Here's to living life to `The Max'
Topher Barber climbed the tall, aluminum ladder, stopping just even with the old, wooden sailboat hanging upside down from the ceiling. He carefully drilled the framed picture of his dad — also upside down — to the center of the stern.
A friend handed him a bottle of champagne and Topher tapped the boat, pouring a little onto the rim. "We now christen thee," he said, "the S.S. Max Barber."
The small gathering of people below him raised their glasses and cheered. "He would like that," one man said, nodding assuredly as he walked away.
The tribute, sealed as dusk darkened the wintry mountain lake outside the restaurant windows, reflected the man whose gargantuan and colorful presence was notably absent.
"Upside down is perfect," said Dan Sherwood, Topher's longtime friend, as he sat at the bar, under the sailboat. "Max was a kind of renegade who didn't conform to much. So why conform to gravity?"
Max Barber died unexpectedly Dec. 17 from an aneurysm that occurred while he was driving. He was 68. A successful contractor and owner of the popular Max Gill and Grill on South Gaylord Street in Denver, he also received national recognition in 1991 when he saved two people who fell through thin ice on Grand Lake.
But to Topher, he was so much more. He was an exuberant, energizing force who grabbed tight to life and made it an exhilarating ride.
"He never let a blade of grass grow beneath his feet," Topher said, pausing, looking at the beer in his hand. "He's my dad and he was my best friend. . . . It's going to be hard without him."
Although Max had homes in Denver, Florida and France, the cabin he built with his hands in the mid-1980s in Grand Lake - on the water nestled between historic Lemon Lodge and the Grand Lake Yacht Club at the end of the town's main street - was his favorite.
On the shores of the state's largest natural lake, the town counted 447 residents in the 2000 census. Its one main road veers off Highway 34, just before the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, and leads through a short, straight stretch of western-style buildings that have remained largely unchanged for years.
"This is his home," Topher said. "He loved being near the water, being in a small town. He loved that this town is a dead end. It was the end of the road."
It was Topher's most consistent home, too.
"I love this place," he said. "Both me and my brother met our wives up here. My life wouldn't be the same without Grand Lake. We wouldn't be who we are without this place."
Growing up, Topher and his brothers Tyler and Todd spent every summer at the lake. Topher and Tyler worked at Pancho and Lefty's, the eatery popular with locals and weekenders that's just a one-minute-walk from the cabin. They learned how to sail - Topher even taught sailing at the yacht club.
Max bought them a boat and they often competed in the annual weeklong regatta - but never won. " . . . we were always at the back of the pack and that always bummed him out," Topher said.
Last summer, two days before the regatta, Topher decided to compete when a friend who is an accomplished sailor offered to crew. Midway through the week, Max left for an already planned vacation in Michigan. Topher was tied for first; Max eagerly awaited his daily updates.
"It came down to the last race and we had to finish first — and we did," Topher said. "I could hear the pride in his voice and knew he had tears in his eyes."
In late October, after returning from a month in France, Max headed to Grand Lake to winterize the cabin. Topher went with him. They blew out the sprinklers, cut firewood, hung out.
"Just me and him," Topher said. "It was perfect. I have no regrets about how our relationship ended. . . . We told each other how we felt about each other - we loved each other."
On Jan. 10, Topher, who lives in Broomfield, decided to check on the cabin, make sure the heat was working, that pipes hadn't frozen — and meet up with some friends to share a few stories and laughs.
On the passenger seat of his Subaru, he placed a ceramic cowboy boot with a lasso around its heel — the urn holding some of his dad's ashes, which also include the remains of a December Wall Street Journal, his favorite paper; his red, alma mater Cornell cap; a favorite Hemingway coozie; and the photo of his three sons when they were just boys, wearing cowboy hats, which he always kept in his wallet.
Topher also brought a framed picture of a grinning Max, wearing a tropical shirt and white captain's hat and holding a beer next to his cheek.
A winter storm swirled gusting snow, creating moments of white-out as he slowly drove Berthoud Pass, reminiscent of the first time he, his brothers and Max had driven to Grand Lake.
"Pop," Topher said, "we aren't turning around, are we?"
At the cabin, he set the boot and picture on the dining room table, grabbed two beers - the one for Max snug in another Hemingway coozie - and tuned the CD player to Alabama's "Mountain Music," his dad's favorite and the cabin's theme song.
Then he talked to Max.
And he cried.
The next afternoon, Topher strolled into Pancho and Lefty's and settled at the bar to talk with friends in the familiar eclectic atmosphere where 1,500 beer cans - all one-of-a-kind - line shelves along the walls. Also on the walls are photos of several longtime locals who have died. Hanging from the ceiling are a chair lift, a kayak, and a dummy of a man with a serape sleeping in a hammock, a margarita glass in his hand.
And the old, wooden sailboat.
That's when it hit.
" . . . to make that boat his - The Max," Topher said. "He's in the bar area looking out on the lake. It just makes so much sense."
In mid-February, a celebration of life for Max will be held at his Denver restaurant. Those who come should wear happy colors. No black. No tears.
Because Max wouldn't want crying, Topher said.
He loved life too much.
Topher tells this story about the Grand Lake cabin:
"We're known for staying up way too late there and having Lemon Lodge renters yell at us. One day, a couple of Lemon Lodge renters come up and say they're trying to go to bed . . . and how much longer will you guys be staying up?"
Max glanced at his watch, then looked up.
"We've been partying for 23 years here," he said, "and think we've got 23 more to go."
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at email@example.com or 303-566-4110.