Sometimes a very small thing becomes bigger than imagined at the time of its inception.
The American flag atop a 300-foot granite peak in Glenwood Canyon is such a thing. First erected in 1968 by Bill Paddock and Steve Kibler before they were deployed to the Vietnam War as teenagers, the banner in the sky still flies today.
When it's flapping in the wind, it is easily seen from a bend on westbound Interstate 70, just a few miles west of the Hanging Lake Tunnel. The granite peak rises straight above the railroad tracks across the river. A taller granite cliff is directly behind it, making it less visible from certain angles. Climbers call it the Flag Buttress.
Maintaining the flag has grown into an important tradition for some people. The flag has inspired news stories in papers and on television. Some of the most recent were about 20 years ago. A story in the Enterprise archives dates back to 1984.
"A lot of the news stories made it sound like something it never was," Paddock said last week from his home in Rifle. "They made it sound like it was a patriotic act, tied to our service in Vietnam. We climbed a lot that summer and just thought it'd be cool to put a flag up there. We had no idea it would become such a big thing. It just happened. Now, if the flag's not flying, I hear about it."
After two years of duty in Vietnam, Paddock and Kibler replaced the weather-tattered flag, and every year after that. Sometimes they took friends and family with them and gave them the old flag to keep.
"Kibler lives in Broomfield these days and we don't see each other much," Paddock said. "It's a good excuse to get together."
It's still a year-to-year thing, with no grand plans for the long-term survival of the tradition.
"We talked about doing it for 50 years," said Paddock, who just turned 64. "It might go on longer than that. We'll see. My youngest daughter has talked about taking it on, but she lives in California and doesn't have much climbing experience."
Getting to the flag is not very demanding from a technical perspective but it is not easy, either.
The first challenge is getting across the Colorado River. Paddock and Kibler have made friends with Xcel Energy employees who help them cross at the Hanging Lake Dam and sometimes join them on the climb. Most other people cross the river by boating, wading or setting up a Tyrolean traverse.
A Tyrolean traverse involves a rope strung across the river. A person clips onto the rope with a harness and pulls him or herself across. It basically works like a zipline but requires much more effort than sliding along downhill.
Then there is the railroad tracks to contend with. Crossing railroad property is illegal.
Finally at the base of Flag Buttress, there are several routes to choose from. Some are steeper and more technical than others. The easiest route goes up the back side, from an exposed saddle between the peak and the greater cliff behind it.
Even the easy route requires some fortitude. Loose rocks, exposure and bushwhacking between the steepest sections keep it exciting. When making the climb last week I disturbed a rattlesnake inside a crack while descending and trying to beat an oncoming storm.
Paddock noted that he's made the climb in all types of weather.
"We put it up in March 1968, and it was ugly, one of the worst winters," Paddock said. "There was snow and ice. It wasn't an easy climb, plus we were carrying the flag pole and all the cables and equipment."
The metal flag pole sits in a hole drilled down into the top of a big, square boulder. The post is about an inch and a half in diameter. A smaller hole is a few inches away, probably from the original pole.
"I think I've made about three different poles over the years," Paddock said.
Smaller, rusted bolts and pins anchor cables that hold the 15-foot pole firmly in place.
Standing next to the pole inspires sensations of vertigo. The cables vibrate in the wind and the cliff drops all the way down to the train tracks from under your toes. Cars look like tiny, plastic toys. Up there amid the gaping view, a person feels how large the canyon really is.
"There used to be a coffee can that people used as a summit register," Paddock said. "We didn't put it there. It just appeared and was there for a while. Now it's gone. I think the weather blew it off."
For a while, Paddock and Kibler had to replace the flag more frequently than usual.
"We had a couple years where the flags didn't hold up quite as well," Paddock said."Then we found some that were better made."
Neither Paddock nor Kibler climb much anymore. Paddock is a mechanic for the city of Glenwood Springs and Kibler is a computer programmer for airplanes.
"I enjoy golf, fishing, motorcycles and hunting these days," Paddock said. "Climbing is harder to do as I get older. (Kibler) and I were climbing a lot that year. We were really tight as climbing partners. We've been through a lot together. I've probably been through most of these mountains with him."
Other close relationships surround the flag for Paddock. His wife, Wilma, started climbing up there with him 30 years ago. They've been married 34 years and have three grown children, who have all climbed Flag Buttress as well.
"Wilma did one winter climb with me in waist-deep snow," he said. "I've been up there about four times in winter and it's not my favorite thing."
Other friends familiar with the tradition have played with the idea of taking it on. No one has shouldered it yet. It is a bit of work. Paddock said he is OK either way. It's just something he and Kibler have been doing for their own satisfaction. The flag was most recently replaced last fall.
As for me, I graduated from Glenwood Springs High School in 2001 and spent half of my 29 years climbing in the canyon. It's hard to imagine the flag not being there some day.
For now, the tradition continues, one step at a time, just like a climb.