Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Bigfoot Wedding

This story is from my latest book, which hasn't yet been published, so I'm giving you a sneak peek here. It was told by a retired guy who had come to love flyfishing and wanted to have a pro show him some of the ropes. He came on a three-day guided trip and told this crazy story around a big campfire up in Montana’s Yellowstone River country. That particular trip was a lot of fun, and he became a regular after that, coming on one of my trips every year. He was always game to tell this story, and it was quite the tale.  -Rusty
My name is Tanner, and what I’m about to relate happened in the mid-1990s, maybe about 1996, near Telluride, Colorado.

I grew up near Telluride, and I was a true ski bum for a number of years. I would do anything to ski, which included sleeping (freezing) in my car, working in ski rental shops, couch surfing, washing dishes, you name it. Anything so I could ski, which I loved. 

I finally got on the ski patrol there, which was a dream job in some ways, though the pay wasn’t that great. A bunch of us rented a three-bedroom apartment and managed to get by. I think there were six of us, and I got the couch for reduced rent. But we didn’t care, we were all ski bums. 

I gradually decided I should move on and get some job skills, so I left Telluride when I was in my late twenties and moved to Grand Junction, where I got a career job with the Department of Wildlife. That was great, because I was still outside a lot, but now I had some job security and a decent wage. I stayed there until I recently retired.

But this event happened in Telluride, and I’ve never seen anything like what I saw since, even though I’m outside a lot. In a way, it’s kind of funny, though at the time I was terrified.

I had managed to wrangle a job that summer with the ski area, working as a lift operator. It was a pretty cushy job, though it didn’t pay much. I ran the Coonskin Lift, the one that comes right up out of town. I think it’s still operating, though I know they’ve added the gondola now, too. But in the summer, it was just a tourist thing and you don’t get all the crazy skiers who fall when they’re getting on and off, making you have to stop everything all the time.

I was working the ski shack at the top of the lift, where everyone gets off to either ski back down or go to the next lift, although in the summer everyone was obviously hiking. The altitude at the shack was 10,800 feet. 

If I recall correctly, it was late July, the time the monsoons start to hit the area. Colorado mountain weather is pretty nice in June, but come mid-summer, the monsoons hit, which means lots of rain and lightning. Usually, the mornings are nice, but by afternoon, you’d better be off the mountains.

So, I was running the lift, and everything was fine, just a typical day with a few hikers and sightseers. It wasn’t too busy, and I managed to grab some lunch while running the lift.

It wasn’t long after lunch that my boss showed up to inform me that we were getting a huge bunch of people soon because there was a wedding at the top of the mountain. I was to be extra careful, as some of these people would be older and not in such great shape, and I might have to slow the lift down for them to get off. And on top of that, they’d all be in fancy wedding attire, with high heels and all that. Some big star of the Miami Dolphins, a fullback, was getting married.

Great. I couldn’t wait. A bunch of dressed-up city folk trying to ride the Coonskin Lift, which was very steep and scary. Make my day. I started laughing, but my boss got kind of tense and said this was serious. He knew I could be a smart-ass, and he knew that big money was something to be respected in Telluride, at least every one else seemed to think so—everyone except the crowd I ran with, that is. 

I stopped laughing, but I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face at the thought.

So, my boss decided to stick around and make sure everything went well. It was a big wedding party, about 300 people, a big responsibility for him. I guess he decided he needed to handle it, as I wasn’t competent enough, even though I’d been running the lift alone for over a month by then.

Well, it wasn’t long before people started showing up. I don’t know what the Coonskin Lift capacity is, but I think we had all 300 people on it when what I’ll call “the Event” happened. So, picture a very steep and scary ski lift, the kind with only a bar across the front to hold you in, all crammed with uppity-dressed people, tuxes and high heels and crazy long dresses and even hats and all. Man, I wish I’d had a camera, cause just that alone was something I’d never seen before or since. It belonged in a movie.

There was a huge variety of people, from young to old. Some looked like they were scared to death and some were laughing and having a great time. Of course, it took awhile to get everyone onto the lift. One chair would come into place, then the lift would stop while people boarded, then the same thing would happen again. I was at the top, like I said, but I could tell what was happening from how the lift went. I knew it would take a long time to get everyone off when they got up to my lift shack.

