Twenty years ago, in the summer of 2001, John Bonan arrived in Elkhorn. Out of the tumult and hustle of Southern California came a man already familiar with grief and loss, in search of calm. He found that serenity in Elkhorn for 20 years, up until his death in June, even as the losses followed him. With faith, friendship and an inextinguishable wonder for the world, the old surfer rode it out until the end.
John's time in Montana overlapped with mine for about 20 days. I moved to Boulder from southern Idaho at the end of May to take the job as editor of The Monitor. John died at 76 years old on June 19. I had one opportunity to meet him: I visited Elkhorn State Park, directly across from his cabin, two weeks before he died. I'd read about John online before moving here, and I'd watched a short but fascinating documentary about this man I hadn't met but was now standing feet away from, outside his cabin.
But I was in a rush and figured I could see him some other time, maybe knock on his door later in the summer or catch him in his yard showing rocks and crystals to young visitors. Maybe we'd tromp around Elkhorn in the snow this winter.
I should've knocked.
I wasn't the only person who was drawn to John Bonan, who remains a larger-than-life figure to some, even though he's gone. Countless others from Malibu to Montana met him by chance or sought him out: a rancher-turned-builder, a young state employee, a house painter who builds surfboards, a longtime dentist, an old retired teacher and now bar-owner.
All of them recall a man who was kind and gentle; quiet and guarded yet passionate and a wild storyteller; idealistic and still practical; a staunchly conservative lifelong hippy; by turns suspicious and paranoid or trusting, sometimes too much so; hardened by loss but excited for life. They told me about an intelligent man who was deeply complex but lived simply. He was casual and friendly, and, above all, full of love. And they told me of a ghost town that will never be quite the same without its "mayor."
"He's a hard person to describe," Cecilia McNeal told me over breakfast and coffee at the Elkhorn Bistro in Boulder.
McNeal, 67, grew up a rancher on Colorado's sandstone-red Western Slope, outside of Grand Junction, and she went on to ranch in Kansas and Alaska. She moved to Three Forks 11 years ago and now travels around as a builder—she spent last winter in Austin, Texas. One of her current projects is overhauling some cabins in Basin, one of which she was going to offer to John as housing this winter. It would've been the first time he didn't spend the whole year in Elkhorn since he moved there.
"John—I don't even know how to describe it—there's no word in English," she told me. "It's not romantic love, not the love of friendship. There's this love that we walk separate paths but at the same time we share so much."
About 10 years ago, McNeal was mountain biking around the old mine site in Elkhorn when she spotted John in his garden and struck up conversation.
"We're kindred spirits, so to speak, so we had lots to talk about," she said. "We liked rocks, and when you like rocks sometimes you had a lot to talk about."
"There was really no one else that I could sit down with a cup of coffee and talk for five hours. How many people do you find like that? Just to have that person in life—just deep friends."
I've learned more about John with every friend and acquaintance of his I've talked to: McNeal; Fred Heesy, a fellow Malibu surfer; John Smith, an Elkhorn neighbor; Brian Giordano, a colleague at the Montana Developmental Center; and Fred Bell, the owner of Ting's bar in Jefferson City. And I've learned more about John every time I go up to Elkhorn, too, despite John's physical absence. To stand in the nature that John so intimately knew, more than anyone else there, is to taste a sliver of his life, of what is was to live there like he did, without running water or indoor plumbing and with heat from only a wood stove, in a cabin his ancestors built more than a century before, when Elkhorn was a boomtown of around 3,000 residents.
"He enjoyed nature. He was one of the first ones in a long time who stayed up here for the winter," Smith said. "His house would get cold, he doesn't have any insulation in his house. His main job was just collecting wood so he had enough to burn—he spent a lot of time in the summer doing that."
Smith told me about John's deep connection with the animals around his cabin—not only a series of beloved pet dogs, including Boof the three-legged dog, but also chipmunks and ravens that John fed and looked after.
"In the last couple years, he feels like they'd almost talk to him and they were getting to the point where they'd get within an arm's length of him. He fed them everyday," he told me.
McNeal said she told John one day, "You spend more on your bird food and your animal food than you do on your own food."
Bell said that John "had deals with the different animals that hung around the house. He'd feed them. One time, when the kids were there, a bird came up and sat on his arm."
Before we met in Elkhorn, Heesy jokingly asked me, "What do chipmunks eat?" Their caretaker had been gone for three months.
