Biff America column: Broken hearts and bullet holes
Sara Clear Water broke my heart on our way home from the Star-Shack in the winter of 1974. I was 20 years old, and she was an older woman of 30-something. Despite her fondness for silver armbands, wool serapes and Indian slogans, I didn’t believe Clear Water was her real name. Like me, she had an East Coast accent, fair skin and looked anything but Native American; but since, during those days, it was easier to find gold in the high country than a date, that was of little concern.
My buddy and I picked up Sara hitch-hiking while we were driving back from Leadville. She was heading home to Black Hawk — then an old mining town filled with hippies, now a casino town filled with folks on oxygen. A storm was raging, and we invited her to spend the night with the offer to take her back to the Interstate the next morning.
Though I was new to the mountains, I was already getting tired of resort skiing and had just purchased my first backcountry gear.
When Sara saw the newly pine tarred Bonna wooden skis and leather Alfa boots inside the door of my place, she became more interested. It wasn’t until later in the evening after a meal of Sloppy Joes and dessert of Four Roses that I closed the deal.
Come to find out Sara was a fairly accomplished Nordic skier. She lived in an old mining cabin miles from the nearest plowed road and would ski in and out daily. The next day, using my roommate’s borrowed gear, she gave me my first telemark-turn lesson on a small hill behind my house.
‘Young, dumb and pretty’
Our relationship lasted less than a month; we met after Thanksgiving, and she dumped me before the New Year.
But during that timespan, we did a lot of ski touring (and whatever else she wanted). I would hitch down to Gilpin County, and we would ski around her cabin and on the nearby gentle slopes. She was short and plump and had a trace of a mustache; she said she liked me because I was (in her words) “young, dumb and pretty.”
She called me at work one night and told me to come over the next day and to bring a sleeping bag; we were going to the “Star-Shack.”
We got a ride to a trailhead just outside of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. After about two hours of skiing, we came to a well-maintained log hut with plywood siding painted with murals and new-age motifs. When I asked who owned it, Sara offered some sort of hippie offering like “Mother Earth, she lets us borrow it if we come in peace.”
Above the door was a sign that said, “Star-Shack — Respect the land, love each other, enjoy your journey.”
Sara suggested I wait outside while she asked the empty cabin’s permission for us to spend the night. Even at my young age, I thought that was ridiculous, but since gold was easier to come by than gals, I held my tongue. I could hear her chanting through the door, and when she finally invited me in, there was a fire going and incense burning.
The cabin was not yet warm but looked to be cozy. There was a swing hanging from a beam and ad hoc art work and hippie slogans written in bright paint on the walls. Sara showed me the sleeping loft, which had constellations depicted on the ceiling with florescent stars.
We spent the next two days enjoying the skiing and each other.
Descending back to the trailhead, Sara made beautiful tele-turns on her wooden skis and low-cut boots while I flailed. While we walked back to the paved road, she told me her boyfriend was returning to Colorado and she and I wouldn’t be seeing each other anymore; my pleading only made things worse.
In the 40 years that have followed, I have wondered if the Star-Shack was still standing. I don’t often get to that part of Colorado.
A little sadness
Last spring, my mate and I decided to check out that area. We parked our camper at the trailhead where Sara broke my heart. With our modern gear and climbing skins, we were able to fly up the trail that was such a struggle so many years ago. It was a much shorter trip than I remembered.
It was like visiting an old friend. I knew I had changed over the years, so I assumed the hut had as well, but I was not prepared for how much.
The windows were gone, the walls had bullet holes, and there was glass and trash everywhere. The mattress up in the loft had been chewed by critters, and vulgar graffiti had replaced the art and hippie slogans.
Ellen said, “This place is a dump,” then added, “Are those tears in your eyes?” I had teared up a little — but it wasn’t from nostalgia, faded youth or old flings.
I was sad because, despite all that our species has accomplished in the fields of technology, civil rights and fat skis, after witnessing mankind’s callous indifference to our planet, sometimes I’m ashamed to be a human.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s book “Mind, Body, Soul,” is available at local shops and bookstores or shop.holpublications.com.