The village of Lake City, Colo. is 49 miles over Slumgullion Pass from Wagon Wheel Gap or, if you're coming from the north, it's 25 miles from Powderhorn on Highway 149. But don't bother yourself if you forget these jiffy instructions. Just drive to Saw Pit or Bedrock or Cimarron or Telluride or any other southwestern Colorado town and ask somebody how to get to Perk Vickers' place. Better ask a Republican, though. Perk has been Republican chairman of Hinsdale County for 22 years, and the handful of Democrats around Lake City resent the fact that out of the county's 208 permanent population—second lowest in the U.S.—Perk somehow gets 250 or 300 of them to vote in every election, and most of them Republican. "We got a lot of absentee ballots," Perk explains, while the outnumbered Democrats peer from their hiding places and exchange knowing glances. Politically Lake City and Hinsdale County have changed little since an itinerant guide named Alferd Packer killed and ate five of his companions and elicited one of history's most pungent accusations: "They was siven Dimmycrats in Hinsdale County, but you, yah voracious man-eatin' son of a bitch, yah et five of them!"
Out at Perk's ranch, just south of town, the boys like to come in from the day's labors and discuss the irremediable blow dealt to Lake City's democratic machinery by the political actionist Alferd Packer. "What could you expect of a man couldn't even spell his own first name?" Perk says, while his wife Emma Jean warns him not to gloat. The other subject that is always good for a long discussion is trout: care and feeding, habits and environments, future and prospects and general history. Perk's brothers, Joe the cattle rancher and Bob the gold miner, convene in the little office cluttered with ore specimens, fly boxes, daguerreotypes of Vickerses dead and gone, aromatic old saddles and an ancient safe that looks as though it just fell off the Wells Fargo stage from Durango. In the rare and narrow interstices of their conversations one can hear the murmur of the storied Gunnison Riser's lake fork, which starts as a single, silvery drop way up above Sloane's Lake at 13,000 feet, drops quickly to timberline and thence through old mining camps, beaver-dam country, sheer-walled canyons, a deep lake called San Cristobal, over the foam of Argenta Falls, past Perk's place and into more canyons and meadows until it finally joins up with the main branch of the Gunnison 50 miles away. Every inch of the lake fork is loaded with trout. Well, not every inch. Well, not really "loaded" anymore. That's one of the things the boys argue about, the Gunnison River then and now. "Used to be the trout would swim over to the bank and wriggle into your creel." "No, it didn't used to be that way at all. Used to be the mines contaminated the water and there wasn't a trout between here and the lake." "Well, gimme the good old days." "Listen, you stubborn old jackass, these is the good old days!"
The visitor to the Vickers establishment might well agree that these is the good old days. Not that you can go down to the river and drag out three-pound rainbow trout with ease or catch a limit with a few hours' casting. Even the famous Gunnison has its off days, and during the early-summer runoff from the snowy San Juan Mountains surrounding the ranch the river becomes cloudy with glacial grindings, and the trout sulk in deep holes and refuse to come out and play. At such times the knowledgeable fisherman may still score, but only if he knows the secret of the Vickers Ranch and only if he meets the mystical and unfathomable requirements of the keeper of the secret, 55-year-old Purvis (Perk) Vickers. Do not hurry unto this task, for Perk cannot be hurried. Do not bluster and make demands, either, for Perk will merely announce in his good-natured way that your reservation has expired. There is only one way to learn the secret of the Vickers Ranch, and that is the hard way—the way of waiting and hoping and keeping on the right side of Perk and not being a pushy Easterner, or a pushy Westerner, either. Then and only then will you be admitted to the secret, and then and only then will you be able to catch three-and four-pound brook trout to your heart's content and dine on orange-red fillets from the sweetest trout that swim.
My wife Su and I knew none of this, of course, when we first wandered into the place that the Vickers brothers insist on calling by the ridiculous name Vickers Dude Ranch, an appellation guaranteed to turn off both true sportsman and travel snob. Who wants to send postcards home from a dude ranch? When I got to know Perk a little better I asked him why he didn't call the place simply the Vickers Ranch or the Vickers Trout Ranch. "We're full up all the time now," he said, drawing on depths of commercial acumen garnered at business school in Tyler, Texas, where he became the only Vickers to learn to type and therefore the one assigned to running the ranch office. "If we changed it to Vickers Trout Ranch we'd have to beat 'em off with shovels."
"All right, Perk," I said, "I came here to catch fish. Now what the hell'll I do?"
"Try way upstream," the bandy-legged little man told me. I didn't know it at the time, but I was about to begin the long procedure that led, step by tortuous step, to the secret. I drove five miles up dirt roads to the narrow reaches of the upper river and cast my arm off catching brook trout that seldom reached six inches. Then Perk suggested a pack trip to a high alpine lake, but after we had booked five horses and lurched our way up steep mountain trails toward a lake supposedly loaded with brook and rainbow trout of monstrous dimensions, we found our way blocked by six-foot drifts of snow that had blown off nearby Uncompahgre Peak, 14,306 feet high and one of the most fascinating sights in Colorado when it's not ruining your fishing trip.
"Perk," I said loudly, "we came here to catch fish and we're not catching anything. What do you suggest?"
"The Deer Lakes," Perk said. "You can't miss at the Deer Lakes." In that rapid-fire manner of his, like a Walter Brennan record played at double speed, he proceeded to tell us the facts about the Deer Lakes. They lie, about eight of them, just up Slumgullion Pass, on public land. What was Slumgullion Pass? Well, about 600 years ago several million tons of mountain broke off and began a slow crawl down the valley, like those mud slides that bedevil the residents of Los Angeles County. The earth flow kept going until it dammed the lake fork of the Gunnison and created Lake San Cristobal, 92 feet deep. Spruce trees grew atop the flow, and they leaned at crazy angles as they inched along—the only ambulatory spruce trees in Colorado. The flow was made of a yellowish clay, and to oldtimers it resembled the slumgullion stew that sustained them—hence the formal name Slumgullion Earthflow. Perk told us that it was one of the great natural wonders of the world, or at least of Hinsdale County.
"The fishing, Perk, the fishing."
"Oh, yes," he said, "you wanted to know about the Deer Lakes." It seemed that 15 or 16 years ago Perk had begun to fear that the Gunnison's lake fork would not be able to handle the heavy fishing pressure on it, and he cast about for ways to improve the fishing in the area. He suggested to the local chamber of commerce that the citizens of Lake City buy live trout by the ton and keep replenishing the lake fork all summer long, but to the hidebound conservatives of Lake City such a proposal was considered as wildly Communistic as Social Security or municipal bus lines. "So I noticed that there were a lot of good locations for lakes up above Slumgullion Pass," Perk said, "and we got permission from the government to put in some dams."