The dogs, wild animals, mountains, visitors, solitary winters and warm summer days were John's family in Elkhorn, in place of the wife, son and daughter he'd lost, each in separate tragedies scattered across the decades.
John A. Bonan was born in California on July 22, 1944, to Arthur and Alethea Bonan.
Arthur was born in Elkhorn, where his father and uncles were miners and had built the family cabin in 1892, but he moved to California and settled in the then-rural San Fernando Valley northwest of LA to work as an engineer for Northrup Grumman.
Around 1951, Arthur and Alethea moved John, his two brothers and a sister into a house they built there, which was where John lived with his own family when Heesy met him.
Heesy said the three-bedroom Bonan house had a "nice living room and kitchen, stone fireplace, rustic. The walls were knotty pine."
"It was a small house but the property was narrow and deep, so the back had plenty of room for chickens. He used to grow asparagus and had a couple of fruit trees," he told me, adding that John was "always busy" and could often be found sitting by the fire or working on his yard—of course, that was only if he wasn't volunteering to maintain the yards of his elderly neighbors. The asparagus John grew, Heesy said, was so tender you could eat it raw.
John met his first wife, To-Im, while serving in the military in Asia, during which time he was a standout handball player, McNeal told me. To-Im "had a bad valve in her heart and she was going to die. He found out if he married [her], she could get the surgery."
So the two married, moved to California and To-Im got the heart surgery, although, John told McNeal, he "never dreamed we'd fall in love, never dreamed we'd have a real marriage, never dreamed we'd have a child." But so it happened, and the two, deeply in love, had a son, Morgan, in 1970.
In 1973, while John was out, To-Im unexpectedly died at home from a complication related to her heart condition. Drowning in grief, John turned to the ocean.
"He was so devastated that he just took Morgan and went surfing," McNeal told me.
Over a decade of conversations with John, she said, he only ever referred to To-Im as "my wife," until McNeal eventually asked her name just weeks before his death.
"And finally, in the most beautiful, hushed voice, he said, 'To-Im.' He was so in love with her," she said. "John said she was such a wonderful mother, so loving, so kind. She must've been pretty cool."
Fred Heesy knew John long before he was "Elkhorn John."
"I met John in 1985 in the summer in Malibu beach," he told me over the phone from his California home recently. "He was riding a little surfboard that was an odd design that was only in fashion for a few years."
Heesy, now 73, was a housepainter and surfboard builder around Los Angeles, and the two hit it off.
"Pretty soon we started riding together, and in the winter up north in Santa Barbara County," he said. "Our friendship progressed and I got some jobs with John," including years of painting and grounds maintenance together at The Ashram spa in Calabasas—a retreat popular among Hollywood stars.
"John had a good job up there, he was out ranging around cutting growth and we did all the fire clearing up there," Fred told me. "John and I worked together a lot."
"I'd arrive at his house at 5 in the morning, he'd feed the chickens and off we'd go [surfing]," he recounted. "Over the years he told me about Montana, how he used to go up there and work up there in the summer. He really liked being in the outdoors."
Heesy was at John's San Fernando Valley home when John set off on his final, permanent visit to Montana in 2001, and the two exchanged letters after that. Nineteen years after John left, Heesy and his wife, Dominique, visited John here a year ago, in August 2020.
"That was really good," he said.
And they visited this past weekend, too. The three of us went to Elkhorn and looked at John's cabin. Heesy noticed that the "Bonan" sign next to the front door was the same one that hung outside the house in California. He also noticed a wood-handled garden lopper outside the house—the same one John used when they worked together 35 years ago.
After his wife's death, John's "life was around Morgan," McNeal said. He taught Morgan to surf and father and son were each other's best friends, surfing and healing together, the only way they knew how.
"When the water hits the ground in that mist, there's a thing with surfer people that that mist has a strong cleansing of the soul," Giordano said John told him.
Standing outside the Bonan house, the one in Elkhorn, Heesy told me that he and John would visit a local deli to grab lunch in between surf sessions. Heesy was eager to eat and get back into the water, but John would take his time reading the paper and flirting with the waitress. Without fail, Heesy said, John would look up and ask him if he wanted to know his daily horoscope.
No, Heesy would reply, he already knew his horoscope: The tide was coming in, the wind was picking up and it was time to go, John.
John remarried and had a daughter, Li-Anne, in 1977, but the marriage didn't work out and he divorced his second wife, leaving John and the kids together in the Bonan house.
Heesy told me that he "saw the kids grow up, really great kids," and that John's love for them was boundless. "He gave them everything they wanted."
