Happy trails: Tim Fletcher’s fight with ALS leaves Olympic sons inspired
October 5, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Taylor Fletcher had two years to think about what he wanted to say in his final conversation with his father, and he thought a little more about it last week as he sat atop a mountain high in the eastern Alps at Tromeja, or "the Three Borders," one of his favorite spots in Europe.
Italy, Austria and Slovenia, where he was training with the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team, come together there at the top of a small ski resort, and Fletcher tried to relax in the still-green grass.
Sheer, gray mountains rose from pristine meadows below him, and he took a moment. It was a place he knew his dad Tim Fletcher, resting at home in Steamboat Springs, would love, and he snapped and sent a photo from his cell phone.
Taylor made a point of sending photos of places like Tromeja to his dad ever since Tim was diagnosed in 2016 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS — a disease with only a timeline not a cure.
There have been so many hard days since the diagnosis, good days, too, but hard conversations and somber realizations.
Celebration of life
What: A celebration of life for Tim Fletcher
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6
Where: Olympian Hall, 845 Howelsen Pkwy., Steamboat Springs
Forty-five minutes passed in the high-mountain cathedral before Taylor rose and traced the trail back from the edge of Italy and Austria and into Slovenia, back to the small town of Rateče where he and his teammates were bunked up in a white three-story house in the village center.
Moments after returning, he got a call from his brother, Bryan Fletcher, who was at his home in Utah but in constant communication with those gathered around their father's bed in Steamboat Springs. Taylor needed to call home. The time had come.
The brothers had been preparing, and they were ready for that last conversation.
Days later, digging through their father's possessions, they discovered a journal Tim had started keeping in the months after his diagnosis, up until the point he could no longer manage the pen. It wasn't long, and it wasn't thorough, but it was deep.
He'd been preparing, too.
To the ends of the Earth
Tim Fletcher rolled into Steamboat Springs in 1977 in the midst of a cross-country trip, from his East Coast upbringing to whatever else he could find.
He found Steamboat. It wasn't where he was supposed to stay, but it's where he did stay — a story familiar to so many who stumble across the Western Colorado ski town. Soon, he was living the dream of many of those wanderers, landing a job with ski patrol in the winters and working construction through the summers to make it all possible.
He lived it for more than 40 years, until he died Sept. 25. He was 63 years old.
He kept living it nearly until the last day, watching his boys compete, riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle and skiing the best powder days.
"I want to explore," he wrote in his journal on Feb. 19, 2017. "I want to ride all summer!"
He logged 10,000 miles on his Harley that season. He had hoped to get more in the summer of 2018, and even though his disease had taken a tremendous amount from him by that point, he pulled out his tools and installed a new easy-pull clutch on his bike last spring.
He never hesitated from one primary goal, watching his sons compete on some of the biggest stages in international skiing.
With Michelle Schiau at his side, ever lending a helping hand, he traveled to the 2017 Nordic Ski World Championships in Finland. More recently, he and Michelle made the trip to PyeongChang, South Korea, for the 2018 Winter Olympics — the third that featured at least one of his sons and the second that featured them both.
He never got the chance to try that Harley clutch out on the highway, but he still didn’t stop. Bryan retired from Nordic combined after the 2017-18 season, but Taylor continued on, and Tim made it out to Howelsen Hill in Steamboat to watch Taylor compete in the annual Fourth of July Ski Jumping Extravaganza.
That was supposed to be the last time he saw one of his sons compete. The family had decided he wouldn't make it to the U.S. Nordic Combined National Championships later in July in Park City, Utah. Tim came anyway, throwing a bag in his white Chevy Silverado and setting out for the six-hour drive with Michelle.
Saying it all
In Slovenia, Taylor first took the call from Bryan, then he took 15 minutes.
He'd thought about what to say, what to tell his dad if he got the chance for a final conversation, especially two weeks ago, when Tim's health took a sharp turn after months of slow but steady decline.
Still, staring the final call in the face, he took 15 last minutes, not to write a script — his dad would have scoffed at something that formal — but to organize his thoughts.
Then he called.
Both brothers had made the most of their moments.
Tim went to great lengths to travel the world to watch their competitions, and they made every effort to see him when they could reciprocate. He spent most of his final two weeks in Utah with Bryan and his family — wife, Nikki, and 2-year-old daughter Ellery.
Tim's brother Don Fletcher visited, and Taylor was there, too, for much of the time until he left for the U.S. team camp in Slovenia.
It was a place Tim loved, filled with people he loved.
"Ellery Ardene Fletcher is the thing right now that gives me hope and drive to live for a long time, to watch her grow and develop," he wrote in an undated journal entry. "To have your baby have a baby grabs your heart like nothing has before."
Bryan had to say goodbye more than once.
Tim ended up in the hospital after his trip to the Olympics, stricken with two different strains of the flu. The family prepared, but Tim soon grew stronger and was skiing again before the end of the 2017-18 season.
"He wasn't as good as he had been, but we had to pry open his boots with a blow dryer to get him into them because he was still skiing in almost a World Cup-stiffness boot," Taylor said. "He was still passing people."
"We skied every run he wanted to, all of his favorites — Rainbow, Vertigo, Heavenly Daze," Bryan said.
But there was no mistaking what was happening late in September. Tim was still largely self-sufficient until the end of the second week, when he needed to make the return trip to Steamboat. He started growing weaker, and by the time he had returned home, it was clear there wouldn't be a bounce back.
Bryan, working as a certified nursing assistant as he completes a medical degree at Utah State University, was in touch throughout the final days, and he called one final time Tuesday.
Tim was too weak to text, but Michelle held the phone to his ear. Bryan followed up with a text message, a goodbye from Nikki and from Ellery, who may not have fully realized the stakes but knew her "Papa Tim" wasn't feeling well the last time she saw him.
Then Taylor called.
"I wanted to make it count," he said. "Mostly, I really wanted to say, 'I love you,' and 'Thank you for everything you've done for us.'"
He rambled, he admits, poring through ideas he'd collected over two years.
"It didn't come out exactly like I was hoping. … It was so hard, but I felt relieved," Taylor said. "It was like he was holding out to be able to hear from me."
Michelle said Tim's heart raced through the call.
Within 10 minutes, it had stopped.
One last message
Bryan and Taylor said it was their dad’s attitude in the last months, weeks and days that they’ll remember — the work on the Harley, the days on the mountain, the reckless trips to watch them compete.
It wasn't easy.
"As I am dealing with this ALS, it's become more and more apparent I'm not getting any better," Tim wrote in the journal during his trip to Finland. "I'll make it, but it's not going to be pretty."
He was able to communicate so much, but it never felt like quite enough.
"Not being able to talk is a real problem," he wrote on one day. "I am invisible, a ghost."
"The hardest part was being at dinner last night," he wrote while at World Championships with his sons, "and not being able to talk to them and tell them how proud I was."
But, he had no regrets about expending the extra effort it took to enjoy those days the best he could.
"Not complaining. Just saying," he noted once.
The last journal entry is dated March 22, 2017, 17 months before ALS would finally end the battle.
"I am increasing my desire to leave and my desire to ride around and spend the summer the way I want," Tim wrote.
He went on to wonder where he was going to ski that winter, insisting he needed to figure that out by late summer. The back of his Harley, he speculated, was a perfect place to make that decision.
Then he signed off, his final words seemingly as carefully prepared for his sons as theirs were for him.
"In the wind, ghost rider," he wrote. "Happy trails."