An Ode to Telluride, Family Ghosts and the Hardrock Spirit

I’m getting ready to return to Telluride.

Getting ready to curve the corner on Last Dollar Road and glimpse the rectangular, tin-roofed log cabin where I spent my most memorable childhood months.

Getting ready to meet runner Betsy Nye at the 60-mile mark of the Hardrock 100 and pace her the final 40 to Silverton, over three mountain passes at 13,000 to 14,000 feet.

My brother and sister-in-law's home near Telluride, which my parents built in 1974.

My brother and sister-in-law’s home near Telluride, which my parents built in 1974. The peaks in the background are Sunshine and Wilson.

A road trip to Telluride jolts me with the electrified anticipation that a kid feels before Christmas.

This annual pilgrimage does something to my psyche. Keeps me younger, makes me tougher. Reminds me what I’m made of and where I came from.

Because I was a wild child, thanks to Telluride.

I dodged bolts of forked lightning near Lizard Head Peak and plunged into the icy rapids of the San Miguel. Hiked for hours to find and catch horses, to gallop bareback across Deep Creek Mesa. Scrambled up scree, skinning my knee, on the backside of Mount Wilson.

Martha and Sarah in a river 1978

Bathing with my big sister in the San Miguel river near Telluride in 1978.

I learned to catch, gut and fry trout for breakfast. To carve my initials in an aspen. To roll a joint. To get drunk.

All in Telluride, all before I turned 10.

The inadvertent intoxication happened in August of 1974, when I was 5. All the townspeople gathered in an empty lot on Colorado Avenue.

There were lots of empty lots on Telluride’s main street in the early ’70s, before the ski runs and summer festivals changed everything.

This was back when the town pharmacy had the big blue “Drugs” sign in front and a soda fountain inside. Back when Telluride license plates started with “YX,” and the lower the number after the YX, the longer the car had been in town.

We were old-timers, YX-21.

A postcard showing how Telluride looked in the early 1970s.

A postcard showing how Telluride looked in the early 1970s, with drugstore’s blue sign on the far right side.

Someone set up a black-and-white TV high on a ladder in this empty lot so the crowd could watch President Nixon make an announcement. I could see the president’s head with his jowly cheeks on that small screen, and then all around me, women in long skirts and shirtless men in dirty jeans began to play music and dance.

Someone put out wine in a big cooler. I was thirsty and thought it was grape juice, so I gulped it down.

I stumbled around, found Dad’s truck. Spun round and round its roll bars. Passed out across the street from the Sheridan Hotel.

Mom laughed and shook her head about it.

My mom in her mid-40s, around my age now, hiking Tomboy Road above Telluride.

My mom in her mid-40s, around my age now, hiking Tomboy Road above Telluride.

We lived nine months of the year in Ojai, but Dad had summers off. The family spent summers in Telluride because that’s where Grandpa was born and raised.

Grandpa’s grandpa, Charles Painter, arrived in Telluride in the early 1880s and was elected the town’s first mayor. Grandpa graduated from Princeton but returned to Colorado to find money during the Depression. He worked as a hoistman in the Camp Bird Mine above Ouray, then as a cowboy near Norwood.

A trail through an aspen grove near the cabin.

A trail through an aspen grove near the cabin.

The family tree is like a quaking aspen that shares a single root system and sprouts new growth nearby. Some members grow apart, some die, a new generation is born. But we keep regenerating from that root in Telluride.

My awesome big brother David fells the dead wood from the groves.

My awesome big brother David fells the dead wood from the groves.

Growing up, I had the feeling anything could happen during summer in Telluride.

A sunny picnic over a pass turned into an electrical storm at 13,000 feet. We took shelter under the tarp in the back of Dad’s truck.

An inner-tubing float down the Uncompahgre River turned into a hitchhiking scheme to get back to Ridgeway. We needed a ride, so my family hatched a plan: put me—the youngest—by the highway, thumb up, while they hid out of view. A car would spot a forlorn preteen and pull over. Then they’d jump out and ask if we could all get a ride.

Did we actually do this, or just talk about it? I can’t really recall. We hitched rides too many times to remember the details.

Me at age 9 with my four older sibs and a brother-in-law near Telluride in 1978.

Me at age 9 with my four older sibs and a brother-in-law near Telluride in 1978.

