Peter Shelton

All Go Anywhere

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History, Road Trips West, Ski history by pshelton on May 11, 2015

In December 1973, at the beginning of my second winter teaching skiing, my father gave me a slim picture book from 1936 that he’d rediscovered in his parents’ garage. SKI FEVER by Norman Vaughan. Fifty Cents. Fifty pages. Nipples on wooden ski tips. Pole baskets like personal-size pizzas. An unabashed paean to what was then the new sport of downhill skiing. My dad’s note read, in part, “I remember that my buddy Eugene and I devoured the contents before our first big ski weekend at Big Bear, where reality submerged fantasy.” He would have been 13. (more…)

Becoming Home

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History, Road Trips West by pshelton on January 13, 2015

We named the U-Haul truck Pinkham because the Believe-It-Or-Not graphic on the side was all about Mt. Washington in northeast New Hampshire and the ferocious winds at its summit. “Highest ever recorded wind speed: 231 miles per hour on April 12, 1934.”

“Pinkham” comes from Pinkham Notch, the best-known trailhead for hiking Mt. Washington. It was also the finish line for the American Inferno, a famously terrifying, top-to-bottom ski race there in the leather-boot Thirties.

Ellen and I were terrified. It was early December, and the time had come to move everything from our under-contract Colorado house to our new home in Bend, Oregon. We hadn’t accumulated that much stuff, we said to each other, hopefully. Maybe we can get away with a 14-foot truck. The U-Haul place in Montrose had 14- and 17-footers. The agent then showed me a 20-footer and I took it, falling prey to a sudden vision of furniture triage on the driveway.

Good thing, because we packed Pinkham to the gills, with organizing and rope-tying help from a friend who had earned the rank of Eagle Scout. After three days, Boulder Rock was a nearly empty shell, walls bare, echoing concrete floors, largely devoid of our 15 years there. Ellen and I were both grateful for a non-stop, worker-bee haze that kept the swells of nostalgia from breaking into tears.

We didn’t get away until late on day three. Rolling north beneath the threat of rain, we made it only as far as Grand Junction, where we stopped for the night. It was important we cover some ground, any amount of ground, Ellen said. Strike out toward our new lives, even if it was just 75 miles.

The arrival of our stuff to Bend Corners 1,100 miles later transfigured a modest 1950s, one-bath bungalow in which we had struggled to feel at home. We sensed the change in spite of the stacks of packing boxes, the piles of rolled up rugs, the chaos in the garage. That first night we lit a fire in the fireplace. It started with kindling of split lodgepole pine from rounds I had cut earlier in the fall above Bend.

Nesting, for me, goes beyond a house to the landscape. I need to hover my mind’s eye above a place to see how the terrain works, what shapes the mountains and rivers take. The view I need is akin to – maybe even the result of – a well-known painting my uncle Hal Shelton did in the 1960s for Colorado Ski Country USA. In it he looks down and west across the entire mountainous half of the state from what would be – I don’t know – 60,000 feet up in a balloon. Not that anyone had ever done such a thing. But he imagined it, and painted it from that perspective, with all of the state’s 30-some ski areas showing as tiny white carvings into the forested Front Range, the Park Range, the Elk Range, and so on.

It really helped me this fall to get up high above Tumalo Creek, where I found the lodgepole, to look east over the Deschutes River Valley at the myriad volcanic buttes and cones and grown-over lava flows. Cascades volcanism is the force of record here. Some of the eruptions happened as recently as a few thousand years ago, after humans had migrated into the area. Chainsaw in hand, I marveled at the speed with which soils had o’er topped the eroding lava, and at the forests of big trees that sprang up out of that soil. I’m getting old in a place so geologically young.

Ellen nests differently. She had been more uncomfortable, more lost, in an unfinished remodel, with only a few dishes, a couch from Costco, and an Aero bed to sleep on. “I know it’s shallow,” she said, only half believing the critique, “but I need my stuff. I need it around me to feel we’ve really made the move.”

I added a stick to the fire. It was a piece of hardwood from Alabama. Our son-in-law Mike, whose family lives in Birmingham and Huntsville, had bequeathed his woodpile to us when he and Cecily moved from Colorado three years ago. He didn’t know for sure what kind of wood it was – pecan maybe, or some kind of elm? He got it from his father, who had driven out for a visit with a load of good ‘Bama hardwood as a housewarming gift.

I filled the last few cubic feet in Pinkham’s hold with firewood from Boulder Rock’s woodpile. That hardwood, driven from Alabama to Colorado to Oregon, had additional meaning. Mike’s mother died only a few days before our move, exiting finally, gracefully, from a decades-long death match with cancer.

