Monday, May 11, 2009

A Critical Mass of Creative Energy

Emma and I first met in Colorado in 1973. I had just graduated from Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and she was taking a break from the University of Michigan where she would graduate a few years later with a degree in environmental advocacy. She was standing on top of Far-out Bob’s Econoline van passing a hundred pound bag of pinto beans down to a bearded fellow in a pair of unlaced hiking boots deep in the Breckenridge mud. There were a bunch of other long-hairs standing around unloading the van; jugs of honey, bags of wheat berries, tubs of tofu, and other fundamental commodities had arrived from the food co-op in Denver. I noticed the pretty chick slinging the bag of beans off the van but I don’t think she noticed me—at least not yet.

We would all become fast friends that summer; about a dozen of us including Far-out Bob himself, Bobo, now a world class solo sailor, Walterski, the mad musician and steel sculptor, Donegan the crafty zen carpenter—all of us energetically running around Mt Baldy, getting seriously sunburned in the high elevations. We were a critical mass of creativity looking for the intrinsic value of a simpler life style.

With the permission of a benevolent mining claim owner we fixed up some old mining cabins, scrounging scrap lumber and other construction wherewithal from the condo projects just beginning to plague the pine forests on the edges of Breckenridge. A little chinking, a little tar paper and maybe a little orange shag carpet from a dumpster in town and we were all settling in to our little abodes, Emma in hers and me in mine, ready for a winter of skiing powder as fresh as it gets, right outside our doors.

Emma’s little hovel (she remembers it as a palace) was called Gold Bell. It was a ways up the trail from the Mountain Pride encampment where I lived. After a few of those long winter nights reading the Four Quartets and the Fantastic Four, I naturally determined to ski up the mountainside and court the lady with the pretty smile and the big bag of pinto beans. When she realized that I make a mean whole wheat tortilla to go with her frijoles, it was love. That’s when we decided we needed a place to set up house together and that would be our first tipi.

Summer came and we cut a set of tipi poles from the abundant lodge pole pine stands in the Blue River Valley and loaded them on my ’59 Ford. Emma was determined to finish her environmental studies in Ann Arbor so we headed east, knowing we’d be back in the mountains as soon as we finished our business. We secured a hefty bolt of canvas from an awning maker in the Midwest and commenced to blow out a few home sewing machines fabricating that first tipi in a barn outside Ann Arbor. We pitched the tipi between two immense, hardwood bogs on the back acreage of that farm. We both endured that academic winter in Ann Arbor between the tipi, where we sat by the fire on backrests and listened to the deep silence of the frozen bogs, and a buzzing little apartment in town where there was “music in the cafes at night”.

In early spring Em was teaching science to a rowdy bunch of high school kids at an alternative school called Earthworks. The high school needed a little more classroom space and we were ready for a bigger tipi so we donated our first lodge to the school. (A few months later we adopted the name and started Earthworks Tipi Makers. This is why to this very day if you want to buy the best tipi made anywhere you buy an Earthworks Tipi.)

Emma got her degree and we were ready to head back to our life on the mountainside, but first we needed to build another tipi—this time a 22’er. We sewed it up in the halls of the Natural Resources building at the University, heaved it into the back of the ’59, and headed back to Colorado with more bags of beans and wheat berries.

We pitched the tipi in a meadow of blue bells right next to an artesian spring. We were at 11,500’, a short hike through a stand of spruce to tree line and a view of the Ten Mile Range so clean and clear and close it vibrated with geologic majesty. That summer we made an art form out of hanging out. We hiked the peaks: over Baldy and down into the wild valley below Guyot; down into Bakers Bowl and the old water tower by the rail bed; down into town, stopping in French Gulch where Leroy and Mary lived. Life in the tipi on the mountainside was healthy and happy and brilliant and vibrant as life can be. We set the lodge up with our willow lazy-backs and a little raised area at the back for a bed. We made a low kitchen area with a lodge pole rack for our pots and pans and a chopping block just the right height to kneel at. There are untold benefits of living a simple life in a tipi. No one who’s ever done it would debate the sacred nature of the architecture. We were living at ground level but there was plenty of room for our spirits to soar.

A bunch of our friends and neighbors were interested in having us build tipis for them. Emma and I have always been good at hanging out but we do believe in moderation so we knew it was time to get to work. We rented an old barn alongside the Blue River where in empties out of the Goose Pasture Tarn and starts rushing toward Breckenridge and the placer tailings. We emptied the savings account, bought a couple industrial sewing machines and set up shop. In 1976 Earthworks was an old-fashioned mail order business. We advertised in the Mother Earth News and East West Journal. Orders came in the mail with a personal check and a handwritten order form, usually with a friendly note enclosed. That was the beginning of what’s now been 32 years in business but that’s a story for another time.

We continued to live in the tipi and go to work every day. When winter came the water in the spring would go underground and flow out of the mountain down below, so we’d move the tipi about 500 yards down the gulch, then back to the blue bells in the spring. As a matter of practicality, we got a 2-burner box stove from Montgomery Wards for $50 and set it in the tipi alongside the open fire. On chilly mountain mornings I could light the fire without getting out of bed. That’s easy living.

One morning a few years later as the morning sun began to peek over Baldy and illuminate the tipi with soft morning light, I was at the stove flipping griddle cakes and sipping coffee. Since I was already on one knee I figured it would be a good time to ask Emma to marry me—that’s what this story has been leading up to all along (though I have to say that Emma doesn’t quite remember it that way—that’s another story.) Anyway, she said yes and it’s been almost 30 years. What’s amazing is that we’ve been working literally side by side for all that time. It’s made for a very creative, challenging life and, maybe because of the challenges and the creativity they demand, it’s been a very happy and fulfilling one— and it all started in a tipi on the side of Mt Baldy.