Who is Mark Walter ???///John Galt? By George Sibley

I recently read this piece in the latest Mountain Gazette ~ 196 by George Sibley (check out his blog…lot of river/water issues) who I knew in the latter days of the 60’s (that’s 1960’s) when we were both younger and probably less subdued than today… Anyway I wanted to share his world view of Crested Butte with rŌbert readers otherwise (Have to be a subscriber to Mt. Gazette to read it) you couldn’t enjoy a well written and thought out piece that Sibley is so well know for …. Please read and enjoy. Also another story about Crested Butte history, in particular Tony’s Tavern can be read here.

rŌbert

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” ― Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Who is Mark Walter? That’s a question the inhabitants of Crested Butte, one of Colorado’s still interesting mountain towns, have been asking this past year, whenever they aren’t dealing with the pandemic, housing issues, the drought, systemic racism, housing issues and other current concerns – and did I mention housing issues? 

Anyway – Mark Walter, a quiet part-time resident in Crested Butte since 2009, attracted attention this past winter with a sudden flurry of commercial property purchases. He now owns a significant share of the town’s business properties, plus a wild card or two elsewhere in the Upper Gunnison River valley. 

People who live here all the time are naturally curious, and maybe even deserve an answer: what is he doing? The local, state and national media are trying to find out, but he is not talking to anyone. 

Basic information is not hard to find. Walter is the CEO of Guggenheim Partners, a high-flying firm of financializers, the people who are making unimaginable quantities of money turning all human activity into financial instruments abstract enough so that those whose jobs, savings and debts, hopes and fears and futures are being sliced, diced, repackaged, and bought and sold, won’t know exactly where to ascribe the pain these financializations bring to us all when they collapse, which history indicates they always do eventually.  

He has parleyed his management of the Partners’ piece of the Guggenheim fortune – which began, by the way, right across the Continental Divide from Crested Butte in Leadville silver mines – into a personal fortune in the neighborhood of $5 billion. I understand of course that this fortune does not exist as a pool of cash and coins with a diving board, like Scrooge McDuck’s basement in the comics I grew up on. But enough of it is liquid for him to buy things he likes, like the Los Angeles Dodgers, a big share of the Los Angeles Lakers, a couple billion here, a billion and a half there – and of course his pocket-change investment of $20 million in Crested Butte commercial real estate. 

What is he doing?

He isn’t saying, and his excuse is apparently that he is just a shy and private guy. People who have met him describe him as quiet, private, ordinary – you know: the kind of guy who puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like all of us. But – please. Ordinary guys don’t accumulate five billion dollars, or buy ball teams and business districts. There’s something else going on with those who do.

So who is Mark Walter and what is he doing in our valley, to us or with us? His silence invites the human imagination to throw the saddle on speculation and ride off in all directions. 

It triggers in my own mind a similar question in a favorite Republican mythology, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In that book, a rhetorical question like “Who is Mark Walter?’ would elicit a shrug and a counter-question: “Who is John Galt?” A question that’s also chalked on subway walls and bathroom stalls in Rand’s brutalist mythos.

This precipitates a memory trek back into the choleric dystopian landscapes of Atlas Shrugged. There, America is sinking under the weight of what Republicans today are calling “Radical Socialism,” while all the people capable of actually getting something productive done (not today’s Republicans) in that thankless society are mysteriously disappearing. Those are the captains of industry, masters of the universe, a heroic breed who all adher to Rand’s credo that no person owes another person anything except by mutual individual contract, that we should each seek our own individual fulfillment, and if we succeed, some of it may rub off on others (if they are deserving), but that is not our business or concern.

Selfishness is a virtue to Rand’s heroic masters of the universe – as it probably has to be for anyone who accrues billions from the currency, the bloodstream of the human economy, then hires squads of lawyers and accountants to minimize taxation and any other effort to get something from those billions back into the bloodstream currents of the society, for constitutional goals like the general welfare, the common defense, and securing the blessings of liberty for all. The virtuously selfish will put it back in the society as they see fit, these masters of the universe – buying a ball team here, a mountain town there, or a trip into space in cowboy garb in one’s personal rocket ship, significant stuff like that. There are “accidental billionaires” like Mackenzie Scott or Melanie Gates who marry into billionairedom but lack the bad genes; they do try to give most of it away (holding back just a few billion for personal subsistence), but they are exceptions that don’t necessarily disprove the rule. 