As Ellen and I stared into the embers, we felt other presences. Out of the maze-like clutter she had already retrieved a few crucial items. One was my mother’s sculpture “Walking Figures.” Carved from a two-foot cube of walnut, a woman guides a just-learning-to-walk child with such warmth of action real children often walk up and hug it.

Also coming out of the boxes were a brace of table lamps with cut crystal bases, given to us by Ellen’s mother, a child of Polish immigrants who valued, keenly, the fine things she was able to afford. And the ingenious bag-drying rack my father made in his wood shop and gave to us years before it became de rigueur to wash and reuse Ziploc bags.

And the pillows Ellen had sewn from sections of worn oriental rugs my dad’s parents brought home from a train trip to Russia in the 1930s. A trip that, even though my father was just 13 at the time, later prevented him from getting a job at the State Department during the paranoid McCarthy years. “Material things,” Ellen again chided herself, chided our neediness. “But they are our heritage, our history, our family. It’s who we are.”

I placed a chunk of sweet-smelling juniper onto the fire. Cut on our Colorado property to make way for the house at Boulder Rock, the juniper flared and lit the living room at Bend Corners. The added light illuminated a painting by Uncle Hal that had survived the journey and that we’d leaned, temporarily, against the wall. It’s a large watercolor, a wedding present 40 years ago. Hal painted most of his landscapes in finely rendered acrylics. (He was also a mapmaker.) This one is much looser. It recreates a backlit mountain meadow with the sun just out of the frame behind a spruce tree and light shooting in all directions. The highlights are particularly blinding on stalks of late-season grasses, white-gold beyond the spruce shadow in which the viewer finds himself. Cozy for the first time in months, Ellen and I stared into the scene as if for the first time.

Be Nice Two

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Life in Central Oregon by pshelton on September 5, 2014

What were the chances we’d run into Kelby on the Deschutes River Trail?

Bend is a big town. Eighty thousand plus. Big anyway compared to where we come from on the western slope of Colorado. There, the biggest town by far (we call it a city) is Grand Junction, currently an oil-and-gas boomtown on the Colorado River, bisected by Interstate 70, population 60,000.

I only know a handful of people in Bend. And yet here we were, my brother Tom and I, on this mountain bike trail running into Kelby, my grandkids’ baby sitter. She lit up in recognition and delivered hugs all around. Well into our conversation, the river burbling at our backs, Tom asked, half kidding but also genuinely curious: “Where is the dark side to Bend?”

It’s a question I ask myself all the time. Bend seems to a newcomer like a bright and happy place. A place comfortable in its own skin. A place with a built-in openness, a friendliness not exactly universal in other places we’ve lived.

At first I was reminded of “The Truman Show,” the scary-perfect Florida town that turned out to be an elaborate set in the 1998 Jim Carey vehicle. And Bend is indeed beautiful, flush with water, lush for the high desert, manicured, proud. But beauty and pride of place do not guarantee a good attitude.

We lived for the last 38 years within the physical and intellectual sphere of Telluride, a place as gorgeous as any on the continent. But something about that mountain valley encourages a cloistered vibe, a kind of protective defensiveness. Not surly exactly, but not exactly welcoming either.

I wonder about history. Both places were founded on extractive industries. Telluride’s miners started digging a full quarter century before Bend’s lumbermen unsheathed their saws. Bend is a very young community, incorporated in 1905. The timber heyday lasted only a few decades before the big trees became scarce and economics and environmental consciousness changed. But unlike a lot of other Oregon timber towns, Bend made a successful, a very successful, transition to recreation tourism, helped along by the launch in 1958 of the ski area at Mount Bachelor, and more recently by the proliferation of craft breweries.

Telluride faced the same prospects when the last mine closed in 1978. But its isolation (six hours from Denver; an hour and a half from the nearest airport) and the limits of its steep, awkwardly laid out ski mountain slowed its growth.

More significantly perhaps, Telluride’s box canyon denizens weren’t at all sure they wanted the scene a destination ski area would bring. The chant in the ‘70s was “Not another Aspen!” These new Telluriders were bi-coastal sophisticates, utopians, trust funders, mountain athletes, PhD snow shovelers and short-order cooks, and they did their best – continue to do their best – to slow anything that smells of a headlong, or insufficiently examined, advance.

I gather that was not the case in Bend. The city has grown exponentially since I first skied here in the mid-1980s, when the population hovered around 17,000. Some of the new developments have been higher-quality than others. Sprawl is, and traffic has grown proportionately. But city planners seem to have stayed a step ahead of the growth. Dozens of roundabouts (rather than stop lights) move cars, and bicycles, with remarkable efficiency. They (the city, county and ODOT) built an elevated “parkway,” a pseudo freeway with a 45-mph speed limit, to move traffic across town. There are bike lanes on almost every street, with cyclists of every stripe using them. And the network of public-lands trails is rumored to be somewhere north of 500 miles long, and counting.

