Wednesday, October 11, 2000

A historical document on the Valley Floor War

By Douglas McDaniel

They came down from Gold Hill in hang gliders. Dozens of them, sweeping winged eagles, spiralling in the light breeze toward the Valley Floor, moving in to capture the entrance to the box canyon. They landed and reformed into war parties, stopping traffic leading in and out of town and charging up the cliff sides toward the airport. They wanted to choke off all Federal Express deliveries, beer trucks, commuters from Norwood, Placerville, the happy charters loaded with tourists, the airliners heavy with glitterati in suede coats and their kids bearing backwards ballcaps, portable CD changers, headphones and snowboards. “The Uprising at Gold Hill” was, scribes would later write, a reversal of an age.

Hostile acts began after midnight near Ophir, where Ute warrior gangs had been given a patch of ground by the local citizenry to commemorate their long lost happy hunting grounds. It was only supposed to be a memorial park and a campground, but due to a feigned mix up in the translation of the special event permit, the Ute chief, OOOOO AHHHH, initiated a more literal interpretation, based on an older, more aggressive tongue.

The war camp and uprising had been launched under the guise of an Native American reggae festival, which goes to explain why so many young white men and women from the town participated in the raid, but leaves the puzzling question about how supposed slackers could be led to riot.

The Utes had come in smoke-belching school busses from reservations in Colorado and Utah. They carried bundles of hang gliders, mobile phones, large pouches of competition-tested arrows with platinum tips, toy rubber war clubs. Such a cache was purchased at the Montrose Walmart with casino gaming earnings and numerous credit cards. An echo of their equine-savvy forefathers, the Utes mastered the tactics of marauding with the hang glider. The youngest warriors took to the hills first, dragging aluminum frames and satchels of supplies. The sky was filled with bright, whooping waves of descending hang gliders. In all directions, the canyon walls echoed with high pitched yaps and cries, gunfire, sirens, car alarms and the gunning of engines. Smoke could be seen from the airport, sucking people out onto Main Street to get a view.

Reaction in town was mixed. Quite naturally confused. It seemed to be a festival atmosphere. While many came out onto the streets to watch the winged Ute militia glide down from unseen suspects in the mountains, most just stared as if in a dream, or took photos. Some skirted down the avenue on roller skates, skateboards or mountain bikes to get a better view at the end of town. There was a convivial chatter on the street corners, that is, until scatter-shot skirmishes could be heard from the road leading into town. People ducked, scattered, or kept staring at the sky.

I was in the newspaper office when the first calls came in. “You’ve got to see this. Do something. Write a War editorial!” said one caller. I knew this was pointless since, after all, the paper was printed out of town, and if these calls were to be believed, there would be no newspaper going out that night. I thought about how trees were already being saved by the attack. I tried to remember the typeface the Denver Post used one hundred years ago to shout “The Utes Must Go.” I thought of Meeker. His spectacles. His New World idealism. I thought of how earnestly the Utes refused to farm. I thought of being staked to the ground and eaten by ants. I looked down the narrow hallway of the old dusty office catacomb and considered its defensive possibilities.

In my view, the best place to hold out was the front section our stone building, which once supported a profitable bar and whorehouse, and then, a less profitable newspaper. A suitable Alamo, it was agreed. The windows were small, and there was a basement beneath the old floorboards of the drafty place. We hunkered down in the basement’s bunker with the ghosts of harlots until the situation had been resolved, or, at least, the shooting had stopped. We played cards, clutched our skis for weapons, and kept our ears to the radio, which was broadcasting renegade reports from special group of Commanches, ringers from west Texas who had commandeered the station’s mountaintop translater.

“Lay down your arms,” said the deejay. “This is a peaceful revolution. T-cards and ski passes are available to all who convert.”

E. Ned Beasley, the county’s duly designated emergency services officer, called a meeting at the courthouse building. Beasley sought volunteers to fight the Utes, who had reportedly gathered approximately 500 braves and a loose-knit tail of young joiners on the Valley Floor. The Ute-a-farians had already managed light resistance at the Texaco and were moving in on the San Miguel Power Company station.

“Mountain Village has fallen like a house of cards,” the camo-clad, Banana Republic dressed Beasley told the stunned and increasingly mutinous gathering. “We have attempted to notify the absentee residents. But they can’t get their lawyers here because the airport has been destroyed. The Peaks has been looted and now it’s being used as command post with excellent sighting to cover the Utes’ rear. They are firing arrows at us from the Coonskin Ridge. Apparently the statues of the skier and the miner on the Mountain Village square have been toppled, and many of the Utes are luxuriating in confiscated condos.

