The man of a thousand stories
Everyone knows Packy Walker, or at least about him.Growing up here I heard plenty of rumors about Packy’s outlandish antics, his unparalleled disregard for being politically correct. Who hasn’t seen at least one of his Fourth of July get-ups (Packy prancing down Bridge Street in a pink slip after a round of Vail Resorts corporate layoffs, or Packy dressed as a Scottish golfer carrying a sign that read “Save the Links” at the height of the Blue Sky Basin controversy)?Most Vail locals have also heard about the time Packy and Dave Garton rolled into the hunter checkpoint at the top of Vail Pass. Garton, garbed in an Elk costume, drove a stretch limo up to the crowded checkpoint with Packy (playing dead and wearing an Elmer Fudd hat) strapped to the hood.I had heard some of these larger-than-life stories, but I still hadn’t the slightest idea what to expect when my editor assigned me “The Packy Project.” Even after researching old Vail Trail stories online, and getting a chuckle out of the infamous nearly-nude Packy Vail Trail cover of April 16, 1982, (he was wearing only a fig leaf) I was ready for anything when I went to visit his house in West Vail.Packy Walker is irreverence personified. I’m not sure how I expected irreverence personified to look, but it wasn’t the lithe, mostly bald, mustached man that greeted me. The one picture I had seen of Packy portrayed him in all his prankster glory; but this time, he was dressed (I suppose I didn’t recognize him without his fig leaf).Plus, he was in a rush, trying to get bonus checks to his employees at the Lifthouse. The duties at hand didn’t leave much time for me on that particular morning, and in our first interview I felt like a go-cart driver caught in the middle of the track at the Indy 500.Turns out that Packy, who is nearing 60 years old, just needed more time to let his life of antics resurface. After all, there’s a lot that’s happened over the nearly 40 years Packy has spent raising hell in V-Town.I talked to Packy more in the next week than any other person in my life. I even talked to him, via cell phone, from my first patio-side FAC of the summer season. It seems he had remembered more stories many more stories that he wanted to relay. Loosened up and relaxed, a calmer Packy Walker agreed to meet me at 1 p.m. the next day.Without warning, though, my patio-side FAC somehow morphed into 1 a.m. shots. Don’t ask me how. When the morning of my second Packy interview arrived, I was down for the count, loser in eight rounds to a heavyweight bottle of Russia’s finest.Suffering as I was, I called Packy to reschedule. My editor, known valley-wide as a cruel and inhumane taskmaster, would allow no margin of error in the execution of “The Packy Project.” With that in mind, I knew I had to be on top of my game this time around. I figured that, if anyone would understand, it would be the master of mischief himself, Mr. Walker.He was kind though quick to chastise me for switch-hitting mid-evening from Spanish red to Skyy blue.”Caramie, we need to talk,” Packy said. “There are some things you need to learn.”Packy is what we call varsity. Still nauseous at 2 p.m. the next day, I apparently was the only senior still playing on the freshman team.And that, my editor may be interested to learn, was how I began a new friendship with Packy Walker.More than a few gamblesPacky, whose given name is Douglas, grew up in upstate New York, Syracuse to be exact, and came to Vail in 1967. He started with a stint in Denver, selling coffins to people who hadn’t died yet.Or, at least, that’s what he told me.Suspicious that I was the victim of a classic Packy prank, I asked him about the coffin job three times. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Packy’s giving you the real deal, though most of the time he’s being dead honest (pun intended). The more outrageous the story is, the more likely it transpired just the way Packy says it did.”I must have a fixation with morbidity or something,” he said.Not surprisingly, Packy decided he’d rather be living in Vail digging ditches than living in a city hawking caskets.And so he moved and picked up a job under Bob Lazier.”He actually started working for me as a laborer on the Wall Street Building,” Lazier remembers. “There’s never a dull moment when dealing with Packy Walker. We’re very fortunate to have people like him in town. His humor is the best kind that I know of I think if he’d been in show business, he would have been extremely successful.”Eventually Lazier promoted Packy and he managed the Tivoli for three years. Then Lazier built the Lifthouse, which Packy has managed ever since.Packy has many friends, or, better said, many sparring partners; people who love to push his buttons, egg him on, so to speak, and see how far he’ll take it.Case in point: Tom Korchowsky. When asked about Packy, Korchowsky had one thing to say:”Well, he’s short and he’s bald and he’s gay.”Korchowsky seemed thrilled that Packy had given me his name as someone I could talk to for quotes, reveling in the idea of going public with his opinions.Sorting through Korchowsky’s memories went something like this: “I can’t tell you that one, it involves hookers I can’t tell you that one, it involves”Well, you get the point.Korchowsky eventually found usable material a yarn about a quick stop in Vegas on the way to a flat-bottomed boat race.”Packy used to have a boat called ‘Packy’s Cracky’ … One time we were on the way to a boat race and we stopped off in Las Vegas to see a friend at the MGM Grand. The casino was virtually empty. We got to the blackjack table and Packy got a pair of 10s. He said, ‘Hit me.’ The dealer said, ‘That’s twenty,’ he said, ‘Look at me, I’m paying for the cards and I want more than two.’ And that’s the last time I saw Mr. Walker gamble, and I just don’t understand why.”Back in the early days of Vail, when no more than 200 people lived in town, any absence was conspicuous. Packy, having been out of town for five days, decided to take advantage of the situation.He wanted to find out who his true friends were, so he forged a funeral: his own.He borrowed a friend’s black 1959 Chevy Convertible and built a coffin. Packy powdered his face white, donned a suit and tie, and climbed into the coffin.A buddy drove him into town, where they ran into two policemen, (“the town had increased their patrol by 100 percent from the previous year,” Packy said.) The two, unaware that Packy had passed, took a look at the coffin, promptly got into their police cars, turned on their lights and led the procession through Vail. It didn’t take long for a crowd to gather behind the impromptu hearse. “Mourners” followed behind the procession, on foot, singing “We Shall Overcome.” The wake was held at the Pig ‘n Whistle. Packy finally ended the stunt when he saw two notoriously cheap acquaintances join the festivities.”I was paying for the drinks after all,” Packy explains. “It was a Dracula-type move. I just sat straight up and told them to get out.”The pranks never ceased.It was New Years’ Eve in 1976 when Packy and Charles McLaughlin decided to add their creative touch to the party going on at Sheika’s on Bridge Street. The two purchased 37 white mice from the pet store, snuck them into the discotheque and granted them their freedom in the women’s bathroom. As one can imagine, the white rodents quickly livened the room up.”The bouncers were outside the ladies bathroom trying to keep the mice inside, but of course they got out. As the waitresses would walk by with a tray of drinks, we’d drop a little mouse on the tray, or on some woman in a fur coats’ neck. It was great.”Though Sheika suspected Packy and McLaughlin as the likely culprits, it wasn’t confirmed until years later at McLaughlin’s funeral.”I said it was a little strong of Charlie to go and die to get out of taking responsibility for that one,” Packy said.Packy is quick to site his friend McLaughlin as the person he’s lost and misses most. McLaughlin got caught in a snowstorm heading to Denver one day in the fall of 1987 and never made it. Packy knew it was unlike his friend to not show up in Denver and to not have called and set out to find him. He began a long search of the two passes and, seeing tire tracks leading off the road, pulled off. His friend’s car had gone off the road and Packy discovered his body.”I searched for a couple of days on I-70,” Packy said. “I finally saw some tracks going off by the tunnel. I looked over and saw his truck. He had gotten thrown out; he was quite dead.”Losing Chuck was one of the harder things Packy has faced in a life that’s been filled with more laughter than tears, more hijinks than solemnity.Conducting things his wayThough Packy doesn’t have children and has never been married (he said he “never had time for it; never got around to it,”) he’s lived with his girlfriend Mary for the past 10 years. The two met when Mary began working at Garton’s Saloon back when Packy and Dave Garton owned the bar. “He eventually got to like me,” Mary laughed. “I think it was against his will.”At first, Packy was a little gun-shy about letting Mary move in with him. He figured he’d do it in small steps.”On my 50th birthday he asked me to move in with him,” she said. “We were going to come home that night and he had built me an igloo in the back yard that I would have to live in during the transition phase. He had a light bulb inside of it, and some lawn chairs; it was hysterical. He had made me this huge golden key out of cardboard. He broke his leg that night and I came home to this igloo and this golden key and he was in the hospital.”Mary didn’t end up having to spend the two weeks in the igloo. After all, someone had to take care of him, she said.Two years ago Packy had the honor of conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The story behind the honor, not surprisingly, is a pretty good one. He was attending a $250-a-plate fundraiser as the guest of someone else. He remembers having a hell of a time until