusted square nails that were once a miles long snow shed that sheltered trains from 60 foot snowdrifts, and a series of intact wooden trestles that still span ravines and enabled the trains to wind their way gradually down into the valley. Below one set of these trestles lay the twisted iron remains of a train that was swept off the tracks by an avalanche and smashed upon a field of boulders at the foot of the mountain. As a kid, the sight of that wreckage sent shivers down my spine every time I saw it, for it symbolized the brutal and destructive power of the mountains in winter, a force far stronger than us.

Like my boyhood home, the place where I live now is blessed with epic mountains, and I have spent thousands of hours exploring them, but I will never be connected to them in the same way. Where once I simply saw MOUNTAIN—brooding, menacing, all powerful, full of mystery—my knowledge now burdens me with perceptions of watershed, bioregion, topographic lines, a threatened chunk of earth, a place trampled by hooves, burdened by fire suppression, sprinkled with nuclear fallout, layered with history both geologic and historical. Were I to see my childhood mountains for the first time now, their humble stature and the sizable human footprint they carry would likely lead me to view them as inferior to bigger and less impacted mountains elsewhere. Suffice to say that I now know what’s on the other side of the mountain, any mountain, or at least that’s what I tell myself, and this knowledge (too many books, too much chattering brain, not enough WATCHING) has both widened and narrowed the lens through which I see the world, including mountains, and there is no going back.


There’s something otherworldly about a train—a mysterious power beyond ordinary horsepower. As a kid, I would lay in my bed listening for the deep rumble of the midnight freights, a sound that I felt in my bones long before I could hear it. Then the whistle would pierce the air and echo across the frozen valley, a mournful cry in the night. I’ve heard lots of folks, especially the newcomers, complain about the trains interrupting their sleep, but for me they have always been soothing. Like an old clock striking the hour, or church bells ringing on a Sunday morn. Often unnoticed but always there, countless tons of steel hissing and squealing through the middle of town at all hours of the day and night, through blizzards and sunshine, providing a century of background music as the generations of Fraser families live out their lives.

The first train came through Fraser in 1904 via Rollins pass, a small gap in the Front Range of the Rockies a little over 11,000 feet high. Known to engineers as “The Hill”, this amazing bit of road building (as in RAILroad) consisted of more than 30 tunnels and an elaborate series of loops and trestles designed to get trains up and over the continental divide on a year round basis. The purpose was two-fold: First, tycoons wanted access to the resources of northwest Colorado, such as beef, timber and coal, and second, Denver was at the end of the line and feared for its future lest it be eclipsed by Cheyenne to the north or Pueblo to the south, growing cities situated on cross-country rails. The only solution was to blaze a twin steel trail up and over the mountains as soon as possible, so that’s what happened.

Despite the hardships, such as avalanches, tunnel fires and 40 foot snowdrifts, the railroad was remarkably efficient, delivering newspapers, mail, and wooden crates full of fresh bread to all the towns between Fraser and Craig, where the line ended. During the winter the dirt road of Berthoud pass (later US 40) would be inundated by snow, remaining that way until late spring when crews would shovel it out by hand. This meant that for up to 6 straight months the train was the only way in or out of the snowbound valley, unless you wanted to snowshoe. Catch the eastbound at 2 am and if all went well you’d be in Denver by 8:30 that morning, just in time to catch the trolley to high school, which my Grandmother did a few times.

Eventually Rollins pass was bypassed by the Moffat Tunnel, a seven mile passage that went under the great divide, and a few years later the Dotsero cutoff was completed, which connected the railroad to Pacific bound rails and put Fraser right on a true transcontinental railroad. Around this time the “Victory Highway” was paved and made into U.S. Highway 40, and modern snowplows allowed the road to stay open year-round, more or less. By the 1970’s, when I was growing up in Fraser, local service was obsolete, and rail traffic consisted mostly of the long haul freights and coal trains that one sees today.

There were still remnants of the glory days to be seen however, such as the California Zephyr. Three or four times a week this gem would pass through town en route to Chicago or San Francisco, gracing the valley with streamlined orange locomotives and a string of glassy silver dome cars, a real blast of 1950’s sleekness and space age style. Another glimpse of railroads past were the old stockyards next to the siding, a whole mess of rotten and splintered boards with gates that still opened and closed. Lots of rusty nails too. My mom wouldn’t let me near the place, telling me that they were old and rickety when she was a kid, but most of the rest of the kids in town spent plenty of time there.

My first ‘hike’ was a walk on the tracks with Grandma. She showed me the trail that used to parallel the rails, and then we walked up towards the cemetery, stepping on the crossties and avoiding the globs of tar. The crunch of black cinders underfoot, the old spikes scattered about, the smell of creosote...everything having to do with the railroad seemed filthy, but in a good way. We got to the trestle and turned back cause you never knew if a train might come out of those woods.

Back then all the engines were of the Rio Grande Railroad, black with orange or yellow lettering, sometimes 10 or more locomotives to a train, with a caboose at the end. The Rio Grande locomotives are rare now that Union Pacific owns the line, and cabooses disappeared in the mid-1980’s, but back then there was always one, sometimes two or three, usually orange. Often these were followed by a set of two “pusher” engines which would help the long coal trains reach the apex of the line at the Moffat Tunnel. These are obsolete now as well; I guess the new locomotives are more powerful.

The bulk of a train consisted of the usual cargo: tankers full of oil or ammonia or who knows what else, black or white but always stained with unknown grime; gondolas laden with woodchips or stacks of lumber from the local sawmill; grain hoppers and boxcars covered with graffitti; autocarriers laden with fresh Detroit iron and glass, and plenty of piggy back semi truck trailers, with the UPS and postal service trailers always at the very end. But most of the time it was King Coal, as mile long strings of 100 or more coal hoppers passed through town from remote Colorado strip mines to the power plants and steel mills of Front Range cities: 10 trains a day, 6 days a week, for the past 3 decades or more.

Every so often a non-Rio Grande engine would appear, causing some excitement: Union Pacific, the green of Burlington Northern, or the grey and red of the Santa Fe railroad. Much of my youth took place during the height of the Reagan era cold war, and about once a month we were reminded of this fact when a military train would pass through town. No cannons or tanks, but plenty of jeeps, troop transports, fuel trucks, trailers and heavy equipment, all of it painted up in camoflauge or olive drab like GI Joe toys. It was a strategic shuffling of war implements, conjuring apocalyptic images of doom which frightened yet intrigued me all at once.

The best and rarest occasion of all was the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus Train that would pass through each fall on its way to Denver. For days before it actually appeared, every whistle would divert the entire school’s attention away from lessons as we peered out in unison for a glimpse of what just might be the circus train. But luckily it always came in the evening. We would park up near the main crossing with dozens of other folks in the know and wait. Soon it would appear, a series of Rio Grande engines pulling the painted train. There were no open cages or anything like that, but it possessed an aura of timeless excitement comparable to a gypsy wagon of old.

Despite my love for trains, they were often the target of our bored mischief. My first taste of train track delinquency took place one day after kindergarten. At this point there was not yet an Amtrack nor a train station, and both sides of the tracks through town were lined with enough big willows to provide hiding places galore. The elder Klancke girl and I took sticks and smeared tar on the rails, hoping to either stop the train or cause it to slide like in the movies. We tried many times, but were always disappointed (and secretly relieved) when the train just rolled on by. In the end, all we ended up doing was permanently staining our clothes with industrial grade tar—only gasoline would get them clean again. Eventually, hoping to derail a train, we started putting rocks on the tracks, but they would simply be shattered by the sheer weight of the engines. Rumor had it that a plain old quarter could derail a train, but none of the 20 bucks or so worth of coins we tried over the years managed to net us a train wreck.

The first trackside fort I ever saw was on the other, bad side of the tracks. The collective gang of Morrows, Murrays and Tuckers had built an elaborate rail tie bulwark designed to protect them from the buckshot and salt pellets that caboose men were rumored to shoot at hoodlums who dared to throw rocks at the trains. Soon we on the eastside had our own forts, starting with some hay bales right next to the old depot building. But this was right on the road, dangerously close to adult supervision, so we moved 100 yards up the tracks near what would later become the Divide condos. This wasn’t too far from my Grandparent’s house, which gave us easy access to my Grandad’s gardening implements to trim willow branches or transplant weeds to help hide our forts. Once they were built, we would gather up rocks for ammunition, and then we would wait.
And wait.
And wait some more, now and then checking the tracks for a hint of rumble or peering into the switch lights for any color, red or green, for either meant that something was on the line. Soon that tell tale rumble sent us rushing to our designated spots, where we prepared to attack the train. The anticipation was intense, and the fear factor would build as the locomotives got closer and the ground started to shake. Suddenly the enemy was upon us and we would all let go with a flurry of cinders and shattering harmlessly against 40-ton coal cars. Soon we were using slingshots and bb guns, which were small potatoes compared to the sight of exploding glass when 2 siblings let loose with 12 gauge shotguns on a trainload of shiny new automobiles…my older cousins, who shall remain nameless, did this once back in the early 60’s.

