Opinion: Cheers to books, scoundrels and elk

News  /  Opinion

John Hazlehurst

In trying times such as these, many of us seek refuge. We might go for a long bike ride, a hike in the mountains, a trail run, watch a Colombian telenovela or Seinfeld reruns — anything to escape the news. I choose my bookshelves.

Reading is in my blood. My mother opened her Downtown bookstore 100 years ago, and kept it going for more than 30 years. My paternal great-grandfather, after whom I am named, wrote a moving book about his years as a private soldier in the Civil War. My first cousin Charlie just published an account of my maternal great-grandfather’s experience in that war. The two young men faced each other in battle, but never met.

I have their books, and thousands more. Had I invested as much in the stock market as I spent on books, I’d be rich and miserable — books give me joy. So let me introduce you to some of them.

“Pikes Peak or Bust” and Historical Sketches of the Wild West was self-published in 1922 by John O’Byrne in Colorado Springs. The author is fondly remembered in Old Colorado City as the rapscallion who broke two elk to harness in the 1880s, hitched them up to a carriage and drove them through Denver and Colorado Springs.

Bragging about his exploits, O’Byrne turned to doggerel.

“In old town I cut quite a dash; I took many pains to spend all my cash. I drove through the streets with Laura Belle by my side — a span of elk, how fine we did ride…”

And he had fun in Denver.

“My elk team was always unwelcome in Denver (because they spooked horses). I have seen as many as three runaways at one time, women screaming at the top of their voices and the driver hanging on for dear life.”

And if you think O’Byrne is just spinning a fanciful yarn, the book is profusely illustrated with photographs of the elk, the author, and other regional oddities. He
mourned the decline of Colorado City and Cripple Creek.

“Today Cripple Creek is as tame and as docile as a lamb and too dead to skin… not a single man has been put in jail there the past year and a half,” he wrote. And “Today, old town resembles a dog with a bad case of the mange.”

Had I invested as much in the stock market as I spent on books, I’d be rich and miserable.

The book is cheerfully inscribed in the author’s flamboyant handwriting, including his address: 427 E. Bijou St., Colorado Springs.

Beside O’Byrne in the bookcase is a copy of Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Men, inscribed on the flyleaf “Alice Winslow, June 25 1871.” Alice was my grandmother’s older sister, who died during a train ride in the 1890s from Colorado Springs to Boston. Her handwriting was beautiful, as was she — I have a photo album with dozens of pictures of her and her sisters in Colorado Springs. I don’t think she ever read Little Men — the book is too pristine.

I treasure the past, but have added books since the 1950s (and no, keeping books isn’t hoarding!). Here are a few, randomly picked from a shelf: Jane Hilberry’s Body Painting, Archie Musick’s Musick Medley: Intimate Memories of a Rocky Mountain Art Colony, Don Street’s The Ocean Sailing Yacht, and Stewart Brothers’ Scenic Views of Pikes Peak. I love Jane’s intensely personal and ardent poems; Don was a pal in the West Indies 55 years ago; Archie’s book is a great read; and I love hand-colored photos from the 1920s. My favorite: anything by Nora Ephron, especially I Remember Nothing.

Jane’s inscription from 2005 still makes me smile, Archie’s daughter Pat is a pillar of the arts community, Don is still around at 90+ and Nora followed the regrettable example of so many people our age — she died.

And one last thing: O’Byrne named his elk Thunder and Buttons. Next time you’re at that OCC bar, raise a glass to a fine old scoundrel and his elk…

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