Profile: Susan Kerns

Fighting for sanctuary

[ By Dawne Belloise ]

For all the many times Susan Kerns has moved and all the places she’s lived in, Crested Butte has always seemed like home. With every move to warmer climes, she was drawn back here. And it is here that she is focused on bringing housing to working people because as she says, “having sanctuary is important.”

Raised in Marin County, California, and later Solano, she is the second eldest of four children. Her childhood in Marin was spent in a typical suburban neighborhood where the latest fascination of the era was tetherball. Susan recalls, “I was really into riding my bike and exploring the open land surrounding us,” where she remembers there were cows, pastures and fields. “When I was in sixth grade, mom decided she wanted to live in the country,” she says, so they moved to Suisun Valley in Solano, an agricultural region with fruit orchards. “Peaches and cherries are really the big thing there. I loved it,” she says. Her parents even bought her a horse, “And we had every kind of pet. We were all in 4-H and Gymkhana. It was all about gardening.”
1968 was the time of the Love Generation and Susan recalls, “I was a kid when the tumultuous Haight-Ashbury happened but I remember driving in the Haight with my family and thinking, I wanna be free too. People were running away, and there were free concerts in the park. I got to see Hair (the musical) live at Orpheum in San Francisco. I went to Fillmore West with my dad,” she says of the many concerts her father took her to.

All through high school, Susan had jobs so she could care for her horse. “I had to buy his food and pay for vet bills and horseshoeing. I did babysitting on a cattle ranch, which was super fun because they had horses that we could ride. Also, I was busy cleaning houses.” She had time for few other interests but did enjoy jogging and biking long distances. She graduated in 1975.

“I wanted to study ornamental horticulture. I loved gardening and plants. I had worked for a nursery when I was in high school,” so she enrolled at California Polytechnic at San Luis Obispo, however the department she wanted was already filled. Instead, she declared fruit science as her major and planned her schedule around the sun. “We called it prime suntan hours. I’d ride my bike to the beach and then come back for afternoon labs.” Encouraged by one of her professors, Susan transferred to UC Davis in 1978 during her sophomore year. Having studied viticulture in her freshman year, she decided to dive into it again but the curriculum, as she says, “Kicked my butt. I had to learn how to study. I had to get tutored to learn how to learn. I flunked all my classes first quarter.”

Although she did better during the next semester she opted to take some time off to go to Paris to study French at the Sorbonne University. “It was a culture shock for the little blonde chick from sunny, friendly California,” she laughs. “I was 20 years old. I was hired as an au pair by a French family. I took a few cooking classes while I was there,” because, she laughs, she had no experience in cooking and those French children wanted sauces with their meals. “I grew up on PBJs.”

After the first semester, her romance with Paris ended. “It was cold. I was living in a tiny student room, a walk-up on the seventh floor, with no shower. I wasn’t happy.” So she returned to her west coast home where her brother had discovered skiing in northern California. “I went with him a few times and I was all about it,” Susan declared of her new love for snow. She spent that winter alone at the family cabin in Grass Valley, conveniently about an hour or so from Truckee and Sugarbowl ski resorts.

In the spring of 1979, Susan went back to school, and by the fall of the following year, she was in an internship at Englenook in Napa Valley, the wine company which was later bought by Francis Ford Coppola. In the summer of ‘81, Susan moved to Sonoma County for a job at Alexander Valley Vineyards. “Wine is really beautiful, it’s art, it’s science, it’s gracious living and microbiology. Wine making is very seasonal, and you have to be there, just like farming. I had to make a choice between being adventurous or being tied to the land.”

She decided to take a winter off to go live, work and ski in Aspen, noting that, ”In Aspen, you can work and ski, or work and party but you can’t do both. That’s how I eventually ended up in Crested Butte.” But at the end of winter she went back to Sonoma to work Clos du Bois, as a wine chemist for the fall crush. She eventually earned a BS in Fermentation Science in 1985.

