The Powderhorn Valley between Lake City and Gunnison Colorado is strikingly beautiful and harshly forbidding. The Valley has seen settlers come and go. It’s the stuff of legend. Many famous and infamous folks have wandered through or staked a claim there. Map descriptions bely the danger. There’s Robber’s Roost, high above Fish Canyon, where Butch Cassidy’s gang stashed some loot. That’s not far from Cannibal Plateau where Alferd Packer killed and ate his traveling companions.
Some memorable types included Gassy Thompson, a notorious swindler who worked with Jefferson “Soapy” Smith to bilk the US Government out of ‘tunnel money’. They agreed to build an alpine tunnel and instead created a wooden tunnel that they covered with canvas. They showed it to the Government auditors during winter and near nightfall. It was convincing enough. Soapy and Gassy took the money and left. Soapy was a successful fraudster, he used the tunnel money and ill-gotten gains from his “Prize soap” racket to fund his criminal empires in Creede, Colorado and Skagway, Alaska. Skagway is where he ultimately died in the notorious shoot out on Juneau Wharf on 08 July 1898.
Then there’s Robert Ford. Like Soapy, Bob used the Powderhorn Valley as the shortest distance between Gunnison and Creede. Ford was the “dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard”, Mr. Howard being the alias for Jesse James. After Bob Ford ambushed and killed Jesse with a shot to the back of his head, he became famous. Bob Ford and his brother Charlie were both members of the fearsome, bank robbing Cole-Younger gang. They used their notoriety and the murder of Jesse James to their advantage, first to wrangle a pardon from the Governor of Kansas, next, to make money in live theater portraying Bob’s murder of Jesse James over and over for an eager public. Sooner than later, Bob Ford’s fame turned into enmity from a public that thought the Ford brothers were traitors rather than heroes. Bob Ford survived an assassination attempt (someone tried to remove his head with a knife) and that solidified Bob’s resolve to flee the real world for the even wilder west.
Back then, there was nothing further from the rest of the world than Creede, Colorado. The Powderhorn Valley was a close second. Once through the Powderhorn Valley, Ford settled in Creede where just a few months later he was gunned down by a Powderhorn regular, Edward O’Kelley.
Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. There were some very good, memorable people that settled in the Valley, too. I remember Shelly and my first trip to ‘The Horn’. We fell for the beauty, remoteness, wildlife and couldn’t get over the million acres of national forests and our historic Ranch that backed up to 62,000 acres of primitive wilderness. I remember our first fight in the Powderhorn Valley. It was Shelly and I against the US Government; our aim was to save the historic 81243 zip code AND the post office which was established in 1880. We found fast friends those first few months. The Yeager’s, The Youmans, the Sammons and Lehman’s. Oh, and of course, the Van Dyke’s.
COVID has kept me from meeting with Bill and Patti Van Dyke in person. It’s kept Brian Marren and I from hosting Bill on the Left of Greg podcast, but it hasn’t stopped the US Mail (we saved that Post Office, by the way) and the delivery of a simple letter that contained 20 questions I sent off to Bill. From time to time I intend to corral an old, crusty veteran and ask them 20 questions. The answers will eventually be memorialized in an upcoming ‘Lessons Learned’. Bill Van Dyke will be the first.
I would rather interview an amazing veteran now than have to read about their heroism in an obituary. Let’s get to know a hero, veteran, husband and brother, Milton W. “Bill” Van Dyke II.
Greg: Why’d you choose to go by Bill?
Bill Van Dyke: I was Billy as a kid and I sure didn’t want to start the 5th grade as ‘Billy’, so I changed it to Bill and liked it. When my dad died my Mom used Bill. I grew up then and there (when dad died). I have been using the name Bill for 83 years and have entered the dislike stage. Perhaps I’ll finish this chapter of my life as Milton.
Greg: So, who’s tougher, you or your brother Dave Van Dyke (also a settler in the Powderhorn Valley)?
Bill Van Dyke: I’m tougher physically; Dave is tougher mentally.
Greg: How is it that your lovely wife Patti has put up with you for so long?
Bill Van Dyke: We are a great team. Back then, Tom, my business partner, suggested we have a meeting with some of his well-heeled friends. The plan was to offer them ownership shares in our newly erected company. Together, we raised enough money to purchase two houses. The economy in Huntington Beach, California tanked and we moved our interest to Colorado. Patti was living and working in Thornton, Colorado. She took lead in arranging lodging for our business meeting. Once on the ground in Thornton, I met Patti. We hit it off and the rest is history!
Greg: What made you settle in the Powderhorn?
Bill Van Dyke: I had a hunting and fishing buddy named Joe. When I was stationed at Robins Air Force Base in Huston County, Georgia, Joe found me and we shared old times. We started to talk hunting and he invited me to his place in Gunnison, Colorado. I accompanied him on an elk hunt in Gunnison County and I was hooked. Joe had seven horses which were summer grazing in the Powderhorn Valley. I came to his place on Highway 149 and we drove out to Powderhorn.
The Powderhorn Valley
[Bill continued] We were driving and when we ‘fell off’ the Nine Mile Hill and losing elevation, almost to Powderhorn, I started seeing the valley. By the time I got to Powderhorn I was overwhelmed. Having flown the world over I now saw before me the most beautiful valley of any continent in the world. I said to Joe, “if you hear of a ranch for sale please give me a call”. He did, 5 months later. Needless to say, I was in Powderhorn and hunting with Joe that season. I spent several hours looking at the 88 acres and talking with the owner. Within a year, my name was on the title.
Greg: What is your favorite memory of the Powderhorn Ranch?
