by Dawne Belloise
Lisa Cramton laughs about the common misspelling of her surname and quotes a sign she once saw at a swimming pool: “Welcome to our ool; notice there’s no ‘P’ in it and we’d like to keep it that way.” “No P in Cramton,” she reiterates with a smile and a jovial ambiance that’s characteristic of a life well lived.
Hailing from Oregon, Wisc. (pronounced Ore-gone), Lisa says the enunciation is kind of a joke among the locals. It’s an area steeped in dairy farms, about seven miles south of Madison, where 70 percent of her classmates came to school reeking of cows; then, there were the potheads and jocks woven into the demographics of the 160 kids in her high school.
Lisa was two years old when, she claims, her mom sold their souls at a horse auction when they fell in love with a three-year-old untrained Arabian stallion named Zee. The horse changed their lives as they bought 10 acres and began boarding horses and entering summer equestrian shows.
“We didn’t have a lot of money and we depended on Zee to win to get us home. And he usually won. He was always in the money,” Lisa says. She remembers with fondness those shows where she slept in the stall with Zee and her dad would make 7-Up pancakes and biscuits and gravy in the morning for all their friends attending the horse shows. “It was like being a carney, and that’s how I grew up.”
When Lisa graduated from high school in 1983, she was determined to be an athletic trainer. She figured if she wasn’t good enough to be an Olympic athlete she could help others to get there. Soccer was her passion, even though she started late as a high school sophomore and she was still learning the sport. When she attended the University of Wisconsin Madison (UW-Madison), she admits she wasn’t good enough to play for the college team but could play in the summer soccer league. Out of the blue, she decided one day to try out for team rowing.
“I walked in, took the physical tests for the crew team and they put me in a boat. They were picking girls who were six feet tall but who weren’t athletic. I was shorter [at 5 foot 8] but an actual athlete.”
In the end, it just wasn’t her thing and she left after two months. Her college classes were teaching her how to tape ankles and do electro-stimulation, rehab and recovery. “My claim to fame in school was that I had Chris Chelios and Tony Granato on two different tables at the same time, both getting electro-stimulated on their lower backs.” She proudly notes that Chelios went on to be the captain of the U.S. Olympic hockey team and the Chicago Blackhawks, and Granato played pro as well as coached the Avalanche. “They were big time and that’s where I was going. I wanted to help athletes be better athletes.”
But that path changed in Lisa’s junior year when she answered an enticing ad in her college paper: “Come see what a real ski area looks like.” She had been working at a ski shop throughout college and she bit—hook, line and sinker. “It was Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s [CBMR] student program, and they were offering people jobs, places to live and roommates… so my hand just shot up and I took my senior year off to come to Crested Butte for the winter of 1986 to ‘87. We got 40 days of snow that year. It was insane. I arrived with $50 in my pocket but my roommates took care of me. We lived at Chateaux and we spent every night at the Rafters spinning the big wheel for cheap drinks. If you lasted the entire season, CBMR gave you a $500 scholarship to go toward tuition, and back then that paid for a whole semester.”
Lisa recalls learning to ski on 195 cm. skis, long and skinny as was the style back then. Her boots were yellow racing Lange Tii. “I remember taking a ski lesson from Xavier Fane and all I got out of the lesson was that he wanted my boots.” She cracks up about the days you had to hike back to Phoenix Bowl; in fact, you had to hike everywhere because there were no Northface or Headwall lifts.
“I chased those guys around everywhere and that’s how I learned to ski. Back then, in the ‘80s,” Lisa reminisces, “this place was so real, so raw, I was just enamored by it. I couldn’t believe that I lived here. Everyone was so nice and wanted to show you why this place was so amazing and in your soul, so they shared it, invited you into their homes and we did everything together,” she says of her ski shop clan. “I knew I was going to stay here. This was it.”
Lisa would return to Wisconsin during the off-seasons to once again work in the ski and sport shop. Off-seasons back then were much longer, lasting from early April when the lifts closed to the Fourth of July. CBMR had an Alpine Family Summer Program where families would come for a week for various summer activities like rafting, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
“I guided those families’ activities and if there weren’t enough families booking, I ran the burger stand at the top of the Silver Queen lift. The summer of ‘87 was my first summer here and my first mountain bike experience, and mountain biking was just getting rolling.” She spent the following two summers in Tincup as a camp counselor for Timberline Trails helping learning-disabled kids. She’s one of the few who, in her 25 years in Crested Butte, has had a total of only six jobs and has lived in a total of four places. She considers herself to be very lucky. She advanced from the job at the CBMR rental ski shop into their property sales manager, booking group condos.
Returning from an Alaskan summer adventure in 2001 where she built trails for International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA), she worked as manager at Cucina’s, a local favorite gourmet take-out. After five years, she chuckles, they were cursed with success and exhausted. “So we closed it. It’s nuts because people are still bitching about us being closed.”
