Adventures from Back of Beyond

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Captain Jack and the Real Telluride

I hadn’t planned on attending the memorial service for Captain Jack. But that’s the way it worked out.

While out and about on a beautiful Saturday in Telluride, I ran into a guy named Rico on the San Miguel River trail. We struck up a conversation. I learned Rico was a long time local, one of the original hippies that moved into this mountain town in the late ‘60s and early 70s.

We talked about hiking the spectacular and easily accessible backcountry. We talked about how the hippies took over Telluride in the 70s and helped develop the town into the international destination it is today. How they carefully cultivated the reputation as sort of the bad Aspen.

I asked Rico where he was headed, and he told me to the memorial for Captain Jack.

I didn't know Captain Jack at all. Had never heard of him. But I would soon find out he was a local legend and icon in Telluride.

Standing about 6’ 3”, he was smooth and clean as a cue ball up top, but wore his hair long on the sides and back. His most remarkable feature was a snow white beard that extended down to his belly. Trim and athletic, he was well liked and friendly with all.

Jack was a classic ski bum. He was also an adventurer, world-traveler, teacher, hang-glider, mountain-biker, and as I now understand, an all-around good guy that was much beloved in the Telluride community. He died at age 64 while mountain biking. Hit by a truck, he died instantly.

Locals poured into the town park as we arrived. I was struck by the consistent look of many of these people – toned, well-proportioned, muscular – men and women who moved with the loose smooth confident flow of an athlete. These were ski bums like Jack, his friends, confident and agile with their bodies.

Others looked like hippies, some old, some young. Many were businessmen and women. That busy Saturday during peak summer season, many of the stores on Main St. were closed, so the proprietors and employees could attend Jack’s service.

These people were the soul of Telluride, the real Telluride. These were the locals who live here year ‘round. These were the people who gathered to say goodbye, to mourn, to honor the memory of Captain Jack.

Watching as an observer, as as someone who didn’t know Jack at all, I was absolutely blown away by the service.

It started with military honors, as Captain Jack was an army vet. A four-volley rifle salute was followed by the careful folding of the flag. Next came the playing of taps by a uniformed soldier.

I have never heard taps played better. Or longer. Each note was drawn out, full of sadness and melancholy and sweet beauty. It was a surreal listening experience.

My attention was then drawn skyward by the crowd. A small Cessna-type plane was flying overhead, and I heard someone say “there he goes.”

A single paraglider jumped out of the plane and with expert precision skillfully glided down to earth in a series of descending loops. Colorful purple smoke streamed behind the ‘chute as he looped down. Contrasted against the bright white clouds and deep blue mountain sky, the effect was stunning. Right at the end of his descent he pulled up with the smooth fluidity of a bird, and just stepped gently onto the ground directly behind the speaker’s podium, with perfect balance and grace. Unbelievable.

That spectacle was followed by 4 hang gliders crossing overhead in a precise diamond formation. They performed a version of the “missing man” salute, the touching tribute created by pilots to honor one of their own. I watched as the lead glider continued on a straight overhead course while each of the 3 other gliders on the corners looped to the ground in a series of controlled descending circles. Each glider landed precisely on the field behind the service.

The speakers came next. One by one, Jack's friends and family described him as a “good man”, one who cared about his town, was friendly with everyone, and well respected as a skier, athlete, and community icon.

Later I realized how carefully this entire memorial service was planned and executed. You might say choreographed, and with precision. This wasn’t just any memorial service. This wasn’t just anyone who was being memorialized. This was Captain Jack, a local legend. And this was the mountain town of Telluride, an internationally renowned skiing and sport mecca living up to its adventurous reputation, saying goodbye in its own unique and spectacular way.

Odd as it may seem, we couldn't have found a better way to experience the real Telluride.