And yes, I’ll be trying again this weekend.
The first time I learned we were leaving Crested Butte was the morning after my mom was on the phone to my Dad in the middle of the night again. Dad was stationed in Thailand. For months the whispered calls at 3:00 a.m. were full of tears or raised voices, or both. It was 1973 and the war was winding down, and with it, their anger at one another for how each felt about, and reacted to, Vietnam and each’s various affairs, probably not in that order.
Mom was tired of trying to raise three kids with no money and no help. Jobs for unreliable, somewhat heavy drinkers who took a lot of drugs weren’t easy to find and always harder to keep, especially in a tiny resort town. Paying for groceries at Stephanic’s with food stamps always made me feel ashamed, and I know she felt the same, or she would not have sent her ten-year old to do the shopping.
Mom said Dad was the youngest full Colonel in Southeast Asia, barely forty and already a decorated squadron commander. He was still in love with her and, I believe now, missed all of us in his own way. But I was a suspicious ten-year old, full of worry about the future, and this pending reunion did nothing to sway that.
Still, whatever I did or didn’t do, they were remarrying one another in Denver and we moving to the Philippines. Their decision was fortified when he arrived in Crested Butte directly from Khorat Air Force Base in Thailand, or as directly as one could at that time. That meant a C-130 to Guam, refuel, land at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, refuel, land at Travis Air Force Base in California, catch a civilian flight from San Francisco to Denver, then a tiny plane to Gunnison. When he finally made it to the Gunnison Valley, still in his uniform, two straight days after leaving Khorat, it was just as summer began its shy foray into the high country, around the time when the glacier lilies bloom so quickly and die even faster. Hopeful days where summer passes in a blink of an eye after nine, long months of winter.
The two of them disappeared into the greening hills up Kebler, near the Beckwiths, for almost a week. I don’t remember who took care of us; it might have been Mike at age thirteen. Mom brought some freeze-dried food from the Alpineer, fruit and a lot of LSD. Somewhere in the West Elk Wilderness they made camp near a rushing creek, and she built a sweatlodge.
She said you should never kill anything to build a lodge, and she didn’t kill anything then. She bent the willows growing out of the ground over on one another and tied them, until she had a tiny shelter. Then she covered that with Indian blankets, their edges anchored with stones. With her Swiss Army knife she cut large, eagle-wing-sized sage branches from the sage bushes everywhere. A big fire was built with deadfall and those dangerous, explosive river rocks were piled into the coals.
They were tripping and naked and hardly any food was eaten. They drank big gulps of water from the tin camping cup right out of the rushing stream. Mom said they filled the pit in the sweatlodge with glowing river rocks, and then placed the sage branches over the rocks so that if one exploded, which inevitably happened, the river rock shrapnel would be stopped by the layers of branches. Also it made everything smell so good.
She said they both needed to cleanse their souls, especially him, to go back to, and be forgiven by, Mother Earth. She was sure he knew deep down he must have killed women, children and old people, dropping all that napalm on Vietnamese villages. After the sun set they lay under an astonishing canopy of shooting stars until the acid wore off and they passed out. In the mornings they took more acid, drank freshly picked chamomile tea and stirred the coals until they had another raging fire, piling it once again with river rock. Years later, even in the worst shit storms of their relationship, Mom would say, if she remembered, that, no matter what, there was a week of healing in the West Elks neither could ever forget.
When they came out of the mountains, they came out together and for a little while they seemed happy. We all piled into our 1971 Toyota Landcruiser and drove to Denver where they were remarried in a tiny ceremony at a church I don’t remember the name of. Dad left to go back to Thailand. Khorat Air Force Base was closing, and he would be stationed in the Philippines soon, where we would meet him. For us kids we had just a few, precious summer months left in the mountains, but the living was easy because he was giving her money again.
I still didn’t want to leave Crested Butte, but Mom didn’t want to hear that from me. When I told her I didn’t want to go for the millionth time, it was in an ill-timed moment while she was scrubbing the bathroom in Matt Kapushion’s old house on First and Whiterock. Her back was to me so I didn’t see her flicker into one of her rages until she whirled around red-faced with crazy eyes, grabbing at me wildly. I was cornered in that small space, and she grabbed my arm so hard it left her purple hand print for days. With her other hand she grabbed the Mason Pierson hairbrush on the sink and hit me on the head so fast and so hard the hairbrush broke in two after the second blow. I stopped talking about staying after that.
As the day of our departure neared, Mom said we weren’t going to get to take our dog Bofer, a golden retriever-Saint Bernard mix who was only about a year old. I didn’t understand and the anticipation of that parting made my heart ache every night while I tried to fall asleep, worrying about the unknown, about life on an Air Force Base where all the boys would have crewcuts and the girls would probably be prissy as hell. And not like me. I didn’t understand Mom was out of options, desperate and overwhelmed. And hoping that this time with Dad would be different. I hope I understand that now though. I remember she just kept saying Bofer wouldn’t like being a big, giant, furry boy in the tropics of Southeast Asia, that he would be miserable, that there were no Saint Bernards in the Philippines. I wanted to scream I’d be miserable without him, that he was only half Saint Bernard, but I didn’t want to face another hairbrush beating.