There were still a few hobos riding the rails back then. Once a shirtless and bald tattooed giant gave us a wave from his dangerous resting place between coal cars as we walked the summer tracks to baseball practice. He had just come through the tunnel and was stained with soot. Another time, an evening game of tag was interrupted as we rode our bikes up to the tracks behind the new school by the St. Louis Creek trestle to throw rocks at a passing freight. Gondolas, tanker cars...suddenly I saw a group of Mexican hobos lounging in an open box car just as a rock bounced off the car right next to their heads with a CLANG! We fled in a panic, fearful that they were going to jump off and hunt us down.

While the trains were a constant source of amusement and games, there was always an element of danger and death as well. Stories of getting sucked under a fast moving freight turned out to be false, but the story of my granduncle losing an arm when he fell across the path of an oncoming train was true. Once, in the first grade, a chemical leak in a tank car forced us to spend recess indoors, which led to a grand game of school wide dodge ball in the tiny gymnasium. Years later an Amtrack derailed in the Fraser Canyon, resulting in no deaths, but giving us a rare spot on the national news. The worst incident occured in the mid-80’s when a train smashed into a car up at the 4 bar 4 road crossing one frigid winter night. My step dad was a tow truck driver and was one of the first on the scene. They looked everywhere for the body, assuming that it had been jettisoned from the vehicle upon impact, but they simply couldn’t find it. Turns out she was still in the mangled remains of the automobile, dead silent in the midst of a frantic search effort.

Incidents like this were rare, however, and most of the time the trains passed through town without fanfare or disaster, just like they have for the last 100 years. The rails provide a sort of long term calendar for Fraserites to guide their lives by: trains throughout the day and night are like the hours on a clock; the Amtrack is like the rising and setting of the sun (but don’t set your watch by it!); the annual circus train was like a new year’s celebration; and the ski train was the harbinger of winter and hordes of tourists. Longer cycles and stages of life were mirrored by the crews of gandy dancers that would come through twice in a decade to replace the rails, sleeping at the siding in bunkhouse cars next to the bizarre array of machinery unique to the railroad.

The railroad looms large in the history of Fraser, for it brought sawmills, settlers, and civilization to the cold, quiet valley, and led to the very creation of the town itself. These days, for better or for worse, it carries the seemingly endless tons of coal necessary to power our computers, lights and teevees, and will, in the future, surely play a larger role in the transport of both freight and people. Certainly the railroad is big and important, but it’s the small things that have a hold on my heart: the way the rail sinks and flexes as a loaded coal car passes over it; the squeals and squeaks and occasional CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK as one of the flatwheelers passes by; the flashing lights and clanging bells of the crossing gates; the lingering hiss of the rails right after the last car goes by; walking the thousand mile-long balance beam on the way to little league games and elementary school, and, of course, the sound of the whistle at night. Sure, the mountains are the soul of my Fraser, but the train is its beating heart.

Keebirds, Glorious Keebirds

Despite the brief mountain summers, Fraser has had its own little league baseball team since at least the 1920’s. In my day we were called the Keebirds, and the team logo was an igloo with a strange looking bird on top of it. The name came from the sound that this bird would make: “KEE Kee Kee Khrist its cold!”, or so we were told. Our uniforms consisted of a red t-shirt and a red and white cap, usually worn with standard blue jeans. Sometimes we’d tuck our pant legs into our socks in an effort to get that big league look, and eventually the plain shirts came with the Keebird logo, but overall our uniforms were spartan and practical.

But none of this mattered to us, for we just wanted to play baseball. Starting at age 7, our first few seasons were as tee ballers, a variation of coach pitch where the ball was placed on an adjustable rubber apparatus on a stand and the batter just swung away as the umpire and county judge, Larry Peterson, would yell “SOCKO!”. Games were two innings long, and every kid got a chance to bat once each inning. No one sat on the bench, and if the team consisted of 20 kids then every one of them would be out there somewhere waiting to catch a fly ball. For us Fraser kids, home games were on Tuesdays, away games on Thursdays, but no matter where we played, games started at 5 and ended at 6, when the big kids would take the field for 6 innings or 2 hours, whichever came first.

During my first two seasons, home games were played at a makeshift field up the Church’s Park road next to the Morrow’s garage and storage yard. The field was all gravel, with some scattered weeds making up the outfield, and a pine forest serving as the outfield wall. No dugouts or fancy fences either, just splintery wooden benches and a backstop, with splintery red bleachers for the parents. In 1979, I became eligible halfway through the season when I turned seven, and during the last game, part of a tournament, I hit my very first homerun. Really it was a comedy of errors, and all I remember is running into home where all my teammates were cheering for me. I don’t think I even knew what happened, cause the exact rules of the game were still a bit confusing to me.

Next season I was ready. This was the last year at the Morrow’s field, the dry and dusty diamond made even more so by a drought which caused a trio of large forest fires around the state, creating some amazing blood red sunsets. The big town back then was Granby, and they had enough kids to field two teams, the Warriors and the Lions. The Warriors were always hard to beat. They had a reputation for being bad asses, for in addition to their banana seated bicycle gangs and fancy sod field, they had an intimidating pitcher named Kevin Schmuck. He wore clean white cleats and could throw a mean fastball, a daunting combination that made me glad to still be a mere teeballer. The Lions, on the other hand, were never very good, and in the most memorable game of the season we beat them at home in the final inning, just before dark. This was little league, so we teeballers were mere spectators, but I remember the lump in my throat when the homerun was hit and we won the game. Elation! Then Glenn Smith, a pillar of our youthful community and an all-star center fielder, walked into the midst of the celebration and said “time for a little cheer”, so we chanted in unison:
It felt like something right out of a movie, maybe the Bad News Bears, and it was the first and last time I ever saw it happen.

The next season was a real milestone, for we now had a brand new field right next to the brand new school, complete with cinderblock dugouts and a concession stand. In addition to the new field, this season was to be 20 games long instead of the usual 10, the only time this happened, and our shirts and hats now had the actual Keebird logo on them, icing on the cake of a grand summer of baseball.

This was the final season for some of the big names, such as Jeremy Wheeler, Glenn Smith, and Mark Eichler, and all three of them hit over the fence grand slams that season. It was a community affair, as parents cheered from the bleachers or sat in cars along right field, honking their horns with each home team hit and hoping no foul ball would take out their windshield. Not to mention old Tater rolling by real slow in his blue truck for a look-see. A crew of moms, especially Iva Tucker and Donna Morrow, worked the concession stand, selling hotdogs, sodas and candy, and awarding all Fraser home run hitters a free dog. Bill Edwards was the head coach, with his bully son Mike and Greg Tucker coaching teeball, but a new kid from New York was now on the team, and his mom Pam became our real coach, organizing 3 practices a week and eventually guiding us to a championship.

This was my last year of teeball, and since we had too few kids to make a team, the league made an exception and a slew of 6 year olds got to play for us...Buchheister, Shelton, Lorton, Childers, pretty much every boy from my sister’s first grade class. This put a lot of pressure on the more experienced teeballers, but that was fine, cause we now got to practice with the heavy hitters and even got to play an inning or two of regulation ball. Greg Smith and Darrell Woods wanted to become pitchers, but I decided I wanted to be a catcher, and on practice days I would bury my pint-sized self in the bulky gear and step behind home plate, barely able to see, and rarely able to throw to second base.

The super extended season came down to the last game, the Keebirds against the Badgers, in Grand Lake. Despite their baby blue uniforms, the Badgers were even more bad ass than the Warriors. Their names were printed on the backs of their shirts, and they even wore the black face paint under their eyes like the pros. To make things worse, two of the meanest of Fraser’s bullies had moved to Grand Lake and were now Badgers, which made the team all the more intimidating. BUT WE BEAT THEM! Or tied them anyway, in a game in which I had my first little league at bat (grounded out). In the end we tied them for league champions, and celebrated with a big party at the balcony house, complete with unlimited free alpine slide rides for all, and team pictures too.

The next season was anything but stellar, as we struggled with a new coach and a small team. Ronnie Morrow and Marc Tucker were playing again, part of a long tradition of Tuckers and Morrows playing for Fraser. Jessie Smith and Justin Sharp were on the roster as well. Chris Berquist and I traded off as catcher, with Jayce Elliston and Larry Muskoff as starting pitchers and Darrell and Greg in the nonexistent bullpen. We also had a girl pitcher that year named Tami Olson, who schooled the scoffing Badger boys by striking them out. I dated Muskoff’s sister Kristin that summer, but she was an experienced Jr. High girl who dumped me when I showed more interest in bikes and games than smooches. One memorable moment of this summer, 1982, was when she got a trampoline for her birthday. Most every kid in town showed up to partake in the moment, and we bounced and listened to a top 40 countdown that culminated with the Go Go’s at number 1.

One of our last games of the season was scheduled to take place in Walden, a remote town a couple hours north of Fraser. A carload of kids and two moms showed up at the field but it was utterly deserted. Turns out it was haying season, and every available hand was out in the golden meadows helping with the one harvest of the year. On the way back we stopped to watch some ranchers stack hay with a team of horses, the old fashioned way.

