Cafe Society

Head for the Hills

A trip to the Buck Snort Saloon is legendary, an outing in itself, a day's itinerary for out-of-town visitors. My own memories of the place always start with trying to get there in a substandard car -- the International with the haunted carburetor; the Baja bug missing a lug nut and, therefore, sometimes a wheel. I might add that my fuzzy memories often end there, too, before I get to even taste any food or swill the alcohol that just might have something to do with my recollections being wiped out. Yet once reminded of the Buck Snort, I can't get it off my brain, and go we must.

Up into the foothills and then down Route 83, one of those seasick-making two-lanes. Life itself seems to be getting smaller and smaller as we go. The signs no longer pertain to Conoco gas or the nearest Jiffy Lube, but to things that mattered a hundred years ago -- Clabber Girl baking powder, for example -- and they're barely legible. We end up in Sphinx Park, a small enclave of log cabins that was once a summer haven for Denver's upper class.

The Buck Snort itself started out as the colony's mercantile, but it's been a bar as long as anyone can remember. The log building is deep in the rocks and woods -- constantly threatened by fire, often evacuated, never burned. When reporting on local fires, Denver newscasters feel obligated to let the public know if the Buck Snort is still standing. They should, and it is.

So now here we sit on the Buck Snort's deck, soothed by the sound of Elk Creek running beneath us, our butts settled on sawed-off logs, our feet stuck on the porch rail, with a view of those miraculously preserved hundred-year-old cabins. I take my first bite of smothered burrito and BLAMMO! Instant hangover!

It can't be from the serious stock of beer inside the bar, because I haven't touched it. Fascinating: Both my sudden sensitivity to light and my desire to watch a big-screen TV through sunglasses appear to have come out of this burrito. It's a species unto itself, every last genetic tie to Mexico severed: gluey tortilla, beef granules grouted with lukewarm refrieds, glutinous green chile containing no discernible chile, slippery guac that hints of the deli case, and something ice cold -- oh, a lettuce shred -- and a glob of salsa with no more bite to it than a packet of ketchup.

But this burrito will save you from your indulgence, brother, and when you need it, you come down off your high horse and beg for it. It takes me back. It takes everyone here back.

"On a Saturday night, you could see horses tied up in front, Jags and Mercedes, the beat-up SUVs the climbers drove and, of course, the bikers' Harleys," recalls DJ Himstedt, who spent two and a half formative years living in the house just north of the Buck Snort. "The different groups would kind of eye each other from different corners, but no fights ever broke out. You needed to go up the road to the Bryn Mawr for that. In the winter, it was just the locals. That was the fun part."

John Elway rode up with his biker buddies; Neil Young appeared from time to time -- and was a jerk. In summer, the world-class rock faces nearby brought climbers from all over the country. DJ, like many others, had discovered the Buck Snort while riding his motorcycle around the mountains. Once he did, it became a regular stop. Then one day the stars aligned, and he learned that the house next door to the bar was about to become available. Rent was $450, and DJ had almost no obligations or expenses. He was single and self-employed, in the middle of transitioning from lawyer to private investigator. He moved in immediately.

"We had everything from entrepreneurs to locals who did whatever and had been here for years," he remembers. "Some may have been hiding from the law or an ex-spouse -- no one cared. I loved living next to the bar. No, it wasn't loud -- maybe just the thump of the bass on a Saturday night."

Soon he'd made himself indispensable to the man who owned the bar at the time, Tom Patton.

"I did his legal work," DJ says. "Mostly collecting bad checks. It was a matter of principle to Tom; he just hated that someone would do that to him. You can get triple damages from people who ignore two collection letters. I'd end up with that plus process-serving fees, investigative fees -- I could end up with $400 for a fifteen-dollar check, and Tom gave me everything but the original amount of the check."