the auction started. After a few drinks and before he knew what had happened, Packy raised his hand and offered up $10,000 for the chance to conduct the symphony during the Bravo! residency.”I was a music major and it had always been my dream to conduct an orchestra,” Mary said. “He doesn’t mention this part of the story. I bid first, $7,500, and I don’t have any money. Next thing I know he’s bidding $10,000.”Packy figured he’d be safe at $10,000, considering the opportunity usually goes for around $30,000 at most auctions. He wasn’t.”We had a year before he was set to actually do it. We listened to the piece and when we got the sheet music I tried to help him. Then he asked, ‘What are those little dots on the page?'”At the time, Packy told the Vail Daily that he liked the song he was going to be conducting, (“Prelude to Carmen”). It was an expensive decision, after all, so he’d better like it.”My part lasts about two minutes, which is about $5,000 a minute,” he said. “It’s just one more thing that’ll go on my permanent record.”After Packy’s performance on stage, Mary and he threw a party at his house to celebrate.”We invited 50 people and 100 showed up,” Mary said. “He was just as happy as I’ve ever seen him. He loves to be in the spotlight what bigger spotlight could there be?”For posterityI arrived for my third and last Packy interview feeling much less haggard than the day before and ready for full immersion in Packy’s world. He granted me full-access to his house and all the memorabilia that serves as proof of his life.In a small case there are a few gold coins brought up from a pirate ship called “The Whidah” that wrecked off of the coast of Cape Cod in 1717 (See the March 3, 1985 edition of The Vail Trail). More dear to Packy, however, is a small curved bone that sits next to the coins, which Packy claims is a walrus penis. The joy on his face made his level of reverence for the bone obvious.Scattered around the house are paintings of fall trees, boats and mountains, all which Packy himself painted. There are pictures of the notorious Saturday Night Fight where Packy took out “Cheap Shot Mulroney” and was carried triumphantly from the ring. Packy has no less than three mannequins, (girls, I assume, though they’re bald) spread throughout his house. And near the front door to his home sits the stuffed baboon that McLaughlin shot when the two were hunting in Africa (the baboon is pictured on the cover of this issue). Coincidentally placed next to a picture of Packy dressed as “Condom Man” is a small white coin bank that looks remarkably like a sperm. His pride and joy (even though he forgot to show me, but later left an urgent voice mail regarding) is what he called “Lady Di’s toilet seat.”When Lady Di visited Vail, Packy made sure to collect a souvenir to remember her by.”She was in (the bathroom) for half an hour, so I knew she did something other than floss,” Packy said. “The toilet seat has her picture inside it and everything it’s spectacular.”Somewhere in his collection of souvenirs and old Vail mementos Packy might even still have a certain black water pistol, which he and his old friend Jim Cotter once used to hijack the only town bus.”We hijacked this prototype van (the town) was trying out,” Packy said. “We got on the bus with a black water gun, a bucket of ice and a bottle of scotch and told everyone that if they feared for their life, they best get off. We took the bus down to the Saloon in Minturn drinking. Thank God for the statute of limitations is all I have to say.”For all of Packy’s stories, there are hundreds more that shall stay buried in the minds of those that were lucky enough to witness his antics. My head was swimming with thoughts of what old Vail must have been. After our interviews, I found myself walking through the quiet streets of off-season Vail, trying to absorb all that Packy, and many others, had shared with me. I walked by Bart n’ Yeti’s, named after Packy’s great friend and dog, Bart. Even Packy’s dog has a great history turns out he sired President Ford’s dog, Liberty.After my saunter I returned to my car and drove to the Vail Golf Course, remembering Packy’s story about snagging a menu from the Clubhouse Restaurant and making a few changes to the entre choices.”We had things like ‘Pate on the Ass,’ ‘Stroke me off Stroganoff,’ ‘Queens Greens,’ ‘Bichysoisse,'” Packy said. “We printed a bunch of (new menus) off, snuck in the restaurant and randomly stuck them back in the pile. Then we sat back at our table and watched. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.”Now the interviews are over, the quotes are recorded, and my editor is calling for the story (due days ago, of course). After full immersion in borrowed memories and untold stories, it’s time to put “The Packy Project” into ink, where posterity can have its way with it.And so, for what it’s worth, here it is. VT– Share more Packy Walker stories with Caramie Schnell at firstname.lastname@example.org.– Tom Boyd contributed to this story.