Friday, June 3, 2005

The wild open spaces of Bob Rosso

Perch patriarch ponders the pleasure, passion and purpose of being The Elephant Man

Express Staff Writer

Bob Rosso relaxes in front of The Elephant's Perch

The Elephant's Perch store in Ketchum is named after the largest monolith of granite in the state of Idaho and Bob Rosso is just as solid as the peak that sits above Redfish Lake.

Unlike the slab, however, Rosso is never stationary. His mind, body and mouth are a peripatetic phalanx of perpetual motion. Poetry in motion might be stretching it a bit, but when talking to Rosso his intelligence, good humor and sense of fun shine through.

A California native who moved into the Valley in 1971, Rosso is as much a fixture in the outdoors as he is in the boardrooms, as a dedicated and tireless volunteer for the causes he champions.

Married to Kate Rosso since 1977, the pair have a 17-year old son Stevie, who is a junior at Wood River High School. Rosso and I chatted on the eve of the 26th annual Adams Gulch Fun Run which is this Saturday.

JZ: When were you born?

BR: Oh, we're not going there are we? April 28, 1947. I am 58 years old. How in the hell did that happen? It's just insane.

JZ: Do you feel old?

BR: Only when I look in the mirror.

JZ: Are you one of those people who mind aging?

BR: I don't think I have a choice. I sure try and fight it off.

JZ: How do you do that?

BR: By doing the things I love like hiking, biking, climbing, running, skiing. All the things we love to do up here. Fitness is a key part in making it not so painful.

JZ: Where did you grow up?

BR: Luckily I grew up in Southern California. I was born in Upland, which is by San Bernardino, and, coincidentally, Mount Baldy. My dad coached football at Chaffey. In the mid-50s my parents bought a chicken farm on Lido Island and I grew up there. At that time it was a classic little beach community. We, my older brother and younger sister, were outside swimming and surfing day in and out. I did a little school on the side.

JZ: Were you a good student?

BR: I was an average high school student. I think I was playing so hard and doing so many sports in high school that I did not do as well as when I went to college. I really took off then. My son is light years ahead of me in school and I am quite proud of it.

JZ: I think one of your characteristics is boundless energy. Were you a hyper kid?

BR: Yeah. Actually the kids on the nordic team nicknamed me Hummingbird Man. I don't sit still too long. I get rolling pretty quickly.

JZ: Do you think if you grew up in this day and age you would be categorized with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)?

BR: I have thought about that. I remember asking my mom about that and she said no. I was always doing everything, but never had a problem staying focused.

JZ: What sports did you play growing up?

BR: Swimming and water polo. I also wrestled and played football. I was a lifeguard for about 10 or 12 years.

JZ: Did you ever save anyone?

BR: Many times. The Pacific is a really active ocean and once summer starts a swell can come in and it can get wild pretty quickly. The ocean is a simple thing when you under-stand what's going on with the water. But people would be to-tally unprepared. No fins or anything and things can happen quickly. As lifeguards we would try and prevent that. To this day I cannot go some place where I am not watching the water. It's an instinctive thing. You never lose that sense of watching the ocean. I have had quite a few rescues when I have been somewhere else, because people aren't aware of what causes the currents and what pushes you out. A little bit of knowledge can go a really long way.

JZ: Are you a first generation American?

BR: On my father's side. He was born in Italy and came over in a boat to Ellis Island when he was five years old. The family ended up in San Francisco. My grandfather and grandmother had five acres in Lafayette and we would go there twice a year. We loved it. There were orchards and vineyards. They made their own wine and one glass would send you through the ceiling. They grew vegetables and had animals and lived off the land. My mom was born in the States. Her side of the family is from Denmark. Her father founded Meeks Bay Resort at Lake Tahoe and we would spend every summer up there. Randy Hermann, who is now a doctor up here, grew up there and he and I and our brothers hung out a lot back then.

JZ: Are your parents still alive?

BR: Yes. My dad is 89 and will be 90 next March. My mom is 86. They are both very well and doing great. They still drive and live on their own in the same house on Lido Island.

JZ: Where did you go to college?

BR: Orange Coast Community College for two years and then Cal-State Long Beach. I wanted to swim with coach Don Gambrell and we won a national championship in 1967 or 68' right in there. Not because of me, but because of the team.

JZ: How did you end up in Ketchum?

