EAGLE – This is story about Tred Barta. It’s also a story about the Vail Valley.
In May of last year, Barta was hit with the most unlikely of double whammies – a spinal stroke that left him paralyzed from the chest down, and a rare form of blood cancer that complicated physical therapy with chemotherapy.
Barta was knocked out of an active life as a businessman, a passionate outdoorsman and the host of the outdoor TV show “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta” and into a wheelchair. A man who had done his best to help others for much of his adult life now found he needed help.
That’s where this story becomes about the valley.
“At first I thought we’d have to move,” Barta said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Barta has come to treasure the valley’s people, and their almost-universal willingness to help out a friend and neighbor.
Sometimes it’s little things, like the manager and kitchen crew at Costco who let Barta sit next to the chicken-roasting ovens one day when he got cold, letting him warm up his easily-chilled body wearing a hair net and cowboy hat, draped with a pair of blankets the ladies in the kitchen brought in from their cars.
Sometimes it’s important things, like the crew from the Eagle-based Greater Eagle Fire Protection District that came to his home to scout out all the stairways, the new wheelchair elevator that comes up from the garage and the layout of the house. That crew took pictures of the home, so they’ll know the house if they ever get an emergency call.
And sometimes it’s funny stuff, like the local police officer who pulled Barta over one day, lights blazing and siren blaring.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Barta said. “He came up to the truck and said, ‘You’re Tred Barta; I recognize you and your truck. I need to tell you to get your urine bag back inside your vehicle.'”
By then another officer had pulled up.
“We all laughed until the tears rolled down our faces,” Barta said.
And always, there’s help when he needs it.
Wheeling through Vail Village, Barta ran out of steam. Exhausted, he threw up his arms and shouted, “I’m shot, can anyone help me?”
“Before I knew it I had a dozen people helping me,” he said. “If you’re disabled in this valley, and people see you’re trying, all you have to do is ask.”
But with the daily lessons in learning how to live with a serious disability come some remarkable adventures.
Barta is enrolled in Vail Resorts’ Adaptive Skiing Program and takes lessons every week at Golden Peak. A competitive skier in his younger days, Barta, now 57, is learning the tricks of running a mono-ski.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever had anyone as enthusiastic as Tred,” instructor Chris Werhane said. “He’s got a great positive attitude.”
Of course, Barta still falls, but said the moments he’s up, skiing powder, are some of the best he’s had.
“I’m at the top of Vail Mountain and skiing with my wife,” Barta said. “I’m having a ball; I feel normal. You’ve just got to get up, get out and get into the outdoors.”
Werhane said many, if not most, disabled people will wait a year, maybe two, after their accidents or illnesses to get on a mono-ski.
“I told them ‘I’m Tred Barta and I want to learn to ski,'” he said. “They actually suggested I wait a year, but I said ‘I’m going to ski, whether it’s here or someplace else.'”
So Barta’s skiing, and his admiration for Vail’s adaptive ski school grows every time he’s on the hill.
“I look forward all week to going,” he said.
Besides mono-skiing, Barta’s also gotten back on a horse recently. He needed plenty of help to get that project rolling again, too.
He had a saddle made, and sent Badger, his favorite horse, to trainer Daniel Harris, who lives near Grand Junction.
After a few weeks of work with Harris, Badger now lowers his head into Barta’s lap to be bridled. The horse now responds to commands with the reins and his rider’s voice, since that rider can no longer give Badger a nudge in the flanks with his heels.
Perhaps the toughest thing, though, was keeping Badger calm as a crowd of people gathered around the animal, then lowered Barta onto his back with a pulley system attached to the roof of the barn.
“A horse is a prey animal,” Harris said. “That’s a really uncomfortable thing for a horse. He had to stand still and let us figure this out.”
But that first ride has led to others. Last week, Barta spun Badger both left and right, and managed to rope a lawn chair.
“I’m going to rope a cow,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s asleep, I’m going to rope a cow.”
Like skiing, riding is something Barta can do to feel the way he did before he was in a wheelchair.
