The way it was: The life and times of Vail’s motley band of pioneers  |

The way it was: The life and times of Vail’s motley band of pioneers 

Brenda Himelfarb
Special to the Daily
Packy Walker, left, has been one of the key organizers of Vail Pioneer Weekend.
John LaConte/Vail Daily archive

They came. They saw. They built. They were here at the beginning.  

And in 2022 they came to laugh, to cry, to schmooze and to reminisce about what was: treasured memories. To say those days were good times is an understatement. It was a great time. It was a once-in-a-lifetime time — a new start for hundreds of people who would become the pioneers of a burgeoning ski town called Vail. And they wanted to celebrate those early days … 

It began with an email: 


“To think we lived over at the lodge for $10 a week and free food at night if nobody caught you going into the kitchen.” 


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Packy Walker organized the 60th Anniversary Pioneer Weekend, which took place Saturday, Aug. 27 and Sunday, Aug. 28. Come gather with all the people you knew in a place you all loved: Vail, Colorado. 

And so, it was. The event commenced at Bart and Yeti’s in Lionshead where hundreds of people showed up to make a toast and to celebrate themselves. And why not? These folks — referred to as “locals-for-life” — played a huge role in, literally, building this community from the ground up. And what a glorious time it was. The kind of time where, after hearing the stories, you wish you could’ve been there.  

Vail Pioneer Weekend, an every-five-year event, brought together local workers from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in Vail.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

It wasn’t the first time that Packy would beat the drum to get the old-timers together. Packy is a legend — and not only in his own mind. The man has a creative, fun-loving, Peck’s-Bad-Boy energy that keeps even the most conservative shaking their heads and laughing out loud. “That’s Packy,” they always seemed to be thinking. But Packy wasn’t the only one. Most of Vail’s pioneers were free-spirited with a go-for-it attitude that they needed to get things done and build a town. 

Yet, the stories … don’t ask! The pioneers raised hell right along with the roofs — leaving all of us who followed jealous of the great time we missed out on. However, their tales are, thankfully, in the forefront of their memory banks allowing “those who followed” to have a sense of the outlandish follies this fun-loving, hard-working group experienced. They’re the “wish-we-had-been-there” stories that live in their hearts.  

And it was at the Sunday’s gathering at the Amp where the stories came into play. The faces and the bodies might have aged — but the joy of seeing each other once again, catching up and reminiscing, was evident. 

Judge “Buck” Allen reminded the crowd that in the ’60s, Vail was a frontier town. “Sheep were herded up Bridge Street, which was dirt up to the summer pasture. You always kept a half a tank of gas in your car,” he reminded the crowd, “because the nearest hospital was either Leadville or Glenwood.”

And as he spoke the crowd nodded their heads and shouted in agreement. They were there and remembered it well. Yes, there was a town to be built, to be governed and to succeed. And those who live here are thankful to everyone who gave their all to make this community the extraordinary place it is today.  

However, those crazy times of yesteryear sound amazing. At least we get to hear about it.  

“It must have been about ’67 or ’68 and we had to take a couple of days off to go down to Denver to get our groceries — and it was a good six-hour trip to get there,” recalls Packy. “So, we’d do this about every two weeks. At that time, Lionshead was the town dump and the land where the Safeway sits now was for sale for $5,000. And back in ’67 we thought that was absurd. It was so far out of town. It didn’t make any sense. And it was too much money.” 

Of course, there were a plethora of personalities within the pioneer crowd and they each had a tale of days gone by when anything went. Well, almost anything. This fun-loving, hearty group literally worked and played, making each of us wish we could have been part of it all. It was a time when folks were skydiving into the village to the 4-way stop sign — now a roundabout. 

Jim Cotter recalls that one time he and Packy hijacked the shuttle bus to go barhopping. “We always did a little bit of mischief,” he says with a snicker. “Anyway, we told the passengers that they could get off or come with us and have some cocktails and smoke some pot, but they refused. So, when we got back to the bus the people were still on the bus waiting for us. Then we took the bus to Lionshead and we tried to drive the bus straight in there but couldn’t do it. So, we just left it right there. Even the bus driver got off and came to Garfinkel’s with us — but the others still didn’t join us. The next morning, the bus was still parked in the same place. I think the bus driver got fired.” 

The stories these pioneers tell are right out of the Netflix movie “Bad Trip” that reviews reported, “delivers a unique style of pranks.” This perfectly describes the antics the pioneers staged in those early days. 

Which brings us to the “pig incident.” As Larry Anderson of Ore House fame relates, “Packy and Dave Garton had been to the Eagle County Fair and purchased a prize-winning pig, which weighed about 500 pounds. So, they gave me a call at the restaurant and asked if I had ever thought about putting pork on the menu. I said that I hadn’t but wondered why they were asking. ‘Would you consider it?’ they wanted to know. I said that I would. So, they tell me to hang out because they were on their way over. And the next thing I know, they drive over in a pickup truck, park by the covered bridge — and in the back of the truck is the pig who, by that time, was going nuts! There was no way that pig was coming into the restaurant.” 

Then there was the time Packy walked into the restaurant completely wrapped in Christmas lights from head to toe carrying a heavy-duty 100-foot electric cord, asking Anderson to plug him in. And how can Anderson forget about the time when he and Garton were living in Sandstone (when it was the only building standing on the west side) that he came home to find all the dishes — in every size — missing.  

The next time Anderson saw Garton he asked, “What happened, Dave? Where are all the plates? ‘Oh, Andy,’ he said — he called me Andy — ‘we did a little skeet shooting so we took all the plates, all the records, anything we could find and sailed them off the porch and tried to blow them up.’” 

And so it was. The mischievous pranks were never-ending: Paul Testwuide brought a horse into Garton’s Bar. Pepper Etters cemented the one police car in town with cinderblock. Packy and his cohort, Chuck McLaughlin, let 40 mice loose in Sheika’s disco.  

Upon occasion, someone might ride a horse into one of the local bars, such as Garton’s or Donovan’s.
Daily File Photo

Bob Lazier would commandeer building equipment whenever it was needed. He’d “borrow” Vail Associates’ equipment at night, which was parked at the old Crossroads before it was built. He’d go to work at 8, 9 p.m., take all their equipment, use it all night long, then bring it back. In the morning their trucks would be out of gas. Lazier never bought construction equipment. He just used all of VA’s.  

However, it was Packy who always seemed to find a way to “push the button” — and people couldn’t get enough. 

“An Air Force pilot was flying his A-10 Thunderbolt when he broke formation, flew up here and crashed into Gold Dust Basin, about a half a mile from my cabin,” he said. “They were looking for this guy forever, so I put on my flight suit, got out my A-10 parachute, went out to East Vail and walked around there with a burned-out looking map that read, ‘You are here,’ kind of thing, and not one person stopped! Nobody gave it a second thought. It was commonplace, I guess.”  

Garton was always Packy’s partner in crime. They had a Cadillac limo with presidential seals and flags that they drove to Vail Pass during hunting season. They strapped Garton to the hood with his hunting gear on and his tongue hanging out, while Packy donned the elk outfit and went to the game check asking if they’d check his human. Certainly, the pioneer weekend had many reflecting on old times. Vail certainly has grown. Perhaps, for many, too much. 

“I’ve always loved Vail and never wanted to leave,” said Packy, reflectively. “I would like it to be more of a community where people actually live. We’ve lost that. Many of my friends have moved downvalley, for obvious reasons: trying to save some money, trying to raise a family. I guess that goes with the territory. Those things happen. But at least I got to be here in the early days and that was exciting and important. 

“In the old days, you made your own fun. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody helped everybody. Ski instructors would build homes in the summer and go back to skiing in the winter. It was a different place. It was smaller and very alpine. I suppose Denver started out with one and two-story buildings, too. It’s a shame that we’ve lost that alpine ambiance. It seemed to work so well for so long. It just morphed in a different direction. To think we lived over at the lodge for $10 a week and free food at night if nobody caught you going into the kitchen.”  

One of the traditions that have gone by the wayside is the chef race — on skis, with toques, pots and pans.
Daily File Photo

Packy is right. The community certainly isn’t the same. It’s no longer a small town, for sure. However, we still have neighborhoods. They may be spread out, but they’re there — and there’s a closeness within each one.  

There’s also the “offseason” when town clears out, traffic slows down and those who live here take a breather.  

However, it would have been great fun — even with all the work — to have been one of the first to call Vail home. 

Perhaps it was Judge Allen, who best summed up what brought Vail’s pioneers to the mountains and how they impacted this entire community. 

“People came here for the love of the outdoors and skiing. They were adventuresome and hearty,” Allen related. “They were drawn to the open space. People came for the outdoors, and they stayed for their friends and the community. In the early days, there was a lot of opportunity if you were willing to work hard. A mountain ethic developed — to help your friends and neighbors. We had to rely on one another and there was a closeness in the community. We were all in this together. When people saw a need to do something, they did it! They didn’t ask for permission or permits; they just went out and got it done. There was a lot of self-reliance and independence. You give ‘em a job and then get out of their way. We had a common goal. We all worked together to make Vail the best place and the success that it is now. And along the way, have some fun.” 

When Allen concluded his speech, everyone stood up and cheered. There were whoops and whistles and tears — for the memories and the way it was.  

This story first appeared in the current issue of Vail Valley Magazine.

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