Strange days indeed

Throughout the late-’70s, Jerry Vass penned a column for the Telluride Times under the name Bubba Ram Vass. The play on words was a deliberate poke at Caucasian guru Ram Dass, and accompanying Vass’ byline every week was an exaggerated photo of Bubba Ram draped in white robes, hand to the heavens and halo surrounding his head.

You wouldn’t know it from the column, but Jerry was actually one of Telluride’s more mainstream citizens at the time, making his living as a respected real estate agent and even dabbling in town politics. But the phony robes and halo also had some deeper significance. Jerry was one of the first in the wave of hippie squatters to hit Telluride and a bit of a guru for that town.

As a kid, I never considered Bubba Ram much of a role model. However, I’ll never forget the time he sat me down and assured me that I was among the most privileged people on the planet. My folks had been in that first wave along with Bubba Ram when the ski resort opened in 1972. With stars in their eyes and a Volkswagen bus under their feet, they’d descended on the mining town gone bust. And by default, I numbered in that first generation of hippie kids.

Ironically, and in spite of what Bubba Ram was telling me, none of the sons and daughters of that hippie invasion really considered themselves privileged. Instead we felt shorted and that we were missing out on the greater pleasures of the world. Telluride kids longed to be mall rats, football stars and cheerleaders. We wanted to ride in Corvettes, go out for Slurpees, see the Solid Gold dancers in person and catch Kool & the Gang in concert. We wanted a taste of the good life that came into our living rooms every night in Technicolor. We had no interest in concerts, free love and a party that never ended.

Regardless, I listened to Bubba Ram as he explained that Telluride was an experiment of epic proportions. He noted that people like my parents were not rewriting the rules but throwing out the rulebook. He pointed to a takeover of town government and push toward free communal living. He concluded that the people doing the moving and shaking in Telluride would always have their old identities weighing them down, but that the children of Telluride would be molded in its image.

I politely heard Bubba Ram out and didn’t pay much more attention, my mind drifting into a fantasy of 007 meets Charlie’s Angels. And it drifted for another decade of high school, and throughout some tenure on the East Coast, the south and the Front Range, those words really began to sink in.

When I was a kid, I didn’t realize the value of a town that boasted some of the finest steep skiing in the state. Endless powder stashes and lack of lift lines just struck me as matter of fact. It didn’t seem strange that our nearest neighbor, Allen, was living in a 150-square-foot shack with no indoor plumbing and little insulation and having the time of his life on less than $100 a month. I also took for granted that the town had its very own all-nude bathhouse and a vibrant drug trade. These little fixtures seemed as common as a municipal pool and used car salesmen. When a friend of mine’s step-father was hauled off to prison for cocaine trafficking, it was one of those things that happens. When the town marshal got busted for raiding the evidence locker for grass, it barely raised eyebrows.

I also didn’t pay much attention to the town’s great thinkers, and daydreamers, who birthed institutions like Mountainfilm, the Telluride Film Festival and the bluegrass festival. I didn’t realize the value of having a man named Edward Abbey visit and speak in Telluride long before the publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang. I guess things like seeing Taj Mahal walking down the street, sneaking into and throwing a high school party at Bill Graham’s house, and rubbing shoulders with renowned mountaineer Mugs Stump weren’t all that uncommon.

But after a few homes in truly bizarre locations and a path that luckily led back to the San Juan Mountains, Bubba Ram has been ringing in my ears ever since. For all its shortcomings, indulgences and excesses, Telluride truly was an incredible experiment in living. And while we can’t recapture those wild times, we were all privileged to be along for the ride.

– Will Sands




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