Friday, September 18, 2020

Profile: Mike Larson

A slice of life in paradise

By Dawne Belloise

There’s no doubt that Mike Larson is a mountain dweller through and through, with his love of the outdoors and his fervor for mountain biking, although he laughs that he hails from “redneck stuff,” growing up in Watchung Hills, N.J. His dad gave him a love and respect for hunting and fishing and Mike even dabbled in taxidermy until around the age of 15, when he became aware of the imbalance of the eco-system.

“At a certain point, hunters were part of the ecosystem but I don’t consider humans as part of the natural ecosystem any longer, not like the Native Americans who lived in harmony with nature. I try not to be a hypocrite—I do eat meat and I’ve butchered everything that’s ever flown, swam or walked in my lifetime as being a pro cook.”

He clarifies though that he’s not referring to sustenance hunting. “I’m basically talking about the trophy hunters. I had these hunter roots but I never felt that great about killing a deer.”

All through high school, Mike had the idealistic vision of wanting to save the world and figured he’d become an environmental scientist. After graduating in 1982, he attended Ramapo College in northern New Jersey for a year, which he felt was just a stepping stone, and afterwards transferred to University of Wyoming in Laramie. The reality of having to take a stifling amount of math and chemistry deterred his ambition of being in the science field and he switched to industrial education. “Those are the degrees they offered to the football or basketball players so I became friends with them. It was a laughable, outdated program even then,” he says.

Mike had discovered his love for road biking and racing at 15 and joined the Somerset Wheelman Club for racing, touring through the undeveloped lands of New Jersey. Unfortunately, later, while at the University of Wyoming, his bike was stolen, but it became the turning point for him as he bought his first mountain bike.

“Then I fell in love with the mountain bike trails, and in winter I’d cross country ski those same trails at Vedauwoo, east of Laramie, in a very rocky wilderness area not unlike Taylor Canyon.” It wasn’t long before he switched to Montana State University in Bozeman because they had a better program in industrial education. “I ended my college career there. I got my first season pass in 1983 at Bridger Bowl, where I started telemark skiing. The rest is history,” he smiles.

From Bozeman, Mike moved to Steamboat Springs in 1985, but only for one winter season, skiing and dish diving before moving on to Jackson Hole, Wyo. “I wanted to experience the Tetons. I always had an affinity to Wyoming—less than a half million people, it was the least populated state in the U.S. In fact, it was losing population. From there, I had an inkling that I could become a cook because I had what I felt was a natural ability to cook. I fibbed my way into my first cook job at Teton Village at the ski area, telling them I had been cooking at an Italian restaurant in Steamboat and within a couple of months I was running that Teton kitchen. You don’t have to be a great chef to be hired as a cook in the kitchen.”

Mike feels that a good work ethic is the key to success. “I’ve put my time in as a line cook and whoever’s running that kitchen will teach you what you need for that menu and you should be grateful for what you’ve learned in that particular kitchen.” He was at Jackson Hole for three years, where he also worked as a cook at the Mangy Moose and the Blue Lion.

When John Byrne, who owned the restaurant Mike had worked at in Jackson Hole, bought the Eldo in Crested Butte in 1987, he offered Mike a cook job and Mike also assisted in getting the restaurant and bar open. He arrived in town in August and, having never been to Crested Butte, he was awed.

“I couldn’t believe that this place existed. There were so few people here and it was super cool. I had come over on Kebler Pass and it was about four months before I even left to go to Gunnison,” and getting there, he recalls, “The highway wasn’t even an improved road, it was almost a single lane.”

Mike became even more of an avid cyclist. “I was way into mountain biking and it was because of that—Crested Butte was an up and coming mountain bike destination.” He quickly fell into the small community of skiers and cyclists here. “There was a tight group of people and we were all friends. There were only about 500 people living in town then, we were a close community. In the summer, we’d camp to save money and in the winter we’d move into a house with five other people because that’s how we did it, that’s how ski bums do it, isn’t it?” he laughs.

After two years at the Eldo, Mike moved on to work for Crested Butte Mountain Resort from 1990 through 1995 at their fine dining restaurants like Jeremiah’s and Giovanni’s, where Club Med eventually had their dining facility. “In the summer, they’d send me down to their country club at Skyland. During off-season, which was a lot longer back then, I’d go ride Moab and just enjoy the freedom. I was literally living the life.”

In 1995, he hooked up with Geo Bullock, as a cook and partner, and the two entrepreneurs moved to Moab to start the Gonzo Café. “It was a dream of both of ours, to have our own restaurant. We had dirt-cheap prices, doing breakfast and lunch and catering to the sprouting bicycling community of Moab. Mountain biking was just starting there.”

