Lise Waring: The alternative pastimes of mountain towns |

Lise Waring: The alternative pastimes of mountain towns

Lise Waring
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Around 1876, before the high-altitude western Colorado town of Telluride was established, settlers made camp a few miles west at a place they called San Miguel City. Hardy souls moved there to find their fortunes in the mines. Even though the hard work underground left little extra time or energy for hobbies, the miners did engage in the odd athletic pursuit now and then.

And by “odd,” I mean: There was a racetrack in the valley where horse races, roping, bronc-riding and “chicken-picking” events were hosted. Imagining a racetrack in a modern-day ski resort takes some doing, but it’s the chicken-picking that seems particularly striking.

Chicken-picking, I’ve been told, was a Navajo specialty that involved burying a row of live chickens up to their necks, leaving the heads sticking up above ground. Bareback riders would then get a barreling start and lean from their horses at a gallop to grab a bird’s head. (Before PETA gets its feathers all riled up, the chicken-picking participants in Telluride supposedly substituted bags of money for live poultry.)

I’ve filled my days in many an unconventional way, but the sport of chicken-picking goes down in my book as a genuinely weird pastime.

A pastime, by definition, is “something that serves to make time pass agreeably, a pleasant means of amusement, recreation, or sport.” Of course, Telluriders no longer spend 10-hour shifts mining and mucking underground, and locals have adopted other means of off-work amusement. These activities weren’t necessarily the brainchild of anyone in this town – I’ve been to other places that engage in the same things – but the pastimes are commonplace here.

“Skitching” is one of the riskiest, so I must include a disclaimer: I do not recommend participating in this dangerous and illegal activity, though it is plenty of fun if you’re well-insured and young enough to bounce. All you need is a pair of boots, preferably with poor traction, a slick, snow-covered street without traffic, and a passing car with a sturdy bumper. Need I say more? Hazards of hanging on include inhaling exhaust and encountering rocks in the road that will knock you over and then lodge themselves under your epidermis, not to mention the occasional angry driver who speeds up or swerves to disengage persistent skitchers from his bumper.

Broomball and bike polo are two of the more unusual sports favored in Telluride, both of which are legal and slightly less dangerous than skitching. The first is a bastardization of hockey. Remove the skates, the puck and the stick; replace those items with boots, a ball and a broom. Off you go. This sport is so popular that the park and recreation department manages an adult winter league at the ice rink.

Similarly, bike polo requires no equestrian skills, but you better be nimble and well balanced on two wheels. Telluride doesn’t have enough bike polo players yet for a league. Our enthusiasts join forces with a team from nearby Durango that calls itself the Malletheads to get a few chukkas going. Bike polo is such an up-and-coming sport that, in addition to fearlessness, it demands a certain fashion sense: Pedal-pushers and striped socks are all the rage with this region’s bike polo crowd, regardless of gender.

Turkey bingo, wife-carrying races and the annual rubber-duck race on the San Miguel River further demonstrate some of the strange ways in which we amuse ourselves in Telluride. But the real question is: Why? Why can’t we just play basketball, lose money on poker night or go to the gym like most people?

Here’s my theory: When the Idarado Mill closed in 1978, the mining families left town, leaving the demographic in Telluride suddenly skewed toward the only remaining residents, who were 20-something male ski bums and hippies. Most municipalities had never seen the like as these kids got elected to the town council, were hired to police the streets, plan future development and, in their off hours, play in the mountains.

Over time, the demographics shifted, and today, Telluride nearly balances males, 55 percent, to females, 45 percent, while the average family size is 2.7 and the median age is a ripe 31. But what persists is the can-do, countercultural spirit of the 1970s, and maybe even the 1870s, when miners picked chickens composed of sacks of money.

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