TELLURIDE – If you consider the globetrotting, adventure seeking, somewhat charmed life led by Jeff Badger, then the fusion menu he’s increasingly incorporating into his Thai restaurant Siam begins to take on a special meaning.
It all began when a young man who was born and raised in Kennebunkport, Maine and had never traveled out of New England got drafted into the Army in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War.
A former math major who left Nasson College in Springvale, Maine during his sophomore year, Badger was working in computer design for Honeywell when he got the notice.
Back then there were two options, he said.
“I didn’t agree with the war, but I didn’t particularly want to go to Canada,” he said.
“I hated the corporate cubicle world…so [getting drafted] saved me from that,” he explained.
He was sent to basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey where he signed up for helicopter training. It was an automatic four-year commitment and would put him in the thick of the fighting. But since flight school didn’t begin for another 90 days, the Army enrolled him in clerk school in the meantime.
It became clear to Badger toward the end of clerk training that his classmates were all going to be posted in Korea, which sounded good to him. So he rethought his plans for flight school.
“I withdrew my application for instant mortality and did my two years and that was it,” he said.
Based in Seoul as a private, he was officially reassigned to a smaller post for insubordination. The daughter of a four-star general had so caught his eye as she walked with her father that he forgot to salute the general.
It was supposed to be a type of punishment, but as fate would have it, the change of jobs and a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor certification landed Badger poolside as a lifeguard for the rest of the war.
“I was really lucky when I think of it,” he said.
“I had a lot of friends who were drafted and never came back.”
In 1970 he went to Bangkok for the first time while on leave.
“I really liked Bangkok because it really fed the senses,” Badger said, explaining how he was taken with the sumptuous silks and ornate temples he found there.
After completing his service in 1971 he returned to the States. A ski bum at heart he made his way to Breckenridge by way of California where he eventually owned a maid service.
Breckenridge then reminded him of Telluride now.
“People worked hard, played hard and skied hard,” he said.
In the winter of 1974 the economy turned south. Badger suspected he was about to lose most of his work and sold his business. He headed to Innsbruck, Austria, to finish the season and tuned skis for a commanding frau who made him get a haircut.
Next he got a job in Berlin washing dishes at the Templehof Air Force Base and lived in a Turkish neighborhood.
During a week’s vacation he headed to Amsterdam and life took another turn.
“I loved Amsterdam. It was a freak’s vacation,” he said.
Hippies with backpacks were on the road back then and Badger got a job driving for an underground bus company called Sunshine Travels which he did for a couple of years.
In the summer his route was a 48-hour jaunt from Amsterdam to Athens and then back. In the winter his busload took two months working its way to New Delhi, India. They traveled through places that seem almost inconceivable today: Tehran, Kandahar, Kabul, Peshawar, Islamabad, and Lahore among others.
“There was always a French couple on every trip that spent the whole time necking,” he laughed. “Every trip.”
“I really fell in love with Southeast Asia,” at that time, he said.
In 1977 he returned to the States hoping to make it home in time for his brother’s wedding in New Hampshire. He was a month and a half late.
Within days of arriving he had a life-altering car accident which formed the basis for another of his great passions, adaptive skiing.
The accident put Badger in the hospital for six weeks and left him needing a new left hip and with a leg that was paralyzed from the knee down. But rather than give up skiing, he just started doing it on one leg. Eventually he began teaching.
The upside of his accident was hospital visits from an employee of his father who became his wife. They settled down in New Hampshire and had a daughter, Molly.
With an itch to return to Breckenridge in 1998, Badger spent New Year’s Eve there. He was disappointed though, the streets were filled with drunk teenagers, he said.
“It wasn’t the same.”
He had heard good things about Telluride and so left Breckenridge in search of some peace and quiet and great skiing.
“I really, really liked it here. You could sit at the Sheridan or the Buck and unlike in Breckenridge or Aspen people never asked what you did,” he said.
But perhaps more importantly, people spoke with correct grammar.
“You’d ask someone, ‘How are you,’ and they’d answer ‘well,’” he explained.
“It speaks well of the average education level and that’s what endeared me to Telluride.”
When he finally moved here following a divorce from his first wife in 2001, Badger continued to teach adaptive skiing and counted his fellow instructors as his first circle of friends.
“They are a really selfless group of people,” he said.
Badger spent winters in Telluride and summers living on a boat off of North Haven Island, Maine. Nearby in Brunswick there was a Thai restaurant that seemed to change hands every few years, but was always good. In the summer of 2004 he stopped in, where he was met by the owners’ daughter. He told her of his travels in Thailand.
Once he was seated another woman waited on him. Then, strangely enough, she sat down at the table with him. They spoke and he found her charming.
“She was such a delightful woman,” he said.
Later he found out that the woman, Surang, who is now his wife, didn’t even work at the restaurant. She was visiting with the owners when Badger walked in and caught her eye. Her friends made her wait on him solely so they could meet.
The two became a couple and Surang moved to Telluride where she gained a reputation for her cooking.
“People would tell me, boy, we miss Thai food. People were always inviting themselves over to dinner,” he said.
And that is when the couple decided that they could make a go of opening a Thai restaurant.
In 2005 they opened Siam in Ridgway. After finding success there, they decided to take the plunge and open a second Siam in Telluride. Badger credits his daughter Molly, who is his general manager, and the restaurant’s basic philosophy for its success.
“We’re a local’s restaurant first and foremost,” he said.