But back to my paranoid reflection on Rand’s book: in Atlas Shrugged, these superheroic rugged individualists are all disappearing. Where are they going? We don’t find out until we’ve slogged through almost the entire book: then we learn that they are all retreating to…a remote mountain valley somewhere in Colorado. There, they are waiting out the final crash and burn of the socialist mess, after which they will go back into the world, and start over with everything straightened out and back on a solid libertarian track. 

Their mountain Valhalla is financed by an investment banker, Midas Mulligan, but it was the idea of the elusive John Galt. We learn that as a young man Galt had invented an incredible machine that ran on ambient static electricity – the fabled “energy too cheap to meter.” But a falling out over intellectual property with the corrupt socialists running America turned him into a political outlaw, slipping around undercover and convincing Rand’s capitalist superheroes to withdraw themselves and their good works from the degenerate socialist society. By the end of the novel, “Galt’s Gulch” – a sustainable community renewably powered by Galt’s machine – has accumulated all the creative energies of the industrial world, as I recall, not just the heavy industrialists but artists and writers and all others who don’t toe the socialist line. 

The fact that I remember these details from Atlas Shrugged, which I read 50 years ago, suggests that the book made an impression on me. I was a winter caretaker at the time, in a remote mountain valley five miles beyond the end of Crested Butte’s plowed roads, and sitting up there in that quiet snowbound valley, half a decade before the Reagan Revolution – I wondered… could something like this actually happen?

Now, half of a strange century later, with the Reagan Revolution repeating as farce with Trump, I wonder – is it here? 

Now, wait – am I suggesting that Mark Walter is front man for some Randian group getting ready to set up a Masada in the mountains? No – that’d just be paranoid…. But like Heller said….

  “Outside money” is nothing new for mountain towns like Crested Butte. It’s actually unlikely that there would be any Rocky Mountain towns above the 8,000-foot contour, towns like Crested Butte, Aspen, Breckenridge, Telluride, were it not for outside money – investors from the urban-industrial mainstream with financial capital looking for human capital and idea capital to invest in, feed on, in order to increase their financial capital. This is as true now as it was in 1880.

These towns all began as mining camps – random agglutinations of industrial misfits, second-chancers, debt-dodgers, Civil War PTSD vets, smalltime criminals and adventurers grubbing in the mud and gravel for flakes and lumps of gold and silver, competing and collaborating, none really sure whether they were advancing the empire or fleeing it. This was not that fabled American agrarian frontier of locally sufficient yeoman farmers nurturing democracy along with their crops. Colorado historian Duane Smith pegged the Rocky Mountain mining camps more accurately as an “urban frontier” – places that leapfrogged the agrarian evolution and went as fast as possible from wilderness to Euro-American industrial civilization with dry-goods stores advertising “the latest Paris fashions.” 

The mining camps actually developed to lure outside money. They were characterized early on by the “false front,” a two-story raw-wood wall topped with a fancy finial, propped up with poles, that might initially have nothing behind it but a tent, until the owner-builder sold enough dry goods or wet goods to build the rest of the building. But those fronts were not false to their builders; they were a bet on the future – that the rest of the building and more would follow.

But there was a big leap from prospectors striking a rich mineral vein, to the industrialization that would convert a rich vein of rock into serious wealth, and that leap required significant investment from someone. Mine workings had to be constructed; mills and smelters to process the ore had to be brought in; a railroad or at least a passable highway had to connect the town to industrial civilization. Financing all of that was initially beyond the means of the purveyors of wet and dry goods who built the fronts for their city of dreams; other, bigger collaborative ways of “fronting” for the future had to be executed. 

A newspaper was essential, for example, and was often one of a raw camp’s first businesses – not a newspaper reporting the news of the muddy present but telling the story of the camp’s future, of the glorious place this city of dreams was on its way to becoming. Those one-sheet newspapers went out in the mail to potential investors, to other mining towns, and were only read locally to bolster the spirit against the generally brutish life behind the fronts.

