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To Hell and Backby Lois Smith Brady | Aspen magazine | September 26, 2012
How an Aspen family found a way to endure the unendurable.
You hear so many survival stories in Aspen. People have climbed Mount Everest without oxygen, out-skied an avalanche, and survived lightning strikes in the high country.
But there is no survival story I know that’s so extreme—so full of pain and pain relief—as Art and Allison Daily’s. This summer, your backpack must contain their memoir, Out of the Canyon, which was published by Harmony Books on May 12, Allison’s 45th birthday.
You may already know the story. In winter 1995, Art was driving through Glenwood Canyon with his then-wife, Kathy, and their two young sons, Shea and Tanner. They were returning home to Aspen, after a hockey game in Vail. Partway through the canyon, a boulder crashed down on their car, killing everyone but Art, who escaped untouched. There is a memorial bench to Kathy, Tanner, and Shea outside the elementary school, and their framed, forlorn hockey jerseys hang on a wall at the Lewis Ice Arena. Art’s story always reminded me of an Emmylou Harris lyric: “The worst part is knowing I’ll survive.”
You may also know that a few months later, he received a package from Allison, at the time a waitress in her 20s who shared a hand-built cabin outside town with eight ski bums. She didn’t know Art, but when she heard about the accident, she made him a tape of her favorite mourning songs. Her first marriage had just ended, her brother had committed suicide a few years earlier, and she knew what songs went well with serious sadness. A year and a half later, Allison and Art got married on a beach in the Caribbean.
Their memoir creates a perfect circle. It begins in the canyon, and it ends in the canyon, with Allison and Art driving home from Vail with their two hockey-playing sons, Rider and Burke. He wrote some of the chapters, she wrote others. Art’s writing is both methodical and mystical. He painstakingly describes the accident—it’s as if he’s moving through a rosary, bead by bead—and the agony afterward. “When tragedy strikes, all bets are off,” he writes. “The old ways won’t work any longer, and the road ahead is unknowable, uncharted, and shrouded in mystery.” At times, the book reads like a travel guide to a place you never want to visit: “Grief. What an awesomely dark and terrible place.”
Today, Art and Allison live in the same house he shared with Kathy, a blue-gray architectural hodgepodge with a sign at the entry: PLEASE CLOSE DOOR. DUDE IS AN OLD, COLD CAT. Inside, there’s noise and art everywhere. In some ways, Allison is like a 1950s sorority girl -— blond and blue-eyed, she wears pastel cashmere sweaters and sweetheart necklaces. She cooks banana bread. When I visited, she brought out a tray of crackers and cheese, pretty blue glasses of ice water, and a scented candle. “I’m a candle freak,” she says. “I love the smell. I love the look. I love everything about a candle.”
Art is her opposite. His hair appears windblown, even inside. We first talk about how he got kicked out of Colorado College years ago for spraying the dean of students with a fire hose. “He was really wild, and I was never wild,” Allison says. “He was much more free, and I was always trying to do the right thing. He never did the right thing.”
RIDER AND BURKE, athletic towheads, run around the maze-like house. But the new family has by no means replaced the old, or even overshadowed it. There are pictures everywhere of Tanner, Shea, and Kathy. Artwork by all four boys covers the walls. Paintings Kathy collected in the Caribbean still hang in the front hallway, where she hung them more than 15 years ago. “We live in a house where there are constant reminders of death and rebirth,” Allison says.
And everyone seems comfortable with that. Rider and Burke wear Tanner and Shea’s clothes, carry their pictures, and even see them sometimes. “Rider used to see them in the windows,” Allison said. “Rider is our little old soul. He came out looking just like an old man. He looked 80 years old.”
There is a quiet spot in the backyard where Allison goes to talk to Kathy — about Art. “Art used to make me really upset with working too much,” Allison said. “We’d have battles, power struggles. Kathy would say, ‘Let me tell you what to do.’ From where she is, she can see the beauty of not having pride.”
In the book, Allison writes, “The mountains have snow on their crests; the leaves are orange and brown, just beginning to come down. I am in the middle of a conversation with my husband’s dead wife.” Allison’s chapters resemble her: honest, shiny, and funny, even when she describes her own dark period after her brother’s suicide.
Thinking about heaven, angels, and the afterlife is not new territory for her. “In college, I was a member of Campus Crusade for Christ,” Allison says. “We went to Hawaii one summer and we’d talk to people on the beach: ‘How sure are you that you’re going to heaven? Would you like to know a way that you’re going to heaven 100 percent?’”
Allison wrote her chapters of the book at home, late at night when the kids were sleeping. Art wrote his on weekends, in his office. “I’d never sat down to write anything but legal material and letters to girlfriends,” he said. “It was a really emotional process — no surprise. I had to flow back as much as I could, to really be there. Sometimes I would just dissolve in tears while I was writing. Back at the time of the accident, that would happen so much. I would sit there balling my eyes out. If I was driving, I’d have to pull off to the side of the road.”
Sitting in their unpretentious living room, with its packed bookcases and couches that seem to go on forever, Art says that his first date with Allison was his first glimmer of hope. “All my feelings just flowed out, and she was just absorbing it, staying with it,” he remembered. “She didn’t run from it. She wasn’t cutting me off. She wanted to know. That was an incredibly appealing experience.”
Still a great listener, Allison waits for him to finish and then exclaims, “I thought he was so good-looking! But what I loved about him was his sensitivity. He was so comfortable with his feelings. He cried all the time. I loved that.”
Their love story is a big part of the book, too. In many ways, their courtship was a typical Aspen one, despite the fact that he was often crying. “Art got me a mountain bike and he got me Rollerblades,” Allison says. “We’d wake up, go for a mountain-bike ride, go Rollerblading, come back, hike up Sunnyside, bike into town, and go to the Aspen Club to work out. I’d call my Mom and say, ‘We’re on our fifth activity of the day. I’m going to die!’”
The part of the book where I started balling my eyes out was when their first son, Rider, was born. Art writes: “The last time I held a son, he was leaving this world; now I am bringing one into life.”
Many times during our conversation, Allison mentions to me that Art glows, that he has an “amazing-ness” about him. He does, maybe because his eyes are always filling with tears and sparkling. Or because he’s been somewhere very few of us have ever been, breathed different air, walked through badlands without taking shortcuts. Even an oxygen tank wouldn’t have helped. Along the way, he was open to hugs, howling, shamans, jokes, strangers coming to the door, insomnia, and a new lover who talked with his old, dead lover.
How did he survive it all? His answer is, with the help of Piper, his daughter; Allison; and Aspen. “The people of this town carried me, they cared about me, they let me know I mattered, they shared a true sorrow for my loss,” he says. “People still come up to me and say, ‘I never knew what to say. I’d like to say it to you now.’” Allison, who now works as a bereavement counselor at Aspen Hospital, added: “I’ll tell you, in tragedy, the people in Aspen show up. It’s a show-up kind of town. It’s not just lip service.”
After the interview, as Allison leads me out of the house, we pass more pictures of Shea, Tanner, and Kathy. “I got scared the contact with them would stop after I wrote the book,” she says. “But they’re still talking to me.”