Nate Pitman of Beaver Creek Stables has been helping Barta get back on a horse.
“His confidence is better now,” Pitman said. “The last couple of times he’s been really coming along.”
These and other adventures have been captured on video. Versus, the cable channel that hosts “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta,” continues to support one of its most popular show hosts. That means adventures in Guatemala, Oregon and other places with Barta doing what he does – trying, and sometimes failing, to land fish or bag game, but always with the host doing it his way.
Skiing and riding have come recently, but Barta was shooting his bow even last summer when he was at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver.
Before he fell ill, Barta was putting more than 80 pounds of pull on his long bow. At Craig, he was struggling to put 20 pounds of pull on the string.
These days, he’s back up over 50 pounds of pull, and was able to bag a small deer in Texas not long ago.
“That was the littlest big deer in Texas,” Barta said. “I was as proud as if he’d been a 14-point buck.”
Along with his wife, Anni, Barta’s long bow has been one of his anchors over the last several months.
Through his career as an outdoor writer and TV show host, Barta has stuck to the principle that doing virtually anything the hard way is the most rewarding thing anyone can do. There’s even a stash of pens at his house that read, “Do it the hard way – The Barta way.”
That’s why Barta shoots a long bow and makes his own arrows. It’s why he won’t use tree stands, scent blockers or anything that remotely smacks of technology when he’s hunting, and uses the lightest tackle he can when fishing (he recently landed a couple of big sailfish in Guatemala using just two-pound test line).
“It would be easy to use a shotgun, or a rifle, or get behind a blind,” Barta said. “But I’m a long-bow hunter. I’m going to do that til I can’t do it any more.”
Barta says his “hard way” philosophy has put him at odds with a lot of people. And he revels in being a kind of bull in the china shop of polite society.
But, he said, the last year has just cemented what he believes.
“A lot of people think it’s OK to lower your principles in tough times,” he said. “That’s when it’s most important to stick to them.”
But sticking to those principles of hard work and dedication hasn’t been easy.
Barta acknowledges that he’ll break down in tears sometimes. He accepts the fact he can’t control his bladder or bowels – he hides the surgically-implanted stents and bags under his clothing – but he doesn’t like it. He deeply misses intimacy with Anni. And he worries that the pot belly he’s sprouted because he can’t work his core muscles looks bad on TV.
He adores Anni for the tough love she’s shown him, but admits that it stings when she tells him to buck up, dry his eyes and get back to work.
But, Anni said, tough love is what Tred needs, and what she needs.
“I can’t allow myself to participate in Tred’s tough moments,” Anni said. “You can only do so much, so you do what you can and then turn it over to a higher power.”
Sarah Will has been in a wheelchair for a bit more than 20 years. After the injury that cost her the use of her legs, she went on to become the most-decorated Paralympic skier ever, and she has a spot in the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame. Will said the tough love that Anni’s showing her husband is going to be an essential part of his future.
At the moment, Barta’s being hoisted and hauled onto boats, helped into his harness for horse-riding, and generally getting plenty of help. Will isn’t afraid to ask for help, from scraping off a car windshield to asking a stranger to reach something from the top shelf at the grocery store. But she’s also founded AXS Vail Valley, an organization dedicated to making lodges, stores, shops and streets easier to navigate for the disabled.
“There’s a fine line between learning to do things yourself and depending on other people,” Will said.
That’s what Barta’s learning now, Will said.
But Will sees in her new friend – she’s actually known Anni for years – a potentially powerful voice for the disabled.
“He’s going to be a great ambassador for us,” Will said. “He’s going to be promoting a lifestyle.”
Werhane agreed, he believes Barta can have a big impact on adaptive skiing.
“It’s his whole attitude of just get up and do it,” Werhane said.
That’s a role Barta welcomes.
Talking about a planned snow-goose hunt in Oregon next week – shooting his long bow, of course – Barta acknowledged there’s a good chance he won’t get an animal.
“Even if I miss, I’ve succeeded,” he said. “You never give up, don’t give in your principles. And when I get something, what a trophy that’ll be!”
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.