They were inclined toward an adventurous and anachronistic lifestyle from the start. As schoolteachers in southern California, Ted and Katie spent their summers camping and going to Renaissance fairs.
Later, they got deeply involved in the Rendezvous movement inspired by fur trappers’ gatherings of 150 years half ago – lively affairs at which men and women take on the personas of trappers, traders and frontiersmen.
Ted, a towering genius who is a direct descendant of Rembrandt, is well known for his paintings of the early American West. He attended the Rendezvous for inspiration. “I’m fascinated with the world we live in, and the legacy of the early West that we have; that manifests itself in the work I do,” he said.
Katie, a petite beauty with smoky eyes and long dark hair, looks as if she could have stepped out of one of Ted’s Native American paintings. Actually, she traces her roots back to Daniel Boone and Samuel and John Adams.
Living off the grid in a tiny log cabin at 10,000 feet seemed a natural progression for them both.
“We had no phone of any sort back then,” Ted said. “If someone wanted us, they had to write us a letter. We really liked that, actually.”
The San Juan Mountains had carved a place in Ted’s heart early on in life. His brother-in-law had a sawmill over on Lone Cone, where he cut timbers for the mines near Telluride. From the time Ted was 11 or 12, in the 1950s, he would get out of school seasonally to help out, riding the bus from his home in the mountains west of Denver to Ridgway, then hopping a ride on the Galloping Goose to Placerville, where his brother-in-law would pick him up.
Ted loved it all, working with a team of horses, skidding logs. “It was the most beautiful place I could think of. Telluride was almost a ghost town at the time. You could throw a rock through half the windows in town and not hit anything.”
So years later, when he and Katie were searching for reprieve from the frenetic Southern California lifestyle, Ted was drawn back to the area.
“We were trying to decide where to go and I said, ‘Well, I know just the place,’” he recalled. The trajectory from idea to action was effortless. They simply piled the kids in the car and headed to Colorado.
WORTH THE EFFORT
They looked at a lot of mining claims, but really didn’t find anything they liked until they discovered an undeveloped subdivision on Last Dollar Road between Ridgway and Telluride, once part of legendary rancher Marie Scott’s vast domain.
It was late March. Ted had to wade through waist-deep snow to get a look at the land, which was spectacularly situated – seven miles from the nearest highway, backed by 3.5 million acres of Bureau of Land Management wilderness on one side and what is now the Double RL Ranch on the other.
It was well worth the effort.
“I found what I needed, which was this land right here,” he said. “There had been a pretty good beetle kill, so there were enough of the right-sized logs up on the ridge to build a cabin. And the creek was right here, so there was plenty of rock for building the foundation; and there was of course water.”
Being teachers, Ted and Katie didn’t have much money to speak of. But prices were dirt cheap, and they had just paid off their truck, so they were able to scrape together the downpayment. On April 1, 1977, they bought the land – 26 acres snuggled into a wooded draw at the foot of Hayden Peak near the west end of the Sneffels Range.
“We built this whole cabin originally for a little over $3,000...and a lot of work,” Ted said.
He cut and skidded all the logs himself, hauling some of them to a sawmill in Norwood to make lumber and planking for the cabin’s rafters and flooring. He dug out the root cellar by hand, with a pickaxe and shovel. The foundation and fireplace were made of river rocks and concrete mixed with sand from the creek.
“We used no machinery at all,” he said. “Nobody was up here. Just us. We didn’t have the money for a backhoe.”
Katie, meanwhile, was on endless log-peeling duty.
“All the pictures we have of Katie at that time are of her rear end, because she’s bent over peeling logs,” Ted said.
The original cabin was tiny – just 700 square feet. Today, many additions later, it is over twice that size.
At first, the family stayed there just in the summer; Ted’s older sons Marty and Terry were teenagers at the time. Life at the cabin was a big adjustment for them.
“When we first started out, they were used to having TV and nice clothes and friends around,” Ted said. “They had to learn to get along with each other, because there was nobody else around.”
For the younger two kids, Matt and Megan, this place was all they ever knew.
The woods and mountains grew on the family, and within a year or two, they were loath to leave at summer’s end, to go back to California.
When Katie had to quit teaching, for health reasons, she said to Ted, “Let’s just stay!”
Ted took a leave of absence from his job teaching ceramics and sculpture at the university level. “I had enough art commissions to last me for two years,” he recalled. “I said, OK, I can do it right now, and we’ll try it for two years, and see.”
By Christmastime, the snow had piled in, soft, white, silent pillows five feet deep, insulating the cabin from winter’s cold, and they knew they’d made the right choice.
Katie kept the hearth warm, and maintained the path through the deep drifts to the outhouse. “We used to have a little potbellied stove in this little corner right here,” she said. “Its name was Howard.”
“That’s right,” Ted chimed in. “Howard the Stove.”
Every night, Ted would read the kids fairy tales – Norse myths, mostly – and Katie, an accomplished folk singer, played the guitar by lantern light. At bedtime, Matt and Megan would climb a ladder to the loft.
“It was just wonderful,” Katie said. “That’s how they grew up.”
A GREAT LIFESTYLE
Katie had a wolf hybrid named Blue who was her faithful friend and cabin-mate for 17 years. “She would sleep with me at night,” Katie said. “I had Crohn’s [disease], and when my Crohn’s acted up, she would stay right there by me.”
“By her side,” Ted said. “Sometimes days at a time.”
Over the course of a winter, the snow would pile up so deep Blue would walk up on the roof and look in through the skylight when she was ready to come in.
It was a seven-mile snowmobile ride over unplowed county roads to get to Highway 62 on Dallas Divide. Their first snowmobile was a 1956 Evinrude. “It was worthless,” Ted said. But it did the job of getting them back and forth to civilization.
While Ted and the children were out in the world, Katie became engulfed in tides of solitude. “I did worry sometimes, but I had my wolf,” she said.
One snowy winter morning, when Ted was taking the kids to school, Katie recalls standing in the woods and having the thought, “I’m the only one in this world.”
She kind of liked the feeling. “We were young, and it was thrilling.”
Every season had its own beauty. In the spring, the creek would thaw out and start running again. Come summer, cow parsnips fringed the lawn area, and right out the window were lupin, six feet tall. Autumn days, the cabin basked in the golden aspens’ liquid light.
Then the snows would return, burying the cabin until it became a cozy well-insulated cave, and you couldn’t see out the windows at all. In the winter of 1983, it snowed so much that the cabin was still surrounded by drifts on the Fourth of July.
As the years went by, the cabin evolved to better fit the family’s needs. Ted added on a galley kitchen. A pantry. A downstairs bathroom, and then an upstairs one. A bedroom for teenaged Matt, so he didn’t have to share with his sister. A study, and then a studio for Ted, although often his art projects would migrate into the main living quarters.
One winter, the larger-than-life clay bust of a Ute Indian chief lived on the dining table as Ted worked on it for several months. “We’d add things to it from time to time,” Katie giggled.
“Yeah, they’d help me out,” Ted rolled his eyes. “They’d put warts on his nose, and they’d put big lips on him. Helping me, you know. Pigtails. They’d put pigtails on him.”
Other improvements came along as well. Running water. Electricity. A two-way radio, then satellite phone, and later, high-speed Internet.
“It was a great lifestyle,” Ted said. “The kids went to school in Ridgway. Ridgway had no drug problems. No racial problems. No theft. It was a time machine, compared to L.A. I think we gave them a quality of life they’d have missed otherwise.”
Today, the cabin seems to have a warm, living soul all its own. Its nooks and crannies are full of things, but somehow it all fits and doesn’t seem cluttered.
Hanging over Ted and Katie’s bed is a picture of horses and mountains that Ted drew on the back of a piece of wallpaper when he was 8 years old.
“He was just born with that stuff in him,” Katie said proudly.
Other walls are adorned with buckskin dresses that Katie designed and made, and wore to Rendezvous, and her intricately beaded “possible bags” of Crow Indian design.
Antique saddles hang on the balcony upstairs – a little deep-seated saddle, made in the 1920s, that Katie used to ride in all the time, and a woman’s astride saddle, dating from the penultimate turn of the century. “And that one with the iron horn is one that’s been in my family for a long time,” Ted said. “I used it when I was a boy, and it was old then.”
There’s a bench from Old Mexico that Ted bought from a trading post and restored with a leather seat. “We’ve had it so long, the leather seat’s fallen apart on it now,” he said.
In the downstairs bathroom, there’s a half-sized claw-foot tub that Ted traded for a painting years ago, when he brought indoor plumbing to the cabin. It is quite a stretch to imagine Ted folding his long legs into the dainty reservoir.
Ted’s studio is a fascinating juxtaposition to the deeply sheltered isolation of these woods, and an insight into his character as an artist and craftsman.
Over the course of a fertile career, he has painted, drawn and sculpted hundreds of watercolors, drawings, prints and bronzes.
In recent years, he has become something of a legend for his wrought iron designs. He collaborates with blacksmiths all over North American, on diverse projects from Maine to California, Canada to Mexico, and right here in Ouray County, where he was a key player in the restoration of Vince Kontny’s Centennial and Last Dollar ranches.