“What’s worse, they have set up for a morning raid from Gold Hill. More waves of anti-social savages in hang gliders are sure to come,” he said as the crowd uniformly gasped. “We’ve got to set up barricades at Town Park and on the west side. If we let them land, we’re toast.”

It was then that an injured Gondola employee, his green jacket tattered and a broken arrow protruding from his bloody shoulder, stumbled into the meeting room. “The Gondola has been spliced!,” he said, he sputtered and tried to mess with the buttons of his tattered jacket. “We are entirely cut off.”

“See,” cried Beasley, “We gave them the high ground. This is going to cost us. I assure you.”

People scurried from the meeting in a hushed fast forward to their homes, thinking about their hitting their bank machines, about packing their bags, about the inherent risks of late Autumn mountain passages to Ouray. That night we stayed indoors as arrows and tomahawk clubs clattered on the sidewalks and streets. We drank and carved our skis, made phone calls to friends, love as if it were our last night on earth.

In the Last Dollar Saloon, a captured Ute was being tortured for information. Tonic water was poured down his throat and he choked and wept. His wet “I (Heart) New York” T-shirt clung to a solid, strong rib cage. Tears ran across the cheek and down his neck. “Wait a minute fellas,” he spit. “I’m just here for the beer ... like you.” And then they let him go and the lights went out, the stereo system stopped. With the electricity gone, beer was given away. When the beer was gone, there was talk of surrender. The captive Ute was pushed into the streets.

By dawn the battle lines had been drawn. The gunwale was manned by a concerned group of property owners, real estate agents and ski company loyalists donning their green and red company uniforms. On the west end, a barricade of Volkswagon vans, Jaguars and Sport Utes had been built from one side of the canyon to the other. There was some debate about setting up defenses on a wetland, but such considerations were quickly thrown out the door. Especially considering the excellence of the natural sightline against the hordes provided by the buildings overlooking the automobile barrier. The streets were empty, save for the stray dogs who had become intelligent bands of marauders in themselves. Apparently, during the night, vast numbers of local rastas and snowboarders had abandoned their pets and crossed over the barricade. Many painted their faces to join the Utes for battle. Historians would note how the underclass drifted quickly to the other side, in terms town leaders would later decry as “The day the Trustafarians turned.”

That left only hardcore band of Realtors to man the barricades. Though their number was still in the hundreds, the Pearl, Shandoka, and the River Trail could only be sparsely defended after a series of probing raids by the Utes. The rumor was that Beasley had been wounded. That his Maginot line had been breached down by the river. It was decided to withdraw to the commercial core, setting up a latticework of crossfire around the T-shirt shops and bars and offices stacked with deeds, water rights and future boffo development plans. Such documentation would be needed after the chaos cleared, everyone was assured.

When the order was given to withdraw, the giddy Utes moved onto the West End barricade, turning the Sport Utes and Mercedes and VW busses back on their wheels, driving them away. They hooped. They hollered. They gunned the engines and roared.

When the final attack came, I was in the basement of the newspaper, coughing on dust as the floorboards shook and writing my personal peace treaty. My intention was to hand it over to the first Ute I met. It happened to be the guy they interrogated in the Buck, a Ute, for sure, but certainly not part of the raid. A nice guy, actually. He had just been taking his time off from classes at Harvard. It was this first-available renegade who I handed my unconditional apology.

It did little good. Despite the Harvard connections. Fortunately, the Realtors couldn’t hit much with their rifles, and deaths were kept to a minimum, save for Beasley, who had been finally been mowed down in a gust of friendly fire in front of the County Courthouse. The Utes were also more magnanimous in victory than we had been a century ago. Only a few real estate agents, those who had threatened to bring in lawyers, were “re-educated.” A chilling term, at least to all who saw it first-hand. The rest of us were herded on the now famous “Long Birkenstock Walk” to our new reservation at Dennehotso, where the desert winds blow fiercely this time of year and there are a lot of spooks out here.

These days I look forward to my weekly check from the government and tend to eat less red meat. I’m learning to deal cards, the white casino mafia seeing some talent in my sly hand and jaded ways. I spend my days looking northward to San Juans, knowing that somewhere out there are magnificent peaks as a fortress against the world that I once called my hometown. Someday, it is said, the ski bums will return.