In 1985, I introduced my boyfriend and future husband Morgan to the family tradition of 4-wheel-driving over the San Juan Mountain passes, bouncing along on a ratty old mattress in the back of Dad's truck and stopping to fish along the way.

In 1985, I introduced my boyfriend and future husband Morgan to the family tradition of 4-wheel-driving over the San Juan Mountain passes, bouncing along on a ratty old mattress in the back of Dad’s truck and stopping to fish along the way.

I learned to go with the flow of those adventures, to keep up with my older siblings and get through whatever cropped up. Maybe that helped prepare me to be the trail runner I am today.

But I can’t deny my nerves about Hardrock, even though I’m doing just a fraction of it.

I’ve felt the power of those mountains, felt helpless and nearly hypothermic while crouched for cover during a lightning and hail storm when I paced another Hardrocker in 2011. Felt my lungs pound and head throb from the thin air while cresting a ridge high above timberline.

Saw a basketball-sized rock fly right before my eyes. One mountainside, trembling with thunder, chucked that rock right at my head and would have knocked me off the trail had I been a split second farther forward.

The Hardrock trail by Handies. Photo by Howie Stern.

The Hardrock trail by Handies. Photo by Howie Stern.

When I meet Betsy at nightfall on July 11 at Grouse Gulch, and we head out to scale Handies Peak in the dark, I’ll likely be frightened of that darkness and doubt my ability to get over the mountains.

When I’m secretly scared on the mountain, I’ll hold conversations in my head with our family ghosts.

They’ll tell me to be tough and keep going. They, too, felt small and vulnerable in those San Juans, but the thrill of the experience outweighed their fear.

First, I’ll conjure the spirit of my grandfather, David S. Lavender, who died in 2003. He braved darkness and fear while working deep, deep in the belly of the Camp Bird Mine in 1932, an experience detailed in his book One Man’s West:

… my only guide the speck of light on my head. An ancient ladder clung to the rough walls. Mica crystals winked balefully. Above, all I could see was a short stretch of the ladder, shiny wet, disappearing into more blackness. Over my shoulder I could discern the opposite wall of the vein, ten feet or so away. It was like being in the jaws of a vice…. Nothing can convey the impression of that overwhelming darkness.

My grandparents outside Camp Bird Mine, 1932.

My grandparents outside Camp Bird Mine, 1932.

I’ll try to commune with my grandmother, whom I never met. She died suddenly of an aneurysm before I was born.

I’ll picture Grandma Brookie, age 22 in the summer of ’32, heading out with Grandpa and his brother Dwight on an expedition with the Colorado Mountaineering Club, probably wearing a borrowed pair of men’s jeans and boots. She was the first woman ever to summit Mount Sneffles, according to family lore. Sneffles is part of the range between Ridgeway and Telluride, near Governor Basin on the Hardrock course.

She slipped and fell some 50 feet before a rope caught her during that summer outing, an experience she nonchalantly described in her diary as “a pendulum act”:

… We roped together; Dwight led, then Dave in the middle, and I at the end. They cut steps with ice axes. It took us about three hours to get up the snow sheet to rock. There it began to rain and hail. We wormed up over mammoth rocks, belaying the rope. Above the rocks was more snow and a peak of it at the top of the couloir, where I was dispatched and did a pendulum act. Then more rocks—gigantic hunks of them. But we gained the summit! … Despite the wintry chill, it was an experience and left an impression I’ll always have of bigness and my own littleness … I was elated at having succeeded and at having had the thrill of standing up there and absorbing that stupendous view.

Dwight Lavender, circa 1930.

My great uncle Dwight Lavender, circa 1930, finding and mapping some of the first trail routes around the San Juan Mountains.

Then I’ll picture the James Dean-like profile of Great-Uncle Dwight. I’ll try to fathom what it was like for him and his friends in the mountaineering club to explore the San Juans when hardly any routes were known or cut.

Dwight and his buddies were the first to map and write about these routes, in The San Juan Mountaineers’ Climbers Guide to Southwestern Colorado. They personified the Hardrock spirit.

Dwight Lavender on the left with his friends Chester Price and Forrest Greenfield in 1930 after a successful ascent of El Diente (14,159 feet). Dwight and Chester organized the San Juan Mountaineers.

Dwight Lavender on the left with his friends Chester Price and Forrest Greenfield in 1930 after a successful ascent of El Diente (14,159 feet). Dwight and Chester organized the San Juan Mountaineers.

