Crazy Tourist Season

The day after I was auctioned off as one of the “Celebrity Golfers” for the Saint Vincent Hospital Fundraising Tournament, I cheered on my California brother-in-law as he began his first Leadville Trail Marathon. I’ve decided this race marks the official first day of crazy tourist season in our sleepy little town, and I’ve been contemplating lately what it means to live in a tourist destination.

My golfing teammates did not know I’d never swung a club since my last mini-golf date asGolf 1 a teen, but they were willing to believe in me. We and hosts of others were there to support our hospital, and the day made me happy and proud because I realized I now live in a place where people often set aside their own agendas to do something good for others. Some of us were once just tourists to Leadville.

I realized my happiness of late also stems from the fact that I used to grouse about the lack of local cultural events around my new turf, but I can’t do that anymore. Nearly every week we can choose between free author talks, free plays, poetry readings, music jams, art gallery events, Steampunk affairs, movie nights “and MORE!” We have two libraries with two enthusiastic library directors continually on the lookout for engaging, entertaining guests. Our tourists are often unaware of our cultural richness, focusing more on the glorious mountains we’ve come to take for granted as our daily backdrop.

Many of our tourists also arrive with the conviction that Leadville is no different from Mayberry R.F.D. and that since we’re so small, we mustn’t have many laws. We already see them stopping in the middle of the street to take a photo, driving the wrong way down one-way streets and stepping off sidewalks as if cars haven’t yet made it to this elevation. But I’m pretty sure even I did some of those things when I was but a tourist here before making the major move eight years ago.

This makes me highly attuned to the locals (and I’m one now) who are warming up their grumble-seats, ready to launch complaints about having to wait a full minute or more to turn onto Harrison, or having to drive a whole four blocks to get around a closed section of road for an event, or *GASP* having to walk as far to shop in one of our stores. But having lived on the east coast for most of my life, I laugh at the idea that waiting a breath before crossing a road or driving five minutes out of my way is an inconvenience worth mentioning. I suppose everything’s relative.

Yes, I was once one of those crazy tourists the locals complained about. Now I’m Leadville Laurel, local author and occasional (self-proclaimed) celebrity. Does this mean I’m suggesting we want more ex-tourists like me deciding to move here? Call it hubris if you will, but heck yeah, I am. I’m asking you to consider how the next “gaper” you curse at because they’re slowing you down as they gaze at the history and beauty surrounding them—wondering how they might capture even a piece of it before heading back to their traffic jams and heat—might be the next butcher or baker or candlestick-maker who decides to make the leap to Leadville.

I’ve lived here long enough now to know one of the favorite complaints voiced by new and old residents alike, and for whatever reason, I hear it more frequently during tourist seasons. I’d really love to be the one to banish it forever from our small-talk. Barring a truly cataclysmic geological event, Leadville will never become “the next Breckenridge,” so could we please stop beating that mythological horse? We could, however, become a town that supports not only its current population, but a growing one. We could be a town in which every shop is open year-round, a town in which our second-home-owners make their getaways here their first homes.

It’s my belief that we cannot remain a sleepy little town for much longer lest we stagnate or die. So let’s laugh at our tourists rather than curse them. Let’s try a tad more tourist toleration, or at least suppress our sneers. Let’s understand the magic we know they feel while driving or walking around our town, be it the wrong way or in the middle of the street. Let’s attend and support our cultural events and shop locally whenever possible. Let’s encourage and support those who seek to keep Leadville alive. Let’s start seeing our town through the eyes of our tourists again—through awestruck, smiling eyes.

“NEED FOOD”

Good friend died this week
Wonder how long I have left
Every day must count

“NEED FOOD,” read the cardboard sign held by a woman who appeared to be in her 70s. It’s hard to gauge the age of homeless people as most do not age well.

I was returning from a weekend conference in Denver and stopped by our local Safeway for a few things before going home. The petite woman was walking toward the store in the opposite direction of my travel and I had already driven past her.

“Just go home,” said the left hemisphere of my brain.

