Peter Shelton

New Kids on the Block

Posted in Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on February 25, 2013

An obituary in the Montrose Daily Press did more than catch my eye; it brought on a flood of unpleasant memories from our early years in Ridgway.

Don Nordlander died a couple of weeks ago, in Montrose, at 75. Died of what, the newspaper didn’t say.

He was our neighbor across the street when we – Ellen and I, 4-year-old Cloe and 2-year-old Cecily – moved down from Telluride in the winter of 1980-81. Nordlander was a miner, from a family of Ouray miners, at the end of an era. The last big, consolidated mine, the Idorado, had closed in 1978. On the other side of the mountain, Telluride was becoming a ski town, struggling through the transition from hard-rock mining to a tourism economy. And struggling, perhaps most of all, with the cultural shifts that came with the new people – hippies, environmentalists, mountaineers – who arrived, cruelly it seemed to some, at the same time that the old ways of working and relating, 100 years worth, were suddenly done.

Nordlander was one of the holdouts. Ouray didn’t yet have ice climbing, or brewing, or a renovated opera house. No one had yet imagined filling up the hot springs pool in the winter. Ridgway was even less formed: a T in the road (CDOT shop at one end, county road shop at the other) that had only a few years before escaped drowning beneath the new dam.

I don’t know for sure – Don Nordlander and I exchanged no more than a few sentences in 15 years – but I believe he had his own mine somewhere in the high country. When we arrived on South Cora Street, his yard overflowed with heavy equipment: a bulldozer, a backhoe, a dump truck, a brontosaurus-sized mucking machine, and a generator bigger than my VW bus.

We might have been OK if it hadn’t been for the generator. Nordlander didn’t live in the Ridgway house; he slept in his place in Ouray. But in the winter, when, presumably, work at his mine slowed, or stopped, he stored the machinery there and worked on it, more or less constantly. His routine was to arrive late morning and fire up the generator. He’d get it revving at piercingly high rpm’s then hook it up to one of the diesel machines while he trundled down the block to the Little Chef for, I don’t know, what do you do in a darkened bar for an hour or two in the middle of the day? Then he’d return and start one of the belching diesels and tinker with it for another hour or two, black soot fuming the air.

Our kids were still taking afternoon naps. And the high-pitched scream of the generator was wreaking havoc with all of our circadian rhythms. So, I decided to go over and see if we couldn’t work out some accommodation.

I wore my hair in a ponytail then. I made my living as a freelance writer. On days off, I strapped skins to the bottoms of my skis and climbed to the silent ridges above Red Mountain Pass.

Don Nordlander was a big man: big, close-cropped head, big hands, heavy step. We used to see him high-grading out behind the house, dramatic-looking sparks shooting out of crucibles on the ground – he didn’t flinch. I once watched him chainsaw a shed in half in about 15 minutes.

He didn’t hear me coming with all the noise. Hello, I called. I was 30 feet inside the fence when he did turn around. He had a 24-inch crescent wrench in one hand. I said something about babies trying to sleep, and could he maybe see his way to . . .

He glared at me for a minute then told me to get off his property or he would bash my fucking head in.

Friends later told me that Don and his brother were infamous in Ouray for brawling. Especially when they’d been drinking, they’d just as soon fight you as look at you.

I realized my mistake right away, the classic sins of the newcomer: I hadn’t introduced myself previously, in a non-confrontational way; I’d come unbidden onto his property; and I had not shown an understanding of, or a respect for, a way of life that couldn’t have been more different than my own experience.

But negotiation, or starting over, seemed out of the question. So we went to the cops.

Surely Ridgway had an ordinance on the books prohibiting this sort of thing in a residential neighborhood? A noise ordinance – something? It turned out the town had very clear language about heavy equipment storage and operation.

Dee Kelly was the marshal then, before he went to work for CDOT. He paid a courtesy call on Mr. Nordlander with a request from the town, then a complaint, but was similarly told where he could shove it.

So the town, with our tacit support, took Nordlander to court.

To be continued . . .

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