Another essential “front” strategy was pooling enough local resources to build a fine and fancy hotel, for the same reason that the Jeffersonian farm communities built a town meeting house, or the Hispanic Catholic communities erected a church on their plaza: such structures were erected to invite the favor of the higher power worshipped locally, be it God, Democracy or Money. The hotel (trumpeted in the newspaper as “the finest hostelry west of St. Louis”) had fine wines and whiskeys, good cigars and passable women for entertaining the Civil War “Colonels” floating around the West with bankrolls, and the scouts sent out by “back-East” financiers, all looking for places to plant a dollar to harvest two. Crested Butte’s Elk Mountain House, Aspen’s Jerome Hotel, Gunnison’s La Veta Hotel, the Delaware Hotel in Leadville are all examples in central Colorado – some “historically preserved” but others preserved only in the opulent descriptions in their companion “false-front” newspapers. The whole downtown was a front, a set staged to sell an urban-industrial vision that could only happen if it sufficiently impressed the visiting money. 

And if the outside money didn’t take the bait, if the money went to another set of false fronts over the hill – then the whole thing could be dismantled and moved there. Which is what many of the businesses did in the silver town of Gothic, on the east side of Crested Butte Mountain, when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad went to Crested Butte on the west side of the mountain, for coal rather than to Gothic for silver. 

Crested Butte’s first big shot of outside capital came from Pueblo’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company – to set up a coal-mining industry. This was not the first choice of the town’s high rollers, who would have preferred a metals industry. But along with the coal mine came a railroad, all part of General William Palmer’s consortium of railroads and heavy industry – which was in turn dependent on “back east” capital, including the Rockefellers who wanted to control all the fossil fuels as well as oil. Sometimes you take what you can get. 

The CF&I coal and coke industry provided a stable if frugal economic base for the town until the 1950s, when remoteness plus rising wages for unionized miners and railroad workers drove CF&I to find closer coal. By 1953 their Crested Butte mines were closed and the D&RG RR had taken up the tracks.

Not wanting the town to die, the town fathers went on the prowl for new sources of outside investment to keep the town alive. They wanted another mining operation, that being how the town then saw itself. But they also knew that skiing was a growing industry, and approached the Forest Service about surveying Crested Butte Mountain for skiing potential. It was easier to lure outside money for resort development; all you needed was a good mix of beautiful scenery on public land, and private land for the real estate industry that goes with the resort industry like horse goes with marriage. The quaint false-front mining towns were an additional bonus.

The Buttians succeeded, somewhat, on both fronts. American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) came in the late 1950s to reopen the Keystone Mine on Mt. Emmons – the Red Lady, now something close to a sacred and, gods forbid, unmineable mountain to the Buttians. 

And a consortium of Kansas(?!) entrepreneurs and bankers, led by a Wichita “idea capitalist,” Dick Eflin, announced plans in 1960 to develop a ski resort across the valley on Crested Butte Mountain that they were certain would become another Aspen.

Neither of these, however, provided any quick financial success or community stability. The jumbled geology of the Red Lady made it difficult for ASARCO to get a steady mining operation going; they kept losing the productive veins. And the Crested Butte Mountain Resort had the bad luck to open its slopes in the shadow of the much better financed and better located Vail resort. Both industries struggled through the 1960s, and in 1966 the ski area slipped into bankruptcy proceedings, but the Kansas bankers managed to salvage their investment just in time to open for the 1966-67 season.

That was when I stumbled into town, something of a bankrupt myself exploring the romance of ski-bummery. I was amazed to land a job on the ski patrol with nothing but my Red Cross first-aid card; the Mountain Manager didn’t even ask if I could ski. I later learned that none of locals wanted to work for the area because people hadn’t been paid at the end of the previous season, and the Forest Service wouldn’t let the area open without eight warm bodies on the ski patrol.

It actually turned out to be a sweet time to be in Crested Butte. If only for the skiing. Since the Kansas bankers had opened that first season for me with no advance planning or marketing at all, there were days in January that year when the seven patrolmen on duty outnumbered the skiers – a good time for marginal skiers like I was to develop a little technique on basically empty but lift-served slopes. Fresh powder lasted, if you knew where to look, most of the day.

