By Rebecca Briesmoore
Paul Andersen, an Aspen-based journalist, spoke with a Western creative writing class on Monday, March 28. Andersen recently published a book about the local fight against the AMAX molybdenum mine in Crested Butte entitled “The Town That Said ‘Hell, No!'” Invited to the class by English Professor Steven Coughlin, Andersen has more than 45 years of experience not just in journalism, but also writing screenplays and magazine articles.
Andersen spoke to the class of aspiring writers about his life story, his new book, and his advice on writing. Andersen is in town for the Crested Butte Center for the Arts’ “High Country” Film Screening, which will take place Tuesday, March 29 and Wednesday, March 30 at 7 p.m. The film, which tells the story of Crested Butte, features Andersen, who will join the panel discussion on March 29.
Andersen encouraged the students to consider writing for a small-town newspaper. He began his writing career writing for the Gunnison Country Times in 1977. His first assignment was covering a County Commissioner meeting. “I took notes and wrote down everything people were saying. I didn’t know how to write. I went to the library and got a book on journalism,” remembers Andersen.
But after plunking out his story on a typewriter, “I was working in the stone age,” laughs Andersen, he recalls his intense pride at seeing his first published article with his name in the byline. “[I remember thinking] my parents are actually going to think that I have a profession. [And] that [first story] led to me getting more skills as a writer. I learned how to write.”
After working for the Gunnison Country Times, in 1980 Andersen moved to writing for the Crested Butte Chronicle. For Andersen, journalism and writing is a longstanding passion. “Being able to write and using the [news]paper as your excuse for your curiosity in your community is incredible. The community opens to you as journalist in a small town,” says Andersen.
Since starting at the Gunnison Country Times, Andersen has gone on to a successful writing career, but never stopped writing for local newspapers. In 1984, after four years with the Crested Butte Chronicle, Andersen moved to Aspen to work for The Aspen Valley Weekly, where he has continued to work in various positions for 36 years.
However, his work expands beyond journalism. Andersen has written feature articles for magazines, screenplays, and documentaries. He even had one screenplay “China-The Panda Adventure” produced by IMAX and has worked as a television scriptwriter for ESPN. “I don’t know how many keystrokes I’ve made in my life, but my wife would tell me she’d wake up and hear my fingers drumming on the sheets in my sleep,” says Andersen.
Andersen also talked about his process of writing with the class. “The first draft is a burst of inspiration. Your fingers are just flying,” says Andersen, who does not believe in writers’ block, claiming it’s a luxury that writers simply do not have, and that writers simply need to start writing.
“[After the initial writing,] there’s the detail work, the honing of it. A sculptor needs a rough form to make a sculpture. The words you write are the rough form. The editing is the chisel,” continues Andersen. Finally, Andersen rereads his manuscript. “For any book, you read it about 30 times, before you say, enough, I want it out there,” says Andersen.
Andersen’s final advice to the students encouraged them to do their best. “The first thing is to be recognized as a professional. You better make sure your grammar is good and your syntax is good, and your punctuation is good. Make sure everything you write is your best,” shared Andersen.
Andersen’s Time at Western
Although Andersen made his home in Crested Butte for many years, he has strong ties to Gunnison and Western Colorado University. “Western may have saved my life,” says Anderson. In 1969, with Vietnam War drafts ongoing, Andersen was eager to avoid the war. “It was a one-way trip for a lot of my peers, and I certainly didn’t want an all-expense [trip] paid to Vietnam,” says Andersen.
Looking for alternatives, he considered higher education. “I was a terrible [high school] student. I was in the lower 10% of my class and my counselor advised me not to go into higher education,” says Anderson. But after a stranger on a chair lift ride encouraged him to check into Western, where according to the stranger they accepted anyone, Andersen decided to apply.
When Andersen arrived in Gunnison in June 1969 after being accepted to Western, he was taken aback by the town. “God is this really where I am going to spend my year,” Andersen remembers thinking. He admits he expected a place with more splendor and scenery more closely resembling that of Crested Butte. But the scenery turned out to be the least of his concerns.
According to Andersen, in those days, Gunnison was not the most welcoming place. “Western was not a friendly place for me in that day. [It was a] hostile environment. Cowboys were beating up hippies and cutting their hair. I had long hair then, I had hair [back then], and it was not a friendly town to hippies. The counterculture me and my friends lived in was not welcomed.”
Even professors discriminated against counterculture. One day at class registration, which was in person, one professor told him, “Long hairs don’t make it in my class. You’re not going to cut it.” Despite the warning Andersen took the class. He did not make it.
Faced with prejudice and distracted by weed and with a cohort of like-minded friends, Andersen admits it was a very tough time. “I bore a grudge against Western. I was not motivated here to be in school. I wasn’t going to classes. My [high school] counselor was right. I flunked out of Western. To flunk out of Western at that time you had to go the distance,” says Andersen.
