House guest

  I try to not to wake up strangers – especially when they’re street people bathed in the heavy odor of dollar wine – but this was a most unique situation. It was nearly two decades ago, and I’d returned from afternoon out bouldering with the dog only to find a rude surprise waiting in my Front Range apartment.

Something was most definitely amiss at Home Sweet Hovel. There was an open window, an open refrigerator door and a very hairy, homeless man puddled up and snoring on my couch. “Jesus. This isn’t really happening, is it?” I muttered to myself and briefly considered flipping a u-turn back to the crag. But immediate action was essential, given the way my roommates (one of whom was a tender Connecticut girl) would react to our guest. Luckily, man’s best friend understood the urgency, recognized my wavering cojones and intervened.

Carefree and slobbering, my mutt beelined for the intruder and started licking his greasy beard. Our “guest” giggled, pulled the couch pillow closer to his face and then slowly opened one eye. The slumber was officially over.

“Help!” he screamed, jumping to life and cowering in the folds of the couch. “A monkey! Why ... no ... please. Don’t bite, monkey! Don’t eat!”

After a few defensive swats through the air, the drunken man gradually shook off the nightmare. He got his bearings, took a few deep breaths, looked my way and asked, “And what, may I ask, are you doing in here?”

I promptly notified him that he’d shacked up on my couch without a reservation and that it was officially past check-out time. Finally realizing his error, the man gathered his things, slipped his shoes back on and started for the door. Before stepping back onto the street, he turned. “I almost forgot. My name’s Rick,” he blubbed. “And oh yeah, thanks and sorry.”

I closed the door behind him, bolted the window and tried to put the couch and living room back in order. Right on cue, that tender Connecticut girl crossed the threshold, raised her nose in the air, took a sniff and asked, “Your friends come over again today?”

Long story short, I’ve been pulling myself up by the bootstraps in the nearly 20 years since that fateful day. I’ve also bumped into more than a few of Rick’s cohorts along the way, many of them down south in Durango. And I’ve learned the hard way that quite a few of our local nomads could take an etiquette lesson from their Front Range relative.

Just a couple years ago, I was soaking my flyline on the Animas River, happily exploring one of my favorite stretches of water. I’d nearly attained that fabled state of angler’s ecstasy – meditating on my Royal Wulff as it floated along a perfect riffle – when I glimpsed a flash and prepared for the strike. Instead of reveling in cutthroated glory, I watched an empty bottle strike my fly, sink my line and bob on down the river. There, on the shore, was a small man resembling nothing more than the troll in “Billy Goat’s Gruff.” He then reached past a primitive lean-to, hefted a rock and strong-armed it in my direction. “Go on. Git!” he snarled, puffing out his chest.

Not long after, I followed my inner Ranger Rick and wandered off the Animas Mountain Trail and onto faint singletrack and a large ledge I’d yet to explore. Just a few steps in, a wildland of old growth ponderosa, massive sandstone boulders and sweeping views greeted me. A few steps further, the entire landscape shifted and pristine went to pungent. A sea of tall-boy cans, glossy girlie mags, broken down tents and good-old-fashioned fecal matter cluttered the encampment. Strangely, the residents were nowhere to be found. They must have relocated to greener pastures, perhaps a prime piece with river access.

And just last week, I took my 8-year-old daughter out to wander some of our favorite high desert singletrack. You know the spot, it’s that sweet expanse of sand and stone just east of Durango – the one the City of Durango and a small army of volunteers just spent years of diehard effort and millions of dollars preserving for perpetuity. Unfortunately, another small army was massed at the trailhead, and my third-grader and I found ourselves pedaling through a new series of challenges. There amidst jeers and leers, the little woman learned the art of navigating brown paper sacks laden with large bottles, a strategically placed dirty mattress and nearly a dozen dudes settling in for an evening of partying. “Nice ride, Dad,” she chastised me afterward. “How ‘bout we go shopping next time?”

Now I’m a fairly easy-going guy, and I can tell you firsthand that the bottom is never that far off. Hell, later that same summer in Boulder, I learned the power of hunger and the fact that dollar wine can be a royal extravagance. Not only can I sympathize, I can relate.

But last week, my patience officially cracked. I draw the line at having to trade sage for the shopping mall. You can share the land, reap the benefits of my Manna Soup Kitchen donation and practically tent on top of my favorite singletrack. Hell, you can even crash on my couch if it helps get you back on your feet. But the freebies go out the window once you foul the nest.

I’m sorry but we’re all in this high-elevation river valley together, and last I checked we’re all struggling to make a go of it. For those feeling a hint of entitlement and looking for a little special treatment, I’d recommend a training mission up north. Even Rick knew when it was time to pick up his mess and give the “monkey” a pat before he walked on up the road.

– Will Sands



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