So, during all this, which was a while, I was noticing the sky was getting dark. Clouds were moving in really fast, which is typical for the mountains. My boss was also noting the same thing, and he started looking even more tense. Usually, when the clouds came in, we would just shut the lift down until it all moved through, but no way could we do that with what was going on.

Everything seemed to take forever. Getting all these people on the lift was a big deal. I watched as cloud tendrils began wrapping around the higher peaks. Holy crap, I thought, we could be in for a wild ride. 

Finally, the lift stopped stopping, and I knew everyone was loaded on. Sure enough, here they came. I could see down the slope and the entire lift was loaded to the gills. It began its slow upward climb just as lightning started popping all around the upper peaks.

Man, that lift seemed like it was going even slower than normal, but I knew it was just because I wanted it to go fast and get up here before anyone got smacked by lightning. Now the lightning was popping all around us.

This is when the Event happened. My boss and I were both in the lift shack, and he had his hands on the lift mechanism, ready to stop it whenever the first passengers arrived. They were now about two-thirds of the way up the hill.

I was looking out the open door at the peaks above me, watching the lightning, when I heard a weird noise come from my boss—it was literally a scream, if you can imagine a man screaming. It scared the crap out of me, and I turned to see what was going on. He was pointing to the lift shack window, but I didn’t see anything. He then started kind of babbling, “My God, my God” while he pointed at the window.

I stepped out of the shack to see what was going on, and that was when I saw it. By then it had turned and was loping down the steep hill. I think my boss scared it as much as it scared my boss, cause it wasn’t wasting any time. And it was running directly down the Coonskin Run, right under the big wedding party.

I knew immediately what it was—a Bigfoot. I’d never seen one or even thought of seeing one before—Bigfoot wasn’t much of a big deal in Colorado at that time. Since then, there have been more and more sightings, maybe because there are more people out and about, I don’t know. But it was a sight that’s etched into my memory, the backside of a Bigfoot, running down Coonskin. The creature was enormous and very dark, covered head to toe in what looked like black hair—not fur like a bear would have—but hair. The hair was long and hung off its arms, which themselves hung down almost to its knees.

I couldn’t believe how fast this thing was. It was running down Coonskin faster than any Miami Dolphins fullback could possibly run. That thing was moving!

Now for the crazy part of the story. 

As I came back into the lift shack, I noticed my boss had a glazed look on his face, but he was also kind of gesticulating at me as if trying to say something. I think the poor guy was in shock at that point.

OK, now I noticed what was going on. He’d slammed the lift bar when he saw the Bigfoot and the lift was now going at top speed. Oh man, this was bad, real bad, cause I knew it was going to jump track at that speed with that much weight on it.

Sure enough, all of a sudden it stopped with a lurch, the chairs swaying back and forth and people yelling. It was such a stunning chain of events, I almost started shaking from the stress.

Here we were, lightning now popping around, with an inoperative lift crammed with people dressed for a wedding, many of who were now screaming and yelling as they witnessed a Bigfoot running directly under the lift, where they now sat dangling in the air. What a scenario.

My boss was now sitting helplessly on the floor, so I took over. I went outside and yelled up at the people closest to me to pass the word down the lift that help was coming. Of course, it wasn’t, not yet, anyway, but the last thing we needed were people panicking, many who didn’t want to even be on that lift in the first place, especially with lightning popping around.

So, I could hear people yelling the message on down the line. I went back into the shack and radioed down to the bottom that we needed help. Before long, I saw an ATV coming up the slope. By now, the Bigfoot had decided to head into the trees, and was long gone, leaving only a residue of terror and bafflement. I think a lot of people thought it was some kind of a gag.

It now started to pour rain. The guys on the ATV were soon climbing up the lift tower where the derailment had happened, checking it out. Those guys should’ve got commendations for taking their lives in their hands, cause now the lightning was just crazy. I saw and heard one bolt at the same time, it was that close. They were up there for some time, then came back down and on up to the shack, where they informed me that we were going to have to evacuate everyone off the lift.