Crested Butte at that time did not have a lot of good “blue” intermediate terrain. It went from blue-black upper slopes to green beginner runouts to the base. But as each year progressed, boredom pushed us to explore out beyond the area boundaries into some serious steeps and deeps that the area has since developed, along with quite a lot of “deep blue” terrain on the backside of the mountain.

That was also the day of the double-chair lift – and in Crested Butte, a quirky three-passenger gondola that was more inefficient at moving people uphill than a double chair – which meant that the trails were never particularly crowded. They have since – along with the rest of the industry – gone to quads and other serious people-movers that get enough people uphill to fill up the slopes with people coming downhill, in that crazy mix of tight-turning skiers and wide-looping snowboarders. Lots more work for the ski patrol too. But in the late Sixties in Crested Butte – it was sweet skiing. And we got paid for it!

I also developed some skill in skiing with a shovel, since the shovel was the main tool for slope maintenance on the bankers’ frugal budget. On a sunny snow-softening afternoon, we’d be out on the worst moguled slopes, stripped to the waist sweating like hogs, shoveling the lumpy tops of the monster moguls into the canyons between and trying to stomp the lumps into something resembling snow. Otherwise – great skiing. 

But it was the town that gradually seduced me. Neither of the outside investors in the area were strong enough or cared enough to run it as a company town, and we locals who came to love the shabby old coal town and its beautiful mountains and valleys experienced the naive illusion of being free agents: if the place had a future, we seemed to have an opportunity to figure it our for ourselves. What did we want to be? 

We were a bunch of hippies, retirees, and liberal arts majors who still believed you could be or do, doobie-do, whatever you wanted so long as you were willing to work hard to cover your basic ignorance of whatever it was you were trying to do or be. 

That spirit moved me to buy a local newspaper because “I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” and how hard could a four-page weekly be? Plus, it was cheap – cost me a dollar and a six-month printing contract with the printer who had inherited the paper in the ski resort’s bankruptcy, and just wanted someone else to do the work and pay for the printing for a while. 

Other Crested Buttians got into restaurants, lodges, arty shops, et cetera, in about the same cut-rate way, for the simple reason that anyone who knew anything about these businesses knew better than to get into them in Crested Butte at that time. It’s fitting that our favorite film those years was “King of Hearts”; the story resonated, the inmates of an asylum taking over an abandoned town.

Don Bachman working behind his bar, Tony’s Tavern

I was only a newspaperman for three and a half years, at which time I realized I was more interested in the writing than in the business. I disliked selling advertising so much that I essentially stopped doing it; enough steady advertisers sought me out to pay the printer and other newspaper costs, and I went to part-time ski-patrolling and summer construction work to support myself. 

I also had no real notion of the difference between real journalism and just writing what came to me, so it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between the news stories and the editorials. I was also as shameless a booster of anything Crested Butte as any 1880 mining-town newspaperman. I cheered when the ski area’s bankers announced a new lift; I cheered when the Keystone miners found their lode vein again; I cheered for any new business, even if I suspected it was either a front for a backroom business in uncontrolled substances, or an avatar of surreal estate. 

George and his paper

I wasn’t too guilty of, as one booster press critic put it, “covering events that had not yet gone through the formality of actually occurring,” but almost any new idea for the town’s future got all the space I could fill with it. Early in my third year, I realized that a lot of journalism was trying to make last year’s same old things look fresh and exciting this year, and sometimes I skimped on that to pump up the pipe dreams for new futures.

We were all meeting late evenings after work, in one bar or another, to figure out where we wanted the town to go – the Twelve-to-Two Riders of the Night trying to remember next morning the brilliant ideas of last night. 

We saw a potential in some independent local entities like the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory up in Gothic at the base of the valley’s third mountain. Or Dr. Hubert Winston Smith’s “Law-Science Academy,” bringing doctors and lawyers to town for a combination vacation and brainstorm on how to bring more objective science to medical injury cases that made their sordid way to the courtroom. And when a touring Kansas University art class passed through, then stopped to work (and lodge, and eat and drink) for a couple days, the hallucinatory vision of the “Summer University of the Rockies,” a “Mountain Chautauqua,” shimmered on our mental horizon.