The next baseball season was our best, for we were all veterans and were ready to win. Hoot Maynard’s uncle was the official coach this year, although his assistants Gregg Tucker and Chad Burnbeck were the real leaders. Both of them were 16 or 17, drove muscle cars, and liked to remind us that if a shortstop stands in the base path then you have a right to run him down, football style. They also believed in reinforcing the classic “get in front of the ball, its not gonna hurt you.” Which we knew to be false, since a ground ball hit by Holgar, a German exchange student, had knocked out Glenn’s front teeth just a year earlier. We lost our first game to the Warriors in Granby, but we went on to win the next 9 in a row to take the title. We were tough this season, starting our winning streak against the Badgers in Grand Lake: last inning, last batter, all we had to do was get one more out and we win. I called a time out and trekked out to the mound in my oversized gear to confer with the pitcher, a big guy with a big arm, Wade Weinel. The Badger’s final batter was a rookie of small stature, obviously nervous to be facing such a daunting pitcher. I told Wade to throw it as hard as he could and just a wee bit inside for the psychological edge. The whole team at once, as usual, trying to throw off the hitter’s concentration with the mantra of “HEY BATTER BATTER BATTER HEY BATTER BATTER SWING!” That poor kid never had a chance, as Wade’s fastball was a blur that walloped my catcher’s glove and made my hand hurt for days. Later that season, we whipped ‘em again, 29 to 3 in a rainy game that turned our clay field into a gumbo quagmire. We celebrated at the Dairy King (now the Thai place) with ice cream and root beer for all.

The crucial game came midway through the season, at home against the Warriors, the only team that had beaten us. It was late in the game, and we were down by 2 with 2 men on base...Rally caps on, adrenaline on high, we tormented their pitcher from the dugout with taunts and plays on his name: “Come on Patty, you can do better than that!”. I took the plate, let a few pitches pass by, and then WHACKED a line drive right over the outstretched glove of the first baseman for a triple that tied up the game, which we went on to win. This was the finest moment of my baseball career.

We finished the season with a win in Hot Sulphur and a 9 and 1 record, the best of any team I ever played with. After the game, the Rec. District cronies demanded that we turn in our uniforms, but there was NO WAY we were going to do that. Keeping your shirt and hat was a rite of passage, especially after a championship season, and nobody was going to tell us otherwise.

Unfortunately, this incident with the rec. district was a harbinger of things to come, and my final season would be marred by a yuppie takeover. Back then there was no pony league or high school baseball, so when you got too old for little league then you could pretty much hang up your glove. This was to be the final year for a lot of us, including Emur Jensen, Darrell Woods, Justin Sharp, Greg Smith, Marc Tucker, and myself. Gregg Tucker and Chad Burnbeck were the only coaches this year, which meant lots of chaos and fun, especially at practice. We tried to roll their car over once, with them in it, but they saved themselves by throwing lit firecrackers at us. Although I wanted it to be a stellar season, I knew before it started that we would lose most of our games. Such was the Fraser curse: a banner year followed by a summer of losses. Not to mention that half of our championship team from the previous year were now teenagers and ineligible. Another sign that things weren’t quite right occurred after one of the first practices of the season. A few of us were just messing around on the field, and as Greg Smith caught a ball deep in center field I yelled for him to bring it on home. So he threw it with all his might...which was a bit too much, as I watched the hard rawhide pill arc high into the sky and then drop, but not before it cleared the whole backstop and hit some lady right on the side of the head. Just a slight concussion thankfully, for I’m sure it could have easily killed her.

We were halfway into a losing season when a group of concerned parents decided there were too many “four letter words” being spoken at practice, and that we just weren’t getting enough discipline and supervision. These were the same folks who tried to get us to return our uniforms the year before: rich folks from the ski area who didn’t want their kids exposed to any red neck offspring with potty mouths. So they forced the young coaches out, and the oldest of us quit the team in protest, never to play another game of baseball again. This was more than just replacing coaches however, for it symbolized the changes that had been creeping up on the town for years. Hippies turned Saab driving real estate agents were supplanting the working class families who had been there for generations, and Jazzercize was replacing cases of Coors.

Fraser now has a nice new sports complex, with multiple ball fields, volleyball courts, and even an in-line hockey rink. The fields are well manicured sod, the dugouts are quite nice, and it’s unlikely that a grounder will bounce off a hidden chunk of granite and knock some kid’s teeth out. Times have indeed changed, and while in my eyes it seems that something is missing, I’m sure that the magic is still the same as it ever was: the color of the summer sky beyond centerfield as the sun gets low and the score is tied; the satisfying feel of bat hitting ball; the thrill of the bike ride home following a hard game, ball glove on the handlebars, the chilly night air soothing sunburned arms. Kids will always be kids, and summer evenings of baseball will always be timeless, but I’m glad my baseball daze took place on a gravel field.

A True Mountain Woman: Elsie Josephine Clayton

This was published in the Mountain Gazette in early 2006.

The deceased: A true mountain woman, Elsie J. Clayton.

Born: January 2, 1911 Died: November 13, 2005 Cause of death: Old-fashioned old age.

She entered this world during one of the coldest weeks of the year. Chimney smoke from the cabin by the railroad tracks rose straight into the frigid air, and a young couple gave thanks for the healthy birth of their firstborn child: Elsa Josephina Goranson.

A mountain childhood: churn the butter, stoke the perpetual fire in the woodstove, pile three on a horse and ride into the woods for a picnic, tend to your younger siblings while mother and father scratch a living out of this frozen valley.Watch through the window as Dad trudges through mud or drifting snow to the barn.Watch the mountains turn pink with alpenglow.Watch the gales blow banners of snow off Byers Peak. On Christmas, the house stunk of lutefisk and resounded with the songs and laughter of Swedes, some of them drunk, all of them misty eyed for the distant homeland they had left just a few years before.

Eleven years of school in a one-room schoolhouse, then graduation and a train ride over Rollins Pass to live the wild life of a bachelorette in the big city of Denver. 1927, sixteen years old, taking the streetcar down to Curtis Street for the bright lights of the theater district, even riding in the motorcar of a young man from Pine a time or two. Back home for a visit, and a date with a gambling, drinking, wild and handsome young Okie: a sleigh ride down valley to a dance in Tabernash, that riproaring roundhouse town.

Marriage soon makes them Chuck and Elsie Clayton. A season in Breckenridge where Chuck works in a mine, a season in Lyons working in a sawmill, then back up to the cold Fraser Valley for the rest of their lives.

1933: open up a café and bar on the new U.S. Highway 40. The next four decades are a blur of 16-hour workdays, rollicking New Year’s Eve parties, and a long medley of songs on the jukebox. Hunters stop in to celebrate the gutted elk strapped to the hood of their Plymouth. Truckers headed for Salt Lake City or San Francisco pause for ham and eggs and a cup of coffee. The valley’s first skiers order up burgers and beer. President Eisenhower even comes to town, and Elsie handdelivers two of her signature cherry pies to the leader of the free world.

Retired, 1971. Start a journal of the days’ events: A visitor from out of town, an illness in the family, 55 below zero on the morning thermometer, three feet of spring snow. Get a library card and read the first of thousands and thousands of books. Michener’s “Centennial” was her favorite. Take drives in the woods, pick raspberries, make jam. Road trips to visit friends and family scattered across the Western states. Coddle the grandkids. The great-grandkids. The great-great-grandkids. Watch the generations come and go.

Chuck dies, a tumble down the courthouse steps after securing one of those goddamn building permits to fix his roof. 71 years of marriage suddenly ends, and the kids wonder how she’ll handle it. Sadness. Grief. An empty place inside that nothing will ever fill. But she clears her closet of his clothes and moves on to the next chapter of life. Trips to the cemetery always bring tears, but back at home, a glass of whiskey soothes 90- year-old nerves, and Elsie says it’s time for a game of dominos.

Ninety-four winters in the “Icebox of the Nation,” much of it spent sitting at a kitchen table, sipping black coffee and peering out the window as waves of change came to the valley. She remembers when the paved highway was a muddy wagon road. She listened to static on the town’s first radio at Carlson’s pool hall. She marveled at the flip-of-the-switch electric lights, basked in the easy warmth of the first gas heat, and was glad when a fancy machine made the washboard obsolete. Her first phone number was 5. She watched from afar as the long clear cuts of ski runs appeared on the mountainside at Winter Park, heard carpenters hammering on the first condominiums and listened as loggers sat on barstools and grumbled about the slow decline of the sawmill. Boom and bust. Boom and bust. Boom and bust. Only the mountains stayed the same.

Despite these experiences, Elsie didn’t philosophize much. Why speculate about an afterlife when there are babies to hold and long conversations to be had? To Elsie, the Holy Grail was a pot of hot coffee, and the reason for our earthly existence was to eat a slice of peach pie right out of the oven. This life is enough.