My bad-ass Great-Uncle Dwight, I would’ve loved to meet you. I bet you could’ve and would’ve run Hardrock if you were born half a century later. How did you climb so many 14’ers at half my age? Why’d you have to leave the mountains for Stanford Law School?

How could fate be so cruel to spare you on the summits, but then, within the privileged confines of a university, infect you with polio and swiftly kill you at age 23?

Dad's final resting place, with Telluride's box canyon walls and the Hardrock trail  in the background. Photo by Eric Kent.

Dad’s final resting place, with Telluride’s box canyon walls and the Hardrock trail in the background. Photo by Eric Kent.

And on some of the miles heading to Silverton, I’ll surely wind up talking to the ghost of my dad. We said goodbye to him last year in Telluride’s Lone Tree Cemetery, right by where the Hardrock runners pass on their way out of Town Park.

I’ll hear Dad’s bellowing laugh and “Hold on!” as he shifted Big Red into low gear to get over a slab of rock on Imogene Pass.

Running along the trail, I’ll try to make my spit go extra far and my burps sound extra loud like Dad taught me to do when we camped at Woods Lake.

He would get such a kick out of seeing me traverse an alpine basin full of columbine. He’d want to take his dogs and fishing pole in the truck to Yankee Boy Basin one more time.

He’d stop for a picnic. A Spam sandwich with a Coors. Then he’d drive to meet me in Silverton and “get a load of all the weirdos” at the finish line.

Dad next to Big Red on Imogene, sometime in the late 1970s.

Dad next to Big Red on Imogene, sometime in the late 1970s.

Dad hiking in Silver Pick Basin in the 1990s.

Dad hiking in Silver Pick Basin in the 1990s.

I’m beyond blessed that my screwball parents gave me colorful, carefree summers in Telluride. And I’m grateful for the people who make events like Hardrock possible, who protect the open space and build the trails, which gives people like me the opportunity to reconnect with the untamed high country.

I never want to go soft and lose touch with my Telluride side.

Surrounded by those mountains, I will pay tribute to my intrepid ancestors. I’ll feel grounded and strengthened by their legacy.

Their lives and deaths remind me that our time on this earth is finite, that the end could come on any day, so I better hit the trail and see those summits while I can.

Caught in a hailstorm, 2012

Caught in a hailstorm, 2012

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11 Responses to An Ode to Telluride, Family Ghosts and the Hardrock Spirit

  1. mizunogirl July 2, 2014 at 1:09 am #

    There is something to returning to a childhood home place that is so grounding. Hope that the Hardrock experience is everything you want/need it to be and I hope Betsy Nye has a great experience as well! Enjoy!
    mizunogirl recently posted..Bridge To Bridge 2014 SwimMy Profile

  2. Martha Howard July 2, 2014 at 2:06 am #

    Oh Sar – you’ve really captured the feeling of those summers. So much baggage from our crazy upbringing, but those summers were golden. Thank you for writing this. I love you – Martha

  3. Steve Pero July 2, 2014 at 6:31 am #

    Wow, what a great story and a fantastic way of growing up.
    Beginning Friday morning (July 4th), Deb and I will begin a 4 day hike of the Hardrock route after not getting in this year. We will then pace friends next weekend. This is our idea of a vacation.
    Hope to meet you sometime in the next week!

  4. Olga King July 2, 2014 at 6:31 am #

    Lucky you! What a heritage in so many ways!
    Olga King recently posted..Bryce 50M – running is overrated.My Profile

  5. Jason | BodesWell July 2, 2014 at 8:20 am #

    Awesome – I wish I had some of your childhood adventures! Great photos too!

  6. David Lavender July 2, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    Marvelous, Sarah. So glad that you, as the youngest of our generation, is the repository of all these stories and deep emotions. Thanks for sharing!

    Can’t wait to see you out here for the Hardrock. Don’t worry too much about the snow. It’s been warm, and the rivers are raging.

    –David

  7. Morgan July 2, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    I love it.

  8. John Nguyen July 3, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    What a beautiful post.

  9. Cheryl July 4, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

    Beautifully written! I can feel the Lavender spirit alive and thriving in your writing. Watch out hard rock.. She’s coming home!!

  10. hh July 5, 2014 at 6:36 am #

    Love this!! The detailed memories…what a wonderful gift. Good luck!

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