We weren’t aware enough of Colorado mountain-town history to realize it, but we were trying to do “The Aspen Idea,” but with no Walter Paepke lined up to fund it – no outside money. It was impossible to launch it all with volunteer labor from people already busy trying to support themselves – but try to tell that to a tableful of liberal arts naifs with their alcohol and weed burners hissing into the blue-flame stage. A really interesting time to be in Crested Butte.

Then the 20th century urban-industrial juggernaut came roaring back in 1971. The Kansas bankers, having added a couple new ski lifts to make it more interesting, sold the ski area. Mountain towns were becoming too potentially valuable to be left in the hands of unfunded amateurs who didn’t know how to exploit them. 

The next five decades were what might be called the “family investor” era in Crested Butte. Howard “Bo” Callaway and his brother Ralph Walton from Georgia bought the area from the Kansas bankers, and operated the resort through two family generations; then in 2004 they sold it to Tim and Diane Mueller and their family, from the Vermont ski industry (Triple Peaks). Both families were in it because they loved skiing, as did most of the people moving to the town, and that, coupled with the gradual closing down of the struggling Keystone Mine venture in the 1970s, shifted the local economic focus entirely to resort development, with the “Mountain Chautauqua” cultural development idea trying to hang onto its coattails. 

Those decades of family ownership are a story in themselves; but except for noting a couple things, it would be a digression from this exploration of the role of outside money in mountain towns. One thing was the human face the family owners put on the relations with the community: both families engaged in the difficult balancing act of trying to be part of the community while also trying to grow their investment – and that of their outside investors, who were eventually the financializers converting the world to money products. 

But the town was also filling up with relatively savvy refugees from the urbanizing and financializing industrial society, and we were there to take a vaguely conceived but no less passionate stand against that society (while still partaking of its benefits – please don’t look at us too closely).  If this meant biting the hand that fed the local economy, mostly over issues like the physical expansion of the ski area onto an adjacent hill, then chew away. The families were often in a squeeze between the growth demands of their outside money and us anti-growthers – and the money didn’t always win then.

A second thing to note was the increasing consolidation in the rest of the ski industry going on around that local situation, with bigger fish eating smaller fish, and each other as well, until the industry was dominated by two megacorporations, Vail Resorts and  Alterra Mountain Company, neither big enough to devour the other, yet. This was rough competition for the remaining independent areas like Crested Butte; it was hard to compete against the big dogs’ multi-resort ski passes and vast multi-mountain lift-served terrains, and harder for the independents to find financing. 

Nevertheless, the Crested Butte Mountain Resort struggled on, developing a couple of moderately successful niches: one for its extreme terrain that drew serious skiers in a big snow year; the other as “the last great ski town.” Crested Butte, under creative marketing by John Norton, identified itself as the “not Vail” resort, a homely alternative to those crowded Interstate 70 shake-and-bake-Bavaria resorts.

But the Mueller family was hammered hard both by local opposition to expansion plans and by the 2008-9 recession, and was just getting back to a degree of profitability in 2018 – when Vail Resorts came calling, with an offer they decided not to refuse. The ownership of Crested Butte’s economic engine thus changed again, a new and maybe necessary infusion of outside money – but it felt different, and not so good. The decades of relatively intimate, if often confrontational, engagement with the two families who were the financial owners of the ski area had given the people who lived and worked in the town the illusion of common ownership in the place, through their own investment of human and idea capital. But this had obviously not given them a seat at the table for a decision like the ownership of the community’s economic engine. 

Thus far, ownership by one of the largest ski resort organizations in the world has not impacted Crested Butte as negatively as most residents had feared it would, not yet anyway. Vail has dipped into its deep pockets to do some deferred maintenance, improvements and upgrades that are appreciated locally. 

And Vail management has openly declared that it is content, for now anyway, to let Crested Butte continue to be whatever Crested Butte thinks it is – even if that means letting the Buttians continue to define themselves as the “not Vail” resort. That may have been part of their rationale in buying the place. It does, however, take some of the joy out of shouting, “We aren’t Vail!” when Vail, who’s paying the bills, says it’s okay to do so.

