More – In The ‘Ville

That Long Hill Down Into Camp Hale

By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today

There are certain stories that stay with you. Maybe it’s the genuineness with which they were told, or the details are so vivid that it paints a picture that lasts. This is such a story, which was told to me years ago by one of Leadville’s grand matriarchs, Edith Seppi, who passed away in late September 2017 on her Lake County ranch at the age of 95. Rest-In-Peace Edith, The Cloud City won’t be the same without you!

Edith Seppi Obituary photo

Edith Seppi

Edith Seppi moved to Leadville in February 1942 with her parents. Her father was a contractor, hired to build the present-day Sayer & McKee building, which was originally built on historic Harrison Avenue as the Safeway grocery store. Edith was nearly 20 years old, and Leadville was on the verge of another big boom cycle.

The contracts to build Camp Hale, the U.S. Army’s training grounds for the Tenth Mountain Division had also been awarded, and once that was project was complete, soldiers flooded into Leadville by the thousands.  

“Everywhere you looked there was Army,” explained Seppi, during one of the many interviews I had the honor of conducting with Edith over the years. The Leadville community had fully embraced the soldiers, with residents opening up their homes, making them feel part of their families.  The city seemed to come alive again, as the leaner years of The Depression began to fade into the background.

Remember this was the 1940s, there was no Interstate-70, no Vail Resorts. In fact, Leadville was the central point of mountain living, and these nearby World War II efforts provided the economic lift necessary to put the wind back into the sails of America’s Highest City. Town was bustling and once the local USO (United Service Organizations) was established, Leadville’s social calendar ramped-up to a level they had not seen in some time.

“We had dances at the Sixth Street Gym,” Edith explained, describing the impact that Camp Hale was having on the small mountain community. The bars were packed, the store shelves were stocked, and business was booming.   But as the months wore on, and the military efforts for the war increased, it all proved to be too much for Leadville.

CampHale

Camp Hale, the U.S. Army’s training grounds for the Tenth Mountain Division brought economic growth and thousand of soldiers to Leadville in the 1940s. Photo: Colorado Historical Society.

“Eventually the city council and mayor decided that they didn’t want the soldiers in town anymore,” explained Edith. “They put Leadville off-limits to the soldiers, and asked the military police to arrest any Army personnel who crossed the line!”

While such a decision is difficult to fathom, even by today’s standards, back then the new decree put a tremendous crimp in the young people’s social lives. And as is the case with most youth, regardless of the generation, they were bound to find a go-around for that! So, with the help of the USO, they came up with a new plan that would now bring the “Leadville girls” out to the Camp Hale Army barracks for the dances.

US Army Truck

A US Army truck similar to the one pictured here became the regular transport for the Leadville girls trips to the dances at Camp Hale, located north of town in the 1940s.

“From then on, the GI trucks would pick up us Leadville girls at the Sixth Street Gym and bring us down to Camp Hale,” said Edith. Now in the 1940s this 17-mile journey over Tennessee Pass, and down into valley was not on the paved thoroughfare you see today. It was a rough ride, on a rough road in an Army truck, with bench seating along the sides and a canvas roof.  But when you’re young, and looking for love in the arms of a soldier on the dance floor, you’ll endure all kinds of conditions to get you there. And so the Leadville girls did, for many months. But one Saturday night, that could have all changed.

“We were headed down to Camp Hale for a dance,” describes Seppi.  “And the Army truck was packed with us girls, in our formal dresses and high-heels.”  Up until then, the journey had been pretty routine with chatter about the young officers they’d hoped to see and latest dance crazes of the day.

“But then, as we got to that long hill that leads down into Camp Hale,” described Edith in such detail, it was if it had happened yesterday, “we really started to pick up speed.”  The Leadville girls began to bump up and down on those hard wooden benches; some of them knocked to the ground during the violent ride that had become anything but routine!

“By the time we hit the bottom of that hill, we had been tossed around like a salad,” Edith exclaimed. As the truck regained control, turning off Highway 24 into Camp Hale, the ladies collected themselves, along with their purses and high-heels as they made the final leg into the “dance hall.”

They were all pretty shook up, wondering what had happened. Later that night, the Leadville girls learned that the Army truck’s brakes had given out on that long hill down into Camp Hale. In fact, had it not been for a skilled Army captain at the wheel, they all might have perished in a fiery, high-speed crash! Can you imagine?!

In The Ville Head ShotI think about that story every time I drive that long hill down into Camp Hale.  Of course, I also pump my brakes, just in case! And now I’ll add wink and a nod for Edith Seppi, a woman I’m honored to have known. RIP

Writer’s note: You may read Edith Seppi’s full life story on the Leadville Today Obituary Page: HERE.

Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, LLC, a media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com.

Watching for Horace: A Matchless Story

By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today

This Friday’s Wine at The Mine event will give attendees an exclusive first look at the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum’s new temporary exhibition – Matchless: The Mine, The Myth, The Legend. Cheers! In honor of that event, here’s a little-known tale about the famous landmark that still stands in Leadville’s east-side mining district.

This story comes to me by a most reliable source: Melva Touchette. I first met this historic actress when I moved to Leadville in 1990. Or maybe, I should say that’s when I first met Baby Doe Tabor, because Touchette’s single-role performance, her theatrical presentation of Horace Tabor’s second wife was as real as it gets.

Oh, no doubt Melva had the love-triangle part of Baby Doe’s story down, the tale of Leadville’s Silver King, Horace Tabor’s ditching-the-first-wife-for-the-second-wife story. But Touchette’s depiction of Baby Doe went far beyond that, spanning her young adult journey to Colorado, right up until a couple of years before Baby Doe’s death at The Matchless Mine in 1935.

What I particularly appreciated about Touchette’s rendition of Baby Doe was how real it was; you could tell that she had done her homework.  It was during one of her presentations in the lobby of The Delaware Hotel that Touchette told me the following story about Baby Doe and The Matchless Mine. I have never heard the story anywhere else.

During an intermission from her performance, Touchette had stepped out onto East 7th street to have a smoke; I joined her.

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The “Baby Doe Balcony” is a small perch appended to the second floor of the Tabor Grand Hotel, built especially for Horace Tabor’s second wife. Photo: Leadville Today/Brennan Ruegg.

“Kathy, I’m going to tell you a story about Baby Doe that I don’t use in my act,” Touchette said taking in a long drag of her cigarette. “You see that balcony up there, the one that comes out off the Tabor Grand?”

She was facing west and looking at what Touchette referred to as Baby Doe’s Balcony. It’s an architectural misstep on the south side of the Tabor Grand Hotel that gives the picture-taker reason to stop and say: Huh, look at that. What’s happening there?

“Horace built that balcony for Baby Doe,” Touchette explained.

Why? I thought. It doesn’t really look out over anything; it would have been more prestigious if it hung out over the Avenue, so that Tabor’s beloved Baby Doe could take in all of the action and fanfare.  After all, when the Tabor Grand Hotel opened its doors in 1885, it was an incredible testament to Tabor’s fortune. It was built as Horace’s crowning jew­el of wealth on display, right there on the corner of 7th and Harrison.

However, Touchette’s explanation describes a more simple function to the request Baby Doe made to her husband. The balcony came after the building was complete, after the Tabors had been living there for a period of time.  In fact, you won’t find this perch in the original design of the four-story brick building. You will not see the balcony jutting out in any of the early pictures of this historic structure. Baby Does Balcony_Matchles Mine

 You see, Horace had this overhanging porch added-on for his Baby Doe, so that she could watch for him coming home from the Matchless Mine, which is located up East 7th Street. It was built so that she could see up Fryer Hill and keep an eye out for her husband coming home from work. Back then, there were no cell phones or text messaging, so Baby Doe would sit in her balcony which protruded out just enough to give her a direct line of sight, to see her beloved coming down 7th Street. And on first sight, she’d start dinner!

In The Ville Head ShotSometimes, Leadville’s history is just about day-to-day living . It’s about Leadville people – like you and me – going about our lives, just living In The ‘Ville.

Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, LLC. a media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com.

My Rebecca Rusch: An Unlikely LT100 Friendship 

By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today

World Champion Cyclist. Author. Motivational Speaker. Film Star. It’s my good friend: My Rebecca Rusch.

Rebecca Rusch's 2009 win would be the first of four LT100 MTB Championships, all while making and breaking course recorsds. Photo: David Hahn

Rebecca Rusch’s 2009 win would be the first of four LT100 MTB Championships, all while making and breaking course records along the way. Photo: David Hahn

I met Rebecca Rusch in 2009, at her inaugural LT100. It was my first  Leadville 100 as well, but this time as the Public Relations Manager for the race series. And the truth be told, I was an unlikely person for the job.

While I had covered the LT100 for years as a Leadville journalist, that year I found myself on the other side of the fence, coordinating media requests and interviews instead of conducting them.

In addition, I was not a racer; I didn’t even own a bike. But when LT100 race founders Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin approached me about the position, I was happy to take the meeting after the local newspaper I was working for closed its doors in 2008.

Ken and Merilee knew my professional skill set, and clearly understood my passion for Leadville. Plus, they needed help. After 2008, when Tour de France Champion Lance Armstrong took on legendary LT100 MTB 6x champion Dave Wiens – and lost – the race exploded in popularity and notoriety! The added exposure and media attention was putting a lot pressure on communications, and a more formal staff position for public relations had been established. However, I was still unsure how I would fare in the racing-world culture.