Ah, but, Crested Butte called them home, as it does for so many who try to leave and once it’s under your skin, you long to return no matter where you are. “So we came running back here, but not before learning a lot about the restaurant business, and we had a successful business.”

He returned to start up the Buffalo Grill with partners Cathy Benson and the late Jimmy Clark. Mike had just become a father to Maya, his daughter, in 1996. Club Med was ruling the town at the time, Mike says, and he felt it affected Crested Butte. “It was the first inkling of change in the mid-90s. Crested Butte had grown.”

Club Med brought an international exposure and their clients ate at Buffalo Grill when they came to town. Buffalo Grill sold in 2001 and Mike ran his Happy Trails Café out of the Eldo for five years, working with Ted Bosler and Mike Knoll.

“I had a pizza dough recipe in my wallet, that my dad’s friend in Florida had shared with me. When the spot over by the skateboard park became available in 2007, I knew we could create a small pizzeria there and feed the locals,” Mike says of the place they’ve sold slices and pies out of for 11 years.

That same year, he married his partner, Mary Hayes, and the two opened Mikey’s Pizza. “There’s a lot more to running a restaurant than meets the eye and my partner-wife, Mary, does the paperwork and the business part of it, all the other stuff that you don’t see. I met Mary in 2005, when I was cooking at the Eldo and she was visiting here, checking out the Mountain Heart Massage School. We’ve been happily ever after ever since.”

They opened the Gunnison branch of Mikey’s Pizza in 2012, and successfully sold it in 2017. “We put that in the ‘been there, done that’ category,” he grins, and he didn’t miss the 60 miles of round-trip driving.

Through all the hard work and long hours of restaurant ownership and cooking, Mike still found time to ski and bike. “I find enjoyment in the simple things. You don’t have time for everything, so you have to choose what you’re going to focus on. I’ve always loved the ease of being able to access the backcountry wherever I was.”

But less than two years ago, in 2016, Mike had a life-altering, life-threatening situation slam him. After a remarkable week of biking Moab, he went to ride the Palisade Rim trail. “I felt a numb lip, lost balance and felt nauseated, but I was in denial.” Ignoring the danger signs, he went on a 25-mile ride in Crested Butte and it happened again. This time, it was same symptoms but with a thunderclap headache, “like somebody hitting me over the head with a club, and I had to lay down on the side of the trail.” He was airlifted out and taken to Swedish Medical Center in Denver, where he spent five days and was told he had aneurisms. “They put me on baby aspirins.” He shrugged and went on to have a good ski season that winter.

But one year later, last year, while riding solo on the Secret Trail that connects to Carbon Creek Trail, he was hit hard again. “It was 6 p.m. I took the ‘Don Cook motorcycle trail’ [Para Me y Para Te Trail] up to the Green Lake trail. I wasn’t feeling great and it’s not an easy trail. I rode down to Mikey’s Pizza and at that point I knew it was happening again, but I thought I could fix it myself, by taking a bath.” Mike was in complete denial.

“Mary knew I wasn’t right and took me to the hospital, where I got another helicopter ride to St. Mary’s in Grand Junction. By the time I got there, I was experiencing triple hiccups, loss of swallowing, I couldn’t walk and I was unable to form sentences. I had lost all motor control, I had a feeding tube and I couldn’t even brush my teeth. It brought me to my knees.”

He spent an entire month at St. Mary’s where, at one point, he was close to death, having also contracted pneumonia. Mike’s correct diagnosis was vertebral artery dissection, a blockage in his artery, essentially, a stroke. “I’m still recovering, which they say will take about two years. It’s been a year and I’m still healing. I still have some symptoms—my face is numb and I can’t feel hot or cold because my nerves got fried.” He also experienced a rare symptom of the condition called Wallenberg Syndrome, which he explains as “a lower brain stem stroke, specifically the loss of swallowing, with hiccups and vertigo.”

Mike always knew that Crested Butte would someday be discovered but he felt, “Leaving wasn’t an option for me. I wasn’t going to be displaced,” and he was fortunate enough to scrape together enough to buy a condo.

“The trails have become better so there are more people here enjoying it and that was inevitable. You can’t stop the change. Population has increased throughout the world and Crested Butte was going to be discovered at some point, especially with the information age. The internet has really opened things up and people show trophy photos of this great place. That’s what I feel has really opened Crested Butte up to the rest of the world. As far as losing our soul, the high price of land and the second homeowners whose houses are dark most of the year have displaced locals. I didn’t move here to make money or get rich, I came here to live. It’s unrealistic to think that Crested Butte was going stay like it was in the 80s. I think it’s still a great place to be, as long as we evolve with the change. You can’t let the trust-funders or the big money coming to town get you down. We can’t let that diminish our love for this place, for these mountains, for this town. You gotta roll with the changes. I don’t know of any place that is better or able to escape the evolving reality of the world.”

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