The greatest fear when the Vail deal was struck, however, was that it would send already surreal estate prices soaring to new heights of surreality, further removing local “investors” from actual ownership of a piece of their place. 

But any measurable local impacts from the Vail takeover have been buried, or at least blurred, under the “pandemic tsunami” of urbanites with a desire to leave the urbs and suburbs that has impacted all the cool mountain towns above 8,000 feet. This migration was originally to escape pandemic densities, but now it is driven for many workers by the realization, after working a year from home with Zoom meetings to handle essential business intercourse, that they could have their home where they went to play. 

The 2020 real estate frenzy on Colorado’s West Slope resulted in a 60 percent jump in 2020 in total sales and a 30 percent increase in median sale prices, and has shown no signs of abating in 2021. The surreal estate inventory is so low, and the demand so high, that million-dollar home sales are being transacted sight unseen. 

This random influx of outside money furthers the sense of having no control over our own destiny in the mountain towns. It is one thing to be laying out attractive bait for surplus wealth to come invest and increase itself in our mines or our recreational resources; it is something else to be experiencing a tsunami of outside wealth just rolling over the communities. The former has the aspect of a mutual contract; the latter – is just a tsunami. 

It is certainly escalating the displacement of locals laboring at mountain wages, as long-term rental houses are sold out from under them. This impacts the restaurant owners, gallery operators, shopkeepers and other businesses, who are finding their business limited not by a lack of customers but by a lack of staff. 

The lack of adequate housing for those who keep the towns running is a problem that has been like a low-grade fever attacking the vitality of these mountain communities for decades, flowing and ebbing with the economy in general. But the coronavirus pandemic has driven that fever into a full-blown sickness-unto-death for the mountain town culture: when the real estate frenzy wanes, the towns will still be here, but the old open “not Vail” bohemian culture may be gone, replaced by the financiers, the corporatists, and all their high-level minions who run the world from computer terminals, the new global aristocracy raising its replacement generations in sanitized and privileged security. All the Guggenheim Partners. There will still be a working class serving them, but it will mostly be immigrants, crammed into out-of-sight, out-of-mind trailer parks and public tenements. 

Will there still be resorts in the high-elevation mountain towns? Ski areas, public trail systems, accessible hot springs, et cetera? Probably, especially as the cities grow ever hotter in the greenhouse environment of the planet, but they will price out the hoi polloi – people like I was 50-some years ago when I “discovered” Crested Butte. As the centers of the urban-industrial civilization warm up, in fact, one could imagine corporations and government agencies moving their entire upper echelons up into the mountains for the summer, the way the British sahibs in colonized India moved en masse from Calcutta to summer in the Himalayan foothills.  Check out the “Indian Summer” television series for a view of that mountain-town future. 

All of which brings us back to the present, and – oh yeah: who is Mark Walter? It is probably both inaccurate and unfair to focus too much on Mr. Walter – just a shy, ordinary guy who happens to have accumulated billions. He is just one guy who might answer to the Ayn Rand question, “Who is John Galt?” Or in her full form: “Who is the guy that’s turning this remote mountain valley into a Masada for the heroic rich guys (and gals) who impact the world?”

Another equally fitting answer might be Chad Pike, the high-rolling global realtor behind “Eleven Experiences,” a global organization catering to those with lots of money and time on their hands: “Our Mission is to custom-make powerful experiences that impact the people who impact the world.” Eleven Experiences (“just a little higher than a ten”) has two appropriately rustic lodges in the Crested Butte area: the Taylor River Lodge, up Taylor Canyon 25 miles or so from Crested Butte, for the gold-medal fisherman, and the Scarp Ridge Lodge way upvalley from Crested Butte, for the backcountry skier, accessible in the winter only by snowcat, with no need to skin up to earn your turns; just bring your wallet. It’s all for the right kind of people.

