Tom Ross: The mountain man who used a wheelchair

Tom Ross

Jon Bower, who died in September, was a cartoonist for the Steamboat Pilot in the 1990s, as well as a musician and would-be mountain man.
Courtesy photo
Jon Bower

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Every ski town worth its powder has nourished a handful of genuine characters, as interested in the mountain lifestyle as much as they were in careers. Along the way, they shaped the personality of their communities.

Jon Bower, who died of a heart attack Sept. 7, was one of those personalities in Steamboat Springs for decades, before moving to the southwest Colorado town of Mancos.

In his heyday, Bower loved the ‘Boat so much he was willing to publicly poke fun at the community. And we were all better off for it. He was a witty cartoonist for the Steamboat Pilot for about 15 years.

Bower typically included a caricature of himself in one corner of the cartoon, and his sidekick, a large rat, in the other corner. Bower and the rat spoofed all of us.

The late Steamboat Pilot Editor Dee Richards reported in a 1988 personality profile about her new cartoonist that the National Newspaper Association had honored him for one of his cartoons.

“John, a Denver native, has a natural ability to see life as comedy, no matter how dark,” Richards wrote.

In 1990, one of the hottest issues in Routt County was a proposal to build a second destination ski area in the south valley at Lake Catamount. The resort, including a master plan that called for many residences, would have been built on Mount Baldy. Steamboat Pilot cartoonist Jon Bower saw an opportunity to poke bicycling enthusiasts, even as he made a wry comment about the ski development that never came to pass.
Courtesy image

But more importantly than his cartoons that prodded his readers not to take themselves too seriously, Bower demonstrated in the mid-1960s how well a person with disabilities could get along in a snowy ski town. His spine was damaged when he was bucked off a horse while doing chores on a ranch in the Elk River Valley.

Bower’s back wasn’t broken in the fall from the horse, but a staph infection related to the accident damaged his spinal cord, ultimately putting him in a wheelchair for the rest of his years.

But he didn’t let his circumstances keep him from pursuing his passions in life. Bower served as the communications director for the national construction firm, TIC, based in Steamboat Springs.

And he will be remembered by close friends, in both Steamboat and Mancos, as a gifted musician with a passion for re-enacting the rendezvous encampments of the mountain men who trapped beaver in the Rocky Mountains in the early 19th century.

Yule log hunt

Many in the community knew him as the guy who wrote the mystifying clues for the Tread of Pioneers Museum’s annual Yule log hunt every December holiday season.

Bower became a cult figure every summer during the annual mountain man rendezvous re-enactment that rotated through locations all over the Colorado Rockies.

“John would start playing music every morning, and a lot of times he’d play all night, never repeating a song,” best friend Gary Hertzog recalled. At the 1980 rendezvous on La Veta Pass, “there must have been 500 camps, and by God, he was the only musician. When the moon came up, it looked like something from the sermon on the mount.”

That event sealed Bower’s mountain man name: the “Nightsinger.”

Bower’s wife, Janice, said the children of Mancos are sure to miss her husband on the evening of Oct. 31.

“John delighted in donning very scary characters on Halloween to scare the trick-or-treaters who dared come to his door,” she said. “He really enjoyed the interaction with the kids whether they were star struck or ran away screaming.

“I was the grave digger in the front yard, and he would wear a black sheet and keep his head down, until they came to the door, then he’d raise his head (with Dia de Los Muertos paint on his face),” Janice said. “I remember one little guy who jumped back and said, ‘Why were you alive?”

As for Hertzog, he has a wish for his old compadre: “I’d like to think he’s riding a fine horse into new country, but who knows.”

Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in 2018 after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.

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