Chasing Butch

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Butch and the Wild Bunch gang crisscrossed the open spaces of Utah to rob banks and then avoid capture. Spend much time in these

The notion of Butch Cassidy knocking back beers in today's fancy ski-resort bars would have insulted Butch. He'd have been far more likely to rob them than to pull up a leather-topped stool. Or at least that's reasonable conjecture about one of America's most beloved outlaws.

Most of what's known about Butch's life is conjecture, reasonable and otherwise. He was born in Circleville, Utah, in 1866 as Robert LeRoy Parker. After that, there's little about the eventual Butch Cassidy, born charmer and bank robber, that can be definitively labeled fact or fiction. What's undisputed is that Butch and his boys passed through or near what are now several ski resorts across the West, robbing trains and banks, downing whiskey and raising hell. Throughout New England, an impossible number of colonial-era inns will tell you, "George Washington slept here. In the West, it's "Butch Cassidy drank here.

In Telluride, Colo., for instance, the record shows that Butch robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank in 1889 - and likely patronized a tavern or two while plying his trade. Indeed, with a little imagination, a curious skier can follow in Butch's tracks, picking up colorful stories and enjoying some great skiing along the way. There's no evidence that Butch ever strapped on a pair of skis, but, as I discover chasing his legacy across the West, he did have excellent taste in mountains.

I start my journey in Sundance, Utah, a cozy and fabulously romantic ski resort founded by actor Robert Redford and snuggled into 6,000 acres of wilderness. Redford indelibly etched Butch into the annals of popular culture while plying his trade in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and went on to name his resort after the character he portrayed in the iconic film. There's no historical evidence that Butch and his gang visited the area that's now Sundance, though Sundance Canyon, half-concealed and spectacularly presided over by Mt. Timpanogos, would have been a perfect hideout. A Scottish family homesteaded the site in the early 1900s, and their second generation added some ski lifts before Redford bought the land in 1969.

Sundance now hosts guest cottages, conference and spa facilities, fine dining and an arts center, all held together by an intimate sense of community. But on my first ride up, I find a ski area that could have been frozen in amber from the day Redford took over nearly 40 years ago. Which is mostly a good thing.

An old, slow quad trundles up a rounded peak, then descends the back side to deliver me to two equally creaky triples serving some excellent black-diamond terrain. I have it mostly to myself, as the ski area - in great contrast to the resort's elegantly rustic lodging and restaurants - is a true Utah hometown hill. The new snow is wet and heavy but totally untracked, even on the accommodating likes of Bear Claw and Wildflower. I explore the fringes as well, finding the engaging glades of Far East.

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Skiing runs with names like Outlaw, Cassidy's Traverse and Boot Hill reinforces what still isn't an over-the-top Wild Bunch presence. Instead, what Sundance really emphasizes is its remarkable setting. A beautiful and serene location offers a gem of a small ski area along with lots of diversions, from art classes to workshops to author and speaker series. And chief among the area's après-ski diversions is the resort's main tavern, the centerpiece of which - a beautiful rosewood bar - is thought to be a legitimate Butch Cassidy artifact. It's certainly a point of pride for its owner.

"I don't know about the rest of the bars Butch drank at, Redford tells me. "But the interesting thing about the one in Sundance is that Butch actually had it specially made himself. In Ireland. It was shipped to America in three segments and eventually ended up in his Hole in the Wall hideout in Wyoming.

The bar took Redford 16 years to acquire. "I was doing a magazine sry, which later became the book The Outlaw Trail, when a sheriff in Thermopolis (Wyo.) showed me the bar after we rode into town in 1975. It was all beat to shit, nicked and stabbed, with bullet holes and rifle-butt gouges, Redford laughs.

Abandoned by the Wild Bunch during a hasty departure, the bar eventually became a fixture in the Owl Bar in nearby Thermopolis. Years later, Redford bought it, sending a crew to pick it up while he was busy making a film.

"After I got back, I asked where the bar was. And they asked me, 'When's the last time you saw it?' And my heart sank, because it had been awhile. They showed it to me, and it was covered in Formica and shag carpet. The guys thought I'd lost my mind. But I said, no, there's a great historic bar under there. And after 18 months of tender restoration, there was indeed. Redford installed it and renamed his stylish tavern the Owl Bar, in honor of its provenance.

The next day, about 260 miles southwest, Alps-like Telluride welcomes me much as it did Butch when he chose this remote box canyon as the site of his first bank heist. Then again, you couldn't buy $300 sunglasses downtown in Butch's day. Why? Because this building I'm in wasn't a sunglass shop then. It was a bank, as the beautiful old walk-in safe in the back wall still attests.

The bank, of course, attracted Butch's attention. And one of the best ways to case a bank, Butch claimed, was to camp out for a few days in a saloon with direct sightlines to the loot. "I've heard that they would act like they were drinking all day while they were watching the bank, then get on their horses and race out of town shooting, says Bo Bedford, desk manager at the New Sheridan Hotel. "That way, when they actually pulled the robbery, no one would think much about it.

