Despite years of bullying as a child, and an inability to match my innerwear to my outerwear, I consider myself a pretty friendly, outgoing person. But before embracing my jazz hands approach to life, I hit a few street signs squarely in the face on my long journey to the now.
As a small child I lived in a tiny, remote mountain ski town in Colorado called, Crested Butte. The air was pristine, the skiing was extraordinary and the motto was, “If You Don’t Like The Weather, Wait Five Minutes.” With a population of less than a thousand, everyone knew everyone. People were often referred to by the car they drove, their occupation or the street they lived on, i.e. Bronco Dave, Julie the Baker, or Hotchkiss Pass Marty. The community vibe, was, along with my parents, very laid back and trusting. So there was nothing unusual about my sister and I, doe-eyed five and six-year-old’s, regularly wandering about town alone. Main Street served as our babysitter, as we casually ran into adults like speed bumps.
“Oh Hi, Sandy from the newspaper!” we’d wave as we were on our way to go build a fort in an abandoned mining tower.
“Hi girls! How’s it going today?” Leaning over to a visiting friend Sandy would say, “Those are ski instructor Jan and Bill the electrician’s, kids.
Without this identifier, we were just another pair of dirt eating kids roaming the street (there was just the one) looking for rocks, spare wood and rusty railroad ties.
“Hi Old Man Joe”, we’d holler to the spry 108-year-old. Every day you could find Joe perched on the front stoop of his old-timey gas station, chewing on the end of his pipe, watching the cars drive by at a brisk 5 miles per hour.
Inside the General Store, we’d buy fake candy cigarettes that tasted like sweetened chalk and whose packaging had a striking resemblance to Marlboro Lights. I don’t think those candies are legal any more, but gahtdamn they were good. Yes, they increased my curiosity about cigarettes, but when the day finally came when I decided to try my first cigarette, I promptly stuck the entire thing in my mouth and began chewing on it like a stick of candy. Best smoking deterrent ever.
But back before I’d made a meal of a menthol, I’d suck on those chalk sticks and march around town like Scout Finch, ready to take on my next adventure. Also, in Crested Butte, being dirty and snot-nosed was the norm. If your clothes were clean and your hair wasn’t matted, everyone assumed you were a tourist from Texas.
Sitting at nearly ten thousand feet above sea level, the absolute magic of this idyllic spot can’t be oversold. With it’s rolling lush hillsides, jetting mountain peaks and miles of protected wilderness, living in Crested Butte was a real life Survivor meets Grizzly Adams meets Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous. (Obscure, but appropriate references.) Whether is was the inclement weather, it’s remoteness or it’s basic lack of oxygen, the town brought people together. Your neighbor, who was your babysitter, and your dentist, was also the person who dug you out of a 20-foot snowbank. The lady at the bank was also the lady towing your car out of a ditch, was also the lady who sold you those candy cigarettes. (Mountain towns are notoriously expensive to live in, and everyone, including the children, held multiple jobs.)
Life seemed to function a bit differently here, where you were as likely to be best friends with a mountain goat as you were to get your tongue stuck to a frozen ski pole. Every child in town was guaranteed to be covered in mud from April to June, also known as “Mud Season”, which by the way, I didn’t realize wasn’t a real season until I moved to California where I was promptly told every season was, in fact, Summer. Which is why it was completely normal to come home as dirty as a stray dog. And also why we had entire rooms dedicated to honoring the dirt. The mudroom was where you discarded your snowsuits, moon boots and where you lingered when your car was “warming up.” It’s where chunks of snow would fall from the soles of your shoes, the bottom of your beard, or the top of your pom pom hat. We were a town full of human dirt popsicles and we loved every second of it.
You might not know who was behind that scarf with eyes, but you bonded over matching runny noses as you walked in tandem through a glistening spring blizzard. I speak the truth when I say, I walked to school alone, uphill, in the snow, across town, sometimes with skis on my feet, all before I graduated second grade. Armed with only a sack lunch and a friendly wave, I was more than equipped to get to school safely.
As I understood it, being friendly to strangers was as easy as a smile or a modest greeting of, “Hello!” In return, I got the warm feeling of human connection to another person. And possibly the free usage of their chap stick. One time, at the tender age of six while skiing on the mountain alone with my sister, we found ourselves tired, hungry and with severely chapped lips*. The simple act of going up to a stranger and saying, “Hello how are you doing today? May I borrow your chap stick?” got my sister and I not only a swipe off the old cherry wax tube, but also a gratis cup of hot cocoa and new friends from Texas. They probably thought we were wayward tree children who lived in a pine cone hut, foraging for scraps among the tourists. But all the same, they were friendly, we were friendly. It was a friendly exchange that didn’t result in our abduction.
However, several years later my family moved to Los Angeles and my days of eating wax off the mouth of strangers, was over.
*Look for Part II of this story soon!