“Dammit all the world is real and everybody carries on like it is a dream, like they were themselves dreams…pain or love or danger makes you real again.”
Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
What is a real mountain person? This is essentially the question John Fayhee, the editor of the Mountain Gazette, posed to me in an email. Since then it’s been lots of thinking, writing, throwing away (recycling), thinking, and here I am again, writing.
I’ve come to the conclusion I am both unable and unwilling to define what a real mountain person is. The main reason is that if I wrote about what a real mountain person is, I’d be saying that certain people who live in the mountains aren’t authentic. Who am I to judge who belongs in a mountain town?
I am a typical example of a mountain town resident. I moved to Colorado from the Midwest and I’ve been here for most of the last seven years. Maybe if I was born and raised in the mountains, I could qualify to write about real mountain people. If I was a miner who lost his job and watched Crested Butte, where I’m writing from, turn from a mining based economy to a tourist based one. If I was a cowboy who suffers through the seasons year after year, through all the trials and hardships the mountains invite. Or if I was a Ute who lived off the land in the mountains only to have it developed by the white person, descendants who later put “native” stickers on their cars.
I am just another white guy who moved to the mountains with little, except hopes of finding something to live for, which the flatlands didn’t seem to have for me. The search was for real mountain experiences, something I found through the enthusiasm and wonder of youth, the luck of being in the right place at the right time, and the often underrated advantage of having relatively little money.
Here is a little more about the message from Fahyee. In the email, he mentioned that he was moving from his home in the High Country of Colorado to New Mexico. One of his reasons, he stated, was people moving to the High Country didn’t seem like real mountain people.
Now I think I know the kind of people he’s talking about. Here’s a semi-reasonable stereotype: they drive shiny vehicles, they are interested in real estate, and they usually come to the mountains with capital. These folks are flocking to Crested Butte, too.
In the last couple years, I’ve witnessed real estate prices skyrocket, and more flashy vehicles driving around. I could go off on the capitalists ruining mountain towns, but again who am I to judge? Have you ever heard the phrase, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game?”
Besides, this game doesn’t interest me. I feel the true wealth of mountain living lies in getting out there, in the hills and growing spiritually from these experiences. Out there, in my little campsite a couple miles out of town, where I’d easily surpassed the fourteen day limit. This was mountain living: a fire pit, a tent, boulders all around, the sweet smell of sage, birds a chirpin’ and bunnies a hoppin’. I felt richer than any man in a mansion. No rent, no TV, no sofa, just a man and his thoughts. The plan went well till my car broke down. But what did I care? I had a bike, and two feet. During this experience, I found a peace of mind I hadn’t experienced since I was a child at camp, in the woods. It was also a blessing as a young writer to have the stillness of silence every night, with the fire as my only entertainment. I experienced a magical moment, I can still vividly recall years later, sitting by the fire, a poem inspired by my surroundings, actually writing itself.
My friend Brent Armstrong is a little more out there than I am. He was a guru to all us youngsters interested in the simple character building endeavor of rock climbing. He had his eyes on a prime piece of real estate down in the Black Canyon, an unclimbed big wall route. He spent nine days alone on the wall. I’d discovered living simply in the wilderness brought great thoughts and meditations, but living on a wall, what would that be like?
I never had the nerve to do a big wall climb alone, but I did get stuck on a wall overnight down in The Black. Dave Marcinowski and I didn’t intend to spend the night on a cramped ledge, with barely enough room for the two of us to sit, a thousand feet above the Gunnison River, but I’m glad we did. We were essentially naked to the night, to nature. Having everything removed from your life makes one appreciate even the most basic things we many times take for granted. We asked each other questions like, “If you could have anything in the world what would it be?”
“Water, some food and a woman,” was the answer.
Another buddy, Zach Alberts, is a simple cat, an inspiration to mountain town bums. The guy hasn’t paid rent in like seven years, and he’s one of the most pleasant individuals you’ll ever come across. One summer, he set up camp amongst the local boulders, ones that happen to be in close proximity to a country club with multi-million dollar homes. If the owners only knew, there was this climbing bum living in the same setting, with the same mountains to view, with nothing but his tent and some food, content as could be. I wonder if the millionaires, burdened by their worldly possessions, are truly as happy as he is.
Tom Mally is another local I admire. I could camp out for six months in the warm seasons, but he camped out for two winters, this in a place that gets so cold many residents can barely afford their heating bill. I told him recently I admired him for his winter camping skills. He told me it wasn’t so bad, and once he figured out how to stay warm, he really enjoyed the experience.
I think in America there is an illusion that having a lot of money will certainly provide one with a rich life. There is a freedom, a feeling, a lifestyle out there that can be lived without a lot of money. There are many ways to find this freedom, but, personally, I found this lifestyle by moving to a mountain town and learning from the people here.
After all these years, I still get this blissful feeling when I’m out there on a rock, in my tent, or with my friends, a feeling that is real, the thought that I should try to live more simply in order to find more happiness.
Out there, I also have this feeling deep inside in some way I owe the Natives who lived here before me, the miners who saw their way of life give way to the easier, but more complicated tourist based way of life, and the cowboys who still ranch on land that was once worth little and now is worth millions; the real mountain people who led the way for us living here now.
photo by Braden Gunem www.bradengunem.com