Like Butch, I install myself at the New Sheridan, albeit upstairs in the Victorian elegance of the hotel above the saloon. A big storm front is moving in, and come morning, patrol will report 14 inches. With no need to case any banks, I head to the big powder off the Gold Hill and Plunge lifts. I rip through knee-deep fluff and over pillowy bumps at getaway speeds, no pistol firing necessary. With Telluride's size and increasingly efficient lift system, the mountain has evolved from a renegade's resort to become one of America's elite ski destinations.

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By midafternoon, both the powder and I are spent, so I stroll through the movie-set perfection of downtown Telluride, talking to people about Butch, the kind of guy who bought drinks for strangers. At the Floradora Saloon, I chat with the owner, Charlie Kane, who happened to be an extra in Butch & Sundance: The Early Days. "I heard that Butch worked with his horses so they wouldn't spook when the gang came running out of a bank at them full tilt, he tells me.

Returning to the New Sheridan Bar, it's easy to imagine Butch holed up inside. The Sheridan, a classic of the Western genre, is narrow, deep, tall and dim, with a tin ceiling and a time-burnished mahogany bar crafted in the late 1800s. In truth, though, Butch was never here. The original Sheridan, built in 1891, burned down and eventually was rebuilt as the New Sheridan - and as a movie set.

Today, the Sheridan's most conspicuous feature is one that was actually added for the opening sequence in Butch Cassidy. Five panels of mirrored glass are set slanting outward above the bar. "It was supposed to give it the look of a dangerous Western bar, where the guys on the stools wanted to be able to see behind them - just in case, says Ryan Bennett, the bartender. "But they put them in wrong and the angles don't work.

Bottles of Grey Goose, Patron, Chivas and other luxe liquors on the shelves say something about the New Sheridan's clientele, which starts arriving in force around 5 p.m, giddy from the powder and ready to party. Do people ever ask about Butch? "All the time, says Ryan, "especially if they've taken the historic walking tour. He tells me about the secret underground passageways - relics of Prohibition - that connect the New Sheridan Bar, the old Roma (another Butch-era hangout under renovation), the Opera House and the red-light district.

There are no secret passages at Kochevar's in Crested Butte. It's 85 miles from Telluride to the Butte, a town that has long seemed like Telluride's funkier twin. Similarly blessed with a big, aggressive ski mountain, a charming 1800s mining town and 360 degrees of rugged mountain scenery, the Butte has kept life a lot more down-home than Telluride. The ratio of real Victorian houses to recent replicates is much higher. But the Butte, like Telluride, also has a Butch Cassidy bar, Kochevar's. And I quickly learn that it's pronounced "co-cheevers as I smoothly ask how long "Koch-uhvars has been around. Fortunately, I'm only in the attached cafe, where my waitress, Tracy Olsen, directs me to a framed history by Jake Kochevar, hanging on the wall. "The saloon was built by my father in 1898 and opened for business in 1900... Some of the events that happened here are: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stopped in the place for refreshments, (as did) a posse chasing them. They left in such a hurry that Butch left his gun and holster the gun is still in the family to this day.

Olsen introduces me to Kochevar's manager, Whitey. He tells me the bar opened in 1896. A small wooden sign identifies it as "Kochevar's Saloon & Gaming Hall, EST. 1886.

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Some historical narratives are blessed with plenty of verifiable details. Butch and Sundance, on the other hand, made it part of their job not to be well documented. Still, they've been extensively researched and written about. That said, following Butch's footsteps is…inexact. We're talking about criminals and bars, after all. In the case of Kochevar's, no one can even agree on a date the place was built, let alone whether an outlaw on the lam actually dropped in for a beverage. And the tavern's Wild Bunch tale about a professional bank robber abandoning his weapon is open to debate.

Kochevar's is cavernous, with an old wood stove and red walls with green trim, like Santa's workshop gone to seed. A slot machine, circa 1899, sits in one corner. "All of the stuff is original, says Whitey. "Including our crowd. We do mostly local business. Construction guys, inexpensive beer. That's a crowd, I think as I sit down with an inexpensive beer, that Butch would be right at home with.

When I finally amble up the street to the Crested Butte museum, housed in an 1886 structure, I've decided I want to believe the abandoned gun story because the town shows such faith in something no historian has confirmed. "The story I heard was that he remembered to grab the bottle of whiskey they were drinking, but not the gun, says the museum's Bryan Turpyn. As legend has it, the gun was a cheap one, while the whiskey, apparently, was not.

Meanwhile, I don't have to take anyone's word about the skiing at the Butte. This town has been courting gunslinger attitude forever. It is, after all, home to the American Extreme Championships and the mountains's notorious Extreme Limits terrain.

But that's not the Butte's whole story. With most locals permanently preoccupied by the steeps, there's a mountain of cruising and powder glades that often goes unmolested. I spend the next morning rolling down blues off the Paradise and East River lifts, ducking into timber for long powder riffs. The vast carpet that rolls down from the Red Lady Express will soon be anchored by a much-needed new base village, part of an ongoing $57 million facelift.