It was Sunday afternoon, I was tired from the weekend festivities and anxious to reunite with my husband. I drove a little farther before the right hemisphere had its say.

“Go back,” was the command.

Risking a traffic violation, I pulled a U-turn. Something about the woman called me back to her. I drove up slowly with my passenger window down.

“Could I take you to Safeway?” I asked. I’d considered simply handing her one of my bags of food, but thought it might be awkward.

A literal bag lady, she approached the window with hands covered in blue rubber gloves and enclosed in plastic Safeway bags. She smiled a sparse-toothed smile and her weather-creased face lit up.

“Well, I don’t really need food,” she started.

It’s a trap! I thought. Why didn’t you just go home?

“. . . I’m allergic to almost everything. I can’t eat any of their chicken. What I really need is shelter. I’m staying at the Hostel and it’s $25 a night.”

Though I rarely carry cash, I had sold some books at the convention and knew I had at least that much in my wallet. It was certainly easier than taking her on a shopping spree.

I brought $25 from my wallet and she leaned into the window with another plastic bag into which I deposited her fee for another night at my friends’ place, the Leadville Hostel. “Wild Bill” and Cathy have operated the hostel for the past 15 years and it quickly became our home-away-from-home during the four years we lived in Colorado Springs before finally making the leap to Leadville. We visited far more often over those four years than we have in the eight years since we moved just a mile away from them, and whenever we accidentally bump into one another, usually at Safeway, we laugh about it.

“I’ll call Wild Bill and let him know I saw you today,” I told the woman. It came out sounding like I was keeping tabs on her, and I felt a need to explain. “He’s a friend.”

She smiled again and said, “Did you know even mice are smart enough to have a God?”

“Oh?” I waited.

“They call him Cheesus,” she delivered her corny punchline with a truly sweet smile, her gift to me, and walked away.

When I got home I was eager to unpack, but my brain reminded me to call Wild Bill. We hadn’t spoken in months and I figured it was as good a time as any to reconnect. He answered in his Mississippi drawl and we discussed the woman who was allergic to everything. He thanked me for helping out.

“And you know what time it is?” he egged me on with characteristic mischief in his voice.

“Um . . . what time?” I asked, ready for another bad joke.

“It’s time to get together for our annual ‘we-never-see-each-other-anymore’ dinner!”

We both laughed at the recurrent theme and agreed to meet for dinner the following week.

“I’ll call Cathy next week,” I said. “And it’s our turn to cook.”

I could tell he was busy—the Hostel is always in full-bustle with new guests and regulars—and we hung up with a “See you soon!”

*****

Early Monday morning Mike came into the room to wake me, something he rarely does.
“Cathy just called,” he said too quietly, and although I was still in a waking stupor, I knew he was trying to convey serious news. Knowing many Cathys, I was confused. With difficulty, he uttered the words, “Wild Bill’s gone.”

“What? What do you mean?” I asked, fully awake.

He explained how our friend was on his way to Denver Sunday evening and didn’t get far at all before his vehicle went off the road and hit a tree. Stroke, heart attack, whatever happened, he died on the operating table Monday morning, 64-years-young.

*****

“Could I take you back to Buena Vista?” I asked the bag lady at the Hostel, knowing she had recently been there. She needed to leave to make room for family coming from all over to grieve the shocking loss of a man everybody loved.

“No, it’s too hot there now,” she said.

Although she’d been told the reason she needed to move on, I wasn’t sure she grasped it fully. She was squatting on her heals in the living room, her hands bagged and prepped for a day of money-gathering, and she looked adorable.

“I think I’d like to write something about you,” I told her. “What’s your name? Where are you from?”

“Barbara Marzec Rotunda,” she said. “I’m from Niagara Falls.”

“Marzec’s Polish, right?” I asked. “Would you mind if I took a photo of you?” I wanted to capture her just as she was.

“Yes! Polish! And can I make borscht!” she declared, standing and pushing her bangs Barbara2back into her hat. She suddenly became self-conscious.

“Oh, I look horrible,” she said. “But I used to be quite a cutie.”

