Debbie Johnson can't remember what the ghost of Yampa's storied Royal Hotel ordered, but she knows it wasn't on the menu at the Antlers Cafe and Bar.
As she set up the restaurant for the night's business one day about 10 years ago, Johnson heard the bar's computerized ordering system print a ticket. Her cook, perplexed, walked out of the kitchen and asked who, in an empty restaurant, was ordering chicken fingers or chicken strips - Johnson can't remember which.
"I looked at it and said, 'This isn't even on the menu,'" Johnson said, standing in Yampa's Leisure Mountain Studio coffee shop, which she co-owns. "We didn't think anything of it. We said, 'Oh, it's just Rufus.'"
In most stories, Rufus, the ghost who supposedly haunts the turn-of-the-century hallways and rooms at the Royal, is confined to the hotel itself. But Johnson isn't sure the ghost - whom most people in Yampa have heard of and some believe in - limits himself so strictly.
"One time my husband and I, we thought he was in our home, because the toilet would flush every once in a while. And we thought, 'Oh, Rufus,'" Johnson said about the supposedly active spirit of a man who, in various versions of the story, died at the hand of some murderous poker players, a flu epidemic or a jealous lover.
"We always blame everything on Rufus," Johnson said. It's been a few years since any new stories about the ghost have surfaced, and everyone has his own telling of the ones that have been around for years. Brandon Ager - whose parents, Bill and Kris, own the Royal - recalled tales of a TV that inexplicably turned to static several times throughout one night, and cowboy-booted footsteps his mother heard walking behind her in an empty hotel.
"I've never heard any real bad stuff," Ager said. Rufus, along with most of the other ghosts that lace Routt County's oral history, seems to be harmless. He's just hanging out - watching TV, trying to order some fried chicken or going for walks.
Harmless but historic
The ghost story archetype usually calls for certain elements: a man, woman or child who died early or tragically; haunting occurrences in that person's place of death; and incidents perpetrated by the spirit that are in some way malicious to the living.
"That's not the case with a lot of these," said Candice Lombardo, executive director for the Tread of Pioneers Museum. "Sometimes the people that might be related to the ghost story are fairly unrelated to the building."
On Wednesday, Tread of Pioneers presents a collection of ghost stories from Steamboat Springs and surrounding areas. Katy Taylor, a museum assistant who has been researching Routt County's ghosts for the presentation, said many of the stories she's found have been innocuous - creepy, maybe, but not especially bothersome to the people who experienced them.
There's the one about the Crawford family's house, which at its height served as a sort of community gathering place - where, if there wasn't a party, there were always visitors, Taylor said.
"Their doors were pretty much open, so there were always people talking and laughing, and music for the things going on," she said. "And the family that lived there afterward, they would hear the tinkling of glasses or bits of music that were kind of lingering in the air."
Lingering seems to be the favorite activity for Routt County's ghosts - an old apartment tenant sliding glasses across tables at Antares restaurant; a poltergeist sliding a trunk across the basement floor of an Oak Creek home; and spirits of past Routt County residents making factual explanations hard to come by at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, the Depot Art Center, the Oak Creek Inn, Centennial Hall and Tread of Pioneers Museum.
All of it adds to the nuts-and-bolts history of Steamboat Springs and its neighboring towns, Lombardo said.
"This is really about myths, legends and lore. When you're researching things for the museum, for the most part, you want things to be as accurate as possible," Lombardo said.
"But in this case, when it's oral history : everybody has to take them with a grain of salt. It creates that myth and legend part of our history."
- To reach Margaret Hair, call 871-4204
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.