JOHN PEEL/Durango Herald
STONER - Frank McDonald was resting in a hospital in Missouri, a day after a surgeon removed part of his cancer-ridden kidney. A friend called.
“Frankie, how would you like to own your own town?”
The friend's parents live along the West Fork of the Dolores River, just a couple miles from Stoner.
“I said, 'My own town?'” McDonald recalled.
“Check this out: Stoner, Colorado. It's a town, it's for sale. Just move out here, and let's grow some weed. Let's have some fun.”
With the passage of Amendment 64, the stage is set for new businesses to bud. McDonald, who credits medical marijuana for his comeback from kidney cancer, is poised to capitalize.
And dig this: He's naming the venue Mary Jane's at Stoner, in honor of Mary Jane, a real person who lives in a nearby shack. It's not hard to envision the Mary Jane's at Stoner marketing possibilities: T-shirts, coffee mugs, pipes, a brand of pot.
So sight unseen, in April 2011, four weeks after his partial nephrectomy, McDonald took the leap. His first visit to Stoner, to inspect his purchase, was a bit of a downer.
“It was bad. All the buildings were full of junk,” he said during a recent interview at the historic spot about 14 miles northeast of Dolores along Colorado Highway 145.
McDonald was only temporarily fazed by the state of the dilapidated buildings, which include a former restaurant/bar and general store not used since about the 1990s – other than by kids who come to hang out and drink and trash things. He created a vision for the 7-acre former townsite at the spectacular canyon mouth:
He sees a music venue that will attract nationally known acts and thousands of spectators on summer evenings. He pictures a community-oriented place where a variety of businesses may thrive, with an emphasis on philanthropy. And, in the spirit of the recently passed Amendment 64, he envisions a place where marijuana users gather and smoke and philosophize and eat munchies and enjoy the wilderness setting.
Barring a federal crackdown, Colorado's Amendment 64 will make it legal to possess, grow and sell “limited” amounts of marijuana in 2013.
McDonald sees Mary Jane's at Stoner as a family-friendly, cannibis-friendly, environment-friendly model for the new era.
“It's an opportunity to do it right and show the rest of the country why they should be doing the same thing,” says McDonald, who categorizes his values as sometimes conservative, sometimes libertarian. “I get to build my own town, under a new law, that says we have a right to choose whether or not we want to smoke marijuana.”
It's a bold vision, and time will tell if it works or even gets off the ground. There will certainly be doubters, but the 40-year-old comes from a hardscrabble background where people have doubted him all his life.
He was a foster child, on his own since age 13, he says. He dropped out of college, but later did well financially. With his father-in-law as partner, he became a business marketing consultant in Liberty, Mo., a Kansas City suburb.
The last couple years have set him back: He battled cancer, he's going through a divorce, and a year ago he rolled his truck 11 times to avoid a head-on collision on icy U.S. Highway 160 west of Durango. A sliding sedan with child seats was heading toward him, and he veered. He's still recovering from three “crunched” vertebrae and assorted injuries. (As it turned out there were no children in the oncoming car.)
The cancer claimed part of his kidney, then returned with three more lumps. He medicated with a marijuana product and the tumors vanished.
“I'm a living example of how it works,” he says.
With hired help, McDonald is fixing things up, but the work is expensive and slow. He says he was nearly ready to open last spring, but 100-mph winds in June blew down signs and tore off some of the roof. He's seeking a business partner, preferably someone who's an expert in construction or eateries.
In his vision, McDonald has laid out room for three stages, two cut into the hillsides. The main stage will have a food-serving area underneath. There will be free camping for concert-goers.
His vision is as grand as the scenery surrounding Stoner, apparently named after the adjacent Stoner Creek, which got its name in 1888, according to the book Colorado Place Names. Stoner Ski Area operated across the Dolores River valley from 1951 to 1985. (Look at the map: Rand McNally is well-aware of Stoner.)
And how cool is this: If you fudge the elevation just a tad, it's 7,420 feet. (If you don't get the 4-20 or Mary Jane references, look them up.)
It's a spectacular place, even if a bit off the beaten path. People connected to Stoner over the years have fond memories, passers-by tell McDonald.
“What I hear most, the one word that describes the place in their memory, is 'magical,'” he says.
So that's what eventually will be on the sign, the one that blew down and is now propped on the side of the restaurant:
“Welcome to Stoner. Share the magic.”
And please, you can hear future visitors say, share that other choice stuff you've got.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.