Paul Andersen: Fair Game
September 27, 2010
A fall backpacking trip last week with my son began with the story of “Rattlesnake” Bill Anderson, a cranky old prospector who ruled a wilderness domain at the headwaters of a remote gulch near Aspen. The historic marker at the trailhead to the lake bearing his name tells that Rattlesnake was so antisocial that he kept the U.S. Forest Service at bay until the 1940s by sheer intimidation.
We walked past Rattlesnake’s broken-down cabin and pictured the grizzled old-timer charging out with a shotgun, screaming threats and firing a warning shot over our heads. Some tales of the Old West are exaggerated, but not this one.
Len Shoemaker, a trail-blazing Forest Ranger from early in the last century, had a frightening encounter with Rattlesnake nearly a century ago. Shoemaker was checking on reports of someone dynamiting the lake for trout, so he paid a visit. “Bill showed me a large pan full of 18-inch trout. Somewhat in jest, I asked him if he had dynamited the lake. He grabbed a large butcher knife and angrily shouted, ‘If you accuse me, I cut your … heart out!’ I had to talk fast to get out of that situation.”
Walking up to the lake, I regaled Tait with another Rattlesnake tale. This one was in the Aspen Democrat-Times, March 2, 1914, which reported that Rattlesnake was drinking at Frank Greco’s parlor on Cooper Street when he got into an argument with John “Pug” Trainor.
Trainor had worked for Billy Tagert, whose dog had been mauled by Rattlesnake’s much larger dog. Rattlesnake reportedly had stood by enjoying the show until Tagert kicked the big dog away to save his own. At Greco’s parlor, Pug and Rattlesnake exchanged words over the dog fight, and tempers flared. As Pug turned to leave, Rattlesnake pulled a pistol and fired. Pug whirled, knocked down Rattlesnake, and wrestled the gun from his hands. Pug suffered powder burns to his cheek and a bullet hole through the brim of his hat.
Tait and I reached the emerald blue lake, which we agreed is far too beautiful and serene to be sullied by the name of a malicious bully. We dropped our packs and climbed to a high saddle on the ridge of a foreboding peak. Beyond was a vast basin, tawny with autumn, where another lake glimmered in the late-afternoon sun.
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From this aerie we watched a mountain goat a few hundred yards off moving up a cliff band with easy agility. The big, white goat appeared to get on slowly, but he covered ground with remarkable speed, moving his limbs independently, the way a great ape walks on all fours.
That night, while the embers of our campfire were dying, my son raised his eyes, searching the darkness. “Dad, somebody’s coming up the trail.” I quickly turned, half-expecting to see the ghost of Rattlesnake Anderson.
A deer popped out of the willows in ghostly shadow, then another and another. Soon we were surrounded by a small herd that gamboled about, playfully head-butting, just 10 yards from our camp. The deer woke us later in the night by prancing on the tundra and noisily plucking mouthfuls of grass around our tent, which we had left open to the starry heavens. Occasionally we heard rockfall clattering from the peak jutting in dark shadow across the moon-glittering lake.
The first rays of sun melted off the frost and warmed the chill air. We packed up after breakfast and spent the day walking the lake-studded tundra. From the top of a 13,000-foot peak we gazed out at the West Elks. On the southern horizon, the distinctive, jug-top peak of Uncompaghre was barely visible through a smoky haze. Suddenly, the yips and barks of coyotes welled up from the basin we had just crossed. We didn’t see another person all day as we threaded among glaciated peaks that mark the collapsed crater of the Grizzly Caldera.
Tait will be in college next year, so we know this was our last fall hike for a few years. Maybe that’s why we so enjoyed the warm sun, brilliant fall colors, and each other’s company. This wild landscape is a gift, especially when we match it with a colorful history – from Rattlesnake’s notorious exploits to the dramatic forces that built these mountains and shaped them with fire and ice for the wonder of a father and son on a memorable fall trip.
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