You don't have to be an outlaw to love the Butte, anymore than you do to love the legend of Butch and Sundance. Cassidy and his Wild Bunch roamed the West like any good visitors, drinking and spending their way into the hearts of their hosts. In addition to buyespecially if they've taken the historic walking tour. He tells me about the secret underground passageways - relics of Prohibition - that connect the New Sheridan Bar, the old Roma (another Butch-era hangout under renovation), the Opera House and the red-light district.

There are no secret passages at Kochevar's in Crested Butte. It's 85 miles from Telluride to the Butte, a town that has long seemed like Telluride's funkier twin. Similarly blessed with a big, aggressive ski mountain, a charming 1800s mining town and 360 degrees of rugged mountain scenery, the Butte has kept life a lot more down-home than Telluride. The ratio of real Victorian houses to recent replicates is much higher. But the Butte, like Telluride, also has a Butch Cassidy bar, Kochevar's. And I quickly learn that it's pronounced "co-cheevers as I smoothly ask how long "Koch-uhvars has been around. Fortunately, I'm only in the attached cafe, where my waitress, Tracy Olsen, directs me to a framed history by Jake Kochevar, hanging on the wall. "The saloon was built by my father in 1898 and opened for business in 1900... Some of the events that happened here are: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stopped in the place for refreshments, (as did) a posse chasing them. They left in such a hurry that Butch left his gun and holster the gun is still in the family to this day.

Olsen introduces me to Kochevar's manager, Whitey. He tells me the bar opened in 1896. A small wooden sign identifies it as "Kochevar's Saloon & Gaming Hall, EST. 1886.

[pagebreak]

Some historical narratives are blessed with plenty of verifiable details. Butch and Sundance, on the other hand, made it part of their job not to be well documented. Still, they've been extensively researched and written about. That said, following Butch's footsteps is…inexact. We're talking about criminals and bars, after all. In the case of Kochevar's, no one can even agree on a date the place was built, let alone whether an outlaw on the lam actually dropped in for a beverage. And the tavern's Wild Bunch tale about a professional bank robber abandoning his weapon is open to debate.

Kochevar's is cavernous, with an old wood stove and red walls with green trim, like Santa's workshop gone to seed. A slot machine, circa 1899, sits in one corner. "All of the stuff is original, says Whitey. "Including our crowd. We do mostly local business. Construction guys, inexpensive beer. That's a crowd, I think as I sit down with an inexpensive beer, that Butch would be right at home with.

When I finally amble up the street to the Crested Butte museum, housed in an 1886 structure, I've decided I want to believe the abandoned gun story because the town shows such faith in something no historian has confirmed. "The story I heard was that he remembered to grab the bottle of whiskey they were drinking, but not the gun, says the museum's Bryan Turpyn. As legend has it, the gun was a cheap one, while the whiskey, apparently, was not.

Meanwhile, I don't have to take anyone's word about the skiing at the Butte. This town has been courting gunslinger attitude forever. It is, after all, home to the American Extreme Championships and the mountains's notorious Extreme Limits terrain.

But that's not the Butte's whole story. With most locals permanently preoccupied by the steeps, there's a mountain of cruising and powder glades that often goes unmolested. I spend the next morning rolling down blues off the Paradise and East River lifts, ducking into timber for long powder riffs. The vast carpet that rolls down from the Red Lady Express will soon be anchored by a much-needed new base village, part of an ongoing $57 million facelift.

You don't have to be an outlaw to love the Butte, anymore than you do to love the legend of Butch and Sundance. Cassidy and his Wild Bunch roamed the West like any good visitors, drinking and spending their way into the hearts of their hosts. In addition to buying endless rounds, "They made friends with ranchers and would give them money to help relay their getaway horses, says Redford. "So the ranchers liked them better than the law. I think their mythology was really carried on by the film, and they became classic American characters whom people never wanted to see die.

Where and when Butch and Sundance died is hotly debated by serious and not-so-serious Wild West scholars. Oddly enough, though, the tale of the leader of the Wild Bunch might end back on the slopes. Butch Cassidy researcher and author Larry Pointer (In Search of Butch Cassidy) makes a case that Butch didn't die until 1937, in Spokane, Ore., where he owned a firm whose primary subcontractor was the Riblet Tramway Company - a pioneering ski-lift manufacturer.

buying endless rounds, "They made friends with ranchers and would give them money to help relay their getaway horses, says Redford. "So the ranchers liked them better than the law. I think their mythology was really carried on by the film, and they became classic American characters whom people never wanted to see die.

Where and when Butch and Sundance died is hotly debated by serious and not-so-serious Wild West scholars. Oddly enough, though, the tale of the leader of the Wild Bunch might end back on the slopes. Butch Cassidy researcher and author Larry Pointer (In Search of Butch Cassidy) makes a case that Butch didn't die until 1937, in Spokane, Ore., where he owned a firm whose primary subcontractor was the Riblet Tramway Company - a pioneering ski-lift manufacturer.

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