Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
The Aspen Times article was from September 1885. It referred to “a poor, old, dilapidated-looking specimen of humanity, with tattered clothes that had seen a good many summers and several winters.”
The “Old Pioneer,” as the article was titled, was noticed sitting on a beer-keg in front of a Cooper Street saloon. “His hair was uncombed, his beard long and shaggy. He looked, indeed, to be Rip Van Winkle. His appearance was such as to attract a Times reporter’s attention. His friendless look of desolate demeanor was such as to soften a newspaper man’s heart.”
The curious reporter began his interview with the usual question: Who are you? “My name is Henry Gleason,” replied the Old Pioneer, “and I am the first man that ever put a foot in the valley of the Roaring Fork. I passed down this valley in the summer of 1850, and I feel confident that no white man had ever been here before.”
Early explorers in the valley, coming over Independence Pass, found blazes on trees they guessed were from the 1860s. But 1850? That was over 20 years before Ferdinand Hayden and his survey team mapped the Roaring Fork, a time when the Utes were still supreme in Colorado and the land west of the Divide was wilderness.
The reporter asked where the old man had been since 1850. “Better ask where I haven’t been, for I’ve been most everywhere. I’ve traveled over every territory in the United Sates, and have been over all of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota before they were states; I served through the war, though I was then fifty years old, but I was accustomed to hardships and stood it better than many a younger man.”
“What have you done for a living?” asked the reporter. “Done most everything except work,” confessed the Old Pioneer. “I never took to work, but I’ve tried everything else that was honest.”
“Did you do well?” pried the reporter.
“Do I look like it?” smirked the Old Pioneer, surveying his ragged clothing.
The old man said he was born in Spencer County, Kentucky. “But I left home young and have been a wanderer ever since. I have no kindred ties in the world that I know of, and I reckon if I had they would not be very proud of me because I ain’t no beauty, to say the least of it.”
Onlookers had gathered to hear the aged relic talk, then someone invited him to take a drink, as the reporter noted: “He rose from his seat on the beer keg and shambled into the bar, where he swallowed a glassful of whiskey.”
“Ah, that makes one almost feel young again,” muttered the old man, as he resumed his seat on the keg.
Was the Old Pioneer providing light amusement for a newsman on a dull day in Aspen? No, the first man in the valley was far more than mere entertainment. A holdover from a past age, he elicited a sense of awe from the reporter, but also of sympathy and respect.
The Old Pioneer might have been spinning a yarn, but there was something earnest about him, something authentic in his bearing and his words, something recognized as truth by the reporter. The Old Pioneer was a tangible piece of history, and he was given immortality with a lead pencil and a pad of paper by a reporter who honored a remnant of the vanishing past.
“Life has nothing left for him,” wistfully concluded the newsman. “He is simply waiting to be called, when he will lay his aged bones to rest among the rocks and crags that have been his companions for all these years.
“He will have no funeral, and there will be no mourners. His death, like his life, will be lone and desolate; but his sleep will be as sweet and his repose as calm as that of the hero, around whose bier a mourning nation weeps.”
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