The Gentle Grizzly
In this town, some are legends known only by a single name and most of the time it’s not their birth-given one, but perhaps more aptly descriptive and certainly well earned from a story woven in tapestried tales from “back in the day.”
Smokey is a character, a long-lived grizzly soul who will not readily surrender his surname, and definitely not the one his mother would have called him by. “It’s part of the mystique—nobody knows my real name,” the Airstream wanderer will tell you.
“My indoors on wheels,” he says of his silver spaceship, all the while stroking the fuzzy ears of his constant companion of 13 years, Sadie the pooch. Smokey’s peppered steel wool of a beard rests on his chest, as he tells of escapades in an era far from today’s idea of reality and worthy of a film.
Smokey started his life out in southern California, son of a man who did customized crop harvesting for farmers. His grandpa fought in the trenches of WWI France, his father in the Aleutians in WWII driving tanks with General Patton. The family moved to Washington’s Columbia River Basin when Smokey was eight. At the age of 18, he was enrolled at Washington State College until he got drafted into the army in 1966, where he found himself hurtling a tank down the road.
Smokey grins and confesses that in Fort Mead, Md., “There were a series of misadventures that ended up with my being in the dental detachment as an x-ray technician. Back when I was a tank driver, playing winter war games way up north in New York, the tank crew was out on perimeter reconnaissance one day and we stopped at the equivalent of Tony’s Conoco for a couple cases of beer. One thing led to another and we started seeing who could knock down the biggest tree with the tank.
“I took a run at it and it didn’t go down all the way so I backed up farther, went faster, and knocked the tree down, but about 50 feet farther, I discovered while I was in the air, there was a cliff and a 30-foot drop into a frozen lake. I sank the tank.”
The very next day they chucked Smokey onto a bus heading back to Fort Meade, where he learned the fine art of potato peeling. As innocuous as that might seem, apparently Smokey had a knack for calamity.
“There were big aluminum kettles with wheels and you’re supposed to quarter and peel the potatoes, fill the kettle so the kitchen crew could wheel it out and put it under a great big potato masher,” he explains. He figured he could simplify the process.
“Since there was literally thousands of burlap bags of potatoes I thought I could maybe speed things up by just peeling the top layer and leaving the underneath potatoes whole since they were gonna get industrial mashed anyway. That worked really well until some bad potatoes got into the mess hall.”
He was then dispatched to permanent guard duty at the junkyard, where his boredom allowed his mind too much free time. “I called up this young woman I knew in Baltimore and we partied in an old tank. I got caught. This brings us to how I became a dental x-ray tech—that’s the last place they could think of to put me where I might not get in trouble. As it turned out, I was really good at it. The reason I didn’t go to Vietnam is because the colonel’s efficiency rating went up because I was so good. When I got my orders to go to ‘Nam he pulled them.”
During this tenure of dental tech, Smokey got a job as a roadie for a band. “After I got out of the army in 1969, we went to Miami and opened for big acts,” he said. “I loved the rock ‘n roll lifestyle,” working cross country until the bands broke up. In 1972 he became a noted street vendor, making leather goods, belts, and bags in the Georgetown area and doing the bluegrass festival circuit, playing his washboard, dancing and drinking wine out of a bota bag in true Bacchanalian style.
“There was this band playing and the banjo player pointed at me and gestured to come around the back of the stage. He marched me onto the stage to a microphone and bent it to my washboard and said in a real deep southern drawl, ‘You best keep good time now, y’hear.’“
Smokey’s Saturday night washboard performances became an onstage ritual for the rest of that summer tour, from the Appalachians down to Sarasota, Fla. The name of that band was the Earl Scruggs Review.
In 1970, Smokey was offered a job helping to put together a huge event called Sky River Three, Lighter Than Air Fair and Music Festival outside of Portland, Oregon. “It turns out that at the same time the festival was supposed to happen, the Republican Convention was going to happen and a guy named Nixon was gonna be the speaker. The political establishment thought we were there to protest, and that we were strategically located too close. We couldn’t lease the location of the festival so we bought the 200 acres.”
But in an innovative move, the concert promoters came up with a brilliant maneuver, “We didn’t sell tickets, we sold deeds to the property for $11 for 11 days so that the festival-goers were owners and couldn’t be kept off the property.”
The night before the concert, they broadcasted, via public radio, the location to all deed holders. “The cops knew about it but didn’t know exactly where. We expected 20,000 people but 100,000 showed up,” and remarkably, Smokey said, everything went smoothly.
“We had our own drug store, medical facility and a daily newspaper.” And it was here that Smokey got his moniker. “Amongst my duties was stage emcee, stage security, parking chief and fire marshal. Late one night I saw a small fire in the dry grass burning slowly up a hill toward a stack of baled wheat straw, on top of which were several tents. The wheat straw would have just exploded. I was able to stomp out the fire.”
As stage emcee, wearing his finest African Dashiki, freak flag hair flying, he urged people to cooperate with the newly formed fire patrol. “People starting saying, there he goes, he thinks he’s Smokey Bear.” The name has followed him for more than 40 years.
After time on the road doing fairs and fests, Smokey found himself in Telluride for a few years. “I had heard about a little mining town in the Rockies and had a recurring dream of having a leather shop and log cabin at the end of the road in the mountains. I drove in there and the car literally died at the end of the road in Telluride and the building in front of where it died had a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window. So there I was.”
The serendipitous car failure kept him there until 1977, when he wandered down many other roads for more thrilling feats. Eventually the road returned him to Telluride, where he heard about Crested Butte. “I was invited to be in the Fourth of July parade by Sunshine,” where he became a regular at her notorious Bathhouse. “I opened a shop behind Penelope’s for a bit and then several shops after that,” he says of his long history in Crested Butte.
Smokey’s other paradise is the open sea, and his love of sailing took him to many ports. It was out of Santa Barbara in 1978 that he was almost shipwrecked. Working on a commercial boat, Smokey and the crew would sail out past the Channel Islands. Usually they would motor back 30 miles or so to the leeward side of one of the islands but Smokey remembers their captain decided to just drift for the night.
“But an 80 mph gale came up. I woke up because I had been tossed out of my bunk. The skipper had been on the radio to the Coast Guard apprising them of our situation and of course they weren’t gonna come out.” Then the cable to the steering broke, rendering the rudder inoperable. “The waves by that time were 30 feet from trough to crest, taller than the mast of the boat. The skipper came up with a three-foot pipe wrench, a coil of rope and a roll of duct tape,” he recalls. The captain led him into the gaff hatch and tied him to a cleat on either side. “I wired the pipe wrench to the rudder stock.”
Smokey recalls that as the boat was about to breach, he used the pipe wrench to steer. After 18 hours of green water breaking over his shoulder down in the hatch, they finally docked the boat back into Santa Barbara.
So sailing the Mountain Express buses through blizzards, a job he held for a dozen years was a cakewalk.
Smokey’s now retired and somewhat disabled, having injured his neck when he tripped off an icy bus step a couple of seasons ago. This winter was the first one he spent in the warm desert west of Phoenix. “One time someone asked me, if I liked sailing so much, why am I in the mountains? The mountains have an energy similar to the sea. It’s a raw, beautiful energy that seems idyllic but if you don’t pay attention it can bite you,” he says from experience. “The community here is magical and I am whatever part of it that I am. I like to think that sometimes I can pass on something to those who are younger and just arriving.”
Smokey’s life is a quilt of salty stories, and these are but a smattering. “I just always found myself in front of the train,” he says of his multicolored adventures. His last name? Moore. But Smokey is all you need to call him by.