It’s hard to live life unnoticed in a town as small as Crested Butte. One man who chose to follow a path to obscurity 44 years ago ended up a local legend.
Chapter one: What locals say
“Who’s Billy Barr? Well, he’s quite the celebrity around here,” MJ Simmons said with a laugh outside the post office on Elk Avenue.
Down the street at the Last Steep Bar and Grill, mention of the name Billy Barr got an entire table talking about the man and the spelling of his name.
“Always ‘billy barr.’ Little b, little b,” said Glo Cunningham. “Don’t you write his name with a capital or you’re going to get in trouble.”
Billy Barr Gallery
Ask the man himself, and he’ll forgive you for using capital letters. He simply decided years ago that lowercase suited him better. Those who’ve been around Crested Butte long enough know Billy’s name and how to spell it.
“I’d say Billy Barr is a legend in our community and a legend in our world here in Crested Butte,” said Cunningham.
Billy Barr is so popular in town because he chooses to live so far outside of it. Follow a snow-covered road from Mt. Crested Butte a quarter mile past the sleepy, abandoned mining town of Gothic and you’ll reach the spot Billy calls home.
Chapter two: From the mouth of the mountain man
“I’ve been in this place since 1980,” said Billy Barr, rocking in a wooden chair inside his cabin. “I’ve been here since 72 really.”
Billy’s long white beard stands out as does his slender frame underneath a baggy, knit sweater. The 66-year-old Trenton, New Jersey native first arrived in Gothic in May of 1972 as a Rutgers University environmental science student. From Gothic’s Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, Billy studied the water quality of the East River.
He was drawn to the mountains and the quiet life in Gothic.
“I needed to get away from that high pressure,” he said. “It was too much stimulus and I didn’t fit in really well.”
After finishing his last semester at school, Billy decided to stay in Gothic. He spent eight years living in a small mining shack before he moved into the cabin a couple friends helped him build. Billy is very much a creature of habit and collections. His collections of plants in his greenhouse helps him get through winter.
“Mint grows like crazy,” Billy said, surrounded by greens. “I love it.”
Billy grows lettuce, spinach, bok choy and beets. He once tried to grow corn, but it shriveled.
“I got ears about this big,” he said, pinching his fingers together.
Chapter three: Passing time alone
A collection of DVDs and chocolate bars gets Billy through the long, cold nights. His DVD library is growing, and Billy estimates he has somewhere between 1,800 and 1,900 DVDs. His taste in movies is more in line with a romantic than rugged mountain man. Most nights it’s a tossup between love stories, Bollywood flicks and Disney movies.
“I probably have more kids’ movies than the average 12 year-old,” Billy said with a smile.
Only one of Billy Barr’s collections has kept him busy for the past 44 years. Billy keeps the old notebooks on shelf in his computer desk.
“Yeah, this is my first book,” Billy said, opening the old book with its pages starting to yellow.
Billy started recording daily temperatures and measuring snowfall outside his cabin in the early 1970s. He jotted down everything he saw from his mountain backyard.
“I was very detailed,” Billy said.
Eventually, he started entering data on computer spreadsheets and sharing his observations online.
“Keeps me busy!” Billy said with a laugh.
Billy spent 35 years working for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center which eventually provided him some equipment to measure temperature and snowpack. In 1980, he became the accountant for the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab where he still works today. He continues to document the weather, and posts a weekly summary online each Saturday.
“Every Saturday night, you know it’s crazy out here!” Billy said, jokingly. “Bring your calculators!”
Chapter four: Barr's scientific impact
While Billy has kept to himself over the years, he’s shared his data with the world. Researchers interested in climate change have taken particular interest in his observations.
“We’re getting snowpack later and later,” Billy said. “It’s warmer. We’re losing [snowpack] earlier no matter how much snow we have in the winter.”
Billy said he never intended to prove anything with his data and never expected his observations would be helpful to climatologists.
“It wasn’t like I was like, ‘okay, I’m going to prove that 40 years from now, it’s getting warmer,” he explained.
“This is data that was nothing more than observations with no goal.”
Back at the Last Steep Bar and Grill, Glo Cunningham reflected on Billy’s meticulous record-keeping.
“I don’t think that you would ever imagine that what he’s done has turned out to be such an important thing for our world and our planet,” she said.
While Billy Barr kept to himself for four decades, he shared his data with the world. In doing so, a hermit became a household name.