Topography plays a part. Telluride’s tiny canyon is guaranteed to dial up the claustrophobia, and the home prices. Not to say the insular smugness. Bend sits at the low-angle intersection of the forested eastern Cascades and the sage of the Great Basin. The self-congratulatory air here is largely a “Lucky us!” reflex. There is room, generous room, in every direction. Room for a rather large, economically diverse population to build, to spread out on the trails, float the river, disappear from one another in the ponderosas, and . . . be nice.

I’ll never forget the phone call we got from our son-in-law Adam hours after he arrived in Bend two years ago. He had driven out alone from Boston ahead of the rest of his little family, with a pickup load, to their rental house. Adam is a born and bred New Englander. Not taciturn in the clichéd (“Can’t get there from here.”) way, but private in the sense that holding something in reserve is often the best policy. Adam told us on the phone that he couldn’t get over how happy people in Bend seemed to be.

“Everybody’s smiling,” he said in amazement.

Be Nice

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History, Ski history by pshelton on September 4, 2014

We’d seen the bumper stickers around town: “Be Nice You’re In Bend.” But sometimes it takes someone else to point out the obvious.

Ellen and I had been here for only a couple of months, enjoying what did in fact seem to be a preternatural geniality on the part of many Bend, Oregon locals, when my brother came to visit. He and I were going somewhere in his rental car, backing out of the driveway. Tom stopped mid-turn, aware that another car was approaching from up the hill. “He’s stopping!” Tom exclaimed, incredulous, eyes on his mirror. “He’s waiting! I could live to be a hundred and never see such a thing in Southern California!”

Boggled, Tom drove on, and I recalled a number of instances in our short time here where niceness prevailed.

There were the gas station attendants. Oregon remains the only state I know of where you don’t pump your own gas. Instead, you pull in, roll down the window and tell the man, or the woman, to fill ‘er up. If they’re not too busy they like to talk, commenting on our Colorado plates (now switched over to the Oregon evergreen tree), happy to give directions or advice, and nearly always ending the conversation, “Welcome to Central Oregon.”

Another time I was up in the branches of our sickly, curbside ash tree trying to prune out the dead stuff when a man we know only slightly came by on his bike and offered to loan me his extendable limb saw. He dropped it off that afternoon. And, if that weren’t enough, he invited us up to his place for a barbecue the next night.

We got another invite, out of the blue, from a young couple across the alley. Once a summer the denizens of 4th Street close off the street and celebrate potluck with their immediate neighbors. Sweet chicken smoke. Coolers full of beers. Kids with water balloons – shrieks of laughter, but never so wild as to get the adults wet. We met and had meaningful chats with almost everyone on the block. One reveler even drew up a schematic for us newer arrivals, with names and abodes, to show who lived where.

More? The mother of two across the street, the one we’ve seen tending her sidewalk garden of aspens and wildflowers, knocked on our door with a bag of peaches from her back yard tree. “Welcome to Bend,” she said.

Our bank, Umpqua Bank, actually strives to be “the friendliest bank in the world.” They refer to Oregonians as “folks,” call their banks “stores.” The tellers are almost disconcertingly cheerful. When I drop off a mortgage payment they ply me with little bags of their signature roasted coffee beans. Lesser occasions warrant a chocolate mint.

At Phil’s Trailhead, where a spider web of mountain bike single track fans out west of town, there’s a sign for what can only be called niceness etiquette. It reads in part: “Look, Listen, Smile . . . Have fun, and keep your eyes and ears open. Smile and say hello! You are in one of the best mountain bike areas in the nation.” In one of the few incidences of trail rudeness, or near rudeness, we’ve heard about, a friend had to wait to pass a slower rider who stubbornly refused to pull over. When he was finally able to squeeze past, he warned the obdurate one as he went by: “Watch those elbows, Buttercup!”

The Territory Ahead

Posted in Personal History, Road Trips West, Watch columns by pshelton on May 16, 2014

Ellen and I just returned from a month in Bend, Oregon, a month spent tearing the insides out of a downtown 1950s bungalow, and sleeping in the guest room at daughter Cloe’s place. She and her husband, Adam, and the two grandkids are the big reasons we’re moving to Bend. They’re all for it. They’re cheerleading the transition and helping to facilitate it, not least with Adam’s skill as a builder.