BR: A lifeguard I worked with took the winter off and came back raving about Sun Valley. The powder skiing and lack of crowds and that appealed to me because I am a non-crowd type of guy. I came up in the fall of 1970 and found a house for three other guys that were going to join me.

JZ: And then?

BR: I walked into the Country Kitchen which was owned by Bob Doan and was kind of a hippie health food restaurant and started off as a dishwasher and ended up as a cook. Rob Kiesel and Bob Gorton of Boise started Snug Mountaineering in the front part of the building where we are now and I had worked in a ski shop in Cal so I got a job with them. They sold technical climbing gear and backpacking gear and I did a lot of climbing. I got into the rock-climbing scene at Yosemite in the 60s. Then we started Sun Valley Mountain Guides and I was an assistant to Rob when he started the Sun Valley Nordic Ski Team. I didn't know anything about cross country skiing at the time, but it was a whole lot of fun. A lot of the kids we had then still live in the community, Bridget Kapala, the Atkinson kids, the Ritzaus, Kevin Swigert. They were all a part of it. That was '72 or '73.

JZ: How did you end up with The Elephant's Perch?

BR: Kiesel and Bob got nervous, Aspen Sports came into town. Chip Fischer was working for Sun Valley Company and they bought Snug Mountaineering and two other stores and I stayed on and ran the store for Sun Valley. Then the Company decided they didn't want satellite stores, so Chip bought all three back. Then Chip decided he wanted to get into downhill ski stuff and I just wasn't into that side of the business. I was drinking a few post-race beers with Jim Bombard at El Torito where Kate worked and Jim said you have to open your own business. That planted the seed. That was early winter of 1975 and that rolled into the winter of '76 and in two or three months I put together some money and the concept and got the lease with Don Siegel, who still owns the building. We opened on April 1, 1976 and we were primarily just cross country, backpacking and mountaineering. I graduated with a degree in education with a business minor and flipped it upside down and ended up in business with no education.

JZ: You seem to have a lot of employees who have been with you for a long time. How do you engender that sense of loyalty?

BR: You would probably have to ask them that. One thing that works for us is everything we have ever done is because we love doing it. In terms of core people, buyers and managers, they have to live here and they have lives and kids outside of the business and we try and make it as flexible as we can and as easy as we can. We have a good benefits package. But without that core group we wouldn't be here.

JZ: As a business owner in Ketchum, is it easier or harder to make a living than say 20 years ago?

BR: You know I think it was easier then. It was real calm and we had two or three employees. The business would close in the spring and fall. It seemed like an easier pace. We expanded in 1982 and built a larger store in 1986. Our inventory shot way up and now we are staffing 20-25 people. The community is changing and evolving. I don't worry about competition in the valley or big box stores or online, but you can't casually get by. You have to pay close attention to how we do business. It's easy to be bad in retail. If an employee is looking out the window and doesn't acknowledge someone when they walk in, the person will say, 'Gosh, I was in that place and it stinks' and they will never come back. You have to be on your toes. You shouldn't be in this business unless you really enjoy talking to people. You have to have good, knowledgeable people and your store has to be clean and organized with a range of things that meets everyone's needs. The challenges just keep changing.

JZ: What is your favorite race to put on?

BR: I think the Adams Gulch Run. It's a total no brainer. I go out there in the morning and put flour around the course. We do the results old-style where we hand you a popsicle stick. There's no entry fee, no awards and no prizes. It's a piece of cake. The Backcountry Run has been real rewarding. Now it attracts 300-400 people and the majority has switched over to the 10-miler. The Boulder Mountain Tour started with Rob Kiesel. He pioneered so many things. But I have been involved in the Boulder since day one. The bummer part about that is it has gotten so big that I have not been able to compete.

JZ: Do you think the races you hold reflect your interests at the time?

BR: Sure. Just about when the first Ironman was happening in San Diego, we started the Tri-Elephant-A-Thon. It was really just the first concept of the idea. We swam in Magic Reservoir, biked from there and ran out Trail Creek. People would bike with kids' seats on the back. But the common denominator is people just wanted to have fun and I wanted an organized event that was safe and people could have a good time at.

JZ: What ever happened to the Tri-Ele?

BR: It went away. We started swimming at Alturas Lake and we had to shorten the swim because the water was so cold. One year I cancelled the swim because cloud cover came in and I didn't want people getting hypothermic and dying on me and some participants were so mad and started yelling at me. So we did the bike and run and they got hypothermic anyway and that was enough.