Then, Chlouber dangled a carrot in front of me: We want to expand the women’s field this year. We want to bring in more female competitors, get some women cycling pros at the start line, he explained in his Oklahoma accent. That was enough for me – I was in. I might not be a racer, or a cyclist, but I am an advocate for women athletes.

Fast forward eight weeks later when I found myself in the throes of what I can only describe as the most organized chaos I have ever been a part of: the LT100 lottery. And this is not the electronic lottery process of today; this was the last year of PAPER applications!

Reba_Leadville Racing_HighSchool

Rebecca Rusch always makes time for mentoring student athletes, pictured here with the Leadville Cycling Team during a 2014 fundriaser. Photo: Leadville Today

Additionally, if the LT100 had seen growing interest up until then, Armstrong’s announcement that he would be back TO WIN in 2009 pushed applications and requests from pros, sponsors and “long lost friends and relatives” into another stratosphere.

And as the list of favors and special requests grew longer, Chlouber’s fuse grew shorter.

The daily rants ranged from “I wonder if this guy even owns a bike!” to “Well, did they enter the lottery like everybody else? Cause if the answer’s no, then my answer is no! Fair is fair!”

I reflected on our initial conversation about growing the women’s field. And so, not to be outdone by all the other favors being called in, I decided that the next female pro cyclist application to come across my desk, would be my pitch.

Enter My Rebecca Rusch. I had never met her. Nor was I aware of her athletic prowess, but for whatever reason, it was this woman athlete who became the subject of my toe-to-toe with Chlouber.

I did a quick search of this Rebecca Rusch, who had,  like dozens of other pro riders, made a special request for entry into the 2009 race. Even back then, her accomplishments were impressive. However, there was another trait that kept popping up in every story: She’s nice! Hmmm, that might come in handy, I thought.

So, at my next opportunity, I brought Rusch’s request to Chlouber’s attention.

“Well Kathleen,” Chlouber often addresses me by my formal, first name, “did she go through the lottery?”

“I couldn’t find her?”  I offered.

Rusch Autograph Book

My copy of “Rusch To Glory,” signed “Your Rebecca Rusch!”

 

“Well then, its sounds to me like she didn’t go through the lottery,” he said swinging his chair back around to his desk. Now, if you choose to believe anything about the “old-school” LT100 days, it’s that Ken and Merilee stayed true to the lottery process; very few exceptions were made.

“But you said that you wanted to grow the women’s field. That you wanted to bring more women racers to the start line!” I protested.

He put his pen down, swung his chair around and leaning back, put his hands behind his head. He was ready to listen.

So, I made my case for this Rebecca Rusch. I rattled off her athletic accomplishments and statistics, her impressive sponsorship list, basically anything I could find to make my case. Ken listened, shaking his head in agreement.

“Well, she sounds great, but we’ve had other pros that are just as accomplished as her that went through the lottery process and they didn’t get in,” he retorted. “Not this year!”

He was just about to shut me down for good, when for some strange reason, as it’s not necessarily in my nature to play this card, I added, “And, everyone says she’s nice!”  I held out my research papers as if they were some theater critic’s blog from the New York Times and Rebecca was a Broadway play: The reviews are in – She’s nice!

“Oh, she’s nice!” chuckled Chlouber. “Well, then by all means, give me her application and we’ll get her right in.” He took the copies from my hand, and as quickly as they slipped from my grip, so did any hope I had for controlling the situation. The rest was in fate’s hands.

“In fact, I’m going to call her right now and let her know.” He picked up the only (cordless) phone that three of us shared in that office back in the day, and started dialing.

“Rebecca, Ken Chlouber, Leadville Trail 100.”  I had heard him say those words a thousand times, but this time was different. I went back to my desk, hoping for the best as their conversation faded into the background. A few minutes later, Ken got off the phone and announced, “Well Your Rebecca Rusch is in the race!”

And so right there, in that very moment,  she became My Rebecca Rusch. Wow, I thought, this chick better know how to ride a bike!

Reba_Chats_Fan_2013

A favorite at the finish line celebration, LT100 Champ Rebecca Rusch has a genuine connection with cycling fans, especially the younger riders. Photo: Leadville Today

In the months leading up to the 2009 LT100 MTB race, the office banter grew more frequent: “Well, Your Rebecca Rusch this, and Your Rebecca Rusch that.” Yes, she had officially had become “My Rebecca Rusch.” I still had not met the woman, but I was determined to do anything I could to help her.

