The disturbing news of last week that Telluride had lost yet another of its modern-day founding fathers was a cruel reminder of the untenable pain of unhealed wounds, the power of addiction and the extreme delicacy of life at 8750 feet.
Our beloved comet, J. Michael Brown, was a hurtling star. Found burned out inside the chaos of his Shandoka apartment two weeks ago, curled up amidst the debris of a pain-management course run ruin, it was a foul ending for a supernova who provided an intoxicating light on our mountains and Main Street in a town when it was at its most potent, laying the groundwork as an international play station for the rich and entitled.
Michael Brown was a giver – one of the original conductors of a galloping and gagging economic goose – who moved the ball from Francis Warner’s worn-out miner’s mitt to a hippie ski bum paradise, careening to the present day, where the road to the Oscars now begins on Colorado Ave.
Olympic Sports, Paragon Sports, the Telluride Classic, Lunar Cup, Noel Night Madness, Lake Powell retreats, and generations of bike and ski racers who flew the pink and blue Paragon Sport bib to glory are the guts of the Brown legacy. No – J. Michael Brown didn’t deserve to be that postcard from the edge, who fell off the cliff.
Mountain bike racer Ernie Watenpaugh spoke for many when he posted, “To the man who supported me on a bike since day one. Telluride lost a good man today. RIP J. Michael Brown.”
Crash landing into the Telluride Valley during the summer of 1972 with Peter Cronican, Val Maltese and Katherine Mulford, fresh out of college, Michael Brown laid the groundwork for a meteoric rise that peaked in the 1990s as front man and partner of Ned Mulford’s Paragon Ski and Sport, and then flamed out in the 21st century.
“They left from Santa Fe and Albuquerque, my sister included, drove to Telluride and Peter and Michael opened Olympic Sports,” recalled a somber Ned Mulford from his perch at half-mast in Pigeon Cay on Cat Island. “I followed them – I was their junior. They were my idols, man.”
“Cronican had bought the building on the corner (now Picaya) and convinced Olympic Sports in Albuquerque, where he and Michael had worked, to support a branch store in Telluride,” confirmed Rick Lane, a minority partner in the venture. “Everything went OK for a couple of years until the accountant for Olympic Albuquerque, Michael Conlin, came calling to review the books. Conlin found the store in need of inventory and capital – among other things.”
Indeed, the free-and-easy lifestyle of the 70s in Telluride was accompanied by a host of medicinal stimuli, and Brown immediately joined the Bolivian marching band; by 1977, he was out of Olympic Sports, and by 1980, out of town. Barely landing on his feet on the Front Range with his sister, Michael drove a UPS truck until receiving a call from his old pal Ned Mulford to come back.
“In 1984 I made a deal with Sherry Rose to lease the front half of her house that fronted Oak Street, and from there we launched Paragon,” replayed Mulford. “In the meantime, I bought a lot on Main Street, where we eventually built the Mulford Building that housed the Paragon HQ. And while that was all going on, Michael and I had a small store in the front of the Sheridan Hotel lobby.
“Once I knew what I wanted to do, I immediately called Michael and offered him a part-ownership to come back to Telluride to do what he did so well – sell skis, sell bikes and sell clothing. He was magic with the tourists, a pied-piper with the locals – heck, we put more kids in more boots and skis and on bikes than anyone else.”
With Mulford squarely behind him, Brown got a second shot and doubled down establishing and re-establishing multiple Telluride institutions. The Lunar Cup, originally the brainchild of Duncan Culman, was refueled, re-staffed and reissued for a July 1985 debut on snowfields near Ophir. The Telluride Classic Bike Race brought hay bales to Main Street and launched the town’s first circuit race. By 1987, with the addition of Leslie Kennedy on the tiller and Michael in the front window, the Paragon Ski and Sport brand took off.
But by 1994 Mulford wanted to head in a new direction. Exhausted, having finally completed the building and then renovation of the edifice bearing his family name, Ned and his soon-to-be-wife Leslie Kennedy set out for the Bahamas, leaving Brown front and center.
With Mulford out of the picture, Brown did his best to stay the course. Despite a few minor episodes on the edge of darkness, he was able to keep the momentum going and, like most main street merchants, turn a profit from 1994-2008.
Where and when exactly it all started to go south is anyone’s guess. New investors came into the picture around the turn of the century, buying out Mulford’s shares, but backing Michael’s vision. Pika and Boo, his two overly aggressive German shepherds, behaved on Main Street but went haywire around the Mountain Village shop, accosting numerous female customers. And there was the unrest in Brown’s heart, and untreated pain in his back.
“Something always kicked it off,” mused Mulford, “right before we would do something big…he would just go into the black hole. I never knew what it was….”
Whether there was something eating him up or an event that hit him all at once, there was no denying the increased stresses in his life. Taking on family life with Paragon partner and wife Jackie Smith and her three beautiful children, whom he so adored, and then having a baby of his own, Michael struggled. He was relieved of the store by investors in 2009.
Then this past August, with a new and successful bike shop underway and a first summer season firmly in the books and in the black, he went over the handlebars riding back from lunch one afternoon, and was flown to St. Mary’s in Grand Junction with massive head trauma.
He never fully recovered. Pain meds sent him gasping into the netherworld, and by October 27 our bright star was extinguished at 62 years.
The legacy of our friend, brother and father will echo forever in the Telluride Valley. His voice and spirit remain firmly welded to the epicenter of that magical time in space when the Town of Telluride was a familial nest. A sanctum of light and laughter. A safe stop-off on the everlasting tour of the cosmos. A place where you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
A memorial service for J. Michael Brown will be held Saturday, Nov. 12, at 2 p.m., at the Palm Theater.