Say Goodbye to the Grump during Crested Butte’s Vinotok Festival

The Green Man at the Crested Butte Vinotok festival. Photo courtesy GCBTA.

For years I’ve been hearing about a cool fall festival called Vinotok, held in Crested Butte, Colorado, a quaint and hip mountain town. This year was my chance to enjoy the golden aspen leaves and this annual celebration of the summer harvest and autumn equinox. (Vinotok is a Slovenian word for “fall wine festival.”)

In Europe as well as in America’s Rocky Mountains, Vinotok is a time of village feasting, of forgetting the woes of yesterday, and honoring traditional Eastern European roots.

In the Crested Butte community, Vinotok is a big deal! Ken and I were there for the last two days, but the revelry had been going all week: wreath-making at the farmer’s market; entertainment by local musicians and poets; storytelling events; Liar’s Night, a time for tall tales, whoppers and adventure stories; the crowning of the Green Man, a symbol of virility and the promise of returning spring; and a Community Feast featuring regionally harvested dishes.

 

The Big Night

On Saturday night, the last evening of Vinotok, things really got exciting. All that day, I saw people cutting aspen boughs and riding back to town with them on their bikes. At 5:30 I found out why. Locals dressed as medieval characters paraded down the streets, their heads ringed with fresh flower or leaf wreaths. They carried banners, flags and torches; the shirtless Green Man was decorated in body paint. As they danced down the streets, groups of these characters stopped into restaurants, sang harvest songs, and invited everyone to attend the evening’s festivities.

Revelers parade through Crested Butte's streets. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Even people who weren’t with the official parade wore costumes or wreaths in their hair. The evening was starting to feel like a Renaissance Faire.

At 7:30, as darkness fell, a crowd formed around a stage in front of The Eldo saloon on Crested Butte’s main street. At 8:00, a drama honoring the cycles of nature was enacted on the stage. I couldn’t see much because there were thousands of people gathered, but apparently there were characters such as the Harvest Mother (a very pregnant woman from town); and the Earth Dragon, representing nature, who battled with Sir Hapless, the symbol of technology. There was much talk about restoring balance—an appropriate theme for equinox, a time for planetary equilibrium.

In addition, the Red Lady appeared—a human personification of Mt. Emmons (better known as the Red Lady), the red-rock peak that shelters the town of Crested Butte. The drama’s narrator made an impassioned plea for protecting the Red Lady from a proposed molybdenum mine opposed by many in the community.

Vinotok participants serenade diners at the Ginger Café. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Burn The Grump

Finally, there was a trial for The Grump, a 20-foot-tall effigy and sacrificial scapegoat for the discordance between nature and technology. All of us in the crowd delighted in finding The Grump guilty, and we screamed “Burn The Grump!”

Then thousands of people poured down Elk Avenue to the town crossroads where a huge bonfire was erected. Into the flames went The Grump; he exploded with a few fireworks.

Now here’s the best part: Weeks before this celebration, local kids made “Grump boxes,” which were set around town. Townspeople write down their “grumps,” grievances they want to forget so they can move into the new season with a clean slate. These thoughts are then stuffed inside The Grump. As The Grump goes up in flames, so does everybody’s complaints.

The bonfire that engulfs The Grump. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

We newcomers had a chance to participate too. Ken and I each wrote down our grievances on little pieces of paper. Then Ken handed them to a Fire Maiden who danced close enough to enormous bonfire to throw them in.

I was impressed to see earnest boys jotting down their grumps. One teenage girl asked to borrow a pen so she could write hers. It was great to see all generations participating wholeheartedly in Vinotok. On the other hand, the event attracted a huge number of college-age revelers more interested in heavy drinking than Eastern European heritage. Well, I suppose over-imbibing is a centuries-old tradition as well.

As I felt the heat from the bonfire flames on my cheeks, I watched the sparks spewing from the fire and floating into the sky.

Farewell grumpy thoughts. Hello autumn!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more info on future Vinotok festivals, check the Gunnison–Crested Butte Tourism Association.

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Glass Sculptures Bloom at the Denver Botanic Gardens

“Summer Sun,” a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, at the Denver Botanic Gardens ©Laurel Kallenbach

Late summer is a great time to visit the Denver Botanic Gardens, and until the end of November, the gardens features an exhibit of glass art created by Dale Chihuly.

My husband and I attended on a warm, sunny September day and reveled in the late-summer colors—golds, yellows, reds—as the flowers have a last hurrah before the coming cold weather.

Chihuly’s somewhat avant-garde glass sculptures are integrated into the floral color schemes of various gardens and ponds. They sometimes augment the flora—but more often eclipse it, usually being bolder and brighter than the foliage around it. That was OK by me, although I did still appreciate the less flashy shows of dahlias, black-eyed susans, mums, cacti, and more.

A stunner, “Summer Sun,” was possibly my favorite of the glass sculptures with its spherical nest of spirally, curly-cue, fire-colored branches, both treelike and solar.

“Float Boat” is a rowboat full of playful glass bubbles. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Water art was likewise appealing. The Monet Pool, with its stately water lilies, featured a whimsical rowboat overflowing with brilliant, swirl-colored bubbles. Nearby, the Japanese Garden pool was the location of a sapphire-colored amphibious boat, with onion-shaped “bobbers” in the water.

Wandering from sculpture to sculpture was a treat—especially after a week of dreary rain. So, a Sunday afternoon stroll in the sunshine was welcome respite—and the glass was certainly photogenic. Lots of other people had the same idea, so at times there were crowds, which abated about the same time as kickoff for the Denver Broncos game.

Dazzling dahlias at the Denver Botanic Gardens ©Laurel Kallenbach

I hear a reliable rumor that nighttime is an even more breathtaking time to visit the Chihuly exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens; lighting on the glass would be even more impressive.

I’m checking the calendar now to plan that after-dark excursion.

Green at the Gardens

A few words about the sustainability aspects of the Denver Botanic Gardens. First, its Visitor Center is powered by a solar photovoltaic array located on the roof. The array currently in place produces 10,000 watts, one third of the Gardens’ planned total. Ultimately, the solar system will be enlarged to produce 30,000 watts of solar panels, enough to completely power six Denver homes. This will reduce CO2 emissions from burning coal for power by 90,000 pounds per year.

“Polyvitro Crystal Tower” and “Blue Crystals” by Dale Chihuly ©Laurel Kallenbach

Another eco-friendly aspect of the Gardens is that it showcases water-efficient gardening practices—important in Colorado and the West, where water is a precious resource.

A number of gardens are created with climate-appropriate, low-water plants. Several gardens require no irrigation at all. Visitors can get tips from the Botanic Gardens on how to practice water-efficient gardening in their own yards.

The Dale Chihuly “Garden Cycle” glass exhibit will run at the Denver Botanic Gardens through November 30, 2014.

For more info on Chihuly’s art, visit Artsy.net.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor