Sep 30, 2010

Money Town

One of the cabins was at the bottom of a hill, and for some reason the remodelers had sealed the crawlspace. Heat wicks moisture out of the ground, so the crawlspace filled with several inches of water. When Dad opened the door there the first time and played his flashlight around, he saw a fungal bloom on the scale of a biblical plague. Every surface was covered with several inches of moist and springy growths; the light revealed iridescent fruiting bodies, green and red and white and black, as though the whole colony had been preparing for this very moment. It was a horrifying discovery, I’m sure, yet it meant another day’s pay fixing this mistake. Dunton is like that—during one particular project several dangerous and critical mistakes are inevitably uncovered, which lead to more projects in their turn. One wonders if it is theoretically possible for a single skilled laborer to make progress there, or if he would be buried under new projects emerging faster than he could finish them.

Let me back up. Dunton Hot Springs is a tiny resort town high in the San Juan Mountains. As recently as the fifties, it was a gold-mining area, but the local operation, the Emma Mine, became unprofitable and the town collapsed. For awhile it was a cheap tourist trap, but a few years back Christoph Henkel, a German businessman, bought it and remodeled into a resort at great expense. I worked there doing light construction for parts of four summers.

My job was helping my dad, who had worked up there on and off for several years by the time I showed up. Dad is a sort of jack-of-all-trades, the kind of guy who can and does design and build his own damn house, thank you very much, and is thus the ideal man to fix the Dunton’s broad-spectrum problems. The town itself once was a bunch of moldering old log cabins from the mining days, but when Christoph got hold of the place he hired some local guys to take the cabins apart, build sound foundations underneath, replace the rotted logs, add wiring, plumbing, septic, sound roofs, and slate floors, and put them back together. This way Christoph’s buddies and guests can get the authentic rustic experience of a seventy-year-old cabin without having to sleep hip-deep in marmot shit. A stay ain’t cheap—the smallest cabin is about $400 per night, but you can sleep in a teepee for $300.

My own adventures at Dunton began with the installation of a door for a wine rack. The door was massive—four feet by eight feet—and when we finally got it installed, it was almost too wide for the hallway. It was a custom piece, a single sheet of glass bordered by four inches of wood, and cost $900. Classic Dunton—spend hundreds of dollars on a custom door without double-checking to see if it will actually fit in the space. The glass is for looking at the wine selection without disturbing the temperature and humidity, which is tightly controlled with a machine.

I’ve got some brown paint on a pair of pants I wore (and still wear) while we built a climbing wall for the Henkel kids and their friends. We enlisted the help of some local talent to weld up the steel frame for the wall, a man named Stuart Steves. Stuart once owned a section of land a ways downstream from Dunton, a massive piece that covers most of a huge basin that his family sold to Christoph for a fortune. A good part of his living comes from heavy equipment he owns, transports, and operates all over the county, though he’s selling hay recently. He and an assistant came over with a stick welder, put together the frame, and helped us lift it into place with a backhoe, as it probably weighed two tons. He’s one of a dying breed of homesteader descendants, hog-rich but still in farming and equipment. Contrast that with the new landed aristocracy building second or third homes up the West Fork, monstrous log edifices that have about as much in common with actual log cabins as a 1982 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande has with Carlo Rossi.

The jobs entrusted to me were usually the ones that took little skill, much tolerance of irritation, and physical strength. The quintessential example of this was a demolition/salvage job during the second summer: I was to recover the siding from an old bunkhouse right next to the Emma Mine, about a half-mile downstream of Dunton, down an abandoned road, right next to the river. The bunkhouse was filled with the kind of unaccountable detritus that accumulates inside abandoned buildings: old porn, clothes, religious texts, trash, bulging tin cans, tools, and so forth. Most of it was halfway to dirt. I had some fun arranging the stuff in the hope of baffling future archeologists, folding the retro porn inside the rotting pages of the Book of Mormon for example, until I thought of Hantavirus and retreated. I strapped on a dust mask and set to work.