On the night of November 12, 2005, Elsie said she was sleepy and retired early. She climbed into her own bed, in her own home, a half-mile from the spot where she had been born. Sometime after midnight, she passed on to whatever comes next. That night, a sideways blowing blizzard roared into the Fraser Valley, bringing whiteout conditions and enough snow to cause an early season avalanche that closed Berthoud Pass. On the morning of her funeral, the mercury dropped well below zero. A few hours later, a coal train whistled lonesome during the eulogy.

This town will never be the same.

Fairy Tale Ending

My sweetheart had just gotten a halfway real job and needed some new clothes, so we drove down to the big city of Santa Fe. Passing up our usual foray into the faux adobe district of art and green chile, we rolled along a busy auto strip past faux New England chowder houses and mansard roofed burger joints to an Old Navy store. As she tried on outfits, I browsed the men’s section, amazed at what I saw: The clothes they were selling were a lot like the ones I was wearing. For the first time in my life, I was in style.

Indeed, the shelves were stacked with sweatshop replicas of clothing worn in bars and on job sites across the Rockies. There were imitation Carhartts, pre-frayed around the knees and hems for that working-class look. Thin and light, they wouldn’t make it through a single day of hard labor, but they sure did look cool. So did the olive-green cargo pants, the kind with the big side pockets I had been getting at army surplus stores since I was a teen. Best of all were the mesh baseball caps emblazoned with the pre-faded image of a deer, an orange sunset, and the words “Buck Mesa, Colorado.” It looked like a vintage hat, a rarity from the ’70s. But unlike the Kenworth hat my uncle gave me when I was eight, this was made in Bangladesh, and there were dozens of them for sale. And if there’s a Buck Mesa in Colorado, I’ve never heard of it.

While it would be easy to shrug all this off as just the latest in meaningless fashion, the fact that a big-name national chain store was prominently featuring the tough and rugged “mountain look” is indicative of something deeper. It reveals a change in our national myth — Colorado as the epitome of cool.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1987, my family fled our recession- plagued Colorado hometown for the promise of San Diego, a city in the midst of a Cold War military-industrial-complex boom. As an impressionable 14-year-old who had watched way too much television, I was saturated with the archetypes of Southern California coolness: bad ass Top Gun pilots playing beach volleyball and riding sleek Jap motorcycles, rich folks cruising in convertibles on the Pacific Coast Highway ala “L.A. Law”, skateboarders like Tony Hawk and Gator ripping up half pipes, hot chicks with teased hair and skimpy bikinis lying on white sand beaches. Compared to all that, Colorado sucked, and I was excited to get out of my hick mountain town.

Needless to say, Cali wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. My illusions were shaken the moment we descended into a smoggy valley and pulled into the driveway of our new home, a dilapidated rental with “SLAYER” spray painted in blood red on the garage door, an inauspicious omen.

Within three weeks, my bicycle had been stolen, our house had been burglarized, and I had witnessed my first act of city cruelty — kids throwing rocks at a homeless person. It was a far cry from the Club Med I had envisioned. The only sign of paradise was the palm tree in our front yard, drooping lifelessly in the stifling heat.

Where were the girls in bikinis? The beautiful people in fancy cars? They were at the beach, 20 miles and several socioeconomic brackets away, an impossible distance for someone too young to drive. But when we finally visited the fabled beach, it too, was a letdown. The ocean was cold and murky, even in the hottest part of summer, and the sand was covered with flabby tourists and mounds of rotting seaweed surrounded by flies. I was crushed.

Perhaps, my standards were too high, for even the best possible reality would have fallen short of the storybook scene in my imagination. But it wasn’t just me. Southern California had been riding a wave of coolness since the days of Gidget and the Beach Boys, but by 1990 that wave had crested and was about to crash upon the trash-strewn beach (closed until further notice due to fecal contamination). Maybe it was the riots of ’92, or the fires of ’93, or the earthquake of ’94, or the floods of ’95, but somewhere along the way, folks began to see through the façade of eternal sunshine, and So-Cal lost its golden glow. To be sure, plenty of Latino and Asian immigrants still flock to the place, and many Americans will always be lulled by the easy climate, but the secret is out, and the average person on the street knows that Southern California is a sinking ship of rolling blackouts, gridlock-related shootings and runaway sprawl … the epitome of Paradise Lost.

At the same time that So-Cal’s star was fading, Colorful Colorado was sparkling like champagne powder in the morning sun. The sudden explosion of snowboarding and mountain biking, Elway’s back-to-back Super Bowl victories and a brief spurt of feel good environmental consciousness all thrust the state into the national spotlight. By the late-’90s, a glance at the idiot box revealed an America obsessed with what they perceived to be the Rocky Mountain way: big pickups splashing through streams en route to mountaintop campsites, a hapless backcountry skier tumbling down an avalanche chute while Lenny Kravitz sings about how he wants to get away (imagine the hard-charging yuppies who ran out to buy the advertised SUV just because it included a first-aid kit), and, of course, the scantily clad Coors Light girls showing off the state’s majestic peaks. Consumer culture’s love affair with the outdoors — or at least the “outdoor lifestyle” — was soon in full swing, and everybody who was anybody in places like Indiana quickly swapped their Day-glo Quicksilver surf shirts for a North Face fleece and Nike hiking boots. By the new millennium, America’s longstanding California dream (wine on the porch of a bungalow overlooking the ocean sunset) had been replaced by a new Colorado vision — microbrew on a ranchette surrounded by national forest on three sides. Between 1990 and 2003, Colorado’s population jumped from 3.2 to 4.5 million, a net gain nearly equal to the entire populations of Wyoming and Montana combined, with five mountain counties (Summit, Park, Eagle, Teller and San Miguel) doubling in population. In 2005, for the third year in a row, Boulder was rated #1 in the Men’s Journal annual “50 Best Places to Live” article, while Ft. Collins and Buena Vista (!) made Outside magazine’s short list of 18 “New American Dream Towns.” Indeed, while I was writing this, National Public Radio featured a story on String Cheese Incident and hula-hoops, casually dropping the names of Crested Butte and Telluride in the process. Such media exposure lends credence to the “Colorado as Cool” myth, inspiring countless more devout believers to make the mountain pilgrimage.

But as these wide-eyed neophytes roll into storied mountain towns, they’ll quickly learn that these places are unaffordable for all but the jet set or those willing to take a vow of poverty. Some will take that vow, for a season or even a lifetime, but most will end up in the megalopolis along the Front Range where they’ll settle into a 40-hour workaday existence not unlike the one they came to Colorado to escape. The same brown air. The same traffic. The same crime. Quiet desperation with occasional hazy views of distant mountains. By Friday, they’ll be stressed out and ready for a weekend in the High Country, so they’ll pack up the “Avalanche” or “Colorado” or “Tundra” and hit ye old I-70, braving bottleneck traffic jams for some hurried relaxation in yonder hills.

The mountains will be mighty pretty, but there will be some unexpected problems. Fishermen will elbow their way to an open stretch of stream, only to find that massive diversions by the Denver Water Board have dried up entire watersheds. Hunters will wonder if the succulent back strap of that strange acting elk they just shot is safe to eat. Backpackers seeking solitude in the state’s wilderness areas will encounter countless others searching for the same thing, especially in those remote corners rumored to harbor the elusive grizzly. Families who drop a thousand bucks per day on lodging, ski lessons and lift tickets will then be forced to pay just a little bit more to park, not to mention airport prices for cafeteriaquality food at the base.

Sightseers will find former mining towns “restored” to their original mini-mall/real-estate-office status, and once-enchanted ghost towns will be littered with frappucino cups. Indeed, much of this has already come to pass, and every Sunday evening, throngs of weekend warriors head back to the city with maxxed-out credit cards and heavy hearts. Something just doesn’t seem right.

For a while, the millionaires fortunate enough to actually live in the name-brand towns will live a high life of powder and prestige, secure in the knowledge that as they buy and sell parcels of what used to be a ranch, they are absolutely in tune with the zeitgeist of rustic Western living.

They’ll get involved in worthy community projects like banning low-income housing. They’ll fight to make the place more inclusive, lengthening runways at the airport so those with Lear jets can land safely. They might even publish guidebooks to the local back- country, so that all of their neighbors in the new four-season golf “community” can take full advantage of the beautiful scenery.

After a year or two, they’ll claim the coveted status of “local,” even as they disdain the descendants of pioneers who bag their groceries at Safeway. (All of which has already occurred in my childhood stomping ground of Grand County.)

But like ocean waves gradually undermining a cliff-side estate, eventually the realities of mountain life will crash the party of these New Westerners. For starters, as other like-minded trendsetters build homes in the next big place, convoys of dump trucks and heavy equipment will stir up choking clouds of dust (which settles in thick layers in homes occupied only a few weeks each year). Drought will cause golf courses to lose their green luster, and the fairways will turn an unsightly brown. Pine beetles will infest weakened forests, leaving vast stands of dead timber that will be charred (along with a number of “secluded” trophy homes) by fires of epic proportions. This will ruin the pricey views, causing property values to drop and bursting the much inflated real estate bubble.

