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."

He gave it, DJ hastens to add, in the form of a vast bar tab -- yet another reason those days are now the stuff of reverie.

"Winter nights, there was -- if you can believe it -- live music," he recalls, a little mistily, "and we'd all sit around here drinking. Tom had a liquor license, but he only ever served beer and wine, and he usually closed up early. We'd all go down the road to the Bryn Mawr or the Woodside, and by the next morning, we'd be back at the Buck Snort, and Tom would serve us eggs Benedict and Bloody Marys -- no charge, of course. Boy, that was the fun part."

No wonder DJ was perfectly content, in as close to a state of Buddhist non-striving as you can get living next to a bar in a tiny town in the Colorado foothills. He never cut a window from his house to the Buck Snort for ease of six-pack transfer, but that's his only regret.

Naturally, this is when the love of his life walked into his life. She'd come with a friend for a celebratory birthday lunch-and-beer and was so taken with Sphinx Park that she stayed to stroll around. Fate arranged for a view of Himstedt, stage right, in the unaccustomed role of Perfect Man.

"It's such a classic pick-up story," he says. "I had a brand-new puppy, and I was actually folding laundry. Imagine what she thought!"

DJ and Julie were married eleven years ago and spent their first year of married life in the Buck Snort house. ("They say children born in Sphinx Park are little sphincters," DJ says fondly.) After the birth of their first child, the Himstedts moved to a more populated part of the mountains, but they've never been more than an hour's drive from the Buck Snort, romantic location that it is. They often talk of moving back when the kids are gone.

"We were a strange bunch up here, but everyone helped everyone," DJ says. "If you started building a deck, there'd be six guys to help you, instantly. We pulled each other out of ditches. We ended up in ditches a lot, too. It was a great time of life. I should have been the mayor. I never stopped loving it."

It doesn't matter that Patton left for Virginia years ago, burned out by the mountain lifestyle, or that the bar is on its second round of owners since then: Musician Joe Bye, who plays most weekends, and his wife, Galena, bought it six years ago. DJ is loyal to the physical plant of the place as opposed to the personnel, and most of his favorites are still on the menu.

"Although now they have green vegetables?" he says, a little mystified. "Salad? Oh, well."

According to tradition, DJ orders the Forest Fire ($7.50), a half-pound burger topped with jalapeños and cream cheese. A Buck Snort burger, he says, is intended to be large and sloppy: If you put it down after picking it up, you sacrifice structural integrity. Today's version is large, all right, but also gray and dry -- not that DJ notices.

Julie's old favorite, Tom's Turkey sandwich ($7.50), has also suffered some alterations: The turkey's been sliced off a pressed-and-water-injected loaf, the bun is cafeteria in texture and whiteness, and the whole thing is slopped over with more scary guacamole. That smothered beef-and-bean burrito ($7.50) may possess magical curative effects, but in the light of day, it also evokes Denny's -- and the Philly Cheese Steak ($7.50) is in no way Philly, and certainly more floury than cheesy.

Though I would never say this aloud to DJ and Julie, I fear the Buck Snort is starting to believe its own publicity: Logo sweatshirts on sale for $50? Food that's mediocre, maybe even lazy?

But in the end, I blame myself. Who in his right mind comes to the Buck Snort to eat, for God's sake? If you need to -- for the sake of re-fueling, say, after fighting one of those wildfires that keep heading this direction -- stick to the appetizer side of the menu, where genuine bar food can always be found. The Buckskins ($7.75), a selection of baked-potato halves stuffed with taco meat, bacon, cheese and guacamole (ask the kitchen to hold that last ingredient) should keep you going.

The only problem being, now you don't want to go anywhere. For one thing, you'd need one hell of a designated driver to get home, unless you lived next door -- and hey, wouldn't that be great?

Sure enough, at this very moment, the lone customer at the bar seems to be reaching this same conclusion. "You know, it's so incredibly beautiful here," he tells the bartender in a voice tinged with the eastern seaboard. "I mean, I ought to at least get a camera for the next time I come here. It's its own little world. I don't know if it's this bar or this whole little town..."

As the Buck Snort effect takes hold on yet another customer, we sneak away -- through the town of Pine and up to Route 285 in Pine Junction, where all of a sudden cars seem to be whizzing by, as if they had someplace important to be, on time. Imagine.

"It was always hard," DJ says, "this coming back to civilization."

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff