South Park, made famous by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in their cartoon series of the same name, is indeed a real place in Colorado. It’s not a town, but a “park”, an open, un-forested area in the high country of the Rocky Mountains. Sorry, but there is no Cartman in this story.
The true “South Park” lies between the smudge on the map known as Alma, and the town of Fairplay. Officially at 10,578 feet above sea level, Alma can now lay claim as the highest town in North America. Before incorporation, for most of its history, it ceded the name of “highest town in America” to neighboring Leadville. Five peaks exceeding 14,000’ look down on the town.
When I was last there in the mid-to-late 1990’s, Alma consisted of a few cabins, a convenience store/ post office/ video rental center (36 selections; plan on seeing the same movies a few times over the winter), and the South Park Bar and Grill. There are a very, very few real townies. The 2000 U.S. census listed the population at 179. There is an Alaskan feel to the town; people choose to be there because they are extremely competent, rugged, and rock solid in the worst of conditions, or because they are dysfunctional to the point of needing a pretty anonymous escape portal. Alma provides much for people at each end of the Functionality Spectrum, and precious little to those in the middle.
My friend Glen lived there for a year after escaping Pittsburgh to find his way in the Wild West. He found work distributing for M&M/ Mars, and his cabin was a stopping point for me on the way to Outward Bound base camps and my next teaching assignments. Glen didn’t have to be there; I could just stop, sleep, and raid the cabinets for outdated Milky Way bars and M&M’s to take on the trail. Two years later, after paying his dues rafting the Yukon River in Alaska, Glen joined the ranks as an instructor for Outward Bound. He would be assigned to the Southwest Program to teach rafting and canyoneering.
A few years later Glen had moved over the mountain pass to Breckenridge. One winter night we decided to hop over the pass; it was one of those “road trip” moments younger people have (I was in my late 30’s; have I mentioned I was a late bloomer?). In February, in the high country at about 9000’, “Let’s go to Alma!” with snow falling and almost no money in our pockets sounded like the most incredible idea we’d had all winter. We picked up our friend Bruce. Bruce was even older than me, and was a former OB instructor who had moved into the administrative ranks to preserve his knees and back.
We hopped into Glen’s Forerunner, popped it into four wheel drive, and slogged up the switchbacks. Eventually we crested, and slid slowly into town. We pulled up to the South Park Grill.Glen’s former landlord, Jack was there, and the bartender. By now over a foot of snow had accumulated, and there was no sign of it slowing down.
The four of us spent the night shooting pool and drinking. After we finished all of the palatable beer, the bartender gave us the keys to the pool table and went upstairs to bed. “Maybe you should lock the front door when you’re done, but really, don’t worry about it. Naaaaaw, just leave it. Someone may get stuck and need to get inside.”
That’s the way mountain towns are. Leave the doors open in case someone is in desperate shape and needs help.
As pool balls clacked, Bruce gave us a lesson on brandy. Apparently it was an invention of the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon had contracted to send a certain amount of alcohol on the ships with his troops. Six ball, far corner. The best way to do that apparently was to send highly concentrated wine, or brandy. There you have it. Combination; nine ball into the twelve, side pocket.
Bruce went on to show the proper way to pour; rest the glass (snifter) on its side. Eleven ball, bank, corner pocket. Pour until the brandy just reaches the edge. Now, when you stand the glass, the top of the brandy is at the widest part of the glass. This allows for the most aroma to be released, which becomes concentrated at the narrow opening. Eight ball, side pocket. Game.
We finished the brandy. Now what?
The doors to both restrooms stood open as there was no need for privacy and the doors were serious hindrance to a guy in a hurry.
Much, much earlier in the evening it had become clear we were going nowhere. The bar was built and outfitted for busier times than this. There were four pool tables, and four of us.
After another game or two, and another foot of snow, we each picked out a table. You don’t go out on a night like this without some provisions; we brought sleeping bags in from the truck. We each racked out on a table. I have sleep apnea, made more strident by high altitude, but I had spent much of the winter up here. Slowly, one by one, snores filled the room. I was the last to fall asleep. The room sounded like it was filled with idling snow mobiles. Soon I added my dull roar to the cacophony.
Around 2 am someone did indeed pop in. We told him the tables were full, but he could pull up some floor. We pushed his car out in the morning, went next door for some eggs, and grilled them up back over at the South Park.
We spent the morning lazing around, waiting for snow plows. We followed a plow down the pass and back to Breck. Glen went to his winter job renting skis to tourists, and I crashed out on his couch for the afternoon.
Mountain towns, mountain people. Both have had immeasurable influence on who I have become. I HAVE been a late bloomer. Nothing pushes a person to grow up, and simply to grow, like strong people and a strong landscape. Nature is indifferent, uncaring, it exists and does its work regardless of our presence.
Mountain people are much the same- not so uncaring, but you had better be able to saddle your own horse, so to speak. There are rarely encounters with anything “middle of the road”, with either people OR the terrain and weather. A person will grow, or weaken. There is no standing around.
I will include stories of my history here from time to time. They will be here for my son to read, and for you to look in on with my blessings. I hope they will explain, in some way, what the hell I was doing all this time instead of raising a family. I hope they will inspire him to go to interesting and challenging places, and meet and grow alongside interesting and challenging people.
I write now, while I can still pull upon details. The stories may be more interesting once I have to make most of them up, but I'd rather he know that they were interesting on their own merits anyway, and not just the yammerings of a senile old man.
Jay may find some inspiration or enlightenment in them, or not. They will become his stories to do with as he pleases. I hope has he ages they will gain more meaning, and maybe he'll be able to tell his children, should he choose to have them, a bit more about me.