Scatter my ashes here...

Scatter my ashes here...
scatter my ashes in the desert...

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Return to Gunrackistan...A Love Story

"My stonehouse burnt down, nothing obscures the light of the bright moon" -Masahide

Gunnison, Colorado. One of the highest, coldest cities in the U.S. Also one of the most beautiful, and the still pristine way of life- small town, with a culture that is disappearing and barely clinging to its existence. Ranching and recreation are the economy. And then there's Western State College (now Western State Colorado University).

Up the road 30 miles there's a ski town called Crested Butte. Culturally different- progressive, liberal, upscale, hipsterish. The locals refer to Gunnison, downvalley, as Gunrack. Gunnison old timers might have names for the Butte too but I don't know them. Hippie town, maybe.

I lived in both towns back in the 80s and 90s for a brief time, a few years here, a few years there. After college, Crested Butte was a great place to hang out and play, wait tables and run or ride mountain bikes over passes with names like Oh Be Joyful and Block & Tackle, Conundrum Pass and Teocalli Ridge, Gothic and Paonia, Green Lake and Washington Gulch.

Gunnison tourists go hunting for elk. And college girls.

I remember shooing a Chevy Blazer packed with hunters away from the women's cross country team one day as we were walking up the hill to the track for practice. And sitting in a bar on a September day after a long mountain bike ride with my girlfriends, being serenaded by some drunk hunters who wanted to buy the local girls rounds of drinks.

Crested Butte tourists go alpine skiing, telemarking, nordic skiing, ride mountain bikes, and sample the microbrews and upscale establishments.

You'd think a leftwinger like me would want nothing to do with Gunrackistan and it's entrenched cowboy culture, locked into the old days when men didn't know what quiche was and definitely couldn't pronounce it...

Cattle country. You ate meat there, it's what's for dinner.

When I first arrived in the valley I was still a vegetarian. But.

I fell in love with Gunnison anyway. I have never been so in love with a place. Ever, and I doubt ever again.

Crested Butte is a beautiful spot in the world. Towering peaks surround a bowl-like valley, the colors of avalanche chutes filled with green aspen and dark green spruce, and snow chutes remain year-round. Wildflowers and painted Victorians and blue sky with fluffy white clouds and clear air lend a palette of color to the surroundings.

I love that, but Gunnison...

the whole area is something different. Maybe it's the sagebrush.

I thought it would be hard to live in Gunrack after being a Buttian. But it drew me in even tighter. I cried for a month when I left to move to Fort Collins for graduate school in 1989. I wanted to go back so badly. I was fixated on it.

One of the mistakes of my youth was that I thought I wanted to go back and teach there. Then I had a chance, a 2 year temporary contract to fill a sudden vacancy that was offered before I even defended my dissertation. I jumped on it, of course. Except by the first day of my second year, I can remember going to class, and counting how many days were left in the school year.

To put it mildly, it used to be a very backward, regressive type of atmosphere that seems to have changed all too slowly. Back then, there was a palpable fear of and hostility to women, and anyone who might be a little on the progressive side. Newcomers who didn't play the game with the old guard didn't make them too happy.

About 20 years ago the college experimented on the wild side- it hired a woman as president. That was enough to freak the good ole boys out, especially when she brought in a whole slew of new, young faculty many of whom were women and a few of whom were (shhhh!) lesbians. A word that didn't even exist in the lexicon of the good ole boys. They couldn't even say the word. Enough to put a few of the old boys over the edge. Politically it was a difficult time in the state's politics, and being a state school we were subject to whatever happened at the state capitol.

The new President wasn't too supportive of the old boy coaches getting away with the same old crap. Which created a lot of tension.

This was at the same time as Amendment 2 was on the ballot and there was a big political fight going on down on the Front Range. Someone was stomping and kicking the good ole boys in the shins with steel-toed boots, but you'd think the wearer of the boots had indoor plumbing or was gay. Focus on the Family, James Dobson, Bill Perkins, and the Colorado Springs contingent were in their homophobic heyday. (Remember Bob Dole and Family values, this is a Christian nation, and so on...)

Yes, the good ole boys and their minions, wanting me to allow a student to get away with not doing any work and give him a passing grade so he could play football or wrestle or whatever. Stopping me in the hall to ask important, pointed, questions such as, "If you're married, why don't you have the same last name as your husband?" or "Are you a vegetarian?", or "What do you think of Title IX?"

