By Dawne Belloise
Crested Butte is known for its autonomous individuals who tend to lean to the eccentric and wild side. Ben Collins is one of those free-spirited locals who make up the whole, weaving that characteristic pattern into the fabric of community like a family tartan.
Oftentimes seen hitchhiking from Almont to work at Bonez and back, Ben’s colorful flair and fashion sense is like a field of wildflowers brightening the roadside. He was born in Montrose, because it was the closest hospital to Telluride, where his parents were living and working at the time as restaurateurs, and the family moved to Evergreen when he was a toddler. Later relocating to suburban Seattle, Ben started elementary school but the Colorado family didn’t enjoy the rain and missed the sunshine so they headed back to Evergreen, and finally to Denver to avoid the commute to both work and school for the kids. Although he grew up in Denver from age eight through 18, Ben considers the Gunnison Valley to be his home.
Ben enjoyed sports in his youth and played baseball, even collecting the cards, but he smiles, “I think it was more that I loved to check the box scores in the morning. I was a stats geek, and I was never particularly good at baseball. I enjoyed making up little intricate games, like one-man baseball games, in my head.”
Ben spent a little time every summer on the coast of Rhode Island, where his mother’s family resided. Besides playing one-on-one baseball with a buddy and being outdoors a lot, he also confesses that he watched too much TV. Since he didn’t like school in general, high school was pretty boring for him. He recalls, “A 45-minute class would have maybe ten minutes of substance.” He graduated from Denver East High School in 2001, “with pretty much no idea what I wanted to do but it was clear that the next step in life was to go to college,” and he enrolled in Pitzer College, a tiny school in Claremont, Calif. on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County.
The edge of the city was about as close to the heart of LA as Ben wanted to get. “It was big and sprawling and gross. I studied a little bit of this, a little bit of that, with my focus on rugby, women, beer and partying.”
Just after his third semester, during finals week in mid-December of 2002, Ben was in a serious and traumatic car accident and sustained a major brain injury. “I had some friends who lived up in the mountains, a 40-minute drive from school.” He doesn’t actually recall much of the incident but was told that while going around a blind curve, he swerved to miss a head-on, plunging down the side of the mountain. He was unconscious for an hour or so. During his convalescing, he’d nap constantly and his memory was fuzzy or it wasn’t there, and he stared into space a lot. It’s a time he’d rather forget and the effects still linger… depression, anxiety, and dyslexia will be with him the rest of his conscious life, he says. “It took me a while to relearn how to read, which was significantly more difficult and it took me years to get back to a place where I was reading for pleasure again,” Ben says of his avid reading these days.
Ben’s parents’ dream had been to move to Crested Butte when the kids left home, and they made that a reality in 2001. After his accident, Ben moved to Crested Butte with his parents, taking a semester off from school to heal. “I really had it in my head that I was going to be able to stay on the same track in life that I had planned, although,” he admits, “I didn’t really have a plan other than to finish school, travel, and get some job trying to save the world. I was a young idealist.”
He returned to school in the fall of 2003, which he soon realized, “was totally idiotic in the sense that although I was in a reasonable place to be in a college atmosphere, I was not in a place to be receiving any education because of my injury. I didn’t see a different person in the mirror, I physically looked the same, but everything had changed. Prior to the head injury I was pretty good at cruising along in school. I wasn’t nearly as good at math anymore. I had a good memory before, but after the accident…” he trails off. He dropped out after one year, deciding he needed to make some changes in his life, and moved back to Crested Butte full-time with his parents in the autumn of 2004.
Ben was hired at the Grand Lodge that winter, working at night and snowboarding during the day, “I loved living up here in the mountains,” he knew, but still, he felt quite unhappy with himself. “All of a sudden my brain was not making ‘happy chemicals’ and my life had been shaken up so much,” he said. “I hadn’t mastered the coping habits very well.” He enrolled at Western State College in 2005, only to decide he was done with school for good and with only one semester left, he dropped out and moved on.
Every other winter, he tried to escape Crested Butte. “Always each time I thought I was leaving for good. The most practical thing that brought me back was that I could make things work out here. I had a life here and I could make ends meet. I had friends and family here.” He worked at Donita’s for a decade and last summer he began working at Bonez, where, he laughs, “I had to stay at a Mexican restaurant on the other side of Elk Avenue.”
His parents, tiring of winters in Crested Butte, decided to move where life was easier—Florence, Italy—and to be closer to their grandchildren. Ben’s sister had been living there for over a decade with her Italian husband and two children, so Ben gets the benefit of visiting every year once the mountain closes down for ski season. “It’s a beautiful part of the world. The food is really nice and I love that they put in the proper amount of garlic, which is a whole ton. When you order meat, you don’t tell them temperature, it just comes rare. The people are very friendly, very passionate.”
You’ll sometimes see Ben by the side of the road, hitchhiking in a pink faux fur jacket, given to him after a Phish show by a model who thought he was fabulous. He might be donning a brightly colored skirt, a unicorn earring on the left ear and a ballerina in a tutu on the other.
He makes his own earrings, and reveals his supplier, “The arts and crafts section of Walmart is fantastic,” he smiles. “As long as I can remember, I’ve thought it was sort of fun to wear girl’s clothing. As kids we had a giant box of fun dress-up clothing. Women’s clothing is way more fun. Men’s clothing is pretty lame in general. In Rhode Island every summer we put on little shows, skits and mostly lip-syncing with choreography. I would dress in drag, named myself Betsy and was emcee for our skits. The name came from when I was in first grade and my sister was in Girl Scouts. I wanted to go with her and her girlfriends to sell cookies but they thought it wasn’t appropriate to have a boy around while they were selling Girl Scout cookies. As they were willing to have me come along, they made up this Betsy personality. I just wanted to hang out with the cute older girls.”
In his college years, Ben would head straight to the women’s section of the thrift store for his party attire because he knew, “If you want cool, colorful clothing don’t go to the men’s section. The women’s section had fun, cool, flashy clothing. The major turning point in my sense of fashion was the second time I went to a Phish concert where people who were dressed well were a whole lot more fun to look at. I felt if I can improve some person’s evening by having dressed well, whether it’s a paisley or sparkly, something that’s going to look cool while they’re tripping.”
Ben finds that most places he goes, people are accepting of his flamboyant style. “One of the best parts of dressing fabulously is that it acts like a cool person magnet.” He rightfully feels that if any person takes issue with his style, that’s their problem, not his.
In a sense, it all comes down to freedom, freedom to express oneself, to be whatever one desires or can imagine. Ben feels that freedom is a choice. “If society puts up a lot of rules and tells you that you’re supposed to act in certain ways, and everyone can go along with that if they want, but freedom is realizing that you have the choice. To live life however you want, as long as you’re not harming anyone else, to feel free to be as weird and unique as you want to be and if someone’s offended because you don’t follow society’s rules, that’s their problem, and not mine. I’m trying to make America cooler.”