Even though I was only ten, after a year in Crested Butte I felt I was finally in a place I really belonged forever and ever. A beautiful, magical town where all 63 school kids, from kindergarten through seventh grade, got to go skiing every Tuesday afternoon on the mountain. Season passes were $50 but even the poor children whose families couldn’t afford it, and the ranchers’ kids who had to do ranch work instead of ski, were bused up on Tuesdays, fitted with rental equipment and broken out into ski groups based on ability. It was a blast. On Thursdays we had the afternoon off to go cross-country skiing with the marshall. He taught us survival skills like what to do if we had hypothermia. Our pot-smoking, LSD-dropping parents were naturally suspicious of him, making constant jokes about dosing his coffee with some “loaded” sugar cubes. But every Thursday afternoon he made our lives really fun and adventurous.
In my ten years on Earth at that time I’d lived in Weisbaden, Germany, Chicago, Illinois, Norfolk, Virginia, Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, Winslow, Arizona, Misawa, Japan and Flagstaff, Arizona. I’d been to a few different preschools, three kindergartens, two second grades and again changed schools from third to fourth grade. I just wanted to stay somewhere for a long time and not be the new kid again. And that somewhere was Crested Butte.
So my friend Melissa and I hatched a plan. My friend Kitty may have been in on it too. Since it was summer, and we were not town-bound and could roam almost anywhere except down the highway to Gunnison, we decided I should run away just west of town. With a loaf of bread and an old canteen, we pitched a tent overlooking town, just west of my house off Kebler Pass. I could see the Don and Adele Bachman’s house and maybe go knock on their door in case of an emergency.
It’s funny now to think I didn’t think anyone would find me. Melissa agreed to bring me food. I thought Bofer could move with me too. I didn’t plan as far ahead as winter. Or even the fall, because I was a little scared about hunting season. A few years earlier, in 1969, a hunter shot a couple of kids riding a small motorcycle, killing one of them. He might have been drunk. Otherwise how do you explain blowing the head off a six-year old while he’s hanging onto his older brother on a little red motorcycle? Word around town was that the hunter got off with probation. It was a highly political case and the judge and jury didn’t want to discourage out-of-state hunters from enjoying the Colorado high country. I don’t know what happened to that poor family.
As August settled in and the date of departure for Southeast Asia loomed, Melissa and I tried to get more organized about my running away. Then a grown-up got wind of the plan and the tent was taken down. And I thought about the hairbrush and of course kept quiet, resigning myself to what lay ahead.
The movers came to pack the house up, drive our belongings out to San Francisco and load them on a ship bound for the Philippines. Bofer was tied up in the back yard on First and Whiterock, with assurances a nice family was coming to get him. Melissa told me later he howled and howled for days in that back yard before she came and got him. I hate to think Mom just left him. I’d rather think there was someone coming to get him who flaked out, and hippies were famous for flaking out. I will never know the truth, except that she was overwhelmed and trying to patch up a shitty marriage and worse divorce with this new marriage to the same man.
Eventually Melissa’s aunt took Bofer to Aspen where he lived a long, happy life, dying in the early 1980’s. I’m so glad I got to see him one more time in the spring of 1976. He was a good dog.
So yes, we moved back to Crested Butte in January 1976. Left again in 1978. Came back for full summers in 1978, 1979 and 1980. But by then Mom had cancer, and she moved to the Mexican border for her controversial, natural Gerson Therapy cancer treatment. I came back to Crested Butte for visits in 1982, 1988, 1990 and 1992.
Then in September 1992, I moved from my tiny, studio apartment in New York City back to Crested Butte, this time as an adult. I thought I might be a tweedy country lawyer there. It had a nice ring to it. I landed a weird little job at a weird little law firm in Gunnison, but I had no place to live, no car and no money to live on. It seemed harder to be there without money than even Manhattan. I left again in 1996, heartbroken for other reasons but determined not to let any of it show, and exhausted from my self-induced struggles, financial, emotional and otherwise.
A year later, in 1997, I moved back with the love of my life, and he bought a house in Crested Butte South. We agreed to a two-year experiment there in the Valley. But at the end of that two years, he was not offered a job as a teacher, even after all the substitute teaching and coaching basketball. I was not yet working as an attorney. It was over, but I was finally ready to really leave. I think.
So we moved to a place where we could be self-supporting, build careers and really start our life together. Neutral ground. It couldn’t be Crested Butte, my hometown, and it couldn’t be Bath, Maine, his. Now I’ve been in one place for nearly 11 years, for the first time in my life.
Still, Crested Butte remains my hometown, a place where I get to mythologize my childhood, adolescence and even my thirties. But sometimes I get to tell the truth about it too. And the town is different every time I go back, with more real estate offices and t-shirt shops, and less empty lots where kids can play. The cars are more expensive, the houses nicer, the restaurants pricier, and I don’t know everyone anymore.
Still I go back, and I love it there. The people who do know me, have often known me nearly forty years over the patchwork of my comings and goings. Even my friend Melissa, who helped plan my escape into the field near Adele and Don Bachman’s house back in 1973, is still there, now with her own family.
I have always had this longing to be from somewhere, and once I was from Crested Butte I had that, a place that called to me and mountains that healed me, that still heal me. So what pulls me there still is not just seeing all the old friends and acquaintances, laughing about the latest small town gossip or sitting next to Coal Creek on a sunny afternoon having an icecream cone. No, it’s those mountains. And I like to think of my parents in those mountains, healing each other in a sweatlodge by a river, letting go of that goddamned war and what it did to them, and whatever shit they did to each other, finally willing to walk their road again, hand in hand, even if it wasn’t going to last.