"After he split with his second wife, he was the single dad. He kind of let them be free. We were out all the time surfing and working and getting home late," Heesy said. "The kids sort of took over the house. It became a hangout for them."
At the same time, Heesy said, "as he grew up, Morgan was a really hot surfer."
That's an understatement. Morgan Bonan, taught by John, became one of the hottest young professional surfers in the world in the '90s, competing in—and winning—competitions around the globe.
But the lax rules and fun times at the Bonan household got out of control at a party held before Morgan left for a competition in Hawaii, when would-be party-crashers he had turned away returned and fired shots into the home, Heesy said.
"All that kinda precipitated John's decision to move to Montana," he told me. Plus, John's brother, Don, who had been maintaining and living in the Elkhorn cabin, had died in 1997, and John heard the place was getting broken into.
So, in the summer of 2001, John, Morgan and Li-Anne said goodbye to the urban sprawl and crime emanating from LA and inching toward their home, and they moved to Elkhorn.
Brian Giordano, a Boulder native, first met John when the two worked together at the now-shuttered Montana Developmental Center after Giordano, now 42, moved back here from Denver, Colorado. John encouraged and helped Giordano to hold freestyle motorcycle events in Boulder that then moved to the Sturgis rally in South Dakota. He said John became a "life mentor" to him more than a decade ago when he helped with the first event.
"I started out at MDC and was going to work on my first day, and I look over and I see this long-haired bum-looking dude and I thought he was a client," Giordano, who now works at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, told me as we bounced up the washboard dirt road to Elkhorn in his Jeep. He quickly realized John worked there too, and they went to the bar to talk after work. After that, "There were times when I would go up here everyday for a year" to talk with John, who he said retired from the MDC around 2009 or 2010.
Fred Bell knew Elkhorn before it was a ghost town. At 87 years old, Bell was born before the railroad to the once-bustling mining town was torn up, and he spent years of his childhood there. He went on to run a sweet shop and soda fountain in Boulder, then he worked at the MDC before spending 21 years teaching elementary school science and middle school math in East Helena. A few years ago he purchased and reopened Ting's bar in Jefferson City. He still has a connection to Elkhorn, and he met John when John made his home there.
"He and I talked every time I went up there," Bell told me over beers at Ting's. "You learned more about him every time you went up there."
Elkhorn suited John. But "the kids didn't really get along with it there, being from the city," Heesy said, and they both moved back to California—Morgan first, Li-Anne later.
Then, in January 2002, just months after John's arrival in Elkhorn, Morgan died in a fire in Sherman Oaks. He was 30.
"Because of Morgan's death, he'd never go back. He could never go back to California," McNeal told me, saying that losing Morgan, his son and best friend, crushed John.
And then, in 2017, his daughter Li-Anne was shot and killed in California at 39 years old. John was devastated, his world and heart ripped apart again.
"That one was hard, because he kept saving her car for when she came back [to Montana]. And he just held on to it, and all her clothes that she left there," McNeal said, remembering that she had to work to convince John to leave the cabin, or even eat, after Li-Anne died.
The combined and overlapping grief of losing his wife, son and daughter in separate tragedies was at times overwhelming, and he never truly recovered.
"I think it'd been really torture for him. I think it'd been really, really, very hard for him. It was traumatic and it never stopped being traumatic," Heesy said.
But as traumatic as it was, and however it may have defined him internally, John didn't show it much to others, who said he rarely opened up about the deaths of his wife and kids. McNeal was one of the few people with whom John discussed his grief, and she asked him directly how he grappled with it.
"I asked, how in the world do you handle this, how do you keep such a good attitude? He said, 'my faith … there's a purpose for everything that happens.' He said that without that, he couldn't go on," McNeal told me. "'If I didn't have faith, I couldn't deal with this. I have faith that there is an afterlife, there is something after this.' He firmly believed that they had gone on before him and that they were waiting for him."
Everything that happens, John figured, must have a reason, even if he couldn't understand what it was, she told me.
John Smith met John Bonan in Elkhorn. Smith is a 65-year-old semi-retired dentist from Helena. He grew up in Dillon but his family has deep roots in the Elkhorn area. He and his wife built a cabin in Elkhorn in 2008 and frequently visited before that, and he spends a lot of time volunteering to restore Elkhorn.
"He's a neighbor, you get to meet everyone up here," Smith told me at his cabin, a street away from John's own. "I would say we saw him everyday we came up here. Up until [John's