R.I.P., Dick Orleans: Artist, wanderer and Estes Park leader

On May 12, Dick Orleans went into the mountains near Estes Park and didn't come home. At 11 p.m., Dave Orleans, Dick's older brother, got the call that he was missing. Soon after, police found Dick up in the foothills, a few yards from Fall River Road, dead after suffering a massive heart attack. The first thing Dave thought was, "Foxes."

Dave had visited his brother in Estes Park just a couple weeks earlier, and together they had gone to that same place. Dick, a musician and avid nature photographer, had once captured photos of the elusive black fox there. He told his brother that he wanted to see the animal again, but foxes are unpredictable. It would take time and dedication. Dave knew that it must have been the foxes that brought Dick back to the mountains that day.

During his 25 years in Estes Park, Dick Orleans had become more than just another great folk musician. He was an institution. Dick was the kind of person who made you feel like you were his best friend. He was the kind of person who sat in coffee shops to talk to strangers even though he didn't drink coffee. More than 700 people attended his memorial service.

Dick's love of nature had its roots in his childhood home in New Providence, New Jersey, where he and his siblings often went on adventures in the woods. The Orleans kids sometimes helped their father, an architect, while he was building the family home, and by the time Dick was in elementary school, he already loved to create.

In their house by the woods, each of the Orleans children was given one drawer to fill with anything he or she wanted. Dave's drawer was filled with bottle caps, baseball cards and comics, his sister's with collections and keepsakes. Dick's drawer had wires, bells, pieces of transistor radios -- things he could use to invent little gizmos and gadgets like his own homemade fuzz-tone machine. "I think seeing that drawer was when I first knew he was different," Dave says. "It's how I knew Dick fundamentally wanted to create."

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Though Dick would spend his entire life building electronic gadgets, his creative energy was ultimately directed toward a different outlet: music. With a mother who had a savant-like gift for the piano and a father who had a classical bent, music was a part of the Orleans family education. Dick and his five siblings all learned to play a big-band instrument early in life. From a young age, Dick played the saxophone. He kept a picture on the wall of his Estes Park home of one of his first bands, the Penetrators. In it, he and his bandmates are wearing matching black pants and red shirts for their performance at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Dick is the shortest; he hadn't hit his teenage growth spurt yet.

After some time spent playing the sax leads on "Tequila" and "Wild Weekend," Dick realized that girls didn't swoon over saxophone players the way they did over lead guitarists. So he started stealing his brother's baritone ukulele, training himself to play until he had mastered all the guitar licks on every Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin song. Eventually, his guitar playing got so good that instead of finishing college, he lit out on his own and spent years traveling across the country playing music out of his van, which he nicknamed the Big White Whale.

Both of Dick's brothers call him the adventurer of the family, the one who could just go on the road without a clue as to where his next meal would come from or where he'd make his bed. That kind of thing just didn't worry Dick. A strict vegetarian (and, for a time, a fruitarian), he would play at every health-food store he could find, singing and strumming for a bag of apples to get him through the day. He drove. He played. He connected. He lived simply.

Going through Dick's things after his passing, Dave found souvenirs from those traveling years. Somewhere in the Big White Whale, Dick had stashed correspondences with teenage girlfriends, photographs of all his bands, cards, records and notes on all of the songs he wrote. Forty years later, they were all still in his home.

"Dick always wanted to be free to go wherever and do whatever he wanted to do," says younger brother Jim. "That freedom was the one thing that kept his life fulfilled, but it's good to see that he also carried his roots with him."

When Dick's travels brought him to Estes Park, in the 1980s, he saw the mountains and knew he was home. He finally set down real roots, though not in the way that most people do. He married at the age of 55, but the union only lasted two years. Dick wanted his adopted home town to develop a music scene, so he started open-mic nights where rookies could play side by side with established artists like Wendy Woo. Dick believed in collaboration, not competition. Despite a full schedule of his own shows, he filled his weeks encouraging artists at his open-mic nights, recording EPs for unknown musicians in his home studio and inviting musicians into new musical collaborations.

In 1996, Dick formed the Elktones with three Estes Park residents (Brad Fitch, Brad Doggett and Mark Rashid), and all three members say that it was Dick who invited them to play at one of his open-mic nights and Dick who gave them the confidence to keep playing. They say he was devoted to giving everyone the chance to play music whether they were actually good at it or not. "We were the ones who were not," Doggett jokes.

After years of playing with the Elktones, Dick found a new creative outlet in the final years of his life: photography. The gentle nature lover was a natural. He would sit in the mountains for five, six or seven hours at a time with his camera, waiting for the perfect shot of a hummingbird, owl or pika. After so many hours of watching them, Dick felt a real kinship with the animals and thought about them often.

"I hope they have a place to keep warm tonight," says Dick's final Facebook post, from May 11 -- a caption to a photo he took of a hummingbird. When Dick went into the mountains the next day looking for foxes, it was snowing.

That night, police received a report of an abandoned truck with a dog inside on Fall River Road, and only had to follow the footsteps in the fresh snow to find Dick a few yards up the mountain. Dick had been taking photographs, and police found him sitting against a tree. The heart attack had killed him instantly. He looked like he was resting.

"He died exactly the way he lived," bandmate Brad Fitch says. "Doing things his way."

Doing things his way always did seem to work out for Dick. When his family finally got his camera back from the coroner's office, they found pictures of a black fox. "What a lucky guy," Jim says. "Who wouldn't want to go that way?"

Next month, Dick's brothers will be back in Estes Park to tie up some loose ends. Jim looks a lot like Dick -- enough to cause people in Estes Park to look twice when he walks down the street. When he was in town for Dick's memorial service, people recognized him everywhere.

"Everywhere I went, somebody knew me because they knew Dick. Everywhere I went, somebody told me how much they loved him. Who can say that? It brought home just how much he meant to this community."

When Jim and Dave return, they will spread Dick's ashes at the base of a pine tree on Giant Track Mountain -- Dick's home for most of his time in Estes. Dick chose the tree as the resting place for his younger brother, Dennis, and his mother, so it seems right for him to join them. The hike to the tree is a difficult one, and neither Dave nor Jim are spring chickens anymore. "That's Dick's place at that tree," Jim says, "so that's where Dick will stay. I think that's a fitting end."

As they were going through Dick's things in May, Dave and Jim found one of the earliest songs that their brother ever wrote. "Someday I'll end up a tree," the song's lyrics say. "Yeah, someday I'm gonna be a tree."

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