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Where Nothing Was And Something Happened

By Hallett Stromholt / July 30, 1991



YOU wondered how he had mastered such antediluvian nonconformity, taking a chance with five kids and a wife in the wilderness. There were no "how to" books around the hand-built lodge - not even stashed away on a shelf from the old days.I was there after the young Kennedys and a movie queen or two had become part of his repertoire of "little stories" about the place. With no books, he seemed to have had it all in his head, and I had to discern his development from these stories. I put it together from an abandoned generator and a rusted Army snow-track out back. Walking from room to room through sunlit beams, I could see where he'd knocked out a log wall and added the dining room with hanging tables or a workshop. (I had helped cement t he dirt floor where he had mixed teas and made wooden boxes to sell for years.) But I never got the full picture - outside of vast slopes from windows, mushroom soup cooking, and pretty waitresses - until I came back years later. He had built the lodge from scratch after World War II, with stones from the river and varnished-peeled aspen. He installed a heating system of water pipes circulating under the floor through the fireplace. The fireplace had a brass hood hammered to his dimensions by a local blacksmith; the design, his own, conserved heat in a way that preempted "The Whole Earth Catalog" before it was written. By the time I knew him, he was cutting veneered puzzles out of green tulip or wavy African bubinga, and framing pictures of wolves and pines or Hopi flute players. By that time, he was starting to relax his nine-pound-hammer philosophy of hard work. He had sold animal carvings on the street as a boy in Denver during the Depression. His belief in wood had stuck with him. I often thought it was this love that had seen him through the hard years, and brought him to this "privileged" existence that became kn own as Toklat Lodge: the pet of the rich and famous, and fascination of the young searchers of the 1960s. So I was shocked when I came back years later to find it a bit worn, sunlit but not brightly vacuumed for tourist's comfort. Just he and his wife were living there happily; the same great smell of soup peppered the little kitchen that had once been so busy night after night. I asked "Mother," as he called her, what they were going to do with the place. "Put a match to it!" she said, smiling a girl's smile. I shouldn't have been surprised they weren't building a monument to last forever - they tried to miss that kind of vanity. Yet they had lived as if it were forever, daily, by engaging in participatory work that produces humor and a feeling of belonging. There was no sentimentality about it. The lodge had simply given them what they enjoyed and knew best: keeping busy and being renewed and raising kids to think about something. I felt my rebellion of sentimentality flare up like the false glitter of some of the movie stars who had visited. "Put a match to it!" meant my youth as an on-the-roader working there too. To them, it meant the roof had been good for years, but now the snow-melt was sneaking in places tricky to patch, no matter how long you stood up there with a bucket of tar. The kids were gone mostly, one daughter living all the way in Paris. Two sons were running a farm and furniture woodshop near Gardner, Colo.; one son was lost in a fall climbing a rescue mission; and the youngest had been working through the "new age," searching for content from the mythology of dolphins to tai chi. The kids' father would have been tolerant of this. In the '60s he had had the only "special" around Aspen for young people: soup, bread, and salad at $1.25. He tolerated their on-the-road-to-find-out search. I had come to look for work as a Vietnam veteran. A little on edge, I was somewhat embittered, like a Confederate soldier going west. Twice because of my cockiness and temper, he had told me, "You have the choice of 'going down the road . " But he must have seen something in me, because he kept me on. I remember Everett, the circus hobo, who showed up every fall to stack wood. Then there was the college girl who was through with "theories and 'cepts" (concepts) and came to the door at supper time to sell bluebells. "We don't pick the flowers around here," he said. "But come in and join us for a bowl of Mother's soup." She stayed and got hired. "Put a match to it" had freaked me a little. It was my youth here after the war - a sensitive time. I walked outside remembering the lay of the land. A path led up to the tack room where the kennels of huskies had been. The dog sled rides had become a main sideline of his business. The dogs were now gone, given to a former sled driver, Dan, who had been a bunkmate in my time. He had duplicated the sled-restaurant operation in Snowmass with mad success. In the melting snow by the tack room building, I found a plaque, "Souvenirs 5 cents and 10 cents a clue to a man who invented a life here. He had looked for nontacky ways to make a living, from packaged sourdough starter to wild jams to warm rugs he bought from the reservations. When something didn't work, it was quite all right. It was never a failure, for there was some redemptive value in the worn-out memory of a broken machine. Or even an attempt at art: Two of his wildflower sketches hang in a truck stop today in Cortez, hundreds of miles away on the Utah border. Was that from the time he was going to call it "Toklat Wildflower Experimental Station?" The name never stuck; it became something bigger. Now it seems an anachronism: No one else can run it as a restaurant or lodge with the new laws about kitchens and stainless steel. What one man and his wife built up would cost a quarter million dollars to bring up to snuff and sterility; then, of course, the place might lose its creaky-lodge essence. "What will happen?" I asked one son at his workshop in his own home, eight hours away. He had been a kid then, with me, unloading dog-food trucks, attending guests, repairing snowmobiles after school. "See that little house? It's for them, to come down to this altitude - when they're ready." Here was one kid who didn't check a "how to" book to find out how he felt about parents. Through the work of the lodge, he knew where they belonged. They know, too. And whether or not they move down for good, the home lodge will always be where nothing was and something happened. It was there long enough for the wilderness surveyors to put it on the map.

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