Yesterday an old friend asked how it felt to be back home, and the question stopped me. Cue Firesign Theatre’s faux-vaudevillian tune: “Oh, how can you be in two places at once, when you’re not anywheeeere at all?” Wasn’t there a Superman episode in which the Man of Steel desperately needs to be in two places at the same time, and he somehow pulls off the trick of self-division, but his superpowers are compromised? I think he tried to bust through a wall and hurt his shoulder.

Can a person have more than one home? Western Colorado has been our home for 38 years. Ellen and I, with Cloe in the oven, moved to Telluride in July 1976, just in time for the state’s centennial and the country’s bicentennial celebrations. We have moved twice since, to Ridgway in 1981 and then, in 1999, to this house, redundantly named Boulder Rock, as is the family custom, in a nearly empty valley south of Montrose. The San Juans are practically part of our DNA.

We didn’t consciously think of Boulder Rock as the last house we would ever live in, but we put everything we had into it. The design grew out of an intense, detailed, almost psychiatric collaboration, and the construction crew yielded at least two fond friendships. The house is unique, organic to its hill, personal to the point of eccentricity. The kitchen/dining area was designed around a table made for us, out of Oregon maple, as it happens, by my Uncle R.C. The fireplace we patterned after kitchen hearths we’d seen in France. Every one of the 33 windows and doors frames a view, either close in or grand, that was considered, imagined, with Ansel Adams-like focus. Ellen has said many times to me, whether I deserved the credit or not, “Thank you for building me my dream house.”

On our first night back from Oregon I lay in bed listening to the silence, one of Boulder Rock’s sensual luxuries. Toward morning coyotes yipped somewhere in the mile-wide dish of sage and hay. Bend is not nearly so quiet. It is a small city of 80,000, the biggest town in central Oregon, at the timbered edge of the desert and the Cascade Range. A handful of trains and their signature whistles rumble through every day, though the city’s history as a sawmill town – giant smokestacks on either side of the river – is mostly past. Now the vibe is closer to hipster Brooklyn with a lot of Northwest grunge thrown in. Crunchy hipsters, as it were, really nice folks for the most part, and commensurately happy. Lot of happy people in Bend. It is, of course, chockablock with breweries, coffee roasters, kayakers, mountain bikers, retirees, and kids going to Central Oregon Community College or the local branch of Oregon State University. Our aging hippie realtor described several properties in the neighborhoods we favored as “within walking distance of the Ten Barrel.”

Hipsters share the meandering Deschutes River, dammed into a series of “mirror ponds” through town, with a full compliment of carpenters and cooks, plumbers, electricians, dry-wallers, clerks, entrepreneurs, artists and ski instructors who have worked Bend’s growth surge over the last few decades. It reminds me a bit of Boulder: smaller, with a river running through it, a little less self-important, and without a Denver next door. Portland is four hours away over the range.

Sometimes I think this move is the stuff of madness. We’re too old to take on such a complete relocation, pulled up at the roots. Are we running away from something? Something unnamed and, apparently, unexamined? Is this some sort of delayed mid-life crisis? (I just read, and felt an uncomfortable identification with, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay, “The Crack-Up,” in which he describes with a kind of romantic horror his own breakdown, at age 40, laying bare the “finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”)

But then I think, no, this is a forward progression. New momentum. Change is good, an essential preventative against the hardening of the soul’s arteries. We’re going to be close to family, three generations together, even if that comes at a cost of friends and familiar patterns. Energetic, bike-able, one-story Bend, we are convinced, will be a great place for the “fourth quarter.”

It doesn’t quite feel like home, yet. After a month, with that house stripped to the studs and this one rather urgently on the market, it’s no wonder we feel a near-constant frisson. No, it’s worse than that; it’s like having bees live in your head. We’re calling the new place Bend Corners. Maybe, as a Paonia friend suggested, it should be Bent Corners?

My circadian clock is still on Oregon time. I can’t go to sleep until an hour after I should, but I wake up, as always, at first light. I lie in bed thinking about the roof framing in the new place and where the wood stove and its double-wall pipe will go. The 2×6 rafters and 1×10 sheathing they used in 1950, the year after I was born, is beautiful lumber, probably milled right in Bend, the kind of straight, clear heart boards you don’t see at Home Depot.

I can’t lie still for long, however, because of the bluebirds. They’re up at first light, too. And they start in right away banging against the bedroom windows. This is no gentle rapping. (Both Hitchcock and Poe have come up in conversation.) Angry birds, a nesting pair, hurl themselves one after the other against the glass – so hard you would think they’d knock themselves out.

Google tells us they are attacking their own reflections – stubbornly, pointlessly, thinking them to be rivals for the territory they’ve chosen.