Longtime valley resident Joy Caudill stood up for mountains ‘like a friend’
If, in the near future, you find yourself atop any of the high peaks in the Roaring Fork Valley, take a long, 360-degree look around.
If you like what you see, think about giving a nod of thanks to Joy Caudill, an Aspen and Carbondale resident who played a central role in the creation of all four federally designated wilderness areas you’re looking at.
Caudill, 90, died Sunday at her Carbondale home after a short illness, surrounded by her family, said her daughter, Jody Cardamone.
“We set up her bed in the living room so she could look at (Mount) Sopris, which was her mountain,” Cardamone said. “She was very much present and speaking with family. I would say she died well.”
She lived well, too.
Through her abiding love of the Aspen-area backcountry, not only did she help spearhead efforts to expand the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area and create the Hunter-Fryingpan, Collegiate Peaks and the Raggeds wilderness areas, Caudill also co-founded the conservation nonprofit Wilderness Workshop more than 50 years ago.
“It’s a helluva legacy to leave behind for future generations,” said Sloan Shoemaker, the longtime former Wilderness Workshop director who stepped down last fall. “All told it’s about a half-million acres that carries that wilderness designation (because of Caudill and others).”
Karen Schroyer, district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, agreed.
“How lucky for anyone to leave this life with such a legacy,” she said. “She’s an inspiration.”
Joy Maxwell Caudill was born May 9, 1928, in Denver, a third-generation Coloradan, and raised in the city with a love of the outdoors instilled by her father, according to an obituary written by Cardamone. In the late 1930s, close family friends named Bob and Virginia Burlingame bought a ranch near Aspen where the airport is now located, and invited the Caudill family to visit for a month each summer.
“For Joy, this was heaven,” Cardamone wrote in the obituary.
After she graduated high school, Caudill’s parents bought a piece of land on lower Maroon Creek below Red Butte, where they built a log house, a ceramics studio and two cabins they rented to visitors. The family developed a line of ceramics products they sold around the Aspen area, according to the obituary.
Joy Maxwell married Sam Caudill, a local architect, in 1952 at the Aspen Community Church, and they built a house across Maroon Creek from her parents. The couple then had five red-headed kids in six years, who they immersed in the outdoors.
“Both of my parents were very instrumental in the early environmental awareness movement in the Roaring Fork Valley,” Cardamone said. “They were both grounded and had a really strong sense of place. They both really cared.”
Fishing, hiking, backpacking and especially camping were particularly important to her mother, Cardamone said.
“She gave us all a deeper understanding of the natural world,” she said. “The mountains were her church, and she wanted to give that to us as well.”
The family went camping every summer weekend, Cardamone said, to places such as East Maroon, Lincoln Creek or the Lead King Basin. Her mother taught her and her brothers and sisters to gather wild mushrooms and berries, and to fly-fish, she said.
“She was a great fly-fisherwoman,” Cardamone said.
Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who grew up with the Caudill children, said the family easily could have survived in the backcountry for weeks at a time.
“They were among the families in town who were big campers,” he said. “All of us admired them because they were such outdoor people.”
In the 1960s, members of the Sierra Club came to Aspen looking for volunteers to lead an effort to establish wilderness areas as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964, Shoemaker said. The law was designed for citizens to take the initiative in designating wilderness areas, he said.
Caudill — along with likeminded Aspen residents Dottie Fox and Connie Harvey — soon became the leaders of that effort, he said.
“These ladies heeded the call,” Shoemaker said.
Together known as the “Maroon Belles,” the three women made quite a team, Cardamone said.
Fox — who died in 2006 — was the social one of the trio and brought numerous people into the wilderness project, she said. Harvey handled much of the political and fundraising aspects, while Caudill was the boots-on-the-ground person, with a dining room table piled high with marked-up topo maps.
“They each had their roles,” Cardamone said. “(Caudill) was the one who really did the nuts-and-bolts, on-the-ground work. She had that love of the high country. She didn’t want to see it developed.”
Caudill called the process “ground-truthing” in a 2017 interview with Aspen Sojourner magazine.
“We’d break up into groups and go out there on foot,” she told the magazine. “Each team would have a section to hike around and look for signs of development, like roads and buildings. We’d look at maps and research claims and investigate land ownership.”
If the land met the definition of wilderness, Joy and many other locals she “leaned on” would then map the area, Cardamone said.
“They really had to draw the boundaries a mile at a time,” she said.
George Stranahan, local philanthropist and longtime former Woody Creek resident, met the Caudill family in 1956 and spent many weekends on summer camping trips strumming a guitar and singing folk songs around the campfire. Drawing wilderness boundaries was a slow process, he said, but Joy and the others were “patient and determined.”
“It was a thorough piece of research,” Stranahan said Friday. “(Joy) had a such a love of the outdoors and such a quiet way of implementing it. All of a sudden there’s a wilderness.”
Harvey said Friday that she, Caudill and Fox didn’t think about leaving a grand legacy behind when they were in the middle of helping create or expand the wilderness. Now, their ground-breaking effort is more apparent.
“I think we had a lot to do with (conserving the area’s backcountry),” she said. “I will take all the credit you want to give me. I’m really glad things turned out the way they did.”
Joy was a polite, courageous, clear-headed woman, Harvey said.
“She was a capable, honest, good person,” she said. “She was easy to talk to, and I miss her.”
Cardamone said her mother was a quiet, no-nonsense, somewhat shy person who doted on her family and didn’t like being the center of attention.
“She was like, ‘Oh don’t bother,’” she said. “She really didn’t have a big ego. She could be feisty, too, but in a nice way.
“She was always proud of how strong she was, and how she was able to hold everyone together. She was a fierce, strong redhead.”
Caudill’s definition of the perfect day would have been grabbing her backpack and fishing pole and hiking through fields of wildflowers to a high mountain lake, where she could spend hours fishing, Cardamone said. Then she’d return home with her catch, fry them up and share them with her family.
“She had a relationship with the mountains as you would have a relationship with a close friend,” Cardamone said. “So she stood up for them like a friend.”
The family is planning a celebration of Caudill’s life in mid-May. In lieu of flowers, Cardamone asked that donations be made to the Wilderness Workshop or another conservation organization.
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Colorado has had more than 900 wildfires this year, consuming more than 330,000 acres. The statewide fire ban has been extended through September due to ongoing dry conditions.