So on that fateful August day in 2009, when Leadville was bursting at the seams with spectators, Lance Armstrong crossed the finish line with a flat tire to clench his legendary comeback LT100 win. The newly created LT100 media center was on-fire with international journalists frantically filing their reports after what many described as a once-in-a-lifetime interview with the legendary cyclist. Armstrong was eventually joined at the press table by 2nd place finisher Dave Wiens, making for a classic David vs Goliath tale of cycling.

After the interview with the top male finishers, my phone rang. It was Ken.

Rebecca Rusch is congratulated by her husband Greg Martin as she breaks another record and secures a second LT100 Championship.

Rebecca Rusch is congratulated by her husband Greg Martin as she breaks another record and secures a second LT100 Championship.

“Hey Kathleen, the first female rider is headed to the finish line. Should I send her to the media center?”  Yes, I answered, to which he replied, “It’s Your Rebecca Rusch!”

So, the moment had finally come. I hadn’t planned it. Or perhaps I had been planning for it my whole career. It was time to level the playing field for women athletes.

“Gentlemen,” I said to the room of male sports journalists from around the world. “The female champion is on her way in and if you ever want to come back to cover this race, you will go back into that interview room and give her the same respect that you just did for the guys.”

Now, not everybody jumped up right away, and certainly some thought twice about it, as deadlines were looming for the “big” story. After my directive, I left the media center, heading to the finish line to watch My Rebecca Rusch win the first of what would become four straight LT100 championships. The crowd was going crazy for her victory as I escorted her back to the reporters.

There were about a dozen magazine, TV and radio journalists who heeded the call, and were waiting for the newly crowned champion as she took her rightful place at the interview table.  Rusch had earned the same respect, honor and accolades. Her story was just as compelling.

The rest is history, as they often say in old west towns like Leadville. There were the movies (Race Across The Sky, 2009 and 2010). There were the 4 LT100 championships, making and breaking records along the way. And in 2014, Rusch released her first book: Rusch To Glory, a must read for all cyclists, but especially women.

And now on Wednesday, August 9 Rusch’s movie “Blood Road” will make its exclusive Leadville debut. SEE details of the exclusive Leadville Today showing: HERE.

It’s been a true honor to see Rusch’s star rise; its deserved! But of all the attributes I have read about my friend, I often return to the very one that could have determined her fate: She’s nice! Rusch is genuinely a nice person, which also makes her a natural advocate and encourager for other athletes, especially women, which includes the younger set, even the ones who have taken her off a few podiums spots. She has rightfully earned her place as one of the world’s top female athletes.

But as for me, she will always be, My Rebecca Rusch.

Big_Hug2_Reba_Kat

Celebrating another epic win, Leadville journalist Kathy Bedell (right) congratulates LT100 Champion Rebecca Rusch (left). Photo: Sue Mullineux.

Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, A Media Company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com.

Oscar Wilde’s Big Leadville Adventure

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“Please Don’t Shoot the Piano Player, He’s Doing the Best He Can.”

By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today

Leadville has seen a resurgence of the arts in recent years with live music, murals and other cultural events. However, back in the frontier days of The Cloud City, entertainment was a bit more difficult to come by.

Sure, the harmonica could liven up most campfire gatherings, but it wasn’t until the big gold and silver veins were struck, that such wealth could support the more cultural fêtes. That’s when Lead Vegas really rolled out the red carpet for entertainers.

oscar1-wilde

Oscar Wilde’s spirit and literary legacy was the perfect fit for a Leadville visit . . . and a lasting memory. Photo: TopTenz.

By 1879, Leadville boasted the biggest opera house west of the Mississippi, thanks to Horace Tabor’s wealth. The venue attracted national and international performers, actors and orators, along with Leadville’s new rich in attendance. And while there were some “cheap seats” in the upper balcony, most miners and other hard-working types found their musical satisfaction in one of the many dance hall saloons.

During its heyday, there’s no doubt that Leadville’s former Red Light District – now 2nd Street – saw its fair share of traveling fiddle players, guitar strummers, and accordion squeezers. However, it was the piano player who stuck it out, night after night, through boom and bust. Maybe that was due to his instrument of choice, one a bit more difficult to travel with. Regardless, it was usually the floating melody of a ragtime tune that brought in the passersby; and those honky-tonk favorites being pounded out on the well-worn keys that kept them hanging around ‘til dawn!

However, one night in 1883, The Magic City saw these two worlds, of opera house finery, and dance hall bawdiness, collide. The result was one of America’s favorite Old West sayings: “Please Don’t Shoot The Piano Player, He’s Doing The Best He Can!”

Well, of course this musical musing has its roots in Leadville, what worthwhile story doesn’t? The year was 1883 and famed English author and orator Oscar Wilde was in town for a visit. Of course, his eloquence in elocution packed the historic Tabor Opera House with high society intellectuals. However, the local, hard-working miners had also extended a one-of-a-kind invitation to Wilde; one he took them up on.

