Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Meet the author
■ Dori DeCamillis will appear at a book signing at Epilogue Book Co. at 7 p.m. Dec. 20.
■ She will be a featured guest on “Steamboat Today” at 7:25 a.m. Dec. 22 on Steamboat TV18.
One of my favorite Steamboat Springs history books is John Rolfe Burroughs’ “Headfirst in the Pickle Barrel — A Rocky Mountain Boyhood,” a quick read that paints a picture of a very different Steamboat at the turn of the 20th century.
Burroughs’ Steamboat was one where 12-year-old boys earned pocket money by taking care of the town dairy herd, played marbles in the middle of Pine Street and devoted entire summer days to fishing and exploring among the willows on Soda Creek.
Now, 1981 Steamboat Springs High School graduate Dori Duckels DeCamillis has published “My Steamboat, a Ski Town Childhood,” which describes what it was like to grow up someplace on the social chart between ranch folk and town folk here, in the 1960s and ’70s.
DeCamillis has long shared stories of her unconventional youth with friends and acquaintances, and their enthusiasm became the motivation for writing this, her second book.
“Too many people have told me ‘you have to write a book’ after hearing my weird family stories. After I finished my first book, ‘The Freeway,’ I decided it was time to tell the Steamboat story,” DeCamillis said. “Now that people my age are reading the book and reminiscing about those days, I am feeling a nostalgic connection to childhood I hadn’t anticipated.”
She tells of growing up with clever siblings, freethinking parents and schoolmates with improbably Western-sounding names like Bill Buckles, Rowdy Raspberry, Buddy Bair, Casey Clapsaddle, Rims Hiney, Dewey Whitecotton, Katie Krautkramer and Rex Pielstick.
Oh, and DeCamillis doesn’t hesitate to tell embarrassing stories about any of the above. Don’t misunderstand, it’s not a tell-all book, just an unvarnished story about growing up in the ’Boat, when it was a little rougher around the edges.
“The world today might be somewhat unsympathetic to what we found funny and acceptable back then,” DeCamillis recalls. “Steamboat natives were toughened by weather and isolation. Too busy battling the elements, living everyday life and finding fun without electronic media, we tended to see political correctness and citified gentilities as unsavory.”
The eldest of four children, DeCamillis spent her first year as an infant in Steamboat in a small red-and-white mobile home at Dream Island. Her father, who was quiet by nature, also passed along a propensity for practical jokes to his children. He took Dori hunting for rabbits on cold winter mornings and demonstrated how to butcher venison in the kitchen. Her mother played folk songs by Simon and Garfunkel and the Kingston Trio on her ukulele. They camped together and learned to ski at Howelsen Hill, where daily lift passes cost 50 cents.
Did you know that every generation of Steamboaters recalls that it snowed more here when they were kids than it does now?
“To a person less than 4 feet tall, a 15-foot snowbank leaves an indelible impression,” DeCamillis writes. “In years to come, this impression leads to the conviction that it snowed more when we were young than it does now.”
Due in part to a relationship with the Wilhelm family, DeCamillis and her siblings bridged the gap between the traditional ranching community and the growing resort community. The Duckels played in the Wilhelm barn, romped in the fields and saddled horses to ride out into the forest and cut Christmas trees.
Memories of that relationship put DeCamillis in a position to tell stories that bridge two cultures in the Yampa Valley. In “My Steamboat,” her coming of age stories illuminates the interplay, as she puts it, “between two enormously different cultures trying to make or keep the community the way they wanted it.”
Months after graduating from high school, DeCamillis moved away from Steamboat for good. She studied art at the University of Colorado and lived in Boulder for 10 years. She and her former husband spent three years touring the country, selling art at fairs. Ultimately, she ended up in Birmingham, Ala., and remarried. She co-owns Red Dot Gallery in Birmingham, where she shows her oil paintings and teaches classes.
She doesn’t miss the cold but continues to look forward to returning to Steamboat to enjoy a white Christmas.
Does she feel right at home on her occasional return trips to Steamboat?
“There are times when I drive by a place where I used to play in the creek or pick flowers, and now it’s covered with a strip mall or condos, and I get very sad,” she said.
However, permanent changes to the Steamboat landscape haven’t thrown her for a permanent loop. The qualities that matter most to DeCamillis remain intact.
“What hasn’t changed — what makes the town still ‘my Steamboat’ — is the beauty of the land, the climate, the old-timers and friends who are still there, and mostly my family, who are almost all still there,” she said. “Much about Steamboat is still the same for me.”