I meet a lot of people on the road, but in Durango Colorado I hit the jackpot for memorable personalities.
The annual Cowboy Poet’s conference was in town, and colorful cowboy characters were everywhere. Some of you who listen to NPR may recall Baxter Black, who performed on Prairie Home Companion from time to time—he billed himself as a cowboy poet. Picture about 200 such poets (male and female) wandering the streets of Durango in full on cowboy getup and that is what a cowboy conference looks like. We were out to dinner with friends when we ran into Cowboy Poet Terry Nash. He entertained us with some of his poetry and gave us a quick overview of the cowboy poet movement. According to Terry, Cowboy Poetry started with the tradition of cowboys gathering around a campfire after working and entertaining each another with tall tales and folk songs.
Terry and his wife still work their ranch, and Terry is a true horseman and rancher, riding and working his cattle. We purchased a couple of his CDs. He was an absolutely lovely man. I highly recommend you check out his work and also the genre of Cowboy Poetry.
On the way to Mesa Verde, we passed a corner on a hill that was festooned with all imaginable kinds of wood carvings. Eagles. Bears. Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner. The Statue of Liberty. Three foot tall hands. Totem poles. Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump. Vultures in the Warner Brothers style. Ravens. How could we pass it by without stopping? We turned into the driveway. A rangy figure coated in a thick layer of sawdust approached—the artist himself. Woodcarver Dave Sipe has won awards for his woodwork. I can’t begin to describe Dave, so here are his words I pulled from his website:
“Better known as Dave Sipe, or he’s Dave Sipe and he doesn’t give a damn, began his artistic endeavors in fecal wall murals between the ages of two and three. Having been discouraged to work in this medium by his Elders, he continued in other more conventional media, but always questioning authority and pushing the limits. Having this attitude, he inevitably became mostly self taught through some correspondence with the School of Hard Knocks. He does give some credit to his public school and especially parochial school art classes where the materials were plentiful and his work became prolific.”
Dave is a transplanted Minnesotan. Dave and his wife Nancy work together and have created a “studio” of buildings and sheds where if you can’t find something you like, you might be an impossibly humorless soul. Just sayin’.
At Mesa Verde, I fell in love with our NPS guide, Ted. It’s my observation that guys named Ted have an overabundance of ironic humor, and this Ted was no different. Clear-eyed and blessed with great hair that any woman would envy, it was his job to shepherd a group of mostly middle-aged to senior tourists through Balcony House in Mesa Verde. He was respectful of the people in the tour group and knowledgable about the history of the site. I especially enjoyed watching him interact with the few kids who were on the tour. It was mid week, so they must have either been home-schooled or playing hooky. He listened to each kid’s questions thoughtfully, asked them what they believed and reinforced them with information.
When I suggested to him that he would be a good teacher, he snorted. I learned a little more about the park service which is woefully underfunded. Many rangers like Ted are intermittent employees and are let go at the end of the season. They then have to reapply for jobs at available parks. Ted has bounced from place to place over the years following jobs in the NPS, but his love for the outdoors and the parks exceeds his need for job security and benefits. I told him to stay young and healthy so that he could keep it up.
On Saturday evening we went out for dinner. It was a pretty night and we were strolling through the old part of Durango when we noticed a restaurant that looked promising. The name wasn’t enlightening—Chimayo—but the menu looked nice. We walked in, expecting to wait, but there were two seats at the kitchen. We wound up sitting directly in front of the Chef. The food was great and we were thoroughly entertained by the Chef and his staff. Moments after we sat down the computer started spitting out tickets at an alarming rate, and they were, as Anthony Bourdain says, “in the weeds.” About 25 minutes later, they had slammed out a ton of beautiful food in front of our eyes. Then the Chef leaned forward and asked, “how are your dinners?” That’s how we met Chef Michael Lufty.
Chimayo is a family operation; his wife and mother were working the front of the house the night we were there. In his previous life he was the head chef for race driver Michael Andretti, and had been to Mid Ohio many times. He and Ben actually had some mutual acquaintances in racing. What are the odds. He was delightful and we had a nice conversation with him. He and his wife were looking for something besides a life on the road cooking and settled in Durango to start a restaurant. The restaurant was jammed all night but by 9:00 the place was almost empty.
I asked our server about that, and she told me that since Durango was such a small town, things tended to close early especially this time of year. In September and October most tourists are retirees, not known for partying into the wee hours. Sure enough, we walked out into the evening and the streets were nearly empty. There was one bar that was hopping, full of the local folks who spent their day working to feed, entertain and care for us. We dutifully moved on to let them have their fun.
Up until my retirement my traveling time was limited to one or two weeks once a year. I wonder sometimes what entices people to wander, and what makes them decide it’s time to put down roots. Perhaps it’s just a level of satisfaction in the spirit that tells you “enough,” or “something else.” When I was “on vacation” I never took the time to really notice my surroundings, including other people, because I was always on a mission to get my two weeks of recreating done. It’s different now. I have time to notice people around me. There’s time to be in a place rather than to do a place, and that makes the experience much richer. I hope you make time at some point to do the same thing.