I decided to get out of Denver and drive the roads I first saw 40 years ago as I was nearing my twenty-first birthday. I had left college in January of that year because they would not allow me to take courses in my chosen major of Radio & TV. You see, in order to major in Radios & TV you had to pass the foreign language requirement and I wasn’t. Hell, I was dyslexic, still am, and had a hard enough time passing English. That winter I worked on the night Snow Crew of a local ski hill, and in northern Ohio that’s what we had, small hills. Then I worked at two restaurants during the spring and summer. The last restaurant became too much when it dawned on me that this was MY life. I can do what I want and I wanted to live in the mountains.
After discarding all my childhood things; the dozens of horseshow ribbons I won; my high school yearbooks; all the knick-knacks and posters and other stuff a teenager collects. I was down to the essentials that could fit into my small 1968 VW Fastback. I packed my vinyl records; stereo amp and turntable; I did not have speakers; my camera and darkroom equipment of trays, enlarger and chemicals, skis; and clothes. My mother got a little concern. You know, the concern that a parents gets when they see their child throwing away all their possessions. But they were what I had collected as a child and those days were over.
I recall my first across country drive to live in the mountains stated out by visiting my two brothers at the colleges they were attending, University of Cincinnati and Purdue University. It was nice to visit them. The drive across Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and the eastern plains of Colorado was meditative. Watching the land pass by my car’s windows was freeing. The land was open, not restricted by corridors of trees that lined the roads in the much of the East. My VW puttered along I-70. The speed limit was 55 MPH back then. It was supposed to conserve on gas consumption was what they told us. Although my car would not allow me to speed much faster, others sped pass in a rush that was just not meant for me. It was a nice comfortable pace that provided time to think or not to think.
My next stop was with my cousins in Boulder, Colorado who lived on Pine Street which was a couple blocks from the newly created Pearl Street Mall. It was 1978 and they, like many others in Boulder, had come there to escape the “establishment” of their parents. I immediately felt the reason why Boulder had attracted so many twenty-somethings. It was a lack of parent age people. All the shops and restaurants were run by people who seemed the same age. All were trying to live their utopian life, at least while it lasts, and I loved it.
After a couple days with my cousins and adding some camping equipment consisting of a tent and a sub-zero mummy bag; shoot, this was November, boy was I filled with youth driven romantic naivety thinking I would, if it came down to it, make a campground my home; I headed back to the open road and onward to Montana. Two months prior to leveling Cleveland I had sent letters to a few ski resorts knowing they would have plenty of jobs in the winter. Big Sky Resort in Montana had replied positively so that was my bird-in-hand. My little V-dub, as some call them, puttered westward along I-70 out of Denver. The real adventure had now kicked in. Mountains. Blue sky. I was driving through the land of my childhood dreams. The thinner air from the altitude and the steep mountain roads slowed my VW down even more. How fortunate I was! The ever slowing pace allowed me to soak up every second. I was in no rush to get anywhere. Life is way too fast and society is way too hurried, period! I just gazed out the window at the steep mountain sides watching the mountain peaks appear and disappear behind the pine tree textured valley walls. I had to shift down the second gear to crawl up the last miles to the Eisenhower Tunnel. It was all such a dream.
The road down the west side of the tunnel opened up to the land in my heart. I had made it! Now I need to find a place and to stake my claim on life. My car gained new life as we headed down from the tunnel and was back to its normal highway speed. Vail was the first resort on my list. I descended into the Vail Valley and immediately felt closed in. The valley was much too narrow. It was claustrophobic. I looked across the highway at the Vail Village and saw echoes of what I needed to escape and just kept on going.
The next ski resort on my list was Steamboat Springs. The map showed that Highway 131 was coming up several miles past Vail and it would take me to Steamboat. Leaving the Interstate for a county road provided a real taste of where I was. There were very few buildings along the road. Train tracks, ranches and just open spaces.
A little past sundown, I drove west through Steamboat Springs and found a KOA campgrounds outside of the town. With only the fading light from my flashlight whose battery was half gone, I setup my newly bought tent for the first time. The instructions were missing, but after looking at the parts it was easy to figure out how to put it together. The night was freezing cold and I fell to sleep with a big grin on my face in my warm mummy bag.
I awoke to see the early light of the sunrise. After washing up in the community bathroom, the bright morning sun began to warm the campground, although my VW was still in shadow. I went to start its engine but it did not start. The battery was good and turned over the motor, again and again but no life. Someone walked by seeing me, and no doubt my Ohio license plate, and said “it’s fuel line freeze up”. My puzzled look prompted him to explain that I probably had water in my gas lines that froze preventing gas from entering the engine and that I needed to wait for things to warm up. Well, I was in no hurry and luckily the VW was pointed so that the sun was shining on the engine.
The sun and life continued to shine on me that winter in Steamboat. As it turned out my car, my little eggshell broke down there and I was out of money too, but time and time again good things happened to me. I met a couple from the Twin Cities at the KOA and we eventually shared a condo for the winter. I got a job working for the mountain, the ski resort which unbeknownst to me provided a free season’s ski pass. My job was morning snow shoveling in four ten-hour days shift. Not only did I enjoy working outside looking at the Steamboat valley all day, the shoveling built my strength which helped me ski better than I had ever skiied. I had the very best time of my life that winter.
Today on my drive, as I pasted Vail it did not seem so bad. It certainly had grown since 1978, the first time I saw it. The day was sunny as I sped along I-70. I got to Highway 131 and headed north to Steamboat Springs. When I reached the outskirts of Steamboat, I put down my camera. Up until then most of what I drove through looked the same as it did 40 years ago, but the Steamboat Springs I first knew was far far away in the past. That fact especially hit me hard this past summer when driving back from my first Montana road trip I had wanted to car camp at the KOA as I had often done over the years. Sure most of the place was there, but it especially hit me that things had changed. The small stream I camped by had gone the way streams do when cutoff from the main stream and was now filling in with vegetation. Up until now the echoes from my first visit had lingered. But today not even a faint breeze brought back any remembrances. I only saw the new generation of campers with cellphones and fancy multi-sectioned tents. The main reason many were there was because the gentrified town of Steamboat Springs had become “The Place” to be. Even the ski mountain was strangled with a new silver rollercoaster-like-ride covering the bottom of the mountain, almost like razor wire. It was all alien to me.
I had lunch at the Short Branch which had become the oldest restaurant on Main Street after the Cantina was sold the privious year. While eating I read the Pilot, the local newspaper, and saw they moved the iconic Steamboat barn. I was baffled why it was moved and not just torn down. The barn itself was not iconic. It was the barn in its original location that framed the famous iconic image of Steamboat’s cowboy and wild-west feeling that Steamboat was. And there lied all the answers and reasons, and where things stood for me. WAS! It was, not it is, but was. My 21st birthday was 4 decades ago. The magical winter was 40 years ago. I am now 61 years old. My life, if I used my parents as a gage, had fifteen to twenty-five years left if I’m lucky. I could not say my current life was as filled with life and hopes and possibilities as when I was 21. The hell if I’m going to be like that barn, having made a name for itself, be moved to some isolated spot for a comfortable life and nothing more. There was still time and things that I had not yet accomplished.
I paid my bill and was very glad I had not checked out yet.
Watch for more about my 21st Birthday in Steamboat Springs in the coming months.
Read about my second Montana Road Trip and how my drive-time shooting technigue developed.