EAGLE COUNTY – Tred Barta is in his living room, watching an episode of his TV show, “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta.” It’s the last one he taped before a pair of rare medical conditions put him a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
On the TV in the living room of Barta’s home up Salt Creek south of Eagle, there’s Barta, in blue pajamas, on the business end of a fly rod. He’s running around a Guatemalan resort trying to mimic how a sailfish might behave. Finally, he jumps in the pool, splashing, bobbing, filled with the glee of the moment.
“It’s hard to watch these,” Barta says as the sun sets. He’s dressed in black sweats, wondering if he can muster up the energy he’ll need for his next shows, the ones that will show him hunting and fishing from a wheelchair.
He’s quiet for a moment.
“I can,” he finally says.
Barta’s TV show and writing have always been about getting the most out of your own abilities, no matter how great or limited, in the field and in life. He hunts with a longbow that the Utes who once lived the Vail Valley would recognize. He’s landed big sportfish with tackle most of us would use for trout. The hits and misses all end up on the show.
But Barta’s philosophy, as well as his faith, both in God and himself, are being tested now like never before.
Barta first fell ill in May, just before leaving on a bear-hunting trip to Alaska. He felt like he’d lost the power in his left leg, which eventually went limp. His right leg soon followed. Barta was taken to Denver Health Medical Center, where, just before emergency surgery, he was diagnosed with a “spinal stroke,” a condition in which blood flow to the spinal column is stopped.
That started a summer inside several Denver-area hospitals, where Barta was eventually found to have “Waldenstrom’s Disease,” a cancer-like illness that thickens the blood.
After nearly three months inside various hospitals, Barta gave up.
“It broke me,” he said. “I just wanted to come home and put a gun to my head.”
But Barta’s wife, Anni, wasn’t going to let that happen.
“I think a spouse knows a patient better than anyone,” she said. “I just saw him going downhill.”
Anni had been at her husband’s side almost nonstop since he first went to Denver. She spent weeks in another bed wheeled into her husband’s room.
“We’d go outside for a couple of hours,” she said. “But walking back through those (hospital) doors was like walking into a prison.”
After weeks of bad news and seeing the effects of the potpourri of drugs he was taking for his Waldenstrom’s disease, Anni had seen enough of her husband’s slow decline.
The day after Tred said, “I don’t want to do this any more,” Anni told him, “I don’t know how to quit.”
The day after that, she walked into the hospital and said she was taking her husband home. A few days later, the Bartas were back at the house up Salt Creek.
Since then, Anni’s learned the tough job of taking care of a man who hadn’t asked for anyone’s help in a very, very long time.
“I had to learn the job,” she said. “We’re out in the country. We’re very limited in services for the disabled here.”
Anni says Tred still has down days, but said his spirits started to improve from the moment he came home.
“You could literally see him improve by the hour,” she said.
But while Anni’s working alone at home, the Bartas have nothing but praise for local doctors.
“We’ve talked for hours,” Tred said. “I have the cell numbers of everyone up here. I can call any time.”
They’re also eager for winter. Tred’s going to learn how to use a mono-ski, thanks to the disabled skiing program at Vail and Beaver Creek.
“If you’re willing to do the work, there’s no better place to be than here,” he said.
The Bartas were in the middle of a big remodeling job at the house when Tred got sick. Those plans have changed. At the moment, Anni drives Tred to doctor’s appointments in the back of an old minivan with one of the back seats removed to make room for his wheelchair.
But there’s an elevator ordered for the brand-new underground garage, and Tred’s getting his pickup re-fitted with hand controls and a system that lets him hoist himself into the driver’s seat.
Tred’s bedroom is on the main level of the house, just feet from the office he uses for his main business of buying and selling corporate aircraft. Asked if he needs an extra push to get out the narrow doorway to the yard, he refuses.
Both inside and out, Tred has bungee cords set up, the better to build his arm strength. He’s lost the use of pretty much everything else from the sternum down.
And he needs his arm strength to shoot a bow. Earlier this year, Tred was using a bow with about an 80-pound pull. Now, a 40-pound pull is about all he can do, although he vows he’s going to be shooting a 50-pound pull soon.
But how far back Tred can pull a bowstring only limits how far he can shoot, not how well.
Strapped into his wheelchair to keep his upper body stable, Tred takes aim at an elk target about 15 yards away. The first arrow goes in right between the target’s shoulder and chest.
“That’s a kill right there,” he says. “Right into the heart.”
Several more arrows follow into a space smaller than a dinner plate. Any of them would have taken the elk down almost immediately.
With a little more strength, a little more resistance on the bow, Tred said he’ll be able to set up in a blind and hunt again. He’s also set up with a special saddle – which is now on the Bartas’ four-wheeler for practice – that will allow Tred to ride horses again.
Many of those new adventures will end up on TV. Barta’s show is still among the most popular on cable channel Versus, and channel bosses have given their outdoor star another season. All the show’s previous sponsors have signed on, too.
Those new shows will show a man on a mission, one who believes he’s being tested and is ready to show the world how he’s doing.
“My goal now is to encourage others,” Tred said. “I want to inspire people, to be a role model.
“If I can go skiing, then you can get out. If I can shoot a bow from a wheelchair, then you can accomplish your goals, too.”
Over the last few months, Tred’s had to learn a lot – how to ask for help, of course, but also the value of relationships.
At the top of the list is Anni, of course.
“This is tested love,” Tred says. “But I’ve never been so close to anyone. It’s a privilege to have that kind of love.”
But there are other relationships, too.
Tred’s sister, Susan Hadley, has come to visit from her home in Santa Fe. It’s the first time she’s come since her brother fell ill.
She was shocked, of course, to hear about her brother.
“Now I’m amazed at what he’s doing now,” she said.
The Bartas were greeted by 50 or so friends and neighbors when he came home from Denver. It’s given both of them a fresh perspective on the value of friends, and the value of spending time with them.
“Life is good, life is happy,” Tred says. “What a privilege to be here.
“You can change a life, you can change the world,” he added. “That’s what I want the rest of my life to be about.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.