Ted also has a talent and passion for architectural design. In Ridgway, his work can be readily seen in the artful elegance of the Decker Building, with its many colonial details and its Old World courtyard.
He has also built some fine cabins and horse barns – almost 60 in all – for the likes of Kontny and Ralph Lauren – in addition to restoring dozens of old ranches, even a couple of historic forts.
But his pièce de résistance might just be this off-the-grid cabin he built for his own family 35 years ago.
The place still speaks sweetly of home. Light filters in through the windows, bathing the living space in a soulful patina. The roof has seen its share of abuse from heavy snow loads, and Ted has replaced the old mortar with acrylic chink that expands and contracts with the logs, and prevents air intrusion.
By and large, the cabin is taking care of itself. It has held up well.
“You can feel how comfortable it is,” Ted said. “It takes nothing to heat it, and in the summer, it’s cool.”
A solar array with storage batteries provides enough electricity for everything but pumping the water that comes from a thousand-gallon cistern buried in the hillside. Katie runs the propane generator about once a day.
OFF THE GRID
Living miles from the nearest highway, many of Ted and Katie’s off-the-grid battle stories stem from their long winter commutes, which often entailed getting lost in white-outs, dealing with stuck snowmobiles, and sometimes both.
When Megan and Matt got old enough, they commuted on their own, traveling by snowmobile to the Last Dollar Road parking lot, and from there, driving themselves to school.
“Any time there was a blizzard, it was automatic that Megan and Matt would stay with friends in town,” Katie said. “We had made arrangements. We knew when there was a blizzard, they would not come home.”
But sometimes they tried. One time, Matt didn’t make it.
“It was a howling blizzard. He’d called us from town and then we never heard another word,” Ted recalled, still grim-faced at the memory. As time stretched on, Ted lumbered out into the blizzard to search for his son.
“I went all the way down to the parking lot and there’s the vehicle but there’s no tracks anywhere and his snowmobile’s gone.”
Finally, he noticed a glow far off in a ravine. It turned out to be the headlight of Matt’s upside-down snow mobile, damaged but still running, with Matt lying unconscious beside it in the snow. He had veered off the trail, and hit a rock that jammed the snowmobile’s ski into its motor.
“If that thing hadn’t have still been running I’d never have found him,” Ted said.
One way to measure the passage of time is by the family dogs. Briar Rose came after Blue. Then there was Bluebell, whom Katie just lost to cancer.
“I mourned, but I couldn’t do without a dog,” she said. “So I went to the dog shelter and I found Quigley,” who with his floppy ears, smiling eyes and shaggy black and white coat, just might be the happiest dog in the world. He dances around Katie’s feet as she and Ted head outdoors for a stroll.
They share this forest not only with wild critters of all kinds, but also the whispered presence of the homesteaders who once lived here before them. Mature aspens on their property bear graffitied witness to this past. It’s like the Facebook of a century ago, carved into gray-scarred tree trunks.
“Max Garcia. Herding sheep for Hoffman. Is ‘reigning’. Start running.”
“Four big brown bear passed here just now.”
“Used 50 horses building the flume.”
“After the damn bull again, 1902.”
“Killed my first bear.”
“Set the big trap, cot nothing.”
“Dad died today.”
Then there are the pornographic trees. “Because they got kinda lonesome out here,” Ted explained.
There once was a dance hall up here on the mesa; ranchers would come from as far as McKenzie Springs and Placerville in their buckboards. They’d dance all night, and then go back in the morning to take care of their horses and cattle.
“There were a lot more people up here then,” Ted said. “There were homesteads everywhere. We’ve run into a few of their descendants and talked to them, about the schoolhouses and dances and hard times.”
AT THE END OF THE ROAD
Now that the children are grown and leading fulfilling, adventurous lives of their own, Ted and Katie are free to leave the woods behind and range the planet more frequently.
They make annual visits to their Balinese-inspired second home on the Big Island in Hawaii that Ted designed and built himself. It’s perched 12 feet off the ground in a lush aerie with enchanting views of a nearby lagoon.
“We didn’t clear the land; we left these giant palm trees around, and they just cover the house. It’s Ted’s treehouse,” Katie said, proud as ever of all the remarkable things Ted has built with his hands and heart.
Ted and Katie are the first to admit they have the best of both worlds. Both of their homes are “at the end of the road;” both exist in harmony with the nature of the place.
“Part of my design ethic is that a home has to fit its environment,” Ted said. “The land, the views, the climate, the people. It’s all part of the picture.”