Knowing they were going to close Cucina’s, Lisa applied for and got hired as store manager at the Alpineer. Travis Underwood had bought the store in 2006 after Mike Martin’s tragic death in a plane crash. Since Lisa and Travis were both from the Midwest, actually growing up only an hour apart, they were instant friends, and later, they began dating. Travis sold the Alpineer in the spring of 2010 and after 25 years in Crested Butte, Lisa moved to Los Angeles with Travis, her future hubby. She worked for a mountain bike company in L.A. Travis determined that if they were going to live in the City of Angels, they’d have to live by the beach, eat well and go hear good music. “And we did all of those things because he knew he was taking me away from my home. We saw the English Beat, Social Distortion several times, and Ladytron,” she said of just some of the shows they went to. “We really tried to do it right. We traveled to New Zealand because it was easy out of L.A.”
Eventually, they ended up in Phoenix, where Travis had lived before he moved to Crested Butte. Lisa went to work for Pivot Cycles as assistant to the owner and they stayed in Phoenix for nine months until Travis got an opportunity in Moab. They again moved, with Lisa noting, “We moved a lot because nothing was right. We were trying things on. Trying to figure out where we fit. I was working at Western Spirit in Moab, which was owned by Mark Sevenoff. It’s 2012 and at the end of the summer we moved back to Phoenix, and our whole goal became how to get back to Crested Butte.”
The duo started talking to Jeff Hermanson about locations for a Patagonia concept store in downtown Denver. Hermanson said he had a space in Crested Butte opening up, but they knew how tight the housing crisis was and at the time Lisa took stock of her household and counted. “We had two horses, five dogs, and a potential mother-in-law who had also lived in Crested Butte previously and wanted to return.”
But they signed a lease on the Penelope’s building anyway and crossed their fingers. Within 24 hours the perfect house for them was posted as available through the Gunnison Marketplace page on Facebook. It was a horse property that Travis had previously looked into buying. They immediately called the owner, John Messner, who said he wanted to rent it to people with horses—so they moved in. “Everything fell into place for us to return to Crested Butte. It was a trip.”
The plan was to open their new shop, Chopwood Mercantile, by mid-May of 2015. And they did. The name Chopwood is taken from the Chinese proverb that teaches, “Before enlightenment—chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment—chop wood, carry water.” Lisa also points out there’s the saying “Chop wood, it warms you twice.” They added “Mercantile” because they felt it gave them the freedom to have whatever they wanted in the store.
“It’s outdoor lifestyle done differently,” Lisa explains. “The influence came from the surf shops we saw in southern California.” Although their shop is doing very well in its first year, Lisa still works remotely for Pivot Cycles as athlete coordinator and events. Her boss said she was the “touchy-feely” part of Pivot and he wasn’t ready to let her go. “I travel all over the country to events, bike festivals, and visiting our sponsored athletes and I love it… it’s my passion,” Lisa says of her second job.
“Crested Butte taught me how to work my ass off, to do whatever it took to survive and because I was willing to do whatever it took to stay here, I learned amazing values and work ethics which enabled me to get a job in the outside world that I never imagined that I could do,” she says, reflecting on the Crested Butte lifestyle of survival on many levels that the “outside” world doesn’t have to deal with, and the actuality of Buttians having to be jacks-of-all-trades.
“I was the marketing manager at one of the fastest growing mountain bike brands in the world, Pivot Cycles, and it was purely because I was willing to catch whatever balls were in the air that needed catching to make things happen. I was the first female employee besides the owner’s wife. So here I was one of the few women in the mountain bike industry, mostly because of my experiences in Crested Butte and being a part of the initial beginnings of mountain biking as a whole. Mountain biking—it all started in Crested Butte and I had the dream job all because of what I learned here.”
Lisa had coached kids skiing here and she’s loved watching those young rippers and her friends’ kids grow up, and the best part, she says, is “To me, there’s nothing better than watching those kids want to come back after college. That’s the impetus of this place. The kids want to come back. How awesome is that? I wanted to come back. Crested Butte gets into your soul. The people are beautiful and would do anything for you, even carry you through tough times. So why wouldn’t we come back? And now they’re carrying us through our new business, helping us to be successful.”
To return the favor, Chopwood Mercantile has a table with locally made art and goods, like Jamie’s Jerky, Gail Sovick’s map jewelry, Ivy McNulty’s horse hair jewelry, Mimi’s Bouchard’s coffee, Polly Oberosler’s hot sauce, Luke Mehall’s books, Valarie Jaquith’s soaps and potions, and more to come. “We want to give back to our community so we support our locals’ goods. We’re really proud to be back and have a store we worked really hard on.”