Chicken Picking and Other Strange Telluride Pastimes
Around 1876, before the Town of Telluride was established, settlers made camp a few miles west on the Valley Floor at a homestead they called San Miguel City. Those hardy souls moved here to find their fortunes in the mines, and while that profession left little time or energy for hobbies, it seems that the miners did engage in the odd athletic pursuit now and then.
And by “odd,” I do mean odd: Apparently, there was a racetrack on the Valley Floor where horse races, roping, bronco riding and chicken-picking events were hosted. To imagine a racetrack in this modern-day ski resort is a dichotomous thought in itself, but it’s the chicken picking that strikes me.
Chicken picking, I’ve been told, was a Navajo specialty from the reservations that involved burying a row of live chickens up to their necks, leaving the heads sticking up aboveground. Bareback riders would get a barreling start and lean from their horses to pick a head. (Before PETA gets its fur all riled up, the chicken picking participants in Telluride supposedly substituted bags of money for chickens.) I’ve filled my days in many an unconventional way, but the sport of chicken picking goes down in my book as a weird pastime.
A “pastime,” by definition, is “something that serves to make time pass agreeably; a pleasant means of amusement, recreation, or sport.” Now that Telluriders no longer spend long shifts digging underground, we’ve adopted a few more non-traditional means of amusement. These activities weren’t necessarily the brainchild of anyone in this town—I’ve been to other places that engage in the same amusements—but these pastimes are commonplace here and haven’t yet achieved the international popularity received by shuffleboard or even curling.
Skitching is one of the riskiest, so I must include a disclaimer: I do not recommend partaking in this dangerous and illegal activity—though it is fun if you’re well insured and young enough to bounce. All you need is a pair of boots, preferably with poor traction; a slick, snow-covered street without traffic; and a passing car with a sturdy bumper. Need I say more? Hazards include inhaling exhaust, rocks in the road that will knock you over (and then lodge themselves under your epidermis) and the occasional angry driver who might speed up or swerve to disengage skitchers from his bumper.
Broomball and bike polo are two more unusual sports favored in Telluride, both of which are legal and slightly less dangerous. The first is a bastardization of hockey. Remove the skates, the puck and the stick; replace those items with boots, a ball and a broom. Off you go. This sport is so popular that the park & rec department manages an adult winter league at the ice rink. Similarly, bike polo requires no equestrian skills, but you better be nimble and well balanced on two wheels. Telluride doesn’t have enough bike polo players yet for a league. In fact, our enthusiasts often join forces with the folks in neighboring Durango, the Malletheads, to get a few chukkars going. Bike polo is such an up-and-coming sport that, in addition to fearlessness, it appears to demand a certain sense of fashion: Pedal pushers and striped socks are all the rage with this region’s bike polo crowd, regardless of gender.
Turkey bingo, wife carrying and the annual rubber duck race on the mighty San Miguel further demonstrate strange ways in which we amuse ourselves in Telluride, but the real question is: Why? Why can’t we just play basketball, lose money on poker night and go to the gym like everyone else?
Here’s my theory: When Idarado Mill closed in 1978, the mining families left town, leaving the demographic in Telluride suddenly skewed toward the only remaining residents, who were 20-something-year-old male ski bums and hippies. Most municipalities have never seen the likes: These kids ran town council, policed the streets, planned future development and played in the mountains. Over time, the demographics shifted, and today, Telluride nearly balances males (55%) to females (45%); the average family size is 2.79; and the median age is a ripe 31. Nonetheless, I believe the countercultural spirit of the 1970s—and even the 1870s—lingers. We embrace the unusual, especially with our pastimes.