Wilde agreed to venture underground, to the bottom of a silver mine, in a bucket. There in the cavern way below the earth’s surface, he dined, drank whiskey and smoked a cigar. But the big event came after dinner, as described by Wilde:

“Then I had to open a new vein, or lode, which with a silver drill, I brilliantly performed, amidst unanimous applause. The silver drill was presented to me and the lode named “The Oscar.” I had hoped that in their simple grand way they would have offered me shares in “The Oscar,” but in their artless untutored fashion they did not. Only the silver drill remains as a memory of my night at Leadville.”Piano Sign_Post

Well, maybe one more thing . . .

As the story goes, after his underground musing, Wilde and his newfound miner friends made their way back downtown, gathering at the Legendary Silver Dollar Saloon, across from the opera house.

During his merriment in the bar “with the miners and the female friends of the miners,” Wilde noticed the sign “Please don’t shoot the pianist; he is doing his best.”

While the saying has slightly different versions, from not shooting the “organist” to “fiddle player,” this is the most commonly accepted version. In fact, the “Please don’t shoot the piano player. He is doing his best” eventually became one of the most popular signs in western saloons – and churches – across the country.

The saying stuck with Oscar Wilde as well. Back in England, when touring for his “Impressions of America,” Wilde recalled all this with delight:

“I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death, and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was.”

In The Ville Head ShotAfter all, as the primary source of musical merriment, the piano player’s demise through the crossfire of a gunfight, or a direct intentional shot due to an out-of-tune organ, may very well mean the end of entertainment in this old west mining town for months, if not years.

Making music in Leadville must have been tough back then! It still is; so be sure to support live music and “Please Don’t Shoot the Piano Player, He’s Doing the Best He Can” . . . In The ‘Ville.

Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, A Media Company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. All content and research contained in this story is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in any manner without express written consent of the author.

 Living on the Edge: Five Years of Leadville Today

Colorado's highest peak at 14,443 feet, Mt. Elbert is always changing , yet always the same in Leadville Today.

Colorado’s highest peak at 14,443 feet, Mt. Elbert is always changing , yet always the same in Leadville Today. Photo: Brennan Ruegg

By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today

It kinda sounds like Leadville is losing its edge.”

The comment had popped up innocently enough in a conversation I was having with someone who was raised in Leadville, but currently living down valley. His words caught my attention, ensnaring me and making it difficult to pay attention to the remainder of our discussion.

The statement made me sit up in my chair, shifting my weight from side to side, as if to reset the balance between my role as a professional journalist and that of a 25+ year resident who had moved to the highest city in America to escape just the type of influences and attitudes that had now found their way to the mountain top.

The words twisted and turned, over and over like the mountain road I was driving, as I made my way back to Leadville along Highway 24. It was unsettling, and spoke to the ongoing comments and concerns that had come into focus recently. It was about the gentrification of Leadville; it was about newbie vs. long-timer; it was about new ideas literally taxing stoic generational families out of their homes, out of their neighborhoods. It was about change.

But as I rounded that last bit of highway, before it opens up to present Colorado’s tallest peak, a sense of surety returned. Mt Elbert: it’s never the same, yet it never changes.

Colorado's highest peak Mt Elbert shows some fresh snow as the seasons slowly shift and winter comes into focus.

Colorado’s highest, Mt Elbert shows some fresh snow as the seasons slowly shift, winter comes into focus.

I’ve looked at Mt. Elbert pretty much every day for the past quarter century. Like many who choose to live here, it anchors me; it’s always there. I can depend on it. Whether it’s laden with the green velvet of summer scrub or ablaze in the brilliance of autumn’s colors, it reminds me of what is true, of what is Leadville. Even on those days when Colorado’s highest peak is encased in clouds receiving the life-giving gift of water, I know it’s still there, even though I can’t see it. Mt Elbert has stood the test of time; it has endured the storms of life; it stands firm and strong while all else around it seems to swirl in uncertainty.

It was in that spirit that I created Leadville Today five years ago on November 1, 2011. At that time, there was a growing concern that the only news being distributed and shared about America’s highest city was bent towards the negative. There seemed to be a vacuum for good news and the daily information that people needed to live their best Leadville life. So, I choose to step into that space and create something that would balance out that view, to make a true difference for the people who live and visit here.

Because, you see, it’s together that we weather the storms that loom and pass over Mt. Elbert. It’s as a community, that we enjoy the days of summer’s sunshine, even if we’re not under the same roof or in the same neighborhood. It’s collectively, that we believe that there IS daily good news coming from our mountain town, even though we might not be able to see it.