The siding on this shack was mainly rough-cut 1x12’s that were pretty flimsy after seventy years in the weather, especially the bits that were under the snowpack four months a year. Fortunately, the builders of the bunkhouse had scrimped on the fasteners and only hammered about 200 sixteen and twenty-penny nails into each piece of siding (a normal person would only have used a half-dozen). My job was to somehow detach the boards from the framing, either by pulling each nail individually or by wrenching the whole board out nails and all. Since the process of rusting makes pieces of steel about fifteen percent bigger, each one stuck like hell in the framing, only giving up after a prolonged struggle, ripping out of the wood with a sound like King Tut’s tomb opening. Imagine trying to remove a piece of papyrus intact from a bulletin board, fastened down with 75 staples.

I didn’t do the job on my own, though—there were armies of thumbnail-sized black flies, several divisions for each limb. Occasionally, I would lose control, take off my hat, and kill until my thirst for blood was slaked, while the endless reserves feasted on the corpses of their dead brethren which littered the battlefield in the thousands. As my stack of siding grew and grew, the fiberglass insulation inside the wall became visible, and revealed huge, twisting rodent galleries filled with little mousey carcasses.

Dad came down to help me one day and we started on a different side of the building. This side had some tarpaper under the siding; as we progressed down the face of the wall we discovered it contained a medium-sized bat colony. They evacuated their home in a hurry, which jolted the piss out of us, but more disturbing was the single remaining bat, which stayed huddled on its perch, trembling. Dad peeled it off with a very long stick, ready to run for cover, but it just flew crookedly away.

After about a week of this I had collected all the siding there was to be had, leaving the skeletal wreck of a bunkhouse to be bulldozed later. I collected the pile, removed any lingering nails, and hauled the mess over to Dunton. I remember a rough calculation of how much these old boards were worth given how long I had taken to collect them and how much they had been paying me (fifteen dollars per hour), and came up with about ten bucks a pound. The point of the whole enterprise was to get some “barn wood” siding for a new bathroom they were attaching to one of the cabins, a veneer to make the new building look seventy years old. How better to do that than by peeling the weathered and papery skin off the rotting corpse of another building and nailing it up? After that, we took some galvanized, corrugated steel sheeting, sprayed it with concentrated hydrochloric acid (to remove the protective zinc coating, so it would rust faster), and finished the roof.

The idea of Dunton is as a high-class resort, the kind of place where rich people go to feel rich. It is fairly successful in this respect—it has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, and The New York Times. It is a cool place, I’ll admit that. It’s situated in a staggeringly beautiful part of Colorado, the valley of the upper West Fork of the Dolores River. It’s high, but due to a natural dam downstream, the river meanders slowly for a few miles. Later it gets much steeper and faster like rivers usually are in the mountains, but at Dunton it’s nice and small and calm. Several 14,000-foot peaks peer down from the end of the valley, peaks which are actually the far side of the same range emblazoned on the ambassador of Colorado to the world: the Coors beer can.

Dunton is about five hours from the nearest major airport, but it’s only an hour to Telluride for a small airport and some world-class skiing (at eighty-one bucks a day). Dunton itself, aside from the hot springs (which are artificially heated after a backhoe accident a few years back) provides horseback tours, heliski tours, hiking, mountain climbing, rock climbing, mountain biking, all for a nominal fee, of course. Every year Dunton jacks up its price by forty bucks or so, but business just keeps getting better. Spending a substantial amount of money is about as important as having a vacation, it appears. From the conversations I overheard at Dunton, the rich seem to be anxious about a vacation if they aren’t spending enough money—they heard talk of the Vanderbilts going to the Burj Al Arab in Dubai and eating the finest caviar and foie gras, and they’re not sure they’re getting the finest luxury experience. Supply and demand says that if they are paying more, they must be getting a better experience—and who am I to argue? Christoph’s buddies helped send me to college, after all.