Bill Van Dyke: My favorite memory was my neighbor killing a lion on an unforgettable track and hunt. [Authors note. The Powderhorn Valley has some of the highest concentrations of mountain lion in Colorado. To fully put that in perspective please note that Colorado and California have the highest populations of mountain lions in the United States. California has about 3,100 mountain lions and the high-density lion habitat in Colorado is home to perhaps 7,000 mountain lions].
Greg: What the funniest thing that ever happened to you in the Valley?
Bill Van Dyke: One year, Patti’s little dog was grabbed by a young mountain lion in our front yard. Patti walked within 11 feet of that lion and started hollering at it, “you drop my dog right now and get the hell out of here”. The young lion did exactly that. By the time I got my rifle that lion was in the timber. We had lots of laughs after that one.
Greg: What’s the most tragic?
Bill Van Dyke: My first wife’s death.
Greg: Let’s get to your military career. How long did you serve in the military?
Bill Van Dyke: I spent 21 years in the US Air Force.
Greg: What did you do in the Air Force, Bill?
Bill Van Dyke: I was a navigator on a C5. [Authors note. The C5 Galaxy is a huge military transport and cargo aircraft. With its amazingly large payload and amazing range, it’s one of the largest and most revered military aircraft in the world].
Greg: Your career began in the 1950’s. Your career included Vietnam, is that correct? What was that like?
Bill Van Dyke: I was sent to Vietnam. I was proud to serve.
Greg: What keeps America great and strong?
Bill Van Dyke: The US Constitution.
Greg: What weakens America?
Bill Van Dyke: Violating the Constitution. Tampering with my freedoms. Violating the first and second amendments.
Greg: What scares you the most?
Bill Van Dyke: Heart attacks, strokes and COPD.
Greg: How do you work through that fear?
Bill Van Dyke: My mind.
Greg: What advice would you give a young American boy or girl growing up in ‘COVID19’ America?
Bill Van Dyke: Follow 100 percent of the doctor’s recommendations.
Greg: Bill, you know that the suicide rate for Veterans is horribly high. What advice would you give a young marine, soldier, airman or sailor thinking of committing suicide?
Bill Van Dyke: Seek help. Help is much more readily available than when I was in. See a psychologist immediately. Enlist the aid of the VA. If your symptoms are serious enough, get to an emergency room or call 911.
Greg: What’s the best attribute of a dear friend you lost that you miss?
Bill Van Dyke: Two dear friends I lost when their C124 four-engine cargo aircraft they were flying over the Atlantic Ocean and all engines failed. Their plane went to the bottom of the ocean with all hands. The parts of the plane and the people were never found. Both were outstanding people. The navigator taught me the precise nature of navigation. The pilot taught me how to fly, everything but taking off and landing. [Authors note. Two significant C124 crashes occurred during Bill’s career. The C124 through C133 class aircraft were part of the military airlift command. The C124 Globemaster earned the nickname “old Shaky” from its pilots and crews. The first significant crash that Bill spoke about was when a Douglas C124 Globemaster II of the 2nd Strategic Support Squadron of the SAC (Strategic Air Command) had to ditch in high seas in the Atlantic Ocean after all engines failed. While the ditching and evacuation was successful and confirmed by radio, by the time the Coast Guard Cutter Casco arrived, the aircraft and all occupants had vanished. The crew and the wreckage have never been located or recovered. The second crash that Bill spoke of was from a 1952 crash in Alaska that claimed all on board and again, was never located. Only recently has wreckage been discovered. The final crash that Bill talks about occurred between Wake Island Airfield and Hickam Air Force Base on Honolulu].
Greg: What’s the best attribute of a dear friend still with us?
Bill Van Dyke: I have a dear friend, an excellent welder and part time cowboy for 25 years. Today, he is a full-time rancher and a very good cowboy running 130 cows. He runs a very successful operation. Back in the late 1990’s he took me under his wing and taught me how to be a half-assed rancher. After flying for 21 years, you could not ask for a better friend on the ground. You might suspect it’s hard to ride a horse in the cargo area of a C-5 aircraft or strap it in on takeoff or landing! Coincidentally, when I was flying a Cessna 175 or 180 the only animals I took on board were my wife and kids.
Greg: Well, Bill, that was 20 questions. I completely appreciate your candor. You are a true American hero and a valued friend. Thanks for your service to our great nation and thanks for being an amazing neighbor down the valley when Shelly and I owned The Powderhorn Ranch. I wonder if you have room for one more question? What would you change if you could go back and ‘do it all over again’?
Bill Van Dyke: Nothing. Nada. Not one thing.
Brian Marren and I have been trying to score an interview with Bill since COVID began. The virus, the subsequent pandemic and our conflicting travel schedules made it impossible to meet with Bill. Had it not been for ‘saving’ the Powderhorn Post Office with the help of Bill and Patti Van Dyke, this interview may have never occurred.
So What? What’s in it for me? Well, if you factor in that the active-duty population in the US Military is about 1.2 million that means only 0.4 of the US population serves in the Military. If you add all of the Veterans who have served, you get less than 7.3 percent of all living Americans who have ever served in the military. Because of age (natural death) and suicide, those numbers are changing every day. If you look at a historical perspective (both living and dead Veterans) that percentage drops to around 1.0 percent of the population.
There are Veterans living in every postal code, in every corner of America. They have more amazing stories and heroic tales than the library in your hometown. They have sacrificed more than you can imagine. Part of building your resilience and protecting theirs should be a regular dose of meeting with and talking with our nation’s military veterans while they are still with us.
Do yourself a favor. Reach out and have a conversation with a Veteran today.
Training changes behavior.