After flunking out of Western, Andersen moved to Crested Butte, where he felt more at home. “Crested Butte was my haven because there was more diversity there. There was a much more accepting attitude, even though I got punched out by a cowboy in a tavern once,” recalls Andersen.
He describes Crested Butte at the time as a place uninterested in making money where you could live on pennies a day. He lived in an apartment with four to six friends and paid $30 a month rent. “It was such an amazing experience. The rooms weren’t heated, so we all had electric blankets. You’d put on your parka and see your breath right before you went to bed. But I loved it.”
But eventually, after living in Crested Butte and periodically traveling back to his hometown area of Chicago to work temporary jobs in tree topping, tree trimming, and other endeavors, Andersen was ready to go back to college.
He reapplied to Western and was accepted, and this time focused on his classwork and graduated in 1976 with a 3.6 GPA. After graduation, through a faculty connection and articles he wrote for class, he secured his first job at the Gunnison Country Times.
Andersen’s New Book
Andersen’s newest book, “The Town That Said ‘Hell, No!'”, chronicles his experiences and the story of Crested Butte’s well-known grassroots stand against the AMAX Mount Emmons molybdenum mine in the 1970s. “This book is about a community defending and claiming its autonomy to a threat to its existence. And bringing brilliance to the discussion and exceeding against the company,” says Andersen.
For Andersen, it was important to live in an eclectic community that fought against this unexpected threat. “No one moved to Crested Butte to fight a mine. They moved to Crested Butte to be on the outskirts of society,” says Andersen. But when the time came, the town stood up against the mining company.
Despite what Andersen describes as a “ragtag group of insurgents,” their efforts were eventually successful, in part due to community unity and ingenious town leadership. “When AMAX announced they were coming, the town planner decided he had to coalesce this rabble, to be a unified community to fight this thing. He did it with a slideshow. But he did it at the Grubstakes Saloon because he knew people would show up,” says Andersen.
In 1981, after four intense years of protests, lawsuits, and clever attention-grabbing slogans to drum up support on both sides, AMAX decided to postpone the project. Despite ongoing attempts over the next several decades, the company never began mining Mount Emmons.
For Andersen, this book is part-autobiography and a passion project. “[This book] contains my soul. I had to write it,” says Andersen. The book has been in progress for 36 years, ever since Andersen moved from Crested Butte to Aspen. When he moved in 1984, he started writing the book immediately. “I wanted to take this part of Crested Butte with me,” Andersen says. Although the book was 85% complete for 30 years, he waited to finish and publish it because he wanted a resolution to the Crested Butte mine. Finally, he got one.
In early 2021, the Mount Emmons Mining Company (MEMC), the current owner, started the process for a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service and give up all mineral rights. With his schedule still relatively clear from commitments with the pandemic rumbling on, Andersen had the time and the awaited conclusion to finally finish his book.
After a long career, Andersen is looking towards retirement where he will spend time bike touring, cross country skiing, ice skating, and reading. “COVID gave me a chance to reevaluate my life. I decided to cast off stress from my life. I’ve been dropping everything except my marriage which I am maintaining, but I am dropping my agenda,” says Anderson.
Despite his retirement, Andersen says he’s not done with writing. “I have another book in the works,” says Andersen. This book will focus on his current home area of Aspen and trace the value system from what Andersen calls the Aspen Renaissance.
Interspersing it with his own stories, Andersen wants to write about what happens when big money comes into a community and property values push out the locals. It’s something he is passionate about and that has impacted his own life personally and deeply.
Andersen laments how Aspen has changed in the decades he has lived there to what he calls a “facade for the rich and famous.” He’s watched as people got pushed down the valley because they could no longer afford to live in Aspen.
“Money becomes this influence on this beautiful, organic, community experience. [And now, Aspen is] not made of citizenry, but made up of staff. They come in from as far as 100 miles away,” says Andersen. It’s a pattern Andersen sees starting in Crested Butte.
And despite winning the battle against mining operations, Andersen sees continued battles for Crested Butte to avoid becoming the next Aspen. “Crested Butte is willing but are they able [to fight becoming Aspen],” wonders Andersen.
Andersen does not know the answer, but his words of hope come from experience. “You have to keep trying. No matter how big the obstacle [is]. You cannot give up. You have to keep fighting the good fight.”
Paul Andersen’s book, “The Town That Said, ‘Hell, No!'” can be found on Amazon in paperback for $24.95 or on Kindle for $8.99. “The Town That Said, ‘Hell, No!'”
Paul Andersen will also be available for book signing prior to the Crested Butte Center of the Arts High Country Film Screening, Wednesday, March 30, 7-10pm at the Crested Butte Center of the Arts. https://crestedbuttearts.org/event/high-country-film-screening/2022-03-30/