From Pueblo we pulled the caboose to a little campground about 12 miles north of Durango, where we rendezvoused with my infamous Great Uncle Skipper.
Giddings Castleman Brown IV received his moniker “Skipper” because his father went by “Captain” – and both of them certainly are larger-than-life characters. After graduating from military school, Uncle Skip pretty much reversed the direction his parents had set him on and sailed off on his own, disappearing over the horizon and getting lost in adventures – for eighteen years, no one heard from him.
When I met him, he had just hit 40 – I was 15. He was the General Manager of the historic Joseph P. Gage Hotel way out in Marathon, Texas. That’s Big Bend Country – Marfa Lights and desert oases, an arid landscape scarred with canyons, sprinkled with cacti, lizards, bones. It attracts an interesting breed. Willie Nelson types.
During that first visit Uncle Skip took me whitewater rafting on the Rio Grande, gave me my first kayak lesson, introduced me to the genius of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. On later visits he would teach me the proper way to eat bananas (frozen), a healthier way to drink coffee (black with honey), and how to not always live life behind a lens but take time to become absorbed in a landscape with both eyes open and just breathe.
I last spent time with Uncle Skip in the summer of 2006. I went camping with him and his two boys, Walker and Nolan, out on Bill Worrell’s place along the Llano River in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. Bill is a famous artist, most widely known throughout the Southwest for his sculpture work symbolizing Native American shamans. At the time the boys were 12 and 10. We spent the weekend paddling a canoe around a lazy bend of the river, swimming, catching frogs, and listening to Bill strum his guitar and sing into the night as we sat around a campfire.
Uncle Skip is in his 70s now, the boys are in their mid-20s. We rendezvoused with him and his crew at his friend’s private lake just outside Durango – spent the day on paddleboards and canoes, building sand castles, and playing catch-up.
Walker has been performing on a cruise liner for years, but he and his girlfriend lost their jobs thanks to COVID – they’ve set their sites on Broadway and will be moving to The Big Apple after spending the summer getting into adventures with Uncle Skip. Nolan lives in Austin, waiting tables at a swanky sushi restaurant and working on becoming an artisan wood-craftsman. Uncle Skip and I were joking about the gray in my beard when he said, “Hey, man, the only thing slowing me down these days is Mexican food and car problems.”
Then we spent a day at Mesa Verde National Park. Uncle Skip has spent a lot of time here and just like everywhere you go with him, he’s a walking encyclopedia about the area and becomes the de facto tour guide.
But things got derailed later that afternoon when we went to Cortez for dinner. When Uncle Skip parked his Honda Ridgeline, it petered out on him. Turned out it was the alternator. But it was Saturday evening. Stuck in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant with a vehicle needing a tow to Durango to a mechanic who wouldn’t open till Monday morning. As we stood by his truck waiting for the tow, Uncle Skip slapped his hand on my shoulder and chuckled, “Well, like I said. . .”
Two days later my crew was due in Pagosa Springs. We said our goodbyes for now and made loose plans to rendezvous again in late August. He was going to be in Ouray or Salida or maybe Buena Vista or maybe. . . .