Mike Fitzpatrick 1951-2010
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Mike “the Spike” Fitzpatrick died June 4 on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, surrounded by friends and doing what he loved. It would have been nice if it could have happened 30 years later, but it could have been worse. He didn’t suffer. The river was huge, record huge, but they all made it through. All except Fitz. His heart just gave out. And his heart was his biggest part.
The rest of the rafters had to float out with his body after CPR failed. We heard about it when they got off the river and, after the shock, made our usual tasteless jokes. I said I hoped they propped him up with a middle finger extended, like at the end of Sometimes A Great Notion. Someone else said it would be more like with a Budweiser in his hand, ala Weekend at Bernie’s.
Fitz was born on Nov. 19, 1951, and raised in Aspen by his parents Jim and Elva in a family with four wonderful sisters: Judy, who preceded Mike in death, and Patsy, Teresa and Peggy, who all loved and supported him, and he did the same for them. But still: four sisters? No wonder he was never home.
Fitz spent as much time as he could with his friends. I was one of them, lucky to spend a lot of time with Fitz back in the day, and to know him well for the rest of my life. He was athletic and fast, especially in the sprints, and started on Aspen High School’s 1969 football team that made the state playoffs. He was a terror on the basketball court, too, running you ragged, and he also played rugby. And he loved skiing, whether on Bonnas and free-heels in the backcountry, or 215 Dynamics in deep powder. Both of those were difficult in their day, but I watched him do it.
We skied all over above Lenado on Porphyry Mountain, and I was with Fitz and our friend Don the first time we went (illegally) into Highland Bowl. There was a lot of that kind of stuff, mainly because Fitz would agitate to get out and do something. Ski the Five Finger chutes. Take the Jeep over Hagerman Pass to Leadville. Hare-brained, wild-eyed hikes almost anywhere, any time. Fitz taught me to just go do it instead of figuring out why I couldn’t. I think he lost a little of that later in life. I guess we all do.
I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but he taught me a lot of things. How to just pull over and ask out a couple of girls I’d recently met (we became close friends with both). How to walk into a lowdown bar in Montana and have fun. How to coat my stomach with milk before we went out drinking. How to kneel down level to puke after eating peyote with too much fuzz left in it. Okay, you get the picture. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was practical information that someone has to tell you.
As much as Mike loved Aspen, he loved Montana even more from the first time he saw it. It had the same big mountains and wildlife, but fewer people, and they were ones he related to more than the ones moving into Aspen. We made a couple of big circuits around Montana in the early 1970s in an Oldsmobile I sold him. We visited some Aspen friends in Libby and Thompson Falls and fought a forest fire. We met with a small posse of former Aspenites in Heron and ended up taking over a restaurant and bar in Hope, Idaho, in an episode so crazed I still can’t talk about it in print. But those who were there still laugh about it. The few who are left.
We made a couple of stops in Virginia City, Mont., on those trips and that’s where Fitz ended up for the last 34 years. He assimilated immediately. He loved the people and they loved him. He hiked and fished, hunted (or at least hung out in hunting camp), paddled canoes on high lakes, and rafted down fast rivers.
Fitz was still young when he set his watch to bar time and left it there, an old Montana custom. He liked the bars and the people in them, but he never became a bar fly. He said it was because he didn’t have enough money. I always thought he should have a T-shirt made that read, “You buy, I’ll fly,” because it was his motto. When he and a friend lived two blocks from Carl’s Pharmacy, Fitz would pester guests for enough money for a couple quarts of Bud, then run outside, hop in his Oldsmobile, back it to Carl’s, make the buy and return, this time going forward.
In Montana this morphed into a real affection for their bar culture. You could park right there, and the drinking was about as inexpensive as buying it at the liquor store. But he couldn’t just camp in the bars because he didn’t have a trust fund and was busy working. Plus he never lost the drive to get outdoors, whether it was hiking and Jeeping, or pig roasts and kegs. Career-wise, Fitz suffered the fate of many in southwestern Montana. He was most in demand for his work (first-class carpet laying) during the summer, the season he could never get enough of anyway. He hated watching it go by from a job site.
But he stuck it out. He just seemed a little sad at times. That turned around a few years ago when he married Nancy. Fitz had many loves in his life, but told me he had pretty much given up on any lasting relationship when Nancy came along. He wasn’t happy all the time. But he was happy with her, he was happy up in the hills looking at wildlife, he was happy on a pair of skis, and he was probably happiest of all on a river. So be it.
A service is planned in Aspen later this summer.
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U.S. Forest Service ready to make happy campers with the opening of facilities in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.