by M. John Fayhee, Special to the Aspen Daily News
John Armstrong has covered a lot of ground in his career
Anyone even slightly inclined toward the so-called “mountain lifestyle” should be envious of the life led by John Armstrong, who, at the end of the month, will retire from his position as ranger supervisor with the Pitkin County Department of Open Space & Trails (OST).
Armstrong, who has been with OST for 10 years, came to the Roaring Fork Valley shortly after finishing high school in his native western Massachusetts and essentially never left. He damned sure never looked back.
“I wanted to be a forest ranger,” Armstrong said. “I signed up for the University of Massachusetts, but I wanted to leave the East. I applied and got accepted at Colorado State University and Humboldt State. But I heard about this little place called the Spring Valley Campus of Colorado Mountain College. That’s where I decided to go.”
He lasted all of two quarters. That modest interaction with higher education marked the last time he failed to stick with an endeavor.
“I just couldn’t stay indoors,” Armstrong said. “I got an opportunity with the Forest Service and I took it. I worked on the old tree farm property next to Crown Mountain Park. I started as a laborer, then eventually became an equipment operator and a truck driver.”
Armstrong stayed with the Forest Service eight years.
He also started a simultaneous career as a ski patroller with the Aspen Skiing Co.
“I had the chance to work for two of the best ski operations in the country,” he said. “I worked at Aspen Mountain for 20 years and Aspen Highlands for eight. It was a great experience.”
During that time, he parted ways with the Forest Service and, along with the woman he calls “the best wife in the world,” ran a primitive guest ranch in Marble — for the next 24 years.
“We had no plumbing and we used a woodstove,” Armstrong said. “Every load of laundry we did was with an old hand-wringer washing machine. I thought it was paradise.”
Armstrong lived in Marble with the best wife in the world during the warm months, then the clan would move back to Aspen for the winter so he could continue working as a ski patroller. During shoulder seasons, he commuted between Aspen and Marble.
“It was a wonderful lifestyle,” Armstrong said. “We didn’t own the property. We leased it. We had 12 funky old log cabins and a campground along the river. It was quite primitive.”
He decided to move on when he was hired as a deputy with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department.
“It was time,” Armstrong said of his decision to part ways with Marble. “My two kids, who had gone to school in Aspen, were grown.”
Armstrong, like many members of the law-enforcement community in Pitkin County, came to carry a badge via an untraditional route.
“While I was ski patrolling, we did an extrication on the backside of Aspen Mountain,” he said. “We brought the body to the office of the sheriff and coroner. Joe DiSalvo, who was the head of investigations at the time, took us out to breakfast, during which time we talked over the case. He told me at that time that the Sheriff’s Department was always looking for good deputies. He asked me to think about it, and I did. I gave it a good, deep think. After a few months, I went in and applied and got hired. I went to 16 weeks of police academy at the Spring Valley Campus of CMC. Bob Braudis was still the sheriff, and was the entire six years I worked as a deputy.”
Armstrong said his stint as a peace officer was a strange vocational twist.
“In my high school class, if there was any person you would have least expected to spend his life in a uniform, it was me,” he said. “One of the highlights of my career was guarding Bob Dylan while wearing a sidearm when he played here.”
The only way Armstrong could make it as a sheriff’s deputy was his comfort level with the operational philosophy of the department, which was a direct offshoot from Braudis’ predecessor, Dick Kienast, who became sheriff of Pitkin County in 1976.
“He was a Notre Dame-trained theologian who espoused a philosophy called ‘spirit of the dove,’” Armstrong said. “Distilled, it was a version of the Golden Rule. It is a law-enforcement philosophy that translates to helping people first and foremost. A true peace officer is all about helping others. I can’t imagine working for any other department in the rest of the country.
“In addition to spending a lot of time in the wilderness that surrounds Pitkin County, I really enjoyed being able to work with firefighters, first responders and members of Mountain Rescue. There were times when I had to lay down the law, but those instances are not what I remember most about my time with the Sheriff’s Department.”
That part of Armstrong’s life took its place in the rearview mirror once he learned the position of ranger supervisor with OST was open.
For a man who had once dreamed of becoming a forest ranger, it was almost like coming full circle.
“I have always loved people and dogs and wilderness,” he said. “It seemed like a perfect fit. I really think my time with the Sheriff’s Department helped me in the ranger supervisor position. I was already used to wearing a uniform. It was an honor to be associated with the ranger staff as it grew and matured. There are so many facets to the job. Some were challenging.
“Our philosophy on multiple use I feel has been the key to harmony on our open space,” Armstrong continued. “We have a bunch of different user groups going to open space for the same reason. Nobody gets everything they want, but I hope everyone gets what they need. Everyone has to give a little.”
Armstrong’s superiors are sad to see him depart.
“John had a strong commitment to this community and created a ranger program that is compassionate and well respected in the valley and throughout the state,” said OST director Gary Tennenbaum. “I will miss John’s ability to deal with really difficult problems diplomatically and professionally. He has been the face of Open Space, and he will be missed.”
Added Dale Will, OST’s acquisition and special projects director, “John personified our gentle philosophy of enforcement — educate first, cite second. We will miss John’s love both of wild places and of humanity’s spiritual connection to those places.”
“When I look at the beauty of Pitkin County, that’s what it all comes down to — the people,” Armstrong said. “I am one of the luckiest people I know. I’ve managed to be involved in a community I love.”
As for his retirement plans, Armstrong said: “Mountains. Mountains. My wife and I plan to hike, ride, climb and float as much as possible.”
It’s heartening to know that, after all these years, John Armstrong will finally have the chance to spend a little time in the great outdoors.