Recalling the ’60s in Routt County with elegant prose | SteamboatToday.com

Recalling the ’60s in Routt County with elegant prose

John Whittum has published a book of essays, poems and fiction, "Reflections from Northwest Colorado," about his 50-plus years in Strawberry Park and nearby destinations.

— If you agree that Strawberry Park, on the northern edge of Steamboat Springs, is a little Shangri-La, then former longtime Whiteman School (now Steamboat Mountain School) headmaster John Whittum is the resident sage.

Whittum first visited the area in 1960 and came to stay in the autumn of 1963 when he began teaching English and history at Whiteman. He landed in Strawberry Park ahead of Steamboat's rise as a major resort and in time to get to know Portia Mansfield, one of the founders of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp.

Whittum also became fast friends of lower Elk River ranchers Clarence and Ruth Wheeler. He was particularly close to Clarence, whom he recalls was known to half of Routt County as "Uncle Fuzz." Whittum also pays tribute in the book to the late Vernon Summer, a gentleman cowboy if there ever was one.

If you go

What: Book signing for author John Whittum's new book, "Reflections from Northwest Colorado.”

When: 4 to 6 p.m., May 6

Where: Off the Beaten Path bookstore and coffeehouse, 68 Ninth St., Steamboat Springs

Recommended Stories For You

Fortunately for us latecomers to the Yampa Valley, Whittum has just self-published a new book, "Reflections from Northwest Colorado," which provides a glimpse of the park that goes back more than 50 years.

What makes Strawberry Park so special?

"You go over the hill, and it's like you're in a different country from town," Whittum said. "There are a lot of new houses out there, but I don't feel like I'm in town — once you get around the bend (in Routt County Road 33), it's like being transported in time. It's a cultural center and it's because of Perry-Mansfeld. Whiteman School and Colorado Mountain College both originated there and grew out of Perry-Mansfield and that to me is what makes the city of Steamboat different from other Northwest Colorado towns."

Whittum's book is a collection of nonfiction essays about Strawberry Park and nearby landmarks, as well as poems and barely disguised historical "fiction.” There is also an in-depth account of the author's experiences at Whiteman School.

Whittum is a keen observer of the natural environment, both in essays and verse. And in his pieces describing recent visits to favorite locations, he sounds a note of wistfulness that is familiar to older men who are increasingly aware that their time is growing short. You can hear it in "Walking the Woodchuck in June," about a hike along the historic Woodchuck irrigation ditch.

Whittum muses on a relationship he's carried on for half a century with a secluded pond dotted by yellow lilies that is the ultimate objective of his walk through the woods.

"Gulping great swigs of water, I lay my body down carefully to rest, sometimes napping, for a half-hour or so, in the shadow of a beetle-killed pine. Before entering that state of semiconsciousness merging thoughts and dreams, I ruminate on the 50 years I have tarried at this spot, having arrived by horse, or ski, or foot in every season of the year."

Whittum doesn't pull any punches in describing the difficulties rural residents can experience when a willful neighbor allows his cows to graze in their gardens. And his "fictional" account of helping a rancher to put three lame horses down and later hauling them through downtown Steamboat on a trailer is, in his own words, "hellish." The author Cormac McCarthy would approve.

Perhaps my favorite piece in the book is Whittum's account of a solo climb up Hahn's Peak n skis. I'll leave it to you to discover it for yourselves.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

If you go

What: Book signing for author John Whittum’s new book, “Reflections from Northwest Colorado.”

When: 4 to 6 p.m., May 6

Where: Off the Beaten Path bookstore and coffeehouse, 68 Ninth St., Steamboat Springs