All very relevant to our job descriptions. "Are you in that 'women's group?'" Emphasis as if women was a four letter word that needed to be spoken quietly. (Translation: Do you hang out with lesbians who plan to take over the world from men, replace us from our jobs, emasculate and castrate us?) My office mate was in the exact same boat as I was. She loved it when our fellow faculty members praised us by saying "good girl". Among other things.

Looking back, I see how backward things were even in the 90s. Not only awkward and socially tone deaf, but just twisted and fixated on the threat of feminism, as if their nuts would drop into the toilet and go "Plink-plink!" into the water as they flushed.

I look back at the painful times, but there were many more good times, namely the relationships that came out of that time.

Right here in this building I met my husband. Webster Hall in Gunnison, at a 5K with a pancake breakfast afterward in August of 1986. I won the race for the women that day, too. I think it might have been the first race I ever won.

My friend Heidi and I became friends and running partners. She started out as one of my students, and we ran in the cold predawn mornings together. We are still close friends 20 years later, even though she lives in Arizona now.

And there was the team. The Western State Mountaineers. The athletes on the cross country and distance track teams, so many of whom we stay in touch or have reconnected with, and still see on occasion. Scattered all over the state, we can always count on running into someone from those days every so often.

And then there's Coach.

The reason we were back in Gunnison last weekend was Coach. My husband Dennis, a former cross country and distance runner on the team, was being inducted into the college's Sports Hall of Fame. Coach and another friend of ours from way back, Joe, had nominated him.

Coach is one of a kind. I can't even describe this guy, he has a presence that is larger than anything in the valley. You'd have to meet him to understand. But they definitely broke the mold after they made him and there is no way anyone who has ever been around him or has worked with him can help but be influenced, and inspired by him. ""

I can't say I always got along with him, I didn't. We butted heads A LOT.

Coach and I are very strongheaded people and of course we would butt heads. I don't agree with the way he goes about doing things, but it works for him because the system was designed around him and his needs, they accommodated him and his ways for years, and it dates back to a very old paternalistic time, and he's managed to have his way. And I was a newcomer, not to mention the gender, age and heretical nature of who I am.

But still, I can't help but admit I like the guy, the person he is. It's easier from a distance. But how could you not like him, anyone with that unique of a personality, you really can't help it.

So, the long story is my husband ran for Western State College (now Western State Colorado University) in the early 80s, and was one of the top runners on team, ever. He was national champion in the 3000m steeplechase, set a national record in that event at the time, was one of the top cross country runners, 4th in the national meet, multiple time All-American, and so on.

Pretty awesome accomplishments.
After college he coached as an assistant and then I came on as an assistant coach a couple of years later. That's when Dennis and I actually started dating. I moved to Fort Collins to go to graduate school, and Dennis left to go to Adams State College, the rival college, two hours down the road and over the pass, because Dennis was working on a masters in physical education and the program got cut at Western, but still was offered at Adams. So he went there. Not to mention that Adams State College legendary Coach Joe Vigil was the Olympic coach for distance runners.

Running for Reebok, under Vigil, Dennis improved at cross country and more. He competed and finished extremely well all over the country, in road races and made the US Cross country team and went to France and Italy to compete in the World Championships and other races. That was in 1990, the same year we got married.

Coach was at our wedding. I guess I should have prepared my dad because Coach gave a toast, and my dad was like, "who the hell is this guy??? He sounds like a relic, a dinosaur."

Yes, my dad is a sharp judge of character.

Despite the paternalism, I've always called Coach by his first name. I never was one of his athletes or students, I was one of his assistant coaches, and later we were fellow faculty members.

But I think to him, a woman 30 years younger than him, who was the same age as many of his athletes and that he had seniority over, I sensed there was a slight bristle. Other young faculty members and assistant coaches called him Duane. Maybe it was just my projection. But I felt like it was important to establish my ground, my territory, that I wasn't going to be pushed around like a member of the team.

He never said anything about it, and I know he would have if it was that bothersome to him. But in my mind, he's really Coach.

Anyway, many years later Adams State asked Dennis if he'd run on their team at a masters race, Dennis said yes. Then a week before the race, someone from Western called to ask Dennis to ask if he'd run for the Western Team. He'd already committed to Adams and stuck with it.

After that race, which Adams won, Coach did the finger in your face thing, using his classic relic-like, dinosaur-like, paternalistic I'm the coach and I rule your life voice. Which really upset Dennis.