When Susan married her then boyfriend, Bill Eskew, they moved to Venice, Florida, bought a boat and learned how to sail all summer. “And we learned how to baby,” she grins. “Lily was born that fall, after which, we packed up the van and moved to Crested Butte, Thanksgiving 1984. Our lives were really about skiing and sailing and I really wanted to live in a mountain town.” Susan got a job waitressing at the Plum Restaurant (now the upstairs of Talk of the Town), but her husband, she recalls, never really loved CB. “He wanted to be moving all the time. He was gone a lot with his three veterinarian clinics in California and one in Florida. People actually thought I was a single parent.” Still, she admits, “We had a pretty good lifestyle.”
They moved constantly for 15 years, from California to Florida and back to Colorado, keeping their home in CB. “We’d be here for six months to a year and then move again to spend time in the other places. CB was kind of the home base, even though we weren’t here full-time.” Their second daughter, Chloe, was born in 1988 in Santa Barbara.

With college expenses on the horizon for her daughters, Susan decided to continue her own education at Western State College in 1999 (now Western Colorado University) with the goal of becoming employed as a teacher. “I felt I had to support my girls for college so I enrolled in the teaching program as a secondary science educator.” But her daughter Lily began to have emotional issues in high school. “No one could put a finger on what was going on with her but I could see something was happening. We took a year off and sailed around the Bahamas,” Susan felt the change would be good for Lily. “But returning to Crested Butte, nothing had changed for Lily. She didn’t really want to come back and neither did her dad.” Susan returned to Western to finish her course work and the family once again moved, this time to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where Susan did her student teaching to receive her degree in biology, secondary licensure.

She was hired to teach earth science and biology in the little southern town of Edenton, however, between the southern culture and the destruction of hurricane Isabel, Susan was ready to move on. Lily had graduated and Susan returned to Crested Butte in 2004 as a full-time resident, with Chloe enrolled as a sophomore at the CB Academy and Bill moved to Florida. “What skiing and sailing have brought to me is that you have to be flexible and adaptable, you have to be able to pivot and change course, but perseverance and being present is half of it,” Susan felt of her changes.

Lily, who had been having emotional issues all through high school and college was diagnosed as schizophrenic. “She had been hearing voices. It was horrible. It’s a severe mental illness. To have someone that you love fall apart is unbelievable. I didn’t want to believe it. I went to the National Alliance for Mentally Ill, there were all these people with horrible stories and I thought, how do reasonable people cope? You can’t give up on people. The changes of waves and mountains of sailing and skiing is nothing compared to the challenges of the journey of a severe illness.” Lily’s learned how to cope with her mental illness but she still needs so much support, Susan says. Lily now lives in an assisted living facility in Grand Junction.

For the past decade, Susan has managed long and short-term rentals, “I have strong feelings about housing. In tumultuous times, having sanctuary is important. I still like finding housing for locals, people who work in local restaurants and teach skiing. I do have a handful of vacation rentals, the extended Crested Butte family who typically have been coming for years and consider CB their second home. I’ve seen kids grow up, go to college and come back with their spouses. I’d guess the flip side of earning a living from housing is to volunteer to help create decent homes for those who need a little help in the valley,” she says of her work with Valley Housing Fund (valleyhousingfund.org). My dream is to build housing where people could age in place among their friends and family. No one plans to get old, or injured, or sick, but it will happen to all of us, and that’s why I’d like to see housing designed to not only fit in architecturally, but with universal design for accessibility.”

Susan also volunteers with Adaptive, “Having the Adaptive Sports Center as a central part of our local scene is a shining light for inclusiveness. Volunteering with this group for a couple years really opened my heart, to shed the shame of illness and injury and move to adapting to a new reality to continue living our best lives when Lily became ill.”

Susan feels she’s had a lot of opportunity to do many different things. “I coached skiing, wrote for the different local newspapers, volunteered for CBMR guest services, worked for the Nordic Center, started the Trails Commission and was on the town planning board. CB gives you the opportunity to learn to do anything you want to do. That’s who we are — it’s the people, the community and the setting.”

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