“You look adorable,” I said, and I think she might have believed it for a moment.

I learned about how she used to travel with rock stars, Stevie Nicks being one, and how the man she married was no good. She unfolded a paper map onto which she sat next to me, allergic to the fabric on the couch, and allowed me to take her photo. Then I delivered her downtown, handed her a $20 and showed her where the Advocate’s Office was.

“That’s what I need,” she said, “an advocate.”

She allowed me to hug her, though I could tell she was considering my potential allergy-inducing attributes.

*****

How do we decide who we’ll help?

Leaving Safeway that evening to bring food to Cathy and gathering friends at the Hostel, I walked past a young man sitting near the door playing a harmonica—not even a little well—with a dog by his side and a hat out for money. It made me angry. I wanted to yell at him, “Get off your ass and look for a job.” He was far too young to be panhandling.

But then I thought of Barbara and how she had gifted me with one last conversation with a friend I’ll never forget. And although I didn’t stop to ask his story or offer money, I didn’t yell at him.

I hope Barbara has found shelter for another night.

I hope Wild Bill is resting peacefully, spinning his stories in a less judgmental world. Wild Bill Clower

Home again, home again…

Week 2 of our road trip is even better than week 1. Our sleep schedule is increasingly more like Ranger’s and each waking moment is an opportunity to explore extraordinary new scenery. The simplicity of our routine is invigorating. I don’t miss home at all.

Our only frustrations are with the occasional drivers who slow down when the road is not hairpin straight, or truckies who won’t pull over with a mile of traffic behind them.

“What are you hauling? A black hole?” Mike asks one driver when we can finally pass safely. The driver doesn’t hear him.

“Panguitch,” I read on a sign. “I’m hungry. I’d like a peanut butter and jelly panguitch, please.”

But then we see an even better sign advertising “HO-MADE PIES.” As I’m fairly certain hothey’re not gluten free, we pass on the Ho-made pies. “I once was a tart, but now I make them,” I say, and the pin-up girl on the sign agrees with me.

Debris, my iPhone, takes us on a circuitous route to one of our destinations, adding close to an extra hour of driving, and at some point I tell her to “stop navigation.” As soon as I finish my command, Mike adds, “and stop being a such a douche.” He’s angry at Debris’ faulty directions.

My phone responds sweetly with, “Okay, Laurel, here’s what I’ve found for stop navigation and stop being a douche,” and Mike and I burst into laughter. We cannot believe what we’ve just heard. Mike wants me to click on the “How can I stop being a douche” link, but I’d rather look at the scenery.

“Well,” I say, “we’re seeing lots of things we wouldn’t see if we’d taken the direct way.”

“Yeah, sheep,” he says. “Lots and lots of sheep.”

stormy skyFor hours we pass open land for as far as we can see and laugh at people who talk about the threat of overpopulation. The contrast between what we are seeing on our travels and what we know about those who live on top of one another in big cities is nearly irreconcilable in our minds.

Along a particularly rough stretch of road there’s a sign warning of an upcoming bump and we figure if the bump is worth noting, it must be a doozie. We maneuver it just fine, and then there’s another.

“I wonder if they’re related,” says Mike.

“Who?” I ask.

“The bumps. Because that would make them bumpkins.”

This is how many of our conversations go.

We finally make it to our campground near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and notice our slight stature amongst the other campers, something we observe everywhere we stop. We clearly have the smallest travel trailer in the whole place. We’re surrounded by Death Stars, and Mike—who is not a singer—never fails to hum the Star Wars tune whenever we pass one on the road.

I count over 45 different names on the various mobile homes, all promising something special. Attitude, Beaver, Freedom, Fury, Hideout, Independence, Jazz, Komfort, Puma Unleashed, Voltage, and Wildwood are some of my favorites.

“What! No Beaver Unleashed?” Mike asks. Beaver jokes are always funny.

“I could see trading up in a few years,” he says, checking out our neighbors’ rigs, and although our trailer feels palatial after years of trips in the truck camper, I can see a time when we might need just a little more space. Like when we’re on the road for months, or when we’re taking potential grandsnarfs on adventures.

