Karla Kuban: Remembering John Kelley
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Last Tuesday, around 4 o’clock, a much-loved, close friend, John Kelley, perished in an avalanche behind the Lindley Hut, doing what he loved – skiing the backcountry.
His friends, my daughter, and I knew him as Kelley. I met him five years ago when he walked up my driveway with our friend, Rosemary, the two of them inquiring if I was going to sell that horse trailer that had been sitting unproductively in my driveway for a couple of years. What could be better? I asked. Who wants to buy it? Their friend, Heather. Well, then, let’s call her, I said.
And so began a friendship with Kelley. I saw him off and on over the years, magnificently riding Rosemary’s huge horse, Gersham. Rosemary taught him to jump this beast, and to gallop him up and down the hills of Wildcat country. Kelley learned quickly, and became a superb rider.
Five months ago I acquired a skinny 12-year-old thoroughbred in terrible need of new shoes and 100 pounds. His racing name was Opacity, and Kelley suggested I call him Opie. So I did. Tim Tordoff put shoes on Opie, with borium spikes, so he’d be stable on ice and in snow.
This horse could fly. In his youth, he even won a few Kentucky races with small purses. It so happened that Rosemary left this winter for Florida, and took Gersham with her. Gersham’s absence left Kelley gloomy, and since I was now responsible for three horses with only two riders (my daughter and me), I invited Kelley to ride Opie. Thus began a beautiful relationship between Kelley and Opie. Kelley and I talked on the phone nearly every day, making horseback riding plans.
Kelley lived in Aspen with his most trusting, devoted, generous significant other, Linda, who allowed him the freedom to do what he loved, including riding. Sometimes Kelley would go away with his friend Tim, ice climbing, or to Denver, to visit his children. Hurry back, I’d say. We’ll miss you.
Two or three times a week, my 9-year-old daughter, Lily, and Kelley and I rode out together at Owl Creek Ranch, a little slice of paradise on the way to Snowmass. Kelley quickly befriended Jim Sneider, the ranch manager, Kelly Potter, who watches over the horses there, and Jody and John, Jim’s friends who lend helping hands around the property.
Kelley became a regular, buying eggs that Jim’s hens laid, and spent time with the guys in Jim’s shop, marveling at whatever they were doing that day, whether welding or repairing a tractor. Owl Creek Ranch, the microcosm, is adventurous, fascinating, welcoming, and stunning. Kelley told me, only two weeks ago, that he was living the best days of his life. I know he meant that all of his time, and all of his days, these days, were the best. He’d recently celebrated his 60th birthday; friends had come to town from as far away as Montana to visit. He’d been mountain climbing, was proud of his children, and happy and content in his relationship with Linda.
Kelley even met my daughter in Aspen Elementary’s parking lot after school. He’d usher her into his truck, and together they’d drive to Owl Creek Ranch. They’d catch the horses, groom them, tack them up, and ride out together on one trail or another, among snow-drenched aspens, galloping across fields, up and down hills, and along crusty ridges. They shared a particularly close relationship, discussing everything from Lily’s adoption in China to proper horse grain.
Kelley was like a brother to me, and like a warm, caring uncle to Lily. He was full of exciting tall tales (he would tease Lily, later admitting embellishment of those amusing stories). He was soft-spoken, a man with true accountings of backcountry journeys, talked about pulling sleighs with draft horses, his carpentry, and plenty of remarkable accounts about his son, Ivan, and daughter, Robin, trekking and climbing experts themselves. Later, Kelley would apologize for bragging about his children. I’d say, please, don’t apologize for that.
When it snowed, Kelley helped me shovel my driveway. He repaired furniture for me, and climbed onto the roof to made it right. He dumped 50-pound bags of horse grain in bins and unloaded my hay. He delivered heavy bags of carrots to Opie, sticking five or six in his back pocket, and sneaking them to the horse while we rode over snowdrifts and through snow-covered meadows.
Just three weeks ago I had dinner at Kelley and Linda’s house. Kelley barbecued chicken and salmon. There were just six of us there, and we spent three remarkable hours talking about everything from Bela Fleck to rafting down the Grand Canyon. Kelley and Linda, good host and hostess, rushed around, making sure our glasses were full of wine, water, or champagne. Kelley built a fire. We celebrated, belatedly, our friend Rosemary’s birthday. I don’t recall if the upcoming hut trip was discussed.
Last Monday, Kelley dropped off Rosemary’s dog (she was just as much his as Rosemary’s), with a bag of dog food and a bone. Kelley seemed preoccupied, I suppose with last-minute details for the hut trip he was about to take with Linda, friends Tim and Di, his sister, Stella, her husband, and a few other close acquaintances.
I knew he was in charge of dragging the food sled behind him for the three and some odd miles skiing to the hut. I know they arrived, unpacked, and slept that night. Tuesday was a free day when they could skin up and ski down the surrounding snowy terrain. Tim, Di, and Kelley were out that afternoon, behind the hut, enjoying the weather, and the snow.
The rest of the story is tragic, and heartbreaking. I have cried my eyes out, as have Kelley’s numerous friends. He had so many pals, and we are all reeling. I never saw Kelley impatient or angry. He was bright-eyed, easy-going, big-hearted, and absolutely honest. Every animal he ever encountered immediately trusted and adored him. He was smart and interesting. He lived a large, brave, trustworthy life. I knew him around horses, good friends, with Linda, and with my daughter.
Friendship with Kelley was effortless. It was uncomplicated and rare. He demanded little of his companions, and gave so much. He never let me down, except for his participation in that mean avalanche on Tuesday, Feb. 23. Oh, Kelley, where are you now?
The night I learned of his death, last Wednesday, I was up most of the night. When I did fall asleep, I had a dream. Kelley was in the car with me. He was asleep, then opened his eyes. I said, Kelley, you’re here. He said, Yes, and I’m OK. I said, Are you alive? He replied, No, I’m not, but I’m OK. Then he closed his eyes.
My daughter, who can’t quite understand the significance of Kelley’s death, will realize that he really is gone. She knows something, however. She said, “Mom, I know Kelley died, but he’ll always be here, in my heart.” Then, she put her hand there, over her heart.
As these weekends pass, and Kelley isn’t here picking Lily up in his red truck to go riding, or stopping in just to say hello, or the three of us grabbing a quick bite to eat, my daughter will soon learn a complicated lesson, and one that is quite beautiful, too: We’re all going to die one day, but why did such a good man have to die so young? That is the tough part.
The second element has to do with Kelley’s exquisiteness; his pure soul; and in the luck and freedom given to us, that we were able to spend so much time, in so few months, with dear Kelley; to have lived many joyous hours because of him. I believe I speak for everyone who knew Kelley. We are devastated, and we are grateful.