Worst of all, as these beautiful people drive their Hummers around town, they’ll be forced to endure the sight of brown-skinned migrant workers who magically appear each day to pour concrete and wash dishes, prompting horrified cries about how “the Mexicans are ruining the place!” In 1859, at the behest of unsubstantiated rumors and newspaper headlines, throngs of would-be millionaires rushed to what is now Colorado to pluck easy money out of the streams of gold, only to discover squalid mining camps and tribes of red skinned locals who were none too happy about the sudden changes. Some of these miners stayed, and a select few struck it rich, but many thousands of them (derided as “go backers” by early pro-growth chamber-of-commerce types) returned home bearing tales of disillusionment and a gut feeling that they’d been lied to. Although it may take another 15 years, Colorado will undergo a similar exodus as the quality of life plummets and folks lose faith in the myth of the mountain life. And where will these emigrants go? What part of this great land of ours could possibly be better than the Rockies?

THE MIDWEST of course! If this sounds far fetched, consider the following: While Colorado held top spot in the aforementioned Men’s Journal ratings, the Midwest held eight of the 50 spots, including two in the top 10, and the Outside list of 18 “dream towns” included two from the farm belt. As the global political, economic and atmospheric climates heat up — terrorist attacks, gasoline shortages and various weather-related natural disasters — nervous citizens will turn to the “Heartland” for solace, trading the adventure of rugged mountains for the safe predictability of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Snow-covered peaks will give way to grain silos and water towers as the new beacons of hope, and former adrenaline junkies will learn to love the slow, salt-of-the earth pace of life in Americana, a place where the lawns don’t even need to be watered. Pious Colorado Christians, long vexed by the state’s armies of scraggly Gore-Tex pagans, will hark to the siren song of “intelligent design” emanating from flatland school board meetings. The liberal latte crowd will be drawn to the region’s college towns like Madison or Lawrence, traditionally among the more progressive communities in the country. Everyone else will jump at the chance to buy an obscenely affordable home, or perhaps to settle in one of the dying Great Plains communities currently offering FREE LAND to anyone willing to bring some warm bodies to prop up the local population. By 2020 at the latest, Colorado will be old hat, and car commercials will feature nuclear families driving hybrid station wagons through the amber waves of grain.

Like the earlier California dream, much of the coming “there’s no place like home” myth will have little basis in reality. Many Midwestern archetypes, such as Main Street businesses and low crime rates, have already been decimated by the likes of Sam Walton and crystal-meth, and the family farm went bankrupt years ago, but by the time anyone figures this out, it will be too late, for the rush for greener pastures will be on, and nobody will want to listen to naysayers.

So raise your frosty beer mugs and toast to your glorious moment of coolness, Colorado, for it won’t last much longer. Soon, thrift stores across America will be deluged with castoff hiking boots and Patagonia underwear, and the Centennial State will be left with plenty of elbow room as the masses move way, way down valley, somewhere over the rainbow. Wolves will wander in from Wyoming to feast on developers. Trailer courts will resound with raging solstice celebrations. Log mansions will go up in flames in sacrifice to the great god Pan. And we’ll all live happily ever after.

Trailer Courts and Such

I’m part redneck. While my hippy experiences and California alma mater are important elements of my soul and psyche, my roots are in the frozen earth of the Fraser Valley. My childhood lacked the sidewalks, parks and matinees of an average suburban childhood, which was fine, since I had a jungle of creekside willows to play in. My role models were all from my mountain family, and I often got to ride on a bulldozer as it blazed logging roads in old growth forest, or listen to a tape of truck songs in a red, white and blue-green Kenworth dump truck as we hauled class ‘c’ from gravel pit to job site Furthermore, there have always been horses somewhere on my family’s land, complete with hay bales in the barn, and you wouldn’t believe my cousin’s collection of Copenhagen lids! If these aren’t enough to convince you of my genuine partial red-neckness, this little ditty might: I GREW UP IN A TRAILER COURT!

Yup, my childhood abode was a mobile home, and not even a double wide. In fact, I lived in two different trailers in two separate mobile home parks, both of them situated on former swamps. While this was fine for awhile, as I got older I began to resent the fact that we had to live in such substandard housing. Some of my friends lived in real houses with actual stairs and even balconies and decks. They didn’t have to shovel the roof to keep the snow from caving it in, and if they did, then at least they didn’t have to carefully place each boot step for fear of damaging the ceiling. They could sleep in bunk beds or hang hammocks on the wall without compromising the structural integrity of their home. The pilot lights on their heaters never seemed to go out, not even in February winds. Their roofs rarely leaked, their central heating was efficient, and it didn’t take 5 minutes for the hot water to reach the tap at the far end of the house. In short, life in a mobile home left much to be desired, and I couldn’t wait for the day when I’d be rich with a real house to call my own.

Now I’m older, and I sure ain’t rich, for it turns out that good grades in school don’t necessarily translate into a fat wallet. I studied religion in college instead of business administration, and in the four years since graduating I’ve pursued careers in manual labor, cash register punching and gardening for a rich lady who lives in a real house. But I don’t mind being in the bottom income bracket, for one thing religion did teach me was how to be content with the simpler things in life, especially having a roof over my head. If you’ve got a warm house to sleep in then things can’t be all bad, and a mobile home provides climate controlled shelter at a reasonable cost.

Grand County is currently going through a real estate and development boom, the likes of which are unparalleled in local history. The market is hot, and upwardly mobile upper classes are flocking to the Fraser Valley and investing in all sorts of gigantic houses, many of them vacation homes occupied only a few weeks each year. This boom, which is happening in communities throughout the Rocky Mountains, has led to a huge jump in property values, and the proliferation of decadent log mansions have driven up property taxes. Costs are high, and land is at a premium, so builders and investors are focusing on the “high end” kind of development rather than simple housing for the Carhartt clad simpletons who labor away on stone fireplaces and redwood decks. This has created a severe housing shortage for those who cannot afford the obscenely high costs of renting one of the few available houses, and buying is out of the question since the average price of a home is 250,000 dollars and rising. This situation makes it difficult for anyone who isn’t wealthy to settle down and start a family in Fraser, and the skyrocketing taxes and high cost of groceries and gas bills will soon force many long time locals to sell out and move on. Sure, the local contractors are doing well for themselves, and deservedly so, but anyone not already rich or directly involved with the construction trade is having a harder time making ends meet.

The long term consequences of all this is that eventually Fraser will be an enclave of rich folks, and the armies of workers and servants will have to live 15 or 20 or 30 miles away in towns that are slightly less expensive. I’m sure that the Valley will always have its share of ski bums and transient freaks, but one can only live in a van or tent for so long before real life steps in and its time to move on. Back in the 1970’s there were hundreds of folks who left planet earth and came to Fraser for the freewheeling scene and endless possibilities of fresh powder and wilderness. Many of them decided to stay, and they put down roots and brought a variety of incomes and ideas to the local community. They became teachers, builders, journalists and drunks, and volunteered their time and effort to build dugouts for the baseball field. This is becoming less of an option for the working class folks who are not already well established, due to the simple fact that its too damn expensive to buy a house or even a condo anywhere in the Fraser River watershed. The Mercy and Fox Run developments offer some cheap shelter in the short run, they don’t really address the long term issues of runaway growth, ie. the gentrification of Fraser. Besides, projects like these require much in the way of planning, platting, funding, and infrastructure, which inevitably lead to courtroom costs and delays.

Which brings us back to the trailer park. In their limited vision, the town councils and county commissions have banned the introduction of new mobile homes anywhere in the county. Even a rural rancher is prohibited from setting up an old trailer on his own land, and the existing trailer courts in town will most certainly be phased out whenever our leaders see the chance. The rationale for such regulations is that mobile homes tend to be eyesores, particularly when clustered together, and that in the interest of high property values such lowbrow shelter should be discouraged if not outright zoned out of existence. This kind of thinking is both unfortunate and misguided, for mobile homes are the quickest and most efficient way to solve the local housing crunch.

I’ll be the first to admit that mobile home life leaves much to be desired, but even during the harshest winters of my youth, which were undoubtedly colder and snowier than they are now, our trailer kept us cozy and warm. Furthermore, a space in a court is only a few hundred bucks at the very most, and a brand new trailer can be bought for under 50 grand. One could rent a space and pay the monthly mortgage on a mobile home for less than the cost of rent in a condominium, let alone a house. This means that families could be gaining equity on a home rather than shelling out 1200 bucks each month to a resort town slumlord or development corporation.

Sure, trailers are not the most energy efficient homes, but the underlying structure can be improved upon bit by bit with such additions as a snowload roof, storm windows or even solar panels to take advantage of sunlight to supplement existing central heating. And if a family outgrows a trailer then one can expand accordingly. My step father added a living room and bedroom to our trailer and remodeled the kitchen entirely for a fraction of the cost of building a small sized home. Besides, the most inefficient structures in the whole county aren’t mobile homes but 10,000 square foot log mansions with vaulted ceilings and no southern exposure or natural lighting whatsoever. It seems as if some architects never step foot outside their offices, for they are completely ignorant with regards to the realities of frost and snow, constantly designing buildings that refuse to acknowledge the natural world in which they will be built. This drives up the costs of lighting and heating, not to mention those semi-permanent glaciers up on the rooftop or a patio that never sees the sunshine. Expensive does not equal smarter.