JZ: What boards do you serve on?

BR: I am still on the Galena Advisory Committee, and the board of the YMCA. I am trying to help them with programming and things, and I feel good about the building and direction it is heading. I am on the Boulder Mountain Tour Committee. I have been involved with Sun Valley Junior Hockey, The Community School, the Blaine County Recreation District for 20 years, and REAP. Spontaneous things pop up. I believe it's a real obligation to give back to your community.

JZ: Outside of the outdoor life what other interests do you have?

BR: Not much. I get to be the Italian backhoe guy for Kate and her gardening pursuits. She helps me separate what a flower is from a weed. Beside my business in the sports world, I like to participate. This winter I am going to the World Masters Cross Country race in Italy. I am one of those old farts who pretend they can still race. When I race I hardly pay attention to what my time is. I just love to have fun. I really love to go to other people's races. I probably race too much against people who are younger than me. I really believe in our community and love to work with the parts of the community I can. I love to help people out when I can. I like to travel and we never do enough and it is never for long enough.

JZ: Do you have a credo or motto you live your life by?

BR: I think it was Mike Wolter's father-in-law who told him about the TR Factor. There is a picture of me in my office. I am on the top of Mount Sir Donald in Canada and Jason Kreitler who used to work here wrote on it, Proper use of TR Factor. TR factor is Time Remaining. It makes you reflect on what you are doing with your time here. What are your priorities? Mine are to keep running, hiking, biking and doing things with my son. I have done a lot of things with him, that I would not necessarily do on my own, like hunting, but had a great time because I am with him.

JZ: What is your favorite way to relax?

BR: Exercising. It does not have to be intense. If I can go on a little run bike or hike I am happy. I am not really an indoor guy as far as workouts. I would rather get out and hike up a hill. I love climbing and love getting in the mountains. Janet Kellam calls it the Church of the Open Slopes. That is my religion. The weather, the storms, I love it all. That is my relaxation. Getting out with my family and enjoying all the stuff around us. Ketchum is the hub of a wagon wheel and at every spoke we are surrounded by national forest. Where else does that happen? Summer time in Ketchum, in downtown Ketchum, is not necessarily a pleasant place with the gridlock and traffic. But a few steps in any directions you have immediately escaped. It is the same thing in the winter with the skiing.

JZ: Who are your favorite people?

BR: Dick Hare and Sue Hare. They are recent arrivals to the area and have given so much in such a short time to projects they believe in. I really admire Rick Kapala. I love his passion. I love people who have that honesty and passion and really admire people who believe in what they do and do it with energy and passion and excitement.

JZ: Which historical figure do you most closely identify with?

BR: I am sort of the here and now type of guy. I do not reflect much on the past. I enjoy the new people I meet every day. When I move past something, I have moved past it. I really admire the things people have done that have gotten us here, but I have always been the type to say thanks, but now it's our turn and we'll take it from here.

JZ: What are you most proud of in your life?

BR: My son and my family. Absolutely.

JZ: How did you meet Kate?

BR: One of those first years when the whole town shut down, Bob and I decided to go to Mexico. We took the train and went to Mexico for two months. Who does that anymore? We came back up to the restaurant and there was a note on the door. It was from Sandy. She had long brown hair and was a gorgeous hippie-type of girl. Sandy was one of Kate's best friends. Four of them from high school came out here and pitched a tent in Adams Gulch, before there was anything out there. Sandy came to work for us. At first, I didn't notice Kate, but I started to get interested toward the end of the summer. She went to college in Fort Collins and I ended up commuting over there and she would come back and see me. I bought a house in Hidden Hollow in 1975 or '76 and she came back here to live. We spent five years together and have been married since 1977. We spent 15 years together and then we had Stevie. We didn't have any plan, it just happened that way. He is 17 years old and just finishing his junior year. The funny thing about kids is they don't come with instructions. We have learned a lot together and from one another.

JZ: What makes your marriage work?

BR: We enjoy the same things. We are willing to listen to one another and we are always adjusting and adapting. And we are really good friends. It's a basic thing that just works. We like to bike and hike and travel together and when we can't go together, we can go off by ourselves. But we really enjoy being together and working together.

JZ: How did you come up with the name for the shop?

BR: Well, it was either Bob's Sporting Goods or The Elephant's Perch. I think I made the right choice.

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