In fact, it is exactly that union, our commonality, that gives Leadville its edge, whether you’re a native son, new comer, or visitor. Whether you’ve been here a week, or a quarter century; whether you ride a bike or hunt. Whether you work in town or commute, whether you are raising children or are retired, Mt. Elbert stands tall over all of our differences, providing a common goal to look up toward.

And that edge, THAT Leadville edge, like Mt. Elbert, is something that can never be lost. Because it’s bigger than me, and it’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than whoever gets into office, or whoever has the most cash or owns the most property. And it will continue to be there long after you and I are gone.

Just something to think about and remember as you live your best life, on the edge in Leadville Today! Thanks for all of your support and encouragement these past five years. It’s uplifting and truly DOES make a difference.

Elbert_Sunset_Spaulding

Need some inspiration? Just look out the window! And that’s exactly what Leadville Today reader Neil Spaulding, and then he grabbed his camera and got this incredible sunset shot of Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak. #ThisIsWhereILive

Halloween 1990: The Day Hunter Came to Leadville

courthouse_fall

It was 26 years ago when the legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson came to the Lake County Courthouse as a character witness. Photo: Leadville Today/Brennan Ruegg

 

 

By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today

The day started out different. It was Halloween 1990 and the series of costume parties from the night before had left me with a splitting headache and a hollow belly. It was mid-morning and I was taking in one more cup of coffee on my front porch, when the whirring of a mechanical bird interrupted my recovery.

Shading my eyes from the bright October sun, I looked up and quickly determined it was not a Flight for Life helicopter, which could have made for a different type of news story that day. But then, who would be coming to America’s highest city, especially by air?

In The Ville Head ShotThen, I remembered: it was “Justice for Jessie” day. It was the day Hunter S. Thompson came to town.

Like many young journalists, Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” had whet my appetite for the crazy, carefree life on the road. Little did I know that I would soon be experiencing my own “Cigars and Margaritas,” but this time in in Lead Vegas!

From time to time, Hunter would take up the cause of some under-privileged, under-paid, and under-the-thumb of justice person. “Justice for Jessie” had become his most recent cause, and he was coming to Leadville be a character witness for a Pitken County resident who found herself in trouble after passing through Lake County on her way home to Aspen.

One summer day in 1990, a hard-working housekeeper named Jesse had hitch-hiked her way home as far as the Kum and Go on historic Harrison Avenue. But it wasn’t until her ride was long gone, that the damsel-in-distress realized that she had left her backpack in that car.

Her quick, albeit questionable, thinking prompted a call to the Lake County Sheriff Department, who was able to locate and stop the car, and retrieve Jessie’s backpack. A quick search of the backpack by deputies revealed the owner’s identify, but also turned up illegal paraphernalia and a small amount of marijuana.

The boys in blue returned to Kum & Go to reunite the pack with its rightful owner. Jesse cheerfully identified the bag as hers, and then was promptly charged with possession of an illegal substance.

Now the story probably would have ended there, but this particular woman was already on probation out of Pitkin County and had rallied the support of famous Aspen resident (although he really lived down valley at Woody Creek) Hunter S. Thompson to help fight her battle. This most recent “search and seizure” of a down-on-her-luck Aspen housekeeper only seemed to amplify the Gonzo Journalist’s message. He had become increasingly concerned about citizen’s rights when it came to law enforcement looking through your stuff without probable cause.

The Gonzo Journalist Hunter S. Thompson came to Leadville as a character witness in a legendary Lake County court case. Photo: publicbroadcasting.net

The Gonzo Journalist Hunter S. Thompson came to Leadville as a character witness for the “Justice For Jessie” Lake County court case. Photo: publicbroadcasting.net

The “Justice for Jessie” case would be heard on Halloween, which only added to the media circus that started to gather at the Lake County Courthouse on October 31, 1990. All of the news rags known for their sensational reporting wanted to hear what Hunter had to say. Now remember, it was 1990, so it was way before smart phones with cameras and the onslaught of social media. In fact, in today’s world this may have been a very different story.

Before heading over to the courthouse, I stopped in for another cup of coffee at The Golden Rose (now, the Chinese restaurant) and watched the scurry going on across the street, as everyone vied for position and a glimpse of the famous character witness.

Just as I swilled that last bit of java, a small parade of people whisked past the window and entered into my space. It was the Gonzo Journalist himself; he bellied up to the empty bar and called out, “Margaritas for everyone!”

Then he added, pointing to me, “A margarita for her too” And so it began – “Cigars and Margaritas” in Lead-Vegas!

For the next couple of hours Hunter set up camp in the restaurant, as his minions would run back and forth across to the courthouse, keeping him apprised of the case’s progress, waiting for his turn to take the stand.

Screw the court case, I thought. I’m drinking margaritas with Hunter, and it’s hardly noon! The rest of the journalists were across the street in a packed courthouse, waiting for some tidbit, some sound bite. I was sitting across the table from the Gonzo Journalists wearing his hat and swilling Cuervo. I was living every journalist’s dream!

There are many things that stay with me from that day; I’ll share a couple. First, I was amazed at his ability to consume tequila. I mean, it wasn’t until nearly 3 p.m. that he actually took the stand and he seemed pretty coherent after drinking mucho margaritas. It was classic Hunter; but honestly I don’t know if I would have believed it, unless I saw it.

Which leads me to my second impression, the guy was smart, very smart. I knew I was one of the lucky few to be part of his roundtable discussion, as the politics of the day were discussed, dissected and diluted over massive amounts of tequila.

Eventually, Thompson went over to the Lake County Courthouse and took the stand. I followed along to witness the legendary event, peaking through the small windows of the courtroom back doors. The place was packed with journalists and there he was on the stand – as a character witness! I couldn’t hear a thing he said. I just stared in amazement, watching through those small windows, as he swung that unlit cigar about in the air.

After his testimony, the media circus moved across the street; word must have got out that Hunter was hanging out at The Golden Rose and the crowd started to grow. I was surprised at the number of generally, unimpressed-with-celebrities locals who turned up. But this was Hunter S.Thompson. As the day stretch into Happy Hour, the margaritas continued to flow.

The party finally came to a screeching halt with the arrival of Hunter’s pilot, who announced that if they didn’t leave now, that they would be spending the night in Leadville.

Whoosh! They were gone. The party was over.

As I walked back to the table to get my jacket, I spied a notebook out of the corner of my eye. I quickly picked it up, looked around, and slid it under my coat. Jackpot!

I couldn’t walk home fast enough. I sat down on my couch and began flipping through Hunter’s notebook. There were half-written essays, scribblings about the “Justice for Jessie” case, and notes on an upcoming trip to Hawaii. It was the latter that I found most interesting; the “grocery list” and budget for this Hawaiian vacation was something I could only aspire to.

That fantasy was interrupted by the whirring of Hunter’s helicopter; I knew it was him, after all Leadville does not have an afternoon flight pattern. As the sun set over the mountains, I watched Hunter’s helicopter head over Mount Massive, back to Aspen, back to Woody Creek.

What a day, I thought! And I suppose it was that feeling that prompted my next action. I put the notebook in a manila envelope, sealed it up tight, wrote “Property of Hunter S. Thompson” on the outside, then put it inside another envelope and addressed it to the Aspen reporter who was part of Hunter’s entourage, and had given me her business card at some point in the day. I then slapped enough stamps on it to ensure its journey home, and walked it down to the post office.

Did I hesitate for a moment as I stood in the dark before the mailbox? You bet I did! Not only had the tequila buzz and ethical determination to return his personal property begun to fade, but I started to think about all the money I could make by selling it. I thought about my call to Rolling Stone Magazine or The National Enquirer. There was some classic Hunter on those pages.

But justice prevailed again that day, and the envelope slid from my hands down into the depths of that big, blue mailbox.

That day stayed with me for a while and the Hunter stories reigned supreme at the Leadville bars, until somebody else did something we could talk about. As the weeks passed, it seemed like just another story; a story I’d tell to people, who would always ask, “Is that true? Did you really have his notebook? Why didn’t you keep it?”

I started to wonder if the notebook had found its way to back to its owner, Then I got a call from the reporter at the Aspen paper; she had a message from Hunter.

It seems the Gonzo Journalist was pretty impressed by my gesture to return his private notebook, and had invited me to his New Year’s Eve party at his Woody Creek home. I was thrilled, and a bit scared. After knowing what a day of tequila-drinking in preparation for a court case was like, I could only imagine what a New Year’s Eve with Hunter might bring.

But I never made it. A bad case of the flu left me down-for-the-count that New Year’s Eve. Besides, that’s definitely a story that nobody would have believed from a journaist living In the ‘Ville!

Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin LLC, a digital media company located in Leadville, which publishes two online news websites: LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. She may be reached at info@leadvilletoday.com

 

The Story of The Great Pumpkin: My VW Bus and Me

In The Ville Head ShotFor me, it was love at first sight. Not the kind you might experience with another person, or even with a place, like Leadville. This was different. This was love of a vehicle.

And I know, some of you can relate.

