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George Stranahan: Top dog 

You'll likely recognize his name from a bottle. Perhaps you've sipped the smooth amber liquid of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey. Or maybe you've sucked down a hoppy Flying Dog Brewery ale. And even if you've never done either of these, you may have noticed George Stranahan's name showing up on bookshelves.

In 2009, the now 79-year-old Carbondale resident, along with co-author Nicole Beinstein Strait, produced and published a book titled Phlogs: Journey to the Heart of the Human Predicament. Featuring his black-and-white photographs and writings by both of them, the coffee table hardcover won a 2010 Colorado Book Award and two 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

As the book testifies, it's been a long journey to this particular place. Though Stranahan knew from a very young age that he was drawn to photography, he kept it at a distance for most of his life.

"The proper, good people weren't photographers," he says. "They were scientists, professors, stuff like that. I always was putting aside that part of me that took photographs, saying, you know, 'That's just your hobby.' But when I looked back at the years of the hobby, and saw that there was a trail that was kind of going from there to now, I decided I was a photographer."

Peeling away

Stranahan's biography isn't an easy one to distill. He grew up the grandson of an automotive era icon, Frank Stranahan, who with George's great uncle founded the Champion Spark Plug Co. in 1908. It was the sole supplier of spark plugs to the Ford Auto Co. until 1961. George's parents, Duane Stranahan and Virginia Secor, would go on to use their family resources in many philanthropic ways, with a particular interest in social justice.

George Stranahan's path of "appropriateness" took him from Ohio to college at the California Institute of Technology to three years in the Army to, ultimately, a Ph.D. in physics at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He became a professor, and then a high school teacher, after which he moved to Colorado in the early '70s to act as interim head of the Aspen Community School.

Over the next 30 years, while photographing a potpourri of people, landscapes, scenes in the Himalayas and Mexico and points in between, Stranahan would take on a busy Western life: founding Flying Dog Ranch and Woody Creek Tavern, and then in the early '90s, Flying Dog Brewpub, which would evolve into Flying Dog Brewery. Co-author Beinstein Strait writes on georgestranahan.com that "Flying Dog is the underbelly of George, the one who curses often and revels in mischief."

Along the way, he met the eccentric journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson, who would become a close friend. The men spent many hours hanging out at their homes in the tiny Roaring Fork River Valley town of Woody Creek.

Known for his very personal "Gonzo" writing style, melding fiction and nonfiction, Thompson would impact Stranahan in many ways, though Stranahan doesn't believe Thompson's manic writing style is reflected in Phlogs. Yes, his own writing meshes the autobiographical and the fictionalized, but the book itself is very formal, which he appreciates.

"It is a very distinct — you know, photograph on the left page, a story on the right page," he says. "There is a little line and then [a] snippet. And then you go to the next one and it's the same. It's kind of like a dance, where you step, step, step, step, then repeat."

Online, each "phlog" takes a piece by Stranahan and wraps it around a black-and-white photo. One of Stranahan's favorites, for example, shows a photo of a boy walking away with a pail in his hand, and a story that begins, "The end of a long and solitary day. Finding a half dozen turtle eggs, usually a matter of triumph, had been unable to lift his dark mood."

In the book, six of Beinstein Strait's essays are woven amid 66 phlogs. "I didn't put any of my life into those essays. It's my analysis of him," she says. "It's the artist's work and then the analysis of the artist. And he has his own reflections about himself in there, too. I think there's a psychological bent to it, where he's my study."

Making connections

Beinstein Strait came to know Stranahan through a job at the Aspen Community Foundation, where Stranahan still serves on the board of directors. As she tells the story, she kept asking Stranahan if he was going to write an autobiography. Finally, he came in one day, said, "OK, I think you're the one to do this," and left a box on her desk.

"I didn't know what to do because it was just all these random documents," she says. "Random, like stories, or recipes. Science lessons and quotes. So I didn't know exactly what to do but I just started, started interviewing him, and then I started to weave my story of our relationship, whatever it was, and his original writings."

She adds, "He kind of was like an onion. I was just peeling and peeling and peeling away, trying to get to the center of something. I didn't know what. Maybe it was our commonality ... but I think on the surface, I was just trying to get at who he was."

At 40, almost exactly half his age, Beinstein Strait says Stranahan has really impacted her outlook on life.

"He came to Aspen really when he was about 40, so I feel like, oh my gosh, I think I've done stuff, but he just started his whole life here at my age now. So it just really is inspiring — there's just so much ahead of me. He only just transformed his life at this age and made his mark in Aspen."

Ask Stranahan what he thinks has changed the most over his lifetime and he replies, "I think the loss of any simplicity, in anything, even going to the grocery store." But he has taken advantage of some of those changes. Around 2001, he tested out his first digital camera, and he says, "I've never shot a roll of film since."

Of course, there's one part of his life that doesn't seem to make complete sense: How does a guy manage to go from photography and writing to beer- and whiskey-making?

Stranahan confesses with a laugh: "Ah. There is the connection to Hunter."

Not that it's a bad thing, especially for the imagination.

"I think a certain amount of that intoxication is very valuable," he says. "And of course Hunter was an expert at that. And we did drink a lot together."

A soft sadness seems to trigger a pause, then he concludes, "And talk a lot."

Since Thompson ended his life in 2005, Stranahan has pushed on. He's sold Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey (though the buyer still embraces the company's origin story), and he and his wife Patti have put their ranch up for sale. From his new Carbondale home, he's sent his editor his next project — another Phlogs-type book, but with "rather formal photographs of children."

"These photographs are really quite powerful about the idea that children have something that we've lost ourselves," Stranahan says. "It's kind of the Rousseau idea that these are the native humans, the unborn, uncorrupted. They're pre-puberty. There's something very special there, and the essays are kind of about how we shouldn't trample on that."

A hefty topic, to be sure, so it's probably good that Stranahan relaxes every night with a drink, preferably a Flying Dog "Doggie Style" pale ale. He and his children are still majority owners in the company.

"The nice thing about beer," he says with a laugh, "it is kind of a soporific as well as a lubricator. It kind of calms the seas of the mind."

kakens@csindy.com

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