Back in the saddle

Some look on gray skies, feel the slip of mercury and call it "early winter." Others refuse to hang up the wheels, stay in short pants and praise current times as "Indian Summer." I've always been pragmatic about this current middle season. For me, it's only ever had one title-"the Leafless Season."

The Leafless Season is marked not only by a lack of leaves. Green also gives way to tan. Blue, yellow and red transform into steely mid-tones. Daylight surrenders to dusk. The Leafless Season is a time when dreamtime is more prized than wide awake. It's about early evenings and late lazy mornings. Everything is in remission during this confused quarter, everything including work. And when you tie all of these factors together, the arrows point in one obvious direction.

More than anything, the Leafless Season is about getting reacquainted with the friends you left behind just six months ago. Not surprisingly, they're waiting right where you left them, pint glasses in hand. For me, Early Winter, Indian Summer, the Leafless Season and whatever you call it are all cause to celebrate the watering hole.

If you try to resist, this middle season can be a toughie. Temperatures often make singletrack, rock and the river unappetizing and weird snowpack gives rise to sketchy turns over thin, often variable snow. Yes, it's a time of the year when recreation takes on a new meaning, when the bartender becomes your best friend all over again.

I first experienced this phenomenon at a relatively tender age in my hometown of Telluride. During high season, my shabby fake ID could do damage only in tired old haunts like the Trinity Tavern. The beginning of Leafless Season, which often hit in mid-September, marked an opening day of sorts. All comers were honored at a party that was both paying homage to a good summer and praying for a big winter. Leafless Season made for my first introductions to the spring-loaded dance floor at the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon and the bumper pool table at the Roma. It provided my first taste of mezcal and first view of the transgendered stylings of Ralph Dinosaur. Telluride characters like Wacky Jack, Catfish, Rick the Stick and other local color, the source of whose names is best left unmentioned, were unoffical royalty during those times. And one of the biggest parties of the year celebrated "100 days until ski season," a Leafless Season highpoint.

Years later, I moved out of Ralph Dinosaur country, left the bumper pool table behind and started taking my Leafless Seasons at the Eldo in Crested Butte. Crested Butte had the dubious honor of several hundred extra feet of elevation and a Leafless Season that got underway earlier than Telluride's. Often kicking off in late August, it was a time when Bosler, the owner of the Eldo, cracked out the kegs of Imperial Porter. Both the smooth sipping, high-octane brew and the last days on the Eldo deck helped ease the transition from green to brown to white. Like with Telluride, off-season in the Butte was also about reconnecting. It seemed to be the only time of the year when you hung out with characters like Tuck and Ramone, Gunnison County's two black men, both of whom were ace telemarkers. LJ, the town clerk who allegedly slept with the lead singer of 1970s powerhouse band Bread, always surfaced martini in hand. The Leafless Season was about downing beers with the bus driving mayor, doing shots with the town manager and settling disputes with the development community over a couple long-neck bottles.

And as I triangulated my way back to the San Juans, the tradition of the Leafless Season was here waiting for me in Durango. The middle season has found me sipping the last of the Ale Diablo at Steamworks, dabbling in a heavy beer, aptly named Nightmare, at Lady Falconburgh's and with any luck tasting the first of the barley wine at Carvers.

More and more, Leafless Season finds me mainly hanging at Fassbinder Park, not holding a brown bag, but helping my two-year-old Skyler negotiate the "Big Girl Slide." However, I'm also following in the great tradition of my father, who introduced me to one of my earliest Leafless Seasons by encouraging me to toddle around Telluride's Sheridan Bar. Skyler's still quite a few years shy of her first visit to the Ranch, but she is training up in a few smoke-free climes.

This strangest and bitterest of seasons has always been and continues to be a great equalizer in these Colorado mountain towns. Over the years, I've shared poison with hippies and realtors; clinked glasses with anarchists and capitalists; and broke barley with both members of the Rainbow Family and Rotarians. Meeting on the level, we went bottoms up to what came before, and raised our glasses to what lies in store.

-Will Sands



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