So why the hostility towards mobile homes? I hate to make this a class issue, but this is the essence of the problem: The filthy rich have no class. They can only think in terms of dollars and cents, which means that common sense is tossed aside whenever it conflicts with the bottom line, ie. turning a profit on a real estate venture. And talk about eyesores, these high rolling dollar bill junkies put the biggest, most ostentatious buildings on scenic ridges so that the citizens of the valley will be forced to look at them everyday. They destroy postcard views by displaying their trophy homes prominently on the mantle of the mountainsides, as if to remind the beer swilling proletariat below that feudalism is alive and well. And then they complain about the trailerparks and junkyards, calling them blights on the community and writing fiery letters to the editor suggesting that they be removed lest property values decline. They like the valley enough to build a home there, but not quite enough to let it continue to exist as a viable community of mixed incomes and architectural styles.

There’s been a whole lot of talk about the housing crunch in the valley. The papers report on it, and the councils debate it, but thus far we have seen very little in the way of meaningful action. This is inexcusable, for examples of a partial solution already exist right in the town of Fraser, all lined up in orderly rows. TRAILER COURTS ARE THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE. If the Fraser town council can annex land to provide municipal services for another golf course subdivision, essentially a government subsidy of a giant corporate builder, then they can just as easily give tax breaks to those who would develop their land into a mobile home park instead of another upscale subdivision or “ranch” or “estate”. Should our local leaders encourage sprawling development and ‘build and run’ profiteering while whittling away at inexpensive housing stock such as trailers? The county commissioners and town council should encourage expansion of existing trailer courts through reduced water tap and sewer fees, and some undeveloped sections within city limits should be zoned strictly for mobile homes, particularly in areas adjacent to golf courses. These are common sense answers to a vexing problem that is not going to just go away.

The Fraser Valley is in dire need of some truly affordable housing, and the mobile home can meet that need quickly and cheaply. It’s time for us to look beyond the stigma that one usually associates with trailer living, time for us to recognize the fact that unless we do something soon then Fraser will really become the dreaded Breckenridge or Vail or Aspen, places with high property values but no history or sense of continuity. The existence of trailer parks ensures that families of limited means and the working class will continue to settle within the Fraser Valley. This is important, for if a town wishes to exist as a real community, which is to say a viable economic and cultural unit, then poor folks must be a part of the social fabric. This can only happen if they are given opportunities to buy homes, however humble, that they can call their own. A lifetime of rent is not good enough. Trailers, whether single units or in community courts, are an obvious and inexpensive solution.

Old Timers' Picnic

Old Timers in the Old School

They came from all over the west, carloads of senior citizens bearing armloads of food and lifetimes of stories. Soon the gymnasium of the old coal heated schoolhouse echoed with happy “hellos” as each new arrival was greeted by friends and family, many who see one another only at this event: the annual Fraser Valley Old Timers’ Reunion.

The room was full of the sons and daughters of settlers who followed the railroad into this cold valley a century ago. Many of them were among the first generation of children to be born here, the progeny of Swedish immigrants who came to work in the timber. Most were born before 1930, a few before World War I. If the silver hair and dry country wrinkles weren’t enough to reveal the elderly status of these folks, then the nametags surely did: Mildred, Minnie, Elsie, Delbert, Hazel, Hank and Helen. Old time names.

Long retired cat-skinners in new Denver Broncos caps smoked Pall Malls on the front steps, while their wives sipped hot coffee from styrofoam cups and shared the latest family news. Tiny Mrs. Cole ambled around with the help of a walker, her eyes gleaming as she chatted with childhood companions. At 91, Mr. Gilbert looked frail, but as always, he brought one of his many 4-inch thick albums of rare and historic Grand County photos, and he still remembers the name of every plant that grows in these mountains.

It was a potluck, and gradually the crowd lined up to partake in a sumptuous buffet of meat and potatoes and pie. As everyone sat in folding chairs enjoying the meal, one by one, each person stood up (if they could) and gave their name and a little tidbit about themselves.

Mr. Miller said he was a child of the railroad, the son of the section boss who had chosen the Fraser stretch of the line because the section house had running water. Mrs. Wilson shared the hardships of childhood during the Depression, a blur of years spent washing laundry and stocking shelves in the grocery store to help her widowed mother make ends meet. Mrs. Goranson, the eldest person in the room, said she was born down by the river “about a thousand years ago” and recalled delivering two of her signature cherry pies to President Eisenhower when he came to town for a fishing vacation in 1955, an event that drew a crowd of more than 300 people.

Mrs. Vorquist gave only her name before breaking down in tears over the recent death of her husband of 60 years. Everyone applauded her courage, and everyone understood her pain. Most of them are near the end of their long, full lives, and none of them takes anything for granted.

A few are lost each year, but a handful always seem to appear out of the blue, often for the first time in decades. Mr. Carlson said it was nice to be back after 50 years, and gave thanks that the schoolhouse, so full of memories, was still standing. Like many local boys, he had left the valley to fight fascists in Europe or Communists in Korea, and upon returning home found that jobs on the ranches and in the sawmills were becoming scarce. So he headed out to a growing city of the west, where he raised a suburban family and made a good living before retiring. But always he longed to return to the valley, where the air was clean and the creeks ran clear and cold.

Despite the fact that they were in “Mountain Bike Capital U.S.A.”, in the very shadow of a corporate run mega-ski resort, there was no mention of epic powder days, single track bike rides, or the riches to be made by investing in the booming local real estate market. There were, however, tales of hard work, stories rooted in a time when livelihoods were made from the valley’s tangible natural resources rather than vague notions of scenery or recreation.

The local media didn’t bother covering this event, and there were no ski bums, county commissioners or developers in attendance either. That’s too bad, because this annual picnic is a link to a time and place that exists only in the aging memory of these humble Fraser residents. They can teach us a thing or two, but only if we take the time to listen.

Mountain People?

Mountain People? The Seven Mountain Archetypes

The Rockies are currently undergoing the most rapid demographic shift since the chaotic mineral rushes of the 19th century. From Taos to Kalispell, towns throughout the cordillera are being gentrified at an alarming rate by thousands of people hoping to invest in a piece of heaven. As the fat wallets flood into the mountains, they’re followed by an army of servants and construction workers hoping for some trickle down action. Hot on the heels of these working stiffs come entrepreneurs who set up shop in new mini-malls and offer up beer, legal services, cheap phone cards, paycheck loans and anything else a stonemason or housekeeper might need. Meanwhile, as the Hummer elite and the Mexican laborers and big city contractors pour into these towns, existing residents wonder just who the hell these folks are and how long they’re going to stay.

With all of these former flatlanders clogging up the aisles at Safeway (even during the endangered off season), how can you tell the bona fide “mountain people” from mere mountain residents? It depends on whom you ask of course, and everybody’s explanation will be tailored so they themselves are included in the legitimate mountain bunch, hardly a recipe for objectivity. A definitive answer becomes even more elusive when one considers the fact that the Rockies have witnessed everything from Indian war parties and fur trappers’ rendezvous to open pit mines, jeep rallies, and naked hippies- wave after wave of new settlers and changing perceptions that make it difficult to define just what a true mountain person is.

With this in mind, however, I believe there are traits most of us associate with real mountain folk, and traits we tend to associate with everyone else. I’ve identified seven kinds of people commonly found in the mountains, some of who are “mountain people” and some who aren’t. Reality isn’t quite so black white, of course, but in the interest of barstool scholarship, let us examine seven archetypes of the higher elevations: The “Indian”, “Mountain Man”, “Gold Miner”, “Landshark”, “Ski Bum”, “Tourist” and “Local.”

1) “THE INDIAN” Ute, Blackfeet, Salish, etc. These tribes knew their corner of the mountains better than even the most bioregionally savvy of us can dream of. The dust of their forbears swirled in the mountain winds. Borders were delineated by rivers and ranges rather than abstract lines of longitude and latitude. Their ancestors were birthed from an alpine lake or dark canyon at the beginning of time. Stories connected them intimately to fellow mountain creatures like the elk, the wolf, the grizzly, even the chickadees and wood ticks. They had no concept of vacationing in the tropics when winter got too harsh, or leaving the mountains and heading back east for grad school. For them, life WAS the mountains: heat from the wood, food from the animals, medicine from the plants, and water from the rivers.

