On a gray day in Estes Park, we met with Kurtis Kelly at the Estes Valley Library, our homebase in Estes and Kurtis’ workplace for many years before taking the leap as a full time storyteller. Kurtis is a performer who specializes in the history of Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park region. Just before our conversation, we watched Kurtis’ TEDxFrontRange talk from last year, performing as Enos Mills, a man regarded to many as the “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park.”
Kurtis’ passion about the history of Estes Park and the prominent figures of the region came through in his performance and in our conversation in the Library. With a stack of books, note cards, and other references and resources, we made out better than the early prospectors of Estes Park and struck gold in talking with Kurtis. Just a few days later, we got to see Kurtis performing as F.O. Stanley, telling of how he emigrated from New England to Colorado on account of his tuberculosis. Here, he not only lived a long life, but established the Stanley hotel (which would later go on to inspire Stephen King’s The Shining) and became a major supporter of the national park.
Perhaps the region’s greatest story, according to Kurtis, is Mills story and the creation of the Rocky Mountain National Park, which celebrated its centennial in 2015. “Everyday people came together and despite opposition and apprehension… they saw what was happening with threats to the plants and the animals, and preserved it for future generations to experience those things… to quote filmmaker Nick Molle, we didn’t create Rocky Mountain National Park, we just gave it a name.” He also made note of a connection between two of the parks we’ll visit, Rocky Mountain and Yosemite National Parks. In a chance encounter in San Francisco, Enos Mills met John Muir, and it is said that their lifelong friendship is what inspired Enos to dedicate his life to preserving Rocky Mountain National Park.
Most importantly, Kurtis left us with this reflection on the significance of storytelling and so eloquently reaffirmed the importance of this journey we are on to collect the stories from national parks. “My stories often give [visitors] a deeper appreciation of that area, the history, why it’s so precious, the animals that are here, the animals that aren’t here anymore. That threats still exist, and it is a constant stewardship to protect these places.” Later, Kurtis added “It’s universal to our species, I believe we are about stories… our stories, historically were gathered and shared, so I really think that’s rooted in our spirit. If I do it well as a storyteller, talking about things that are universal to the human experience, being lost or being afraid, having an idea, having a dream and wondering if it’s even possible… I think that’s what we’re all trying to get at, our human spirit. It’s there, and you just have to hit that right button.”