Nothin' but blue skies

Benita Bristol world traveler, mountain climber, grandmother

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Benita Bristol's life unfolds like a map with its center point in Routt County, where she grew up on a ranch between Steamboat Springs and Oak Creek in the early 1900s.

"We were as poor as church mice and we didn't even know it," she puts it.

Benita and her nine brothers and sisters peddled fowl and vegetables to the miners in Oak Creek, went to barn dances and rode horses to one-room schoolhouses but only when her father had enough help on the ranch.

Benita didn't want to do what every woman in her generation was supposed to do: get married, settle down and have children at least not right away.

Instead, she was the first in her family to graduate from high school and go to college. She was inspired to be an independent woman in the 1940s.

"I just wanted an education; I wanted to be independent and I wanted to do what I wanted to do," she said.

Working several jobs using her bookkeeping skills, Benita loved her independence.

She also loved to dance.

At one of those dances, she met and fell in love with a Norwegian skier named Torger Tokle. Tokle was training near Steamboat Springs as a member of the 10th Mountain Division, an elite skiing military unit that was often part of covert operations during World War II.

For a year, the couple dated until he left for the war. It was a goodbye that would last forever.

Torger was killed in the Italian Alps on the unit's first assignment fighting the Germans. He volunteered to take out an enemy machine-gun nest and never returned. Benita was heartbroken.

But Benita would find love again and married a man named Everett Bristol in 1947. She had graduated from high school with Everett seven years earlier.

He was an electrical engineer and became the chief engineer at Yampa Valley Electric Association. But his legacy is with Colorado Mountain College, which he helped bring to Steamboat.

One of the school's main halls bears the Bristol name.

"I'm just as proud as a peacock about that," Benita said.

During the winter months between 1964 and 1988, when not much was going on at YVEA, Everett was commissioned to travel the world to do feasibility studies for projects that would bring electricity to rural portions of underdeveloped nations. Benita, who had never been out of Routt County until she was 18 years old, went, too. With Everett, she traveled to nearly every continent in the world. North Yemen, Egypt, Panama, Ecuador and Brazil are just a few of the places the couple went, for work and for play.

"It was a marvelous opportunity to see the world," she said.

And she still travels. In the past 10 years, Benita has gone to Alaska, Europe, the Greek islands and China.

Traveling the world gave Benita and Everett a fresh view on how peace can come to the world.

"There will only be world peace on a one-on-one, face-to-face level," she said.

That philosophy prompted Benita to set up a scholarship fund for foreign students to attend Colorado Mountain College.

But Benita's worldly travels are just part of her life of adventure.

She and Everett climbed 34 of Colorado's 54 14,000-foot mountains after she and Everett turned 60, even though the two had never climbed a "fourteener" before in their lives.

In 1986, the couple further pursued their new-found love of climbing by touring Nepal. There, they climbed 15,000 feet to the Annapurna Sanctuary, which was the 1950 base camp of Maurice Herzog, the first man to climb K2. They also climbed Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, and Mount Shasta, both in California.

"It was crazy," she said of climbing during the time of life most people begin to slow down.

Benita, now 79 years old, lost her husband to melanoma in 1989.

She said she now finds her passions and happiness with her four children and with her grandchildren.

"I have such a wonderful relationship with them," she said from the volunteer receptionist desk at the Tread of Pioneers Museum.

When her two oldest grandchildren went to college a few years ago, Benita made a deal with them. She got a toll-free number and told them there would be times when things would happen that they wouldn't want to tell their parents about.

"I told them they can call me anytime, morning, day or night, if they wanted to talk. That has paid off," she said with a smile.

When she's not with her family, who all live out of town, Benita stays busy. She volunteers at the museum every Wednesday, usually the busiest day.

"I love to see the people," she said. "They have such a fresh take on things."

She also works as a receptionist at CMC, is on the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and is an active member of the Kiwanis Club. She was the first woman asked to be in the club in Routt County.

Benita reads more accurately, she reads everything.

She is active in the Methodist Church and is a member of the Friends of College organization.

Benita said even as a lifelong resident of Routt County, she still loves living in Steamboat. She lives in the same house that she and Everett built in 1950. In spite of her travels, she said Steamboat always has been her base camp.

"It's my home," she said. "I'd never live anywhere else. Everywhere I go, I like to look at the blue skies. There is nothing as pretty as a blue sky. I've never found anyplace that the sky was bluer than here."

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