Courtland and I pulled into Lake City, Colorado in late afternoon and promptly encountered an argument. We had gone into a store to ask directions to Dan’s Fly Shop, and the woman who owned the store was evidently trying to get another woman to have her husband carry some boxes to the basement. The other woman didn’t want her husband going down the basement stairs, for some reason I never understood.
It was a friendly argument, the kind you can expect in a nice, quiet, beautiful town like Lake City. I have no idea who won, because the lady who owned the store finally noticed us and gave us directions. When we left the two women went back to cordially disagreeing with one another.
We found Dan’s Fly Shop, and behind it we found the park where Steve and Kandace LaMascus had parked their Coleman pop-up camper. The LaMasci (I guess that’s the plural for LaMascus) were off fishing, so we visited with the lady who runs the park while we waited. The park contains several small cabins inhabited by tourists and flyfishers, and the area underneath the cabins is inhabited by an extended family of marmots.
A marmot is an interesting animal that looks like a big, fat squirrel, without the bushy tail. These particular marmots were pretty used to people, and they spent their time wandering around the yard among the cabins, eating food provided by nature, such as dropped potato chips and crackers, and being cute. Marmots spend a great deal of time being cute.
The marmots aren’t completely tame, but they allowed Courtland to get just close enough to them to give him hope that he might be able to catch one. He would creep slowly closer and closer to a marmot, and it would pretty much ignore him until he could almost reach out and touch it, and then it would dart away much quicker than you would expect. He never caught one, which is probably a good thing. He would probably have had an easier time catching one than turning it loose.
The LaMasci showed up and we ate supper with them, and then went looking for beaver dams. Courtland decided he wanted to catch a beaver, and I wanted to see if he would actually try, but we never found any. That was probably for the best, too, since he wanted to bring one home, and I doubt that would have been popular with either the Colorado Fish & Game Dept., the Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept., or my wife.
Lake City may be a little short on beavers right now, but it’s long on history. Most notably the town was the venue of one of Alfred Packer’s trials for murder and cannibalism. The town seems rather proud of that. One café even offers Alfred Packer burgers and such.
Packer was a prospector who was traveling from Provo, Utah with a group headed for the Colorado gold country around Breckenridge in late 1873. They ran into Chief Ouray at Montrose, and he told them to wait until spring, but Packer and five others decided to chance the mountain passes anyway. They left Montrose headed for Gunnison on 9 February 1874, and before long they were lost. They got snowbound in the Rocky Mountains, ran out of food, and generally found themselves in a pickle.
Packer showed up in Gunnison on 16 April, alone and rather plump for a guy who had recently almost starved in a winter mountain pass. He was tried and convicted in Saguache, Colorado, and the presiding judge, M.B. Gerry, reportedly told Packer while sentencing him, “When you came to Hinsdale County there was seven democrats. But you, you ate five of them.” He sentenced Packer to hang by the neck “until you’re dead, dead, dead, as a warning against reducing the democrat population of this county.”
Packer escaped from the Saguache jail and disappeared until 1883, when he turned up in Cheyenne Wyoming. He was, for some reason, tried again in Lake City in April of that year and sentenced to death, again. In 1885 the Colorado Supreme Court reversed that decision, and Packer was tried, again, in Gunnison in 1886, and sentenced to 40 years.
Packer was paroled in 1901, and supposedly became a vegetarian during his last years. After his release he worked as a guard at the Denver Post. He died in 1907 at the age of 65.
Alfred Packer has been memorialized in song and story for over a hundred years now. C.W. McCall wrote a song about his exploits called ‘Comin’ Back for More.’ In 1968, students at the University of Colorado named the school cafeteria the ‘Alfred Packer Memorial Grill.’ The slogan was ‘Have a friend for lunch.’ His head, incidentally, is on display in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Courtland and I left Lake City without ever catching a marmot or beaver, or trying a Packer burger. But that’s not all bad. At least we have something to look forward to the next time we visit Lake City. And there will definitely be a next time. Unless Steve and Kandace caught all the fish . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who has never been stranded in the mountains. Yet. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org