To the soundtrack of a man playing The Band's "The Weight" in an empty quad, Cheyenne Mountain High School created community from chaos last Friday night. Supplies for sheltered pets were dropped off near the main entrance; the lower parking lot made like a NASCAR infield, full of insurance companies' trailers and their adjusters; and near the gym, car after car delivered food from local restaurants.
There were trays of stroganoff from Rabbit Hole Dinner and Drinks; brats from Uwe's German Restaurant; and big, foil-wrapped platters of pasta from Roman Villa Pizza. Angela's Cupcakes and Pupcakes, McCabe's Tavern, SouthSide Johnny's and the north-side 3 Margaritas all had food flowing into the back of the Salvation Army's mobile unit, some in those big, blue, plastic IKEA bags.
Two days later, Rudy's Country Store and Bar-B-Q kicked in all 300 meals, alone feeding the entire population of evacuees in the high school's air-conditioning-free gym.
This group would likely have responded to the Waldo Canyon Fire without anybody's prompting, but it was made a whole lot easier by the time and efforts of Bill Layton, he of the downtown food-cart Bite Me Gourmet Sausage.
Immediately recognizable by his glasses, ball cap and full, graying beard, Layton originally planned to roll his cart down to the high school the first night evacuees sought refuge. He was turned back due to fire restrictions.
However, Layton remembers, "They said, 'If you can redirect your plan and help us, we would love it.' So I took it as a challenge, and I said, 'All right — I know some people in the restaurant businesses. We can do some prepared meals and bring 'em here, so let's see if we can get this done.'"
Support was near-unanimous. If a restaurant couldn't commit in the following days, it signed on for future meals; spots like Phantom Canyon Brewing Co., the Rocky Mountain Restaurant Group (which runs Slayton's Tejon Street Grill, Salsa Brava Fresh Mexican Grill, and Sonterra Innovative Southwest Grill), and Lemongrass Bistro were all standing by when the Salvation Army said on Sunday it no longer needed ongoing help.
Independent of anything organized by Layton, west-side restaurateurs have been doing their damnedest to assist, too. Coordinated by Meadow Muffins' Todd Delahanty, representatives of Dat's Italian!, Front Range Barbeque, Jake & Telly's Greek Taverna, Pizzeria Rustica, TAPAteria, Colorado City Creamery, Paravicini's Italian Bistro, La Baguette Bakery, Garden of the Gods Gourmet and the Food Designers provided some 2,400 meals for the displaced. Even with financial support from national food distributors, Rocky Mountain Coors Distributing and New Belgium Brewing Co., Delahanty estimates owners of these restaurants spent $2,000-plus of their own money.
It's mattered, says Dan Wilson, a captain with the Salvation Army.
"Up in Cripple Creek and Divide, the canteens like this are cooking over 200 meals," says Wilson, overseeing the donations back at the high school. "But in this situation, in Colorado Springs, a lot of restaurants are wanting to help, and it's a blessing. It's amazing — just so many different restaurants."
And while the community helped, meal after meal making its way into the refrigerators for the evening dinner, the man with the guitar played on.
"Take a load off Annie, take a load for free / Take a load off Annie, and you put the load right on me."