P. T. Wood isn’t the first person to have his life changed on a river trip. Nor is he the first to imbibe in some liquid spirits on said trip. But for Wood (Business Administration, ’90), the convergence of the two has led to a life and occupation that has allowed him to put his Fort Lewis College business degree to use in one of those unique mountain-lifestyle ways so distinctive to so many FLC graduates.
Wood is co-owner, with his brother, Lee, of Wood’s High Mountain Distillery, in Salida, Colorado. Salida is a mountain town of 5,000 hearty souls located in the Arkansas River Valley of Colorado where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Collegiate Peaks converge. The town is famous for its river running and trout fishing, situated between two world-class stretches of whitewater in Brown’s Canyon and the Royal Gorge, and is just “down the pass,” as they say here, from Monarch Ski Area.
And in true Renaissance mountain-man style, Wood is also mayor of Salida. But more on that later.
“You know, mountain towns are not necessarily the easiest places to live. But that instills this sense of entrepreneurship in folks who choose to live in these places.
Mayor and distiller P. T. wood
“The distilling business came from a Grand Canyon trip in the mid ‘90s,” he explains. “I was down there with a local bar owner, and he had brought a bunch of different whiskeys that we kept sampling and trying throughout the trip. By the end, I had decided that I was going to make my own whiskey to take on river trips someday.”
Today anyone can take Wood’s Distillery’s malt and rye whiskeys and three different types of gin on their own river trips. Before all that, though, Wood was a student at FLC on what might be called the work hard/play hard plan. Wood’s time at FLC spanned a good part of the 1980s, starting in 1983 until he graduated in 1990. The reason it took so long? “Those were some good powder years back in the ‘80s,” he laughs. “There was lots of good skiing.”
And hiking. And kayaking. And river rafting. And fishing. “Oh, man, it was great,” he remembers. “Durango was a great place to be. We would go camping up in the Weminuche Wilderness, and run the river, and go fly fishing. I worked as a lift operator at Purgatory for a while, and I was the assistant manager at Purgatory Sports up at the mountain. I also learned to boat after I saw some kayaks on cars, and I was, like, man I’ve got to check that out. And that was what led me to be a river guide.”
But even if it meant he had to spread his education out over more than four years, all that outdoor adventuring didn’t interfere with his goal of getting his business degree. In fact, he says, it only enhanced it. And that meant that, for him, FLC was the perfect place to merge the two primary drives in his life.
“I should have spent more time studying, I guess, but that was just what we did, and it obviously suited us well,” he says. “And that kind of fueled our studies. I feel like it makes school easier having access to that stuff. It definitely made it more interesting. And it brought me into contact with people who helped motivate me to stay in school and keep learning.”
Those experiences and that approach to life have continued to serve Wood well after FLC, too. Following his graduation in 1990, a friend of Wood’s who was the head boatman for a commercial river-running company in Salida informed him that they needed some guides. So he and a bunch of his Durango friends headed up there to work on the river. “I’ve been here ever since,” he says. But he took his FLC life-lessons with him.
“My FLC and Durango time was absolutely critical to what I do now,” he says. “My time there instilled a love of the outdoors and wild places, and I did get a business degree while I was having all that fun. In fact, since I left Fort Lewis, I've had only one job working for someone else. Maybe that’s because all that time spent skiing and boating and backpacking means I'm unemployable by anybody besides myself, but that's good! Fort Lewis is a place that instills that sense of independence and willingness to go out and do your own thing. It’s kind of an entrepreneurial engine that way.”
That “entrepreneurial engine” has driven Wood through a variety of occupations -- from river guide to kayak salesman to carpenter to restaurateur to distiller and to, as of 2017, mayor. But, he says, such economic creativity and adaptability comes in handy in a mountain town like Salida.
“I was talking to somebody recently about mountain towns, the people who live in them, and why they live there,” he muses. “You know, these are not necessarily the easiest places to live. But that instills this sense of entrepreneurship in folks who choose to live in these places. You're often forced to go out and make your way, and do things in kind of unique and interesting ways. It also makes folks just super motivated.”
For example: Wood was on the local planning commission for 10 years, and found he didn’t really like the way town politics were going. So … “I was convinced by a bunch of folks that it would be a good idea for me to run for mayor. And so I did, and I won, much to my surprise,” he says. “That means I now need to go out and figure out how to communicate with and get messages across to the five thousand or so folks in town. That can be a challenge, and that's been something that has really tested my abilities.”
But those same people continue to inspire Wood. And they also remind him of how to handle those challenges he faces the mountain-town way: So whenever he can, he still gets out on the river, on the ski slopes, and on the trails. “It seems like everybody around here is an athlete, and they're always getting out and doing stuff,” he says. “Everybody works hard, sometimes with two or three jobs, but still they go out and ride their bike or whatever it is they do. It makes for some tough, interesting people.”
Check out the "Summits" alumni stories video series episode on P. T. Wood: