The tourist becomes a travellerPeople, not scenery were highlight of latest trip
Our 2010 trip to my favorite place on earth, Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, just may have been the one where I quit being a tourist and became a traveller.
It wasn’t what my wife Sue or I planned, my being laid up in a hotel room with painful chronic foot problems.
Our plans to Jeep more of the mountains around Ouray and Silverton were replaced with somewhat less spectacular goals.
Walking, for instance.
One of the days we were gone was our anniversary. Sue gave me a cane.
Rest of the story
It’s 65 perfect degrees and clouds are wisping around the edges of Dome Mountain into the Animas River Valley.
We’re sitting on a bench in front of Silverton’s Grand Imperial Hotel.
A soft drum cadence starts in the distance and becomes louder, punctuated by something that sounds like a cross between a kazoo and a panther.
That’s when it hit me. Scenery is just part of what makes these trips so special, it’s the people of this amazing region that are the other part of what we enjoy.
So since new scenery isn’t going to happen for us in 2010, why not write about the people, what the late Paul Harvey would have termed “The Rest of the Story?”
Yes, they practice
Sc ot t Fetchen hier ow ns Fetch’s Mining & Mercantile/ Packrat Publishing in Silverton.
He’s also a drummer in the band, the guy who sets the cadence in the weekly march f rom t he Silver ton Public Library to the corner of Greene and 13th Street.
“I’ve been here behind the counter, heard the band march around the corner and had to grab my drumsticks and run,” he laughed.
But the informality of the Silverton Brass Band is part of its charm.
Before realizing how it sounded, I asked Scott if the band practiced together.
He was too nice to take offense. “Yes, we get together,” he said. “We’ve got people coming in from all over, not just Silverton, Ouray and Duango, too.”
(Ouray is 22 miles from Silverton but it’s not like going from Rockdale to Taylor. You ought to see the road. Yes, you really ought to.)
The musicians are volunteers. “But we’ve got a few ringers in there, too,” Scott smiled.
I asked how many were in the band. Scott invited me to count the noses that were going to show up about a half hour from now.
I counted 20 but I may have been off by one. It was hard to get a bead on Silverton resident Dennis Kurtz.
Dennis is one of those people who make an immediate connection with an audience. Born to be an entertainer, he’s the percussionist, or maybe “concussionist” is more appropriate. He wheels his musical gear in on a converted bicycle contraption and obviously enjoys every minute he’s “on stage.”
The traditional ending of a Silverton Brass Band Concert is when Dennis gets into the middle of the band circle and dances.
His dance is, uhmm, well it’s unique. Imagine a combination of a tap dance, a buck-and-wing and a man with 20,000 volts of electricity passing through his body.
Please don’t think I’m trivializing the Silverton Brass Band. I’m not. I love it far too much.
In fact, I’d rather be present for a performance by the Silverton Brass Band than by any entertainer you can name in any venue, anywhere.
The brass band compliments Silverton. It’s seamlessly integrated into this hardrock-real but fantasy-beautiful community.
It’s as much a part of Silverton as the sound of hummingbird wings, steam train whistles and afternoon rains.
Silverton means a lot to Sue and I and the band accomplishes something that’s almost impossible.
It makes Silverton better.
It still is
We went on to Ouray where plans had been to Jeep into new heights with our friend of five years, Gregg Pieper.
That wasn’t going to happen so we hung around Gregg’s hotel and restaurant.
The historic Western Hotel isn’t one of those “this the way it used to look” structures. It’s “this is the way it still looks.”
Built in 1891, the hotel is living history, from its Victorian parlorlike lobby to its delicate “face on the barroom floor” painting to its ghost.
Well, we didn’t see the ghost but there are stories. Gregg told us this time there’s some evidence to indicate Mark Twain once spent a night at the Western.
Sounds like just the kind of place he would have enjoyed.
Gregg also operates San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours. I’m happy to say several from Rockdale besides us have toured with Gregg
His Jeep tour company is the oldest and the best. It’s been featured in National Geographic and The Rockdale Reporter.
Gregg was busy with all his enterprises one morning so Sue and I sat on a bench outside the hotel and shamelessly shilled for him.
• “Yes, that’s the best tour service in the San Juans. We’ve been taking trips for five years and they’ve all been spectacular.”
• “The hotel is special, the restaurant is great and you ought to see that face on the floor. Where else can you walk on history?”
• “They’ve just left to go over Black Bear Pass. This is the company to take. It’s the most thrilling ride in the Rockies. You can go inside and book a tour for tomorrow.”
We went inside where a continuous slide show of some of the past San Juan Jeep Tours plays to showcase what they offer.
Sue and I are in it!
Gregg and I go off on all kinds of tangents when we get together, and faithful Sue occasionally wonders how the conversation got from Point A to Point D with no B or C in between.
She had company this time. Gregg’s wife Rose joined us for a while and somehow the aura became that of two sensible and patient women trying to rein in a couple of silly little boys.
I don’t know how it happened but I made some attempt at humor which could have been interpreted as at the expense of my wife!
Sue’s and Rose’s eyes locked. And rolled. “They’re just alike,” Sue sighed, indicating Gregg and I.
I did not hear anyone dispute that. I wonder if that was intended as a compliment and, if so, to whom?
No, I’m not sure I want that question answered.
What do the Piepers and the Browns have in common? That’s easy, a deep and abiding passion for these special mountains that I believe only a native flatlander can summon up.
Gregg is originally from Iowa. And me? Well, never forget, the place where Rockdale exists today used to be called String Prairie.
A new friend
Coming home we stopped to visit another “old friend” I’d never actually met before.
In researching an article for the 2010 FYI visitor’s guide I had occasion to contact the Comanche (Texas) Library.
Its director, a remarkable lady named Margaret Waring answered the phone. In five minutes it was like we’d known each other for 20 years.
She was interested in the history of her area and I was interested in the same about mine. It was obvious we were kindred spirits.
We surprised her on our way back from Colorado, walking into her library—believe me it is her library—and spending most of an hour with her.
She gave us a tour of the library, showed us books she had written, projects she has completed and we found out that we have friends and acquaintances in common.
When we left for the final 140- mile stretch back home to Rockdale, Margaret came outside the library in 101-degree heat and waved goodbye.
You know, like you do with family members.
That touched me. And I got to thinking.
Maybe this “non scenery” vacation had a purpose after all. Look at it this way.
Before this Comanche was just a name on a map to me, a town and county we’d been through many times.
Now I’ve glimpsed it through Margaret’s eyes. It will be slightly different from here on. She even taught me the little community just to the south is pronounced “Gus-teen” not “Gus-tine.”
You know, there are “Margarets” in every town, and Greggs, and Scotts and Dennises.
I won’t ever meet them all but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. I sure hope I’ll get to meet some more.
When I do, I’m going to keep my eyes open.
For more than just scenery.