And they didn't speak to each other for years. As the years went on, many halls of fame with lots of athletes inducted, and Dennis was never asked. People would comment, when is it going to be your turn? Dennis thought as long as Coach was around it wasn't going to happen. Disloyalty was Coach's biggest peeve.

"You can't break with tradition. This is the Western Slope!" he would have said.

So...a few more things happened. Pat Porter, US Olympian, former Adams State runner and Dennis' teammate from the US Cross Country team, was named to another honor several years ago and Dennis and his friend Steve went to the ceremony to see Pat and honor his award and celebrate. A week later, Pat was killed in a plane crash.

Then, Coach was inducted two years ago. I forget what I was doing but I didn't feel like going. I just didn't want to bring any upheaval into my life at that point. I wasn't ready to go over Monarch again and see the valley and be reminded, and I didn't go. Then I found out how many people on the team showed up and was kicking myself.

They did settle things, finally. Coach is getting up there in age, he's dealing with some health issues. He's not physically well, but to see him, he never ages, he never changes, and he doesn't seem to have less energy. Still walks and talks and carries himself the same way, with the same booming confidence of a man who knows he drives things.

He might as well own the town, it could easily be named after him. I know that a future building or major renovation, perhaps the new Mountaineer Bowl, will be named after him. It should be. Hell, the whole county should be.

Except I think the Mountaineer had a heart attack. Must have been all that red meat.

For the induction weekend, it all worked out perfectly. It looks like maybe this new president and athletic director might have better plans and a considerably firmer grip on the world outside Gunnison, having been other places.

Dennis's family came up. At first I didn't want to go to the football game or the president's breakfast or the plaque hanging, but I went to all of them. Some of our old friends and Dennis's old teammates came up. It was a small group but the right energy. There were a lot of people I wish I would have seen, and I wish I would have had more time up there, but the ones I really didn't want to see were not there or didn't come up. Some of them don't even live there anymore. A good thing. New blood is needed, even in Gunrackistan.

One of Dennis' old teammates, a high jumper, was also inducted. That was cool. And one of my former students too! It was a shared celebration, and seeing everyone after so many years added an extra fun dimension to it.

I wasn't ready until now. It was just so hard to go back over Monarch Pass. I don't know why, because we went over Cottonwood Pass to Crested Butte several times since then. I just couldn't deal with Gunnison.

For years I've been thinking I am just so in love with the place that I can't bear the pain of seeing it and knowing that I can't live there. You can't make a living up there unless you have one of the few jobs or are independently wealthy. Otherwise you need to piece together 4 or 5 different jobs to keep afloat. You have to really be addicted to stay. I must not have been. But I'm obviously not fully recovered.

And now Coach is sick and we all know time is limited, and no one is saying what we all know.

It was a combination of one of the most disappointing, painful experiences and one of the most influential places in my life, but I'm forever thankful for it and the chance to immerse myself and completely and totally fall in love with the place, so much that I couldn't even go back for 20 years. Part grudge, part pain, part fear of being sucked into the intoxication and addiction that would limit my opportunities forever.

I am glad I finally went. I faced it, my discomfort, my fear of not being able to handle it, of it being too painful. But it wasn't at all. As much as I love the place and think it's beautiful and peaceful and there's something that awakens a deep place in my heart and spirit, a feeling that I somehow belong there, at least in the natural environment of it...

...politically and personally I don't have enough tongues to replace the ones I would bite off every day, maybe even every hour. I'm not a lizard, can't grow body parts back. But I know that in Gunnison, they have plenty of taxidermists who could probably mount those tongues on a wall somewhere.

Some things never change
I love that it hasn't changed.
The air is clear, the air smells fresh and the sagebrush and pine scent is everywhere.
I'm glad it's still Gunrackistan.
It would be more painful to go back there and see that it had changed.


Double said...

Now that was a great read. I don't know much about the skill of writing, but recognize when people like you do. I'm sure that took some time to put down into thanks. Having ran cross in college it brought back many memories of "team." Though many were not running related. I have a friend I ran with back in the day. I believe I will ring him up today. He's from PA originally so that's a lifetime honor in itself!

Alene Gone Bad said...

Thanks David! I appreciate the comment. Yes that was a tough post to write and it took a long time. Definitely look up your old buddies. It will feel better than you could ever imagine.