William Mitchell's face and hands were burned off seven years ago, on a spring afternoon in San Francisco. His motorcycle smashed into a moving laundry truck. The motorcycle gas tank blew up in Mitchell's face and a man across the street grabbed a fire extinguisher, aimed it at the flames, an sprayed.
Mitchell survived. With rebuilt face, with stumps for hands, with thick, mottled burn scars from brow to waist, he packed up everything he could and moved to Colorado, to this easy-going mountain town where a man without much patience for suffering could live the sort of life he wanted. He tended bar. He learned to ski (without poles). He bought a house, a gleaming black 1939 Cadillac, and a red and white six-seater Cessna airplane to take him soaring over the Rockies on the days - and there were many of them - when he couldn't sit still.
Two years ago last November, on a morning when a little too much ice apparently had formed on the wings. Mitchell's plane crashed on takeoff at a nearby airport. Mitchell, who was flying friends to San Francisco, was at the controls. The plane dropped belly-down out of the sky and the impact broke Mitchell's back. He had become a paraplegic.
Mitchell is now the mayor of Crested Butte.
A cross-country skier in the fields outside town might have spotted him the other day, barreling along in his secondblack Cadillac (this one a gorgeous 1947 bullet of a car, equipped with hand-operated brake and accelerator), an organ concerto thundering over the tapes system, the citizens band radio jiggling with each bump in the road, the roof upholstery dangling where one of Mitchell's Great Danes chewed it up, an Indian blanket over the back seat and a tiny, strawberry blond Amazon doll in a tiger skin bikini enshrined in plastic on the steering wheel. Mayor Mitchell, his wheelchair folded up behind him, was on his way to Washington.
"We're going to dazzle them with our footwork, boys," he had proclaimed the night before, in between worksful of cheese fondue. "Show 'em how it's done in the Rockies."
Mitchell has gone off to Washington to "fight with the big boys," as he likes to say - to enlist federal support in his seven-month-old battle against a huge mining company that wants to begin mining molybdenum, a rare and expensive element used in steel production, just outside Crested Butte. Mitchell figures the mine would bring in 10,000 new people, when families and attendant businesses are added in. Crested Butte has 1,200 people now, mostly skiers. The whole town is a historic district. The very thought of 10,000 new residents in this quiet cluster of log cabins and western Victorian buildings makes Mitchell, and the voters who elected him, livid.
That was how Mitchell, former cable car conductor, radio announcer, insurance salesman and cabbie, became mayor last fall - wheeling down to the post office every day to talk about the mine. "It's a good fight, such a noble fight," Mitchell mused as he headed toward the airport. "It's the perfect cause . . . and I'm having the time of my life."
His Washington tour is a four-day series of appointments ending today with members of Congress, Interior and Agriculture Department officials, and, he hopes, the vice president. Since the U.S. Forest Service controls much of the proposed mining land, a sympathetic ear in Washington would ensure extensive environmental impact statements and enough strict guidelines for Amax, Inc., the mining company, "to allow Crested Butte to become the first town to have this kind of experience [largescale mining] and not be run over by it," Mitchell said.
Crested Butte is full of people who find a newspaper's interest in their mayor a little perplexing, and that is perhaps the best way to tell the remarkable story of the Honorable W. Mitchell. He's a good mayor, mostly, said a fellow at the ski area; sometimes he's very good and sometimes he's not so good. "You know," the man said. "He's just Mitchell.
Just Mitchell, who spent so much time sneaking out of his hospital room to go comfort other burn patients after his first accident that his doctor threatened to make him wear a beeper. Micthell, who joined a nurses' picket line in his hospital gown and ordered champagne on ice in his room sink every day at 2:30 p.m. Mitchell, who relieved one small Crested Butte boy by explaining what happened to his fingers: "I left them at home this morning."
He drives a recreation vehicle on long trips through the western states (he and two friends took off once on a three-day trip and came home three months later), serves on on three state planning committees and the governor's council for the physically handicapped, is comanaging the local reelection campaign for Colorado's Democratic Gov. Richard D. Lamm, holds one-third partnership in woodburning stove company, and now juggles all these roles so furiously that the most frequently voiced complaint about Mayor Mitchell is that he's just too busy to attend to local affairs.
"The way I look at it," Mitchell said, "before I was paralyzed there were 10,000 things I could do, 10,000 things I was capable of doing. Now there are 9,000." He shrugged. "I can dwell on the 1,000 or I can concentrate on the 9,000 I have left."
It is not a religious strength that keeps Mitchell going - he once went to church, but that was a long time ago - and it is not some saintliness of his own, either. He shouts when he gets angry, and he throws things. In the hospital two years ago he kept throwing his phone across the room when it wouldn't work right.
He knows what he looks like. He spoke with matter-of-fact gentleness about the schoolchildren who pressed up against their playground fence one day, crying monster, monster.
"I wanted very much to go up to the schoolyard and talk to them," Mitchell said.
What propels the mayor of Crested Butte is simply some extraordinary measure of the same things that propel most of us - love, work, a sense of humor and the most resilient form of self-acceptance. "After I got burned up," he will say easily, dating some event, or "after I got paralyzed . . ." His opening line once to another hospitalized burn patient was, "Christ, you're the only guy in this place that's funnier looking than I am."
"I like to get that straight in people's heads, that it doesn't matter who did it to you - you're the one who has to live with it," Mitchell said. "It's your life, it's your body, and it's your up or down. You can be beautiful and feel bad, or you can be ugly and feel good."
And Mitchell's strongest medicine has been Crested Butte, a small scenic resort community whose only previous brush with national publicity was two years when Howard H. (Bo) Callaway, then-President Ford's campaign manager, was accused of improperly trying to influence the Forest Service to allow him to expand his ski resort.
The town is a comfortable network of skiers, law firm dropouts and retired coal miners for whom W. Mitchell is simply mayor, real estate entrepreneur, arranger for excellent backyard barbecues, sometimes outrageous drinking partner and friend.
Mitchell's house burned while he was in the hospital two years ago, the townspeople had begun rebuilding the charred second story within 24 hours, and were working in the roof when the season's first blizzard hit.
They streamed in and out of his Denver hospital room, partying so furiously on Super Bowl Sunday that Mitchell said he was written up for allowing drinking before noon. They learned, in a town mostly unfamiliar with wheelchairs, how to maneuver Mitchell over the unpaved streets, into the restaurants and bars.Mitchell would teeter back and forth in the chair and shout instructions: "Just pretend it's a slalom course, man."
"Least wheelchair-accessible town in America," Mitchell likes to say. When he said that last week he was sitting at his solid oak dining room table, the kitchen clock ticking quietly and a small fire snapping in the cast iron stove. Snow drifts piled halfway up his windows outside and, off at the top of the mountain, the mayor of Crested Butte could see a new snowfall working its way gently toward town.