O.J. goes down the river


Over the course of three years, O.J. Simpson took at least a half-dozen vacation trips to altitudinous Summit County, Colorado. Two-plus years ago, the Summit Daily News carried numerous flattering photos of Simpson and a straightforward celebrity-comes-to-town-type story penned by my friend and long-time partner-in-journalistic-crime, Kimberly Nicoletti. It is accurate to say that a letters-to-the-editor firestorm ensued. Many people were absolutely goddamned red-faced incensed that the Summit Daily, a paper I helped start in 1989, would treat Simpson in such a neutral fashion. Advertisements were pulled, subscriptions were cancelled and the editor received many irate calls.

Once the first wave of righteously indignant letters was printed, many retorts followed. The theme of those retorts centered around fundamental jurisprudence, that old “he was found innocent of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1995, so leave this man alone” argument, which, well, is hard to ignore and/or refute in a country founded on the notion of innocent until proved guilty.

The inevitable retorts to those retorts centered around the, “yeah, well, we all know he did it despite the verdict” argument. And so it went until the snow fell and ski season began and everyone’s attention moved on to more relevant and palpable High Country matters, like getting wood in and keeping the walk shoveled. If there is one thing you can say about life in the High Country, it’s that the cultural attention span lasts only until the next powder day.

The weird(est) part of the whole Simpson-visits-Summit-County saga (at least to me) was that people — locals and visitors alike — lined up to have their pictures taken with The Juice, and word had it that when he ventured into Downstairs at Eric’s in Breckenridge or Farley’s (now the Fifth Avenue Grill) in Frisco — two of his favorite imbiberies (and, coincidentally, two of my favorites also, though I have never personally run into Simpson) — he rarely had to pay for his own drinks. He was treated not like a probable double-murderer, but, rather, like the first man to ever rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single (14-game) season, like the man who won the Heisman Trophy in 1968, like the five-time Pro Bowl selection.

He was toasted, lauded and welcomed, much like John Elway, the legendary Denver Broncos quarterback who for a long time owned a home in Summit County.

I have trouble mentally sussing out whether the positive reception Simpson was always given in Summit County speaks highly or lowly of my mountain-dwelling brethren. This is, after all, a part of the country where past-life transgressions have often been overlooked in the name of survival-based immediacy. You know, innocent verdict to the contrary, this man might very well be a double murderer, but, still, I might need him to help pull my car out of a snow bank some blustery January night up on Hoosier Pass. Mountain Country has long required that slates be, at a minimum, polished up or, at a maximum, wiped flat-out clean. It is a place of new beginnings forged by a necessity born of wild remoteness.

While he was in Summit County, people reported that Simpson was the very definition of friendliness, decorum and humility. By all accounts (including his own), he blended in perfectly with the local culture by drinking often and heavily (straight Dewar’s White Label being his beverage-of-choice, according to Nicoletti). He also played golf almost every day while in the High Country. He apparently liked to hike. He was often quoted effusing about the beauty of nature and the power of the mountains.

Last July, O.J. and his long-time girlfriend Christie Prody once again visited Summit County, likely for one last relaxing vacation before Simpson’s next, some would cynically say predestined, interaction with the judicial system, the Nevada trial wherein he faced a whole slew of new and intriguing charges, including robbery with a deadly weapon, burglary with a firearm, first-degree kidnapping with use of a deadly weapon, coercion with use of a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit robbery, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and conspiracy to commit a crime.

On July 25, Simpson and Prody signed up for a half-day rafting trip along a languid section of the Colorado River near Kremmling. The rafting company is owned by two of my closest Summit County chums, who, for obvious reasons, have asked that I use discretion while penning this piece. My friends showed me a copy of the liability waiver that Simpson and Prody had to sign, the same as mere mortals, before being allowed into the raft. It is hard to express the surreal feeling of handling this document, with its long list of potential risks, which included among many other components, a reminder to rafters that a river journey can result in “soft tissue damage” and “death.” Did he sense any irony when he read those words (if he even did read those mortality-based warnings)?

My friends said that Simpson was treated like any other client: With professionalism and with the safety of all involved being the paramount concern. The single biggest issue apparently was the fact that the once-lithe Juice had grown rotund enough that they had trouble fitting a PFD around his girth. That, and, well, he seemed a bit miffed that there weren’t any scheduled beverage stops along the way.

I have given more thought than the subject merits to the notion of one of this country’s most notorious characters sitting in a raft with a group of unsuspecting folks from Omaha and Ohio, floating down toward State Bridge. What thoughts go through this man’s head as he goes about the business of living in a society where he is ridiculed behind his back but still treated like a celebrity out in public? Does he regret his choices? Or does he smirk at the thought of having dodged one very serious bullet that was aimed directly at his head? And, more than that: What were the other paying customers thinking about sharing a raft with none other than O.J. Simpson, a man that many people believe has blood on his hands. Did that blood rub off on the paddles?

A very weird part of me is at least partially thankful that a flawed character like Simpson likes to spend time in the mountains, even though I wish he’d choose someplace farther away, like maybe Alaska (nothing against the Alaskans). For, even though I am one of those people who truly believe Simpson got away with murder, I also believe that the mountains are capable of transforming people by their very presence. I would have had trouble sitting next to Simpson in a raft. I would have fantasized about nudging his ample ass out of the boat in the middle of a rapid, though, in this case, there were no rapids. And, if he walked into Farley’s or Downstairs at Eric’s while I was there, I would leave and likely spit on my way out the door, except that I respect the owners of those two establishments too much to embarrass them in that way.

But people can be and often are reborn in Mountain Country. This we all know. Redemption and transformation happen in the shadow of tall peaks, redefinition has always been allowed at altitude, and there is such a thing as rebirth in the land of thin air. In a context as large as O.J. Simpson, that sentiment might be overly optimistic, bordering on blatantly naive. Even the mountains have their limits, as evidenced by the fact that, in October 2008, 13 years after he was acquitted of killing his wife and her friend in Los Angeles, Simpson was found guilty on all 12 counts he faced in Las Vegas. In December, he was sentenced to 33 years in prison, though he will be eligible for parole in a little more than nine years, at which time he will be 70. As he stares at the cold walls that will frame his life for at least a decade, where which way will his daydreams flow? Will he mentally hearken back to his roaring-crowd football-hero days at USC and with the Buffalo Bills? Or will his thoughts climb towards the distant Rockies, where he once hiked, played golf, rafted and imbibed beneath the lofty peaks of the place I called home for almost 20 years? A place where he was quoted as saying it was easy for him to relax.

My wife has no pity for Simpson. She feels he was born a criminal and, therefore, his fall from grace was as assured as the flow of the mighty Colorado River. And she is of course correct. The innate wiring of some people can’t be dissuaded, even by the power and glory of the high peaks. Life is neither that easy nor that predictable.

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