Or the answer might be Dan Thurman, the guy who showed up back in the early 1970s with a more modest fortune from early electronics. He built the Scarp Ridge Lodge that Eleven has since acquired. But his crowning work was a group of luxury cabins way up in North Pole Basin, in the highest headwaters of the Crystal River, on the Aspen side of the Elk Mountains but still in Gunnison County and most accessible – in the summer only – from Crested Butte. At some point in the 1980s, Bo Callaway, still owner of the Crested Butte Mountain Resort, bought Thurman’s North Pole Basin compound, and began bringing in high-ranking Republicans – the architects of the ongoing Reagan Revolution that has enabled the millionaire class to morph into the billionaire class, along with nurturing the resurgence of racial xenophobia. 

According to Republican legend, Newt Gingrich hammered out the essence of the “Contract on America” there – wups, sorry, that’s “Contract with America.” This was credited with reversing the polarity of Congress in the 1994 election after decades of Democrat majorities – and for turning Congress from two mostly deliberative bodies into the snarling polarized give-no-quarter gang warfare that Republicans have continued to impose on Congress ever since.

Or – how about Bill Koch as John Galt? Bill is the reclusive billionaire brother of Charles and David Koch, probably the two most overtly public advocates of a Randian philosophy in America – both also billionaires. But while Charles and David wage active war on any policy or program that meets their extremely broad definition of “socialistic” (pretty much anything suggesting pulling together for the common good), Bill Koch has retreated to a remote ranch he bought maybe 40 miles from Crested Butte, across Kebler Pass into the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, but still in Gunnison County. The ranch lies just below the Ragged Mountains Wilderness Area.


Koch’s revamped western town near Paonia…Before it’s last move, Buckskin Joe was rebirthed next door to the Royal Gorge Scenic Railway approximately eight miles east of Cañon City in 1957.
rŌbert co-starred in several films at Buckskin Joe. Cat Ballou with Lee Marvin, Barquaro with Lee Van Cleef, Warren Oates, True Grit with John Wayne and his final film before retirement was Scarecrow with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. Quite a resume.

There, Koch has built…a complete town. Whoa – does this sound like “Galt’s Gulch”? A retreat for fellow billionaires to wait out the collapse of the unfolding Radical Socialism? With the final closing of the gate when even his brothers give up their valiant struggle for Rand’s selfishness ideal and come there to wait it out?

Actually, no. It is a nostalgia piece – an Old West town, mostly a place to display or store his million plus items of Old West memorabilia and to ride around in on his horse. He has had business meetings there (one of which resulted in one of his own executives charging that Koch had held him there against his will), but mostly he is “trying to create a place where I can enjoy life and enjoy my family and friends without having to worry about my enemies,” he told Kelley McMillan Manley, in an interview for 5280 magazine (Feb. 2013). 

When Manley asked him why he was doing it, he responded, “I’m doing it because I can.” 

So who is John Galt, Rand’s avatar for the misunderstood and maligned masters of the universe who alone are capable of solving our problems and getting us back on track? 

When I look at any of the likely suspects who made their way to the Upper Gunnison country – shy guy Mark Walter, natty-bumpoish Chad Pike, remote builder Dan Thurman, Republican water-carrier Bo Callaway, the libertarian nostalgitarian Koch – I find myself almost wishing there were one of them with the single-minded, ascetic drive and warped idealism of an Ayn Rand character: one capable of a 80 or 100 page philosophical disquisition like Galt gave at the end of Rand’s interminable novel. Or like Andrew Carnegie actually put forward in his 1889 “Gospel of Wealth” essay, in which he argued that those who had become rich had an obligation to personally reinvest the bulk of their wealth in the society that had made them rich – that “the man who dies rich dies disgraced.”

But to charge any of these guys with that kind of philosophical depth, however fruity, seems – merely paranoid. What I see in this tsunami of uninvited outside money, instead, is just rich folks indulging themselves. None quite so flagrantly as Jeff Bezos taking off in his private rocket ship in full cowboy regalia – but then none of them are as rich as Bezos either. Some of them may be deep wells philosophically, but what they show the world seems to go about as deep as Koch’s answer to the interviewer: “I’m doing it because I can.” And we continue to indulge them – let them keep doing it, with no obligation to explain or justify themselves.

***

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s