In the kitchen at Donitas, where Tom Mally has spent 12 years slinging beans and rice, he is hurried and focused. He runs across the spacious kitchen mumbling to himself while he prepares the Mexican grub with this fellow cooks.
When the pace is fast he is all business, but when things slow down he opens up, cracking jokes and telling stories of wilderness adventures. If you've worked at Donitas awhile you may have already heard a version of the story. At 49 years old Tom has rambled from various mountain towns and has settled in Crested Butte; attracted by its quietness and the lack of people.
But by no means is Crested Butte paradise getaway for Tom, and someday the same things that brought him here may drive him to another mountain town.
A child of the East; raised in Long Island, New York, who also spent much of his teens living in Ireland, he "wanted to see the country" and hitchhiked west at 17.
"I hitchhiked across the country for six dollars," he boasts with pride. "One time I got stuck in Illinois for two days with no ride. Some guy stopped and his car smelled like wine and beer. I didn't care, after two days waiting you'll get in the car with anyone."
Tom talks of sleeping on the cement beneath underpasses along the highway. In the Midwest a moving truck picked him up and offered work. As they approached Denver near the end of the day, he remembers, "a sunset that looked like there was a zillion colors: green, blue, red, violet... I was hooked on Colorado from that point on."
After this summer he returned east but then soon went back again to the west. "I wanted to live like a hobo," he says.
Tom went out to the mountains near Flagstaff. "I had books on edible plants, a sack of flour and sugar, and a painter's cloth as a tent. I thought things like a tent and a sleeping bag were cheating."
The elements were rough on Tom. He lost 30 pounds and at one point got so thirsty that he drank muddy water out of some tire tracks. As fall approached he watched the snow get closer and closer to his campsite. During an intense snowstorm he decided it was time to leave. As he was leaving the wilderness battling the snow a guy who, "was bearded and skinny, looking like Cat Stevens popped out of nowhere," Tom recalls, "and asks me, hey man, you looking for Jesus?"
In Flagstaff someone gave Tom a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "I spent three hours eating it. It was the most delicious thing I've ever tasted."
Out of money and food he returned to the East; living with his sister in upstate New York. That season was rough for Tom. He was drinking heavily, serving sub sandwiches to "mean drunks” on a graveyard shift. For him the cruelty of humanity far exceeded the punishment that nature could deliver him.
“In my life the unfairness of human beings has been much worse than nature,” he reflects.
Tom met his future wife in the East and they moved into a trailer in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, "We didn't want to live in a damn city."
They lived there for a while and then moved to New Castle, Colorado, to a "better bigger trailer." During this era of his life, married and then with a child he, "stopped any wild excursions and worked around the clock."
A divorce led him to, "living out of my truck and doing guerilla urban camping." During this time he worked in a variety of restaurants in Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Redstone. He estimates he's cooked in 50 different establishments over the years.
Music was a big part of his life too. Tom plays keyboards, harmonica, clarinet, the oboe, and the tin whistle; an instrument he learned to play while living in Ireland. In Aspen he played in various bands, making some money, but now only plays music for the sake of playing music.
He liked the vibe of towns like Aspen and Vail before they were heavily developed; and the same with Glenwood and Carbondale. "I used to love those places," he says. "But they turned into something I didn't like."
Their crowding led him to Crested Butte in the mid-nineties, where his love for nature has grown. Here in CB Tom enjoys camping, mountain climbing, biking and fishing. His approach to these typically doesn't involve motorized vehicles (he doesn't own a car) and he often partakes in the adventures solo.
What he calls the "hidden hobo world" has also fascinated him, and like in Flagstaff nearly killed him. For two winters Tom camped out in the woods surrounding CB; one up Slate River and another up Kebler Pass. To some this sounds like a nightmare but to Tom it is just the way he likes to experience life.
"Condensation is your worst enemy in winter camping in the Butte," he says. "And I always slept in a tent. I heard too many stories about snow caves collapsing on people."
"One night it got over 30 below zero. My eyes froze shut and my head froze to the pillow," he says with a smile. "I didn't dare fall asleep that night."
After his second winter, which he comments was easier than the first after he discovered hand warmers that he used in his sleeping bag; he says he decided, "maybe I'm getting too old for this."
When asked for his opinion on the recent crackdown of campers surrounding Crested Butte he is compassionate, but has came to the realization that, "people can't camp out in big numbers out there or it ruins the areas."
He doesn't exclude the possibility of camping out again, and jokes that the authorities "would have to find me first."
Though he does not face himself to the brutal cold of the dead of the winter it's still not uncommon to hear about a Tom adventure; including the time he bought a townie bike in Gunnison and then proceeded to ride it up to Crested Butte facing the notorious headwind on a chilly fall evening.
For an adventurer that is approaching fifty, who has lived his life from one excursion to the next, from paycheck to paycheck, what does the future hold for Tom Mally?
"Good question," he answers. "And you know what until recently I hadn't really thought about it much. After my divorce I didn't really care if I lived or died. But now I am glad to be alive."
“Kay Peterson-Cook (one of the owners of Donitas) has really made me think of the future. She’s brought me into the real world.”
Kay considers Tom not only an employee of hers, “but a good friend. He is one of the backbones of this restaurant and he’s been rock solid for us in the kitchen,” she shares. “I don’t know if we could run Donitas without him, and I know we wouldn’t want to.”
In a town where restaurant employees change around like the revolving doors from the front of the house to the kitchen she, “can’t remember a time where he didn’t show up for work in 12 years.”
Tom reflects that CB is moving in the direction that many of the other mountain towns he moved away from. "I notice it when I try to hitchhike down to Gunnison. Less people are willing to stop and offer a ride."
"I need to live in a small town with mountains and I need some money," he says somberly. "I am not proud, I'll even wash dishes," the cook of over thirty years adds. "I look at as this cosmic joke that I've ended up working in a Mexican restaurant when French cuisine is the closest to my heart."
Tom looks at his life and notes the similarities with Christopher McCandless, the character in Jon Krakauer's famous Into the Wild novel that died of starvation in the wilderness in Alaska. "I think my feelings are the same as his. He was fed up with his existence and his family, and wanted to get out close to nature. I could have easily ended up like he did."
"I'm just a product of my generation, which was all about being a free spirit and adventuring," he adds.
Five days a week Tom can be found in the kitchen of Donitas; putting in overtime every pay period. In the busy season he will run around, working hard so that the job gets done right. As things slow down more stories and jokes will be told; some perhaps with certain elements added and taken away, the result of his memories blending together.
As our nation has become fascinated with the Into the Wild story, and continues to analyze why a bright young man died out in the Alaskan wilderness, here in Crested Butte there is a man who made similar mistakes but continues to live.
He is here for quietness, open space, to accept nature as it is, and to be away from the overcrowding of humans. One day he may leave the Gunnison Valley, but for now he is here, not because of money or luxury because he is still following an American dream, perhaps a version born of his generation, to “live like a hobo.”