No matter how deeply felt our connection to the mountains is, we will never know them in such an intimate way. For better and for worse, our thoughts wander too far and wide (if not very deep) and our bodies are too pampered by creature comforts to connect with the mountains on the utilitarian and mythological levels of pre-Columbian natives. These Indians were the only true mountain people to ever roam the Rockies, and at the risk of getting my teeth kicked in by the living, breathing Indians who still inhabit my adopted mountain town (definitely “mountain people”), I believe that such purely mountain-centric cultures no longer exist. Like bears sifting through the dumpsters behind Pizza Hut, all of us, white, Indian or otherwise, have tasted the forbidden fruit of rationalism, have watched a bit too much teevee, have succumbed to the machinery of civilization, and there ain’t no going back.

But there are some who can imagine. Herbalists, bow hunters, poets, artists, survivalists, a handful of acid casualties, and anyone who can sit quietly in the woods for hours at a time might subvert the chatter of our contemporary brainwaves and glimpse, if just for a moment, the true nature of mountains. This would make them “mountain people”, at least by our watered down modern standards.

2) “THE MOUNTAIN MAN.” As the name implies, this is the classic version of the American mountain experience: a buckskin clad man with a flowing beard, Hawken rifle in hand, traps and pelts dangling from a packhorse, and maybe a squaw wife somewhere up in the Crow country. Their deeds are the stuff of legend- John Colter’s naked run for his life from the Blackfeet, or Hugh Glass’s agonizing 200-mile crawl along the Missouri River for instance- and their wilderness skills were phenomenal. At a moment’s notice they might fashion a pair of snowshoes capable of crossing snowbound mountains, or build a canoe out of willow saplings and elk hides. Although they did possess the rudiments of civilization (a kettle, steel knives, a gun), daily life unfolded in the heart of some of the wildest country on earth, and they faced every hardship the high country had to offer. They felt the sting of blizzards, lost limbs to frostbite, lost scalps to the aforementioned Indians, and generally drank deep of the Rocky Mountains. It was the closest white folks ever came to experiencing the Indian/mountain union.

We may not think highly of the cruel nature of their work or the fact that they nearly drove the, uh, beaver to extinction, but there is no denying that they were mountain people, the very epitome of self-reliance. In these days of thermostat heat and grocery store meat, such self-sufficiency is extremely rare, even among mountain dwellers, but like the explorers and trappers of yore, a similar (if lesser) brand of self-reliance is a hallmark of modern day “mountain people.”

Take my cousin, for example, a man who grew up in one of the coldest mountain valleys in the country. He doesn’t wear buckskin, and he enjoys his cable television, but he’s got a “can-do”, hands-on attitude that sets him apart from the retired pencil pushers (who are incapable of even changing the oil in their cars) currently buying up his hometown. If it breaks, he fixes it. If it’s dull, he sharpens it. He can hunt, skin, and butcher an animal. Once, while tracking an elk over a ridge, he got caught in the dark, so he stopped, built a fire, shot and roasted a squirrel for dinner, and spent a peaceful night in the woods-no need for search and rescue. Over the years he’s been a truck driver, mechanic, welder, tow-truck operator, and Cat-skinner who helped blaze roads into some rugged old growth forest. My sensitive environmentalist friends might cringe at his red-state politics and affinity for Ted Nugent, but nobody could question the fact that he’s a sure fire “mountain person.”

Although most of us associate these traits with high country rednecks and ranchers, the microbrew crowd can manifest them as well. I’ve got a buddy in Montana, a guy who’s working on a PhD in microbiology, who heats his home entirely with firewood he cuts, bucks and splits himself, and who rides his bike to work year round, even when the thermometer is below zero. Despite his high fallutin’ future, he’s a “mountain person.” Closer to home, I know devout vegetarians who have never even held a rifle, yet they live far off the grid in homes they’ve built with their own hands. Despite their penchant for tofu, they’re “mountain people.”

Another hallmark of the original Mountain Men was the fact that they all came from somewhere else. This might appear to be a hindrance to becoming a mountain person, and often it is, but occasionally it reveals a connection to the mountains that transcends even the bonds of home and family. I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by both my family and the Rocky Mountains. My wife wasn’t so fortunate. She was raised in southern Michigan, and in order to live in the mountains she had to leave her family behind.

The Mountain Men made a similar choice. Unlike the Indians, they had a concept of “home” outside the mountains, and they certainly got lonesome for the gentle green grass back on the family farm in Kentucky. But despite the isolation and numerous brushes with death, many of them elected to stay in the mountains forever. Drawn to the space and freedom of the high country, they turned their backs on kin and the easier life awaiting them back east. Those who choose alpine splendor over their own family, who choose a hard life in the mountains over a comfortable life in flatlands and cities, are “mountain people.”

3) “THE GOLD MINER” (includes loggers, freighters, “Gandy Dancers” etc.) The myth of the Gold Miner is similar to that of the Mountain Man: a lone wanderer panning the creeks for nuggets. Reality was much different, more along the lines of a frenzied mass of drunken ants turning the land inside out. The rush for gold utterly transformed the western mountains. Where once were Indians and a handful of Mountain Men, quite suddenly there were towns, railroads, and environmental devastation on an unimaginable scale. In short order, the Indians were killed or driven out, wildlife was scattered or hunted down to feed the hungry hordes, forests were hacked down for firewood, mine props, railroad ties and lumber, and thousands of miles of creeks were buried in placer sediments or poisoned by hard rock minerals, raw sewage and mercury.

Like the Mountain Men, who initially came to the mountains to harvest a fortune in pelts, Gold Miners were hoping to cash in on the minerals. Later, after the easy pickings were gone, they continued to come for jobs in company owned mines and smelters. Either way, they came not for the mountains themselves, but for the wealth or at least the wages contained within them, and virtually all of them moved on when the diggings played out. Over the next few decades, this pattern repeated itself in the form of logging and railroading booms that drew people into the mountains only to scatter them to the winds once the old growth was gone or the road built.

These days, the spirit of the “Gold Miner” lives on as an army of contractors, housekeepers, cooks and laborers who’ve come to take part in the recreation and real estate booms unfolding throughout the Rocky Mountains. Some of them originally came for reasons other than simple employment (see #5, “Ski Bum”), but an increasing number are here simply because this is where the jobs are. A handful, lulled by worthless details like spring pasque flowers or alpenglow on the peaks, will stay forever, but like the original Gold Miners, most will leave when the development slows or stops. If you stay when the boom is over, you’re probably a real “mountain person.”

4) THE LANDSHARK. At a glance, real estate agents and developers seem to fit the “Gold Miner” profile. After all, they’ve come to cash in on the boom, and their greed rivals that of any cigar chomping, strike-busting mining tycoon, but the easy, hands-off nature of their work makes them unworthy of Gold Miner status. We may cringe at the environmental destruction wrought by miners and loggers, but at least they experienced all aspects of the actual mountains: bitter cold, pneumonia, mud, explosions and cave-ins in the mines, broken bones and lost fingers at the mill, and the simple fact that they spent many a long and dreary winter in canvas tents or drafty claptrap cabins. (If you’ve wintered in a tent, car, drafty cabin or rickety mobile home, you’re probably a “mountain person.”)

Compared to this, the typical Landshark spends little time outdoors (golf course notwithstanding), and hasn’t earned a work-related blister in his life. His workweek is spent in a heated office, ass firmly planted in padded swivel chair, with occasional forays in his S.U.V. to guide clients (see #6, Tourist) through soon-to-be subdivisions, ass firmly planted in a heated seat. The Landshark often lives in the mountains, and will always claim to love them (“it was so beautiful I almost didn’t put that road in”), but his chosen vocation prevents him from connecting to them in any meaningful way. He shuffles property like papers on his desk, buying and selling acreage until he begins to see primordial mountains as nothing more than abstract parcels of land that should be changed into something better: a house, a shopping center, or a ski area. Due to the fact that they cannot dissociate mountains from money, Landsharks will never be “mountain people”.

5) “THE SKI BUM”, which includes snowboarders, mountain bikers, rafters and kayakers, backpackers, climbers and other dirtbags. Unlike the Gold Miners, who flock to the mountains for economic gain, Ski Bums come for recreation and economic procrastination; the powder, the whitewater, and/or the trail are far more important than a steady paycheck. Like the Gold Miner, however, most Ski Bums are simply passing through en route to greener pastures. They live the mountain lifestyle for a year or two but eventually succumb to various social pressures and get real jobs elsewhere, which prevents them from putting down roots and living an actual life in the mountains. Such transients are Tourists (see #6), not “mountain people.”

Despite the stereotype of the brain dead Ski Bum (anybody remember Squirrel from “Hot Dog”?), many Bums are quite intelligent, if not downright overeducated. While the legend of the dishwasher with the PhD may or may not be true, mountain towns have more than their fair share of folks bearing college degrees, particularly in thriving career fields like comparative literature and philosophy. They could be making good money elsewhere, but have taken a voluntary vow of poverty instead, exchanging material wealth for an abundance of mountain splendor. If you take a pay cut to live in the high country, you’re probably a “mountain person.”