This would be a slow and treacherous process, especially with so many people involved. They radioed down, and soon people working for the ski area starting coming up the slope. I think there were probably a good 50 or 60 people there helping before it was all over, including a search and rescue team. 

The ski people brought a bunch of bosun’s chairs with them that the ski area kept just for this purpose. These little chairs were lightweight and attached to the end of a rope. If you were stuck on the lift, the M.O. was to get ahold of it and sort of scoot it under you until you were well in it, then you latched yourself in and were lowered by whoever was holding the end of the rope.

So, we now had to throw the bosun's chairs over the cable to lower people down with. You would take the chair and start spinning it around your head until it got up a lot of momentum, then you’d hurl it as hard as you could, hoping it would go up over the lift cable. Once you had it over, you were home free, cause then you could use it over and over to lower people. We had a minimum of three people holding each rope, acting as a belay while each person was lowered. The person on the lift would slip the chair under them, then when they were ready, they’d wave or yell, and we’d yell "on belay!" and start lowering them, one by one.

Many were terrified of getting on the spindly looking chairs as the height was really scary, and I didn’t blame them. We had several people who refused to even get into the chairs, but we persuaded them by saying it was that or spend the night and who knows how long on the chair lift. That would finally get them moving, but I mean they were scared stiff.

As for those of us on the belay end, holding the ropes, it was steep terrain and hard to stand up, especially with a rope around your waist and some scared person on the other end, being lowered little by little. It took us four hours to get them all off the lift. 

By then, the rain had stopped and the storm moved on through, but everyone was still soaked. It was amazing no one was hit by lightning.

The ski area had to do something with all these soaked and unhappy people, so they hired the local taxi service to come up. Telluride Taxi had Suburbans at the time, and they drove up the Coonskin snowcat trail to pick everyone up. The ski area was billed later for this, and I bet it cost them a fortune. 

By the time it was all over, my boss had recovered somewhat and hiked on back down Coonskin Run without saying one word to me. He told me later that he’d seen this black thing staring in through the shack window at him, no more than ten feet away, with a large dark face almost like a human’s. When I told him that I and everyone on the lift had also seen it, I think it helped a bit. Maybe he wasn’t crazy after all.

After it was all over, I just stood there, kind of enjoying it all, watching all these people walking in the grass in their wedding duds, a lot of the women barefoot, as they’d taken off their heels. It seems the majority were kind of having fun, enjoying the adventure, but some people looked outright shocked, mostly the older ones. But everyone was talking about the Bigfoot. I think by then everyone thought it was just a big gag someone had contrived for their enjoyment. A few looked really uncomfortable, like they knew it was real.

By the time it was over, it was nearly sunset. The taxis were long gone, so I had to get myself home. I normally would ride the lift down, but now I had to hike down. I didn’t want to hike down Coonskin, as I was pretty scared by the thought of a Bigfoot around, so I hiked over to the Plunge and came down that way. I was glad when I got into town, and I went home and told my buddies about what had happened. They believed me, so they said, anyway. 

I found out later that the Bigfoot story was soon all over town, and I’d become somewhat of a accidental celebrity. I kind of ran with it for awhile, as it was all in fun, at least if you hadn’t seen the creature and been scared to death, that is.

And in all honesty, I had been scared to death. I didn’t do much hiking at all that summer, and when I was out, I was always looking over my shoulder. I was the last one to operate the Coonskin lift for the summer, as the Gondola went online that year, and the Coonskin lift is now only open during the winter. 

What was a Bigfoot doing on Coonskin? I think it was hungry and was attracted to the big plastic trash bins that set by the snack shack that was about 50 feet above the lift shack. I saw a brown bear up there one day, just mulling around through the trash, and I know they threw a lot of food away in there.

By the time winter came, I was fine, figuring the beast had probably gone somewhere else for the cold season, so I was back on the slopes skiing like a madman. And it was the only time I ever heard of a Bigfoot there, so maybe, like me, it was just wondering what in the heck was going on that wedding day. 

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