I’m relatively poor by Dunton standards, I’ll freely admit. The Coopers picked up the scraps from the Henkel table for many years. I sometimes wonder if I’m not a kind of reverse snob for mocking these foolish rich folks, spending their money on something I know to be mostly a façade. I must conclude that it’s not the money, it’s the lack of value—these people are paying three, four times what the experience is worth. Still, if someone let me stay up there for free, I would accept in a heartbeat, and for one reason—the food. Dunton’s professional chef (that Christoph sent to Italy to be trained for free) would often test the dishes he made on us, a practice I thought rather dubious on theoretical grounds, but did by no means refuse. It’s a surreal experience to set down your hammer, knock the sawdust off your hands, and take a big chomp out of some Beef Wellington.

Christoph is the most prominent member of the family that controls Henkel corporation, a major consumer products company in Europe and North America. They own these brands: Dial, Loctite (glue), Schwarzkopf (haircare), Pritt (glue sticks), Persil (washing powder), Liofol (lamination), Purex, Fa (shower gel), Ceresit (construction products), Duck (tape), and Teroson (automotive products). They’re big in Europe mostly, but they own a few well-known American brands. They are investing heavily in organic and sustainable-type products, and last year sales were up 2.6 percent to 13.07 billion euros, which makes Christoph, rumor has it, the third-richest man in Germany. He is quite tall, with a small potbelly, while his wife Katrin is fashionably thin. He drives a Porsche Cayenne SUV at breakneck speeds. Katrin is an art dealer, which is supposedly a rapacious business in which she is quite prominent. His two kids are 12 and 14. The whole family speaks three languages (at least).

As I see it, he bought the place on a lark, as a place he could visit every now and then, hired somebody to fix it up, and hired somebody else to see if he couldn’t make some of his money back. The Henkels crash the place about two months a year, kick the paying customers out, and use it as their personal resort—they do own the place, after all. They bring over rich and famous people from all over, accompanied by the kind of ethereal nine-foot goddesses that only seem to grow in Sweden, the kind that look at sweaty, tank top-clad young construction workers with a cruelly flirtatious eye.

Still, they also hang out with some local folks that Christoph has befriended. An old-timer named Billy Joe Moffat is one of those people, a man who lives downstream of Dunton and who owns the best hot springs in the valley (you didn’t hear it from me). The first thing Christoph does when he visits is go for a long soak and a chat down at Billy Joe’s “Paradise Hot Springs.” Christoph bought Billy Joe’s land a while ago, but it doesn’t actually change hands until he dies. The plan is to turn it over to a conservancy trust—an admirable habit of Christoph’s.

There’s a surreal quality about him, a kind of bizarre perspective on life that I felt most strongly when he showed us a huge collection of animal heads he shipped to Dunton, which contained a kill from every antelope species in Africa, the sum total of dozens of intercontinental trips. Apparently, the tiny Dik-Dik is the hardest to bag.

Really, the guy is alright. He’s a little warped, like any rich person, but being a billionaire has to do dark things to you on the inside. I find it hard to blame Christoph for his condition—he was born into the money, after all; his grandfather started the company he inherited. He seems to be a capable businessman. He tries to remember the names of all his employees, and actually succeeds on occasion. He’s funny. The most telling evidence lies in his children, who are relatively polite, intelligent, and unspoiled considering their vast material possessions. I figure a billionaire could be, and usually is, a much bigger asshole. I shudder to imagine myself in such a position.

Dad and I only envy him one thing—a tiny cabin he us had build in Allen Canyon in Utah. It’s on the edge of the Abajo Mountains, in some of the coolest and most remote country in Utah. It’s about an hour down some hardcore four-wheel drive roads, with no land lines, no cell phones, solar power, well water, and a jaw-dropping view. There’s incredible hiking in every direction, and Ute ruins everywhere. Most importantly, there is almost nobody else there. It’s a 40-acre plot in the middle of vast federal holdings, and only one other person has a similar small house there. From the bean fields of Dove Creek nearby, one might think these mountains rather boring but near Christoph’s cabin, there are dozens of small, winding canyons and rock formations you might think belong in Canyonlands or Capitol Reef. We went out there for days on end, getting the place ready for him, and in the evenings we would hike around the awesome landscape, almost wishing we had a billion euros to toss around.

Copyright 2010. No part of this writing may be reproduced without the prior written authority of the author.

1 comment:

  1. Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!

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