Tossing some stories and bolas with old buddies

John Peel/Durango Herald

Steve Chapman lights the campfire while engineers Ken Dvorak, center, and Jim Wadge make sure he does it right and doesn’t get hurt.

So, what happens when four friends get together at a remote lake high in the Colorado mountains 35 years after they graduated together from high school? What dangerous hijinks ensue?

Hang on tight, folks:

Ladder Ball.

What, you’ve never heard of Ladder Ball?

In the tradition of Jarts (lawn darts) and corn hole (hey, I didn’t name it), Ladder Ball, generically ladder toss, is a great lawn or tailgating game that can turn a dull party into a rollicking fun time.

Or not. The quantity of available alcohol seems to have a major effect on the amount of frivolity.

But let’s not get too sidetracked. This story is only tangentially about ladder toss. It really is more about reuniting a group of friends who, since high school, have come together less often than the moon has fully blotted the sun.

We traveled from Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Denver and Durango for this rare confluence. The occasion? That’s what impressed me: There was none.

We met in Leadville on a Thursday afternoon and caravanned into the San Isabel National Forest not too far from the Continental Divide. The best nearby spot for a group of soon-to-be-rowdy adults wanting to act like kids was a half-mile up a four-wheel-drive road pocked with rocks, holes and mudbogs. This would set us apart from other campers, give us the half-mile or so noise buffer we would likely need.

After passing that road test, we settled into our spot next to a lily-covered lake.

Jim got out the Camp Chef Pro 60 and made us dinner, which he’d promised to do all three nights because he recently became a vegan. Jim – a vegan? This is the guy I used to cook chili-cheese dogs with at Der Wienerschnitzel. In the old days, on our return from gruelling backpacks, only the thought of pizza or burgers kept us plodding along. Seemed unlikely he was a vegan, but I figured some woman must’ve converted him.

Then I saw the menu: hamburgers, steaks, chicken fajitas. Of course. Jim not eating meat would be like me not eating doughnuts and muffins.

No, I can’t say any of us has changed too outrageously since high school. We have changed enough that we no longer play car chase around the tight neighborhood streets at 1 a.m. until we can smell the brakes. And we no longer have parties that include Hawaiian Punch and Everclear (a 190-proof alcohol prohibited in 14 states).

My wife laughs when I try to convince her “I used to do some bad s--.” I guess it’s funny – no one got hurt, as far as I remember.

These days, Jim makes things fly. Ken mines gas and oil. Steve, obviously, the smartest of us all, in 1991 married a soon-to-be highly successful biopatent attorney.

Conversation swung from the old days to the present and everywhere in between as we caught up on events and people. Which of our friends got married. Who died. Who got thrown in jail. Who should’ve been thrown in jail.

One truth hit me hard: I was fortunate to have such good, talented and smart friends in high school. Friends who’ve stuck with me over the years, and who still welcome me into their lives.

Friends like Ken, who hosted a spontaneous reception at his house after my father’s funeral. Friends like Jim, with whom I shared some of my greatest early outdoor adventures. And friends like Steve, whose favors and deeds would take years to repay.

To show them how I felt, I did the only thing I could: I beat ’em all down real good in Ladder Ball. It could’ve been horseshoes, although the clanging can get a little annoying. It could’ve been Jarts, although those were banned in 1988 after a little girl was killed by her brother’s errant throw.

But because we didn’t have enough Frisbees for disc golf and Ladder Ball was handy in my garage, it was Ladder Ball. You throw what’s called bolas – two balls connected by a light rope – at an upright, three-runged ladder. To score points, you loop the bolas around the rungs.

They told me I was merciless, winning every game I played. I don’t believe that, mainly because I don’t remember that. (If necessary, refer back to the sixth paragraph about frivolity.)

Somehow, we managed to hike nearly 10 miles the next day. I was following signs that seemed to lead directly to one of the 10th Mountain Division huts, but we instead wound up at some lakes at 11,800 feet up against the Continental Divide. Sometimes, you get lucky.

The next day included a similarly spectacular hike and dinner, although not as much alcohol for some of us.

Have we slowed down a bit, become a little more conservative and seen our hairlines recede a tad? Well, yes. But for now at least, we’re all intact.

So now we’re back in our respective cities, back into our work and family lives – the roles that have consumed our last couple of decades. I see why young people often try to put off “real life” as long as possible. Jobs, careers, spouses, houses, families – all important to our social fabric – can create barriers to the relatively carefree existence one enjoys in high school.

Life is often about tradeoffs. We yearn for simplicity, but we require the stability that those tradeoffs (jobs for living needs, families for companionship) provide.

On my drive back to Durango, I couldn’t help but wonder:

If those four people who walked across the stage to get their high school diplomas in 1979 were to judge what they’d become 3 decades later, would they be proud? Disappointed? Amused?

My guess is there might be a little of each of those sentiments. But if they saw how much fun we were having at our recent get-together, they surely would have wanted to join in.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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