It was January 1998 and I was in search of my traveling journalist vehicle. I had sold everything I owned and had whittled my possessions down to two suit­cases, a trunk full of journals and some family photos. I left Leadville, looking for a reprieve, and headed south toward warmer weather to execute the next phase of my traveling-journal­ist plan. Every day, I searched the Arizona Republic classifieds, until my dream vehicle appeared – in print – one rainy Sunday morning:

1974 Westfalia. Incls all camping gear, new clutch & tires, 2 Brits flying home, quick-sale required. Only $1,200. Lv msg at KOA site #194.

A phone number was included, but I wasn’t going to risk a call. Three weeks into my search, I had learned that if you didn’t jump on a good deal, someone else would. I had already been beaten to the punch a few times.

The Great Pumpkin and the Rainbow Connection: Gopod Times.

The Great Pumpkin and the Rainbow Connection: Good Times.

Driving across to west Phoenix, the highways were eerily empty; a fog had descended on the valley floor and misted the desert with an unusual density. When I arrived at the KOA Kampground, the haze-seemed to have cast a spell on the normally early-to-rise RVers; not a soul was stirring.

I turned down one of the aisles toward site No. 194, my headlights burned through the mist and suddenly I caught a quick glimpse of my future. My heart leapt. It was nothing like it read in the ad. This time, it was better.

It was a bright orange, 1974 VW Westfalia bus -The Great Pumpkin! It was a two-story, two-bedroom trav­eling house, equipped with a sink, a stove and a refrigerator. It was perfect! Sure, it appeared dwarfed compared to the giant looming RVs camped around it. And, yes, it might have shown a rust spot or two. But for me, it was love at first sight!

The owners were nowhere around, so I spent the entire day at that KOA – waiting, and wondering why anyone would place such a “for sale” ad and then not be available to close the deal.

On The Road Again! The Great Pumpkin cruises over Poncha Pass in Colorado.

On The Road Again! The Great Pumpkin cruises over Poncha Pass in Colorado.

“I think they left with another couple in a big­ger RV early this morning. Probably won’t be back until tomorrow,” announced one neighboring camper once the morning had started to shake everyone loose. He must be wrong, I thought. Who would post such an ad and then leave, I thought as the KOA clerk placed another phone message regarding the ad on the bus’s wind­shield: “Maybe the wind and rain will blow them away,” he sympathetically suggested.

It wasn’t long before word spread through the campsite about my determination. I met all kinds of wonderful people that day, from all across the country. I heard all about their stories and travel adventures. They brought me snacks and hot coffee. They would honk and wave at me as I sat in my mom’s Buick that rainy Sun­day, waiting, all, day long.

By the end of the day, there had been no sign of the owners. Perhaps they would be gone for the night. Reluc­tantly, I wrote a note, bigger and bolder than the weather worn messages that the clerk had posted. I folded it up and wrote, “Read me first!” on the outside. I stuck it on the wind­shield among a soggy pile of post-its, knowing that to remove the other notes would have been bad karma.

As I prepared to leave my post, the skies finally cleared. Looking at The Great Pump­kin one more time in my rearview mirror, I saw the sunset glow orange and I knew. I knew that big orange bus would be mine. It was destiny.

That next day, I got the call. “Hi, this is Alex, calling about the bus.” I immediately recognized the English accent; the ad had said two Brits. My note had worked!

“I have to tell you,” he explained, “We had no idea that we’d get the response we did. Otherwise we never would have left for the night. We were bombarded (think heavy English accent) when we returned. Not only were all those notes stuck to the wind­shield, but everyone in the bloody campground came to us, saying that we must call you first. They said that you waited here all day for us yes­terday. Is that true?”

Well, when he said it like that, it did sound a bit manic. But I stood my ground. I had seen my future: traveling through the forests of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, trekking down the Baja Peninsula, and finally back to my beloved Leadville.

“Yes, that’s true,” I said. “And if you haven’t sold it, I’d like to come right now.” My hope had been restored when I met Alex and Katherine, a wonderful Eng­lish newlywed couple. After getting married in England, they flew to British Colum­bia (his dad lives there), saw The Great Pumpkin, fell in love with it and bought it. They had just completed a three-month honeymoon, traveling through the Rocky Mountains, down through Washington, Idaho, Montana, circling through Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and chasing the warmer weather, their travels finally ended in Ari­zona.

They had to sell the VW bus and return home to England, deeply saddened by leaving their first home together as a married couple.

I had not divulged much more about my life other than my traveling-journalist plans, and that I was staying with family in Arizona, until I found my dream vehicle.

It was clear to all of us that fate was playing its hand. But if I had any doubts, they were quickly put to rest when the couple answered my question: what was your most favorite place you visited dur­ing your Rocky Mountain honeymoon?

Leadville, Col­orado, they said, it was love at first sight! Ah, yes there’s magic – and The Great Pumpkin – In The ‘Ville!