A special spot in tarp heaven

A special spot in tarp heaven

In happier times in the "poser pit" at the 2014 Bluegrass, from left: Chris Aaland, Michael McCardell, Otto Aaland, Scott Spencer and son, Peter. Scott died in an avalanche near Telluride on Sunday.

Chris Aaland - 03/07/2019

Scott Spencer was my festival brother. Back in the late ’90s, as Shelly and I had just started making an annual Telluride Bluegrass pilgrimage the centerpiece of our lives, we threw our sleeping bags down next to Scott and his wife, Sara, in the Front of the Line, and a lifelong friendship was born. Before we knew the Spencers, we were lucky to find tarp space in the middle of Town Park. In 1999, we’d decided to take the plunge and try sleeping in line to secure prime real estate. Scott was one of the guys always at the front, and we wanted to learn the secret to his success. Scott and Sara practically adopted us. Soon, we’d be staying at their house in Mountain Village. Scott died Sunday, buried in an avalanche while backcountry skiing near the Matterhorn Nordic area near Telluride. He wasn’t just a ski bum. Scott was an expert skier – backcountry, cross country, all forms of downhill, and especially moguls. Few people could ski the bumps like Scott. He’d glide with grace, explode with power, then glide again.

I got the phone call mid-afternoon Monday. I’ve lost my son, my brother, my mom and several grandparents this decade. Scott’s death hit home just as hard.

Scott and I loved Bluegrass, as Telluride locals refer to the festival. It was more than just four days  of great music and the best party this side of Mardi Gras. Bluegrass was the gathering of the tribes, and we had representatives from Pittsburgh, Santa Fe and towns and cities big and small across Colorado and other Western states. And our tarp space – usually three big ones, front and center adjacent to the center sound snake – was a place where Telluriders and Durangotangs alike could find a home to watch their favorite bands.

In the mid 2000s, we upped the ante by starting our Father’s Day Brunch tradition. That first year, I baked two pheasant pot pies in the Mondo Condo at the Camel’s Garden Hotel, where Scott served as general manager for more than a decade. Beth Lamberson brought along a full slab of poached salmon with all the accompaniments – dill, lemon wedges, red onion and capers. Beth was always long on capers. We hauled them into Town Park in a red wagon, right through Checkpoint Charlie, causing security to frisk and interrogate us in disbelief over our rather extravagant feast.

We shared a passion for food – Scott, this wiry, 100-pounds-when-soaking-wet ski bum and me, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound Wookie. Cajun, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, wild game, seafood – we could and did – do it all. One year, Scott had 100 pounds of raw oysters flown in from New Orleans, while I made a smoked pheasant and andouille gumbo. We battered the oysters and fried them up on-site while heating my vat of gumbo inside Town Park at the Oskar Blues stand. Nearly 100 people feasted with us.

Through the years, we stood side-by-side on our front row tarp space or in the poser pit for countless world-class acts, not just at Bluegrass, but at other Telluride festivals and concerts and festers across the state. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Robert Plant, Gregg Allman, Pearl Jam, Phish, Widespread Panic and Ziggy Marley were just a few of the legends I saw alongside Scott. But Bluegrass was his jam. At the Camel’s Garden and Ice House, he’d host the artists year after year, and built friendships with the usual suspects like Sam Bush, Be?la Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan and Emmylou Harris. He and the members of Yonder Mountain String Band – Adam Aijala, in particular – forged a lasting friendship.

But there was much more to our relationship than shared loves of music and food. Our families became one. The Spencers always had a bedroom when they’d visit Durango for their kids’ sports, and we always had a warm bed for festivals. Our sons would all pack into one triple-decker bunk bed, with Peter & Jack sacrificing their rooms for their Durango kinfolk. The lines between the Spencers’ friends and ours were blurred. Scott & Sara would eventually attend Broncos and Rockies games with friends of mine from college.

The Front of the Line gang was like a crime family. The core group included Kennedy, a Telluride local who slapped bass in the Front of the Line Band; Drew, a disabled ex-pat living in Belize; Billy Bob & Peggy Sue, the First Couple of Town Park; Dancing Pat, the crazed twirler, chef and organic farmer who lived in Ouray; David & Jill, tapers from Atlanta (David did sound for TBS Sports for decades); Richard Skaggs, a taper from Cortez; and a half-dozen other regulars. Billy Bob’s “margaritas” (let’s face it – it was orange juice with tequila, but who’s to argue with a retired Canadian wildcatter?) fueled us. No matter how Planet Bluegrass changed the rules about camping, line-sitting, lotteries, etc., we’d always end up with numbers in the Top 10. The tarps in front of the soundboard didn’t change, year after year, decade after decade. Want to break into our group? Feed the tarp, bring us trays of beers or pass along your pipe. And be prepared to take your turn sitting in Scott’s Walrus chair at the front of the line.

Scott’s boys are becoming expert skiers in their own right. Watching YouTube videos of Peter making turns on fresh powder is eerily reminiscent of seeing Scott ski. He’s a budding mandolin player and an actor in some of Telluride High’s plays. He also inherited Scott’s exceptional head of hair. Scott had a head of curls for the ages, a black mop that straightened and grayed through the years. Jack, on the other hand, is a spitting image of Sara, both in terms of his look and his demeanor.

I had visions of growing old with the Spencers, becoming two cute couples sitting on our front row tarps while our kids and grandkids and their friends doted on us while Sam and Be?la and Tim hobbled out onto the stage, well into their 80s. In those visions, we’d dance, sing along and sip a cold beer or one of Billy Bob’s margs. I might still get to do that, but my partner in crime will be there in spirit and memory only.

Burn one for Scott, if you can.

Thank you for all the good times I have found. Email me at chrisa@gobrainstorm.net

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