The classic Ski Bum who stays in his adopted mountain town for the rest of his life for skiing, skiing and skiing, is surely a “mountain person.” A powerful mythology surrounds this lifestyle, but such commitment is actually quite rare, and bums who stick around long enough to feel the effects of an aging body and lack of income often evolve into neo-Gold Miners in the form of carpenters and the like. Other Bums, faced with the same aging related dilemmas, will tap into their underutilized college diplomas and serve the community as teachers, social workers, or journalists. While such full time employment mitigates their legitimacy as Ski Bums proper, their newfound work ethic and trusted role in the community makes them “mountain people”.

Rarely, due to cocaine, undiagnosed head trauma, or trust-fund related guilt, a Ski Bum will become a Landshark, usually a budding real estate agent. Due to an overwhelming feeling of shame, he’ll try to cloak the evil nature of his new career with sound byte phrases like “time to grow up” or “not getting any younger”, but deep down he knows he’s serving mammon over mountains, and that no amount of expensive gear or “Free Tibet” stickers on his new Subaru Outback can save his soul. The Bum turned Landshark has forsaken any chance at ever being a “mountain person”.

6) “THE TOURIST”. Although the word conjures up images of bloated Winnebagos carrying bloated people carrying miniature poodles, Tourists have been visiting the Rocky Mountains for nearly two centuries: Lewis and Clark, “Lord” Gore, George Catlin, John James Audubon, Walt Whitman etc. Indeed, in this land of booms, busts and waves of change, the presence of Tourists has been one of the only constants, and in many places they’ve even outlasted the Indians. But while tourism has become an intrinsic part of life in the mountains, and tourist dollars keep many mountain residents fed and sheltered, Tourists themselves are simply passing through, and are not “mountain people”.

Tourists find the mountains beautiful, and often daydream about pulling up stakes and moving to the high country, but for whatever reason, they choose not to stick around. They visit for a few days each year, purchase a chainsaw carved bear or two, and return home- afraid of what might happen if they quit their stable job in Dallas or St. Louis. So they buckle down and plan the next vacation, dreaming, perhaps, of that pie in the sky second home in Colorado.

Obviously, many wealthy Tourists do indeed invest in a vacation home, and countless others retire to the mountains to live their long delayed dream. These folk desperately want to be “mountain people”, and often mistake themselves for Locals or Mountain Men. They drive big, powerful pickups that never haul firewood or hay. They live on a “ranch” with no cattle or sheep. They purchase artwork depicting the very wildlife their new lifestyle has displaced. They claim to be “getting away from it all”, but demand more shopping, better roads, or a bigger airport. There is an inherent disconnect from the mountains themselves, usually rooted in that fateful moment long ago when these folks chose to spend their lives accumulating wealth rather than settling for a humble mountain life. This money-centric attitude reveals itself quite clearly in the fact that they have no problem bulldozing chunks of the mountains (which they claim to love) in order to make room for their monstrous home. Despite the trappings of mountain life, these full time Tourists will never be “mountain people”.

7) “THE LOCAL”. While the Local hasn’t been around as long as the Indian, he was born here, or in the nearest town with a hospital, and more often than not, his ancestors were Gold Miners or Ski Bums. Like my cousin the Mountain Man, many Locals are obviously “mountain people”, while others make you wonder. I know Locals who’ve lived in a mountain town their entire lives, yet haven’t gone camping since their high school graduation kegger back in ’85. They spend their days plowing snow or installing drywall, and at night they drink at the bar or sit at home watching teevee. They don’t hunt, they don’t hike, they don’t ski, they don’t fish-indeed, they aren’t really interested in much beyond making a living, something they could do in sunny Florida or inexpensive Oklahoma.

To a recently arrived Ski Bum or a Tourist, such passivity in the shadow of splendid mountains makes no sense, and they assume that Locals take their surroundings for granted. This is often true, but even the couch potato Local has a connection to the mountains rivaling that of the most ardent backcountry explorer. The Local may never climb any of the majestic peaks visible from his hometown, but each of those craggy, avalanche-lined faces is indelibly burned onto his brain, and he knows their moods and personalities as well as anyone. Along with the fact that his parents, Grandparents or even Great-Grandparents are buried in the local cemetery, this deep, almost unconscious attachment to the mountains keeps him here year after year, all year long. He’ll curse the long winters, swear at the icy roads, bitch about the high cost of living and the changes for the worse, but he’ll never leave, not for very long anyway. After all, the mountains are his home, and he’s a “mountain person” whether he likes it or not.

Why I Love Fraser

“I love Fraser”, said I to the local journalist as we sipped java and discussed my new self published walking tour of town. “What is it you love so much? Why is Fraser so special to you”, she asked.

A simple question, but I couldn’t come up with an answer. My mind went blank, and all I could think of was icicles dangling from the roof of an old log cabin in town. That’s why I love Fraser, because of icicles on old cabins.

But there’s more than that. Take the mountains for instance, alpine peaks and ridges rising tall on 3 sides of town; green in July, brown in August, and white for most of the rest of the year. Not as scenic as the Tetons or as pristine as say, the Wind Rivers, yet to me Fraser’s mountains are like old friends. Parry, Neva, Byers, Bottle…each peak has its moods and colorful moments, its own wrinkled face that I have grown to know and love, granite warts and all.

These peaks give birth to rivers and creeks, some of which flow right through town. Creeks create willowed wetlands, where Red Winged Blackbirds sing songs of spring, even during May blizzards. I love the birdsongs and May blizzards of Fraser.
Then there’s the trains, the diesel powered rhythm of Fraser. Coal trains like clocks striking the hour, Amtrack like the rising and setting of the sun. Boxcars, grain hoppers, gondolas and coal cars, emblazoned with spray paint folk art from exotic urban places. And what kind of person doesn’t love that soothing midnight whistle? Fraser is a railroad town at heart, and Fraser’s trains are dear to my heart.

Fraser has a rich history, revealed by old barns, train depots, stagecoach stops and Doc Susie’s house, among other landmarks. Yet these buildings refuse to become mere museum pieces, continuing to serve the community as clothing stores, blacksmith shops, homes and restaurants. I love the old buildings of Fraser, as well as the local businesses and local folks who still use them.

Fraser also has an excellent collection of retired vehicles and equipment. A look around town might reveal a ’65 Volkswagen microbus, a vintage iron hay mower, and a horse drawn wagon all rusting and rotting away together in the same front yard. Much of this junk has historic value, such as the century old shacks, sheds and outhouses found along alleys and in backyards.

While some observers might disagree, I believe such junk is a sign of a healthy and stable community, for it means that folks are sticking around. Since the very beginning, Fraser has been a working class town, weathering the storms of depression and recession, riding the waves of boom and bust. Fraserites have never been a wealthy lot, so it only makes sense that they would hesitate to throw away anything that could be used at a later date. Lumber, tires, spare trucks… I love the “waste not, want not” ethic of Fraser residents.

Which brings me to Fraser’s biggest asset: Its people. There are hardcore skiers, almost toothless cowboys, grizzled old loggers, bible thumpers, spandexed mtn. bikers, gays, 4th generation rednecks, trust funders, dope growers, John Birch style Republicans, radical environmentalists, gun nuts, artists, writers, world travelers, slobbering drunks/geniuses, intellectuals, pool sharks, millionaires, musicians, remnant ranchers, land speculators, small business owners, and plenty of plain old working class folks.

Such a unique blend of people results in a very unique town, quite different from any other ski town in Colorful Colorado. For example, there are still more mobile homes than million dollar homes in Fraser, what other “resort community” could make that boast? And most Fraser residents actually reside here year round, quite an anomaly when 62 percent of Grand County residents are only part-timers. I love that Fraser is a real town, with real people.

Some of these real people serve us as mayors, board members and other town employees, and they do a good job of it. Have you seen Fraser’s new Comprehensive Plan? If followed, it will protect wildlife habitat and open space, support local businesses, provide affordable housing, encourage alternative modes of transportation, and discourage sprawling new development, among other things. I love that Fraser has leaders who are willing to learn from the mistakes of other places, and that they’re tough enough to stand up to the Denver Water Board to protect our watershed.

I also love that I might cross paths with the Mayor, my Kindergarten teacher or one of my many “cousins” at any number of places. Rendezvous likes to call itself a “meeting place”, but here in the actual town of Fraser, we already have plenty of meeting places: The post office, the coffee shop, the saloon, church, the library, the top of Byers peak, and the produce section at Safeway. Leave your house and you never know who you might run into.

What do I love about Fraser? The list is long: Dump trucks parked in driveways. Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the wind. The fox trotting through the backyard as I write. Hearing the phrase “it’s warm enough to snow.” Employers who encourage taking time off to travel. Summer thunderstorms. Walking along the railroad at night. Wildflowers blooming on the graves of friends and family. Ordering a soymilk latte at the Roastery then cutting wood with a chainsaw and feeling self-conscious about neither.

But most of all, I love my family, the whole extended crew of them, especially Grandma. She was born down by the railroad tracks before World War I, a true Fraser native. I enjoy drinking coffee at her kitchen table, watching as she oogles her great-great grandson, or listening to her tell stories about Fraser, about the weather, about life.

I love Fraser because it’s Fraser, my hometown.