Our neighbors at one campground, owners of a Death Star, tell us they call their trips fairy fort“Glamping.” The dad is a Marine, and like Mike, has decided he’s paid his dues roughing it for long enough. Their daughter, a serious 7-year-old, is engrossed in making a fairy fort out of pine needles and cones and sticks and stones. She is methodical in her creation, and I can tell she’s happy I’ve noticed her effort.

We decide to traverse one of the longer, steeper trails at the canyon and agree to do a timed out and back. I know Mike wants to cover as much ground as he can, and I want to stroll and take photos and chat with people, so we decide we’ll both turn around at the 90 minute mark.

“Don’t get lost,” I tell Mike, and he knows I’m joking about an experience on our previous hike—a simple half-mile round trip out and back to an overlook—when a group of Harley riders (I’m assuming they were Harley riders as they were all decked out in Harley leathers) asked us the way back to the lodge. We suppressed our urge to ask if they were joking and pointed to the only possible way they could walk.

So off we go down the steep Kaibab trail, which smells of mule dung punctuated by an occasional blast of fresh pine. But for the noisy swarms of metallic blue-green flies—why are they so beautiful?—on the freshest piles, they’re tolerable.

After I overcome my concern over several small children approaching an overlook with no fences and a rock slab slide into the void—they’re not my children and their parents seem to be watching them—I continue down the trail to a quiet piece of shade and sit in the cool silence, breathing in the canyon breath. A haiku presents itself:

Breathing canyon breath
No responsibilities
Peaceful cliff birds sing

During my turnaround hike back up the path a canyon-red butterfly outlined in white dips and turns and climbs over and over, a little dance just for me.

On our way to our next venue I watch Mike surreptitiously as he drives, this man who has made my life one huge adventure, and know I could travel the world this way with him. I notice for the first time the tin foil hairs interspersed with the brown ones on his forearms sparkling in the sun through the windshield and I think about the hairs on my own arms that now stick straight out as if trying to escape, and my eyebrow hairs that are growing willy-nilly like Einstein’s. I plucked one the other day that must have been an inch long, half brown, half gray, wholly twisted. blue steelI notice the gray stubble on Mike’s chin, something I rarely get to see, and it makes me wish I had my tweezers handy to pluck the persistent stray hairs that grow faster than a startle reflex on my own chin. Mike doesn’t like his facial hair, but he forgot to bring a new blade for his razor. I don’t tell him I’ve got extras. I like to see a little scruffle now and then.

We listen to a radio DJ who starts an excited expression with, “Holy …! Don’t worry, folks, I’ll never curse on the radio, so if you’re driving home with the kids now, you’ve got nothing to fear. This next song by 311, All Mixed Up, is one of my favorites. I mean, these guys work their asses off,” (emphasis on the asses).

“Wow,” is all Mike says.

Ranger profileWe’re a little quieter on our final drive from Mesa Verde to home, our last day of vacation. Sure, we laugh at the “Nothing Satisfies Like BEEF” sign and make the obvious pork references. It’s not like we’re somber or anything. And we’re truly pleased by Ranger’s response to our truck to trailer to truck routine these past two weeks. He’s always ready to jump into or out of whichever door we open, and after only a few minutes of whining in the truck, he settles down and does what he does best: sleeps.

We know we’ve seen only the tiniest fraction of what our country has to offer, and every place has been our favorite. Driving back into Colorado—after the mandatory donation to the Navajo Nation at 4-Corners where vendors of silver and turquoise surround you, entertained, no doubt, by the antics of tourists splaying themselves across the geographic marker—we are grateful once more to be living in one of the scenically most spectacular states.

Bouquet upon bouquet of orange, white, yellow and purple brighten the roadways, and over every rise there’s another castle or ship chiseled by an unseen sculptor’s hand from the cliffs of stony red earth. I imagine dinosaurs tromping alongside us and pterosaurs gliding from peak to castle peak. And then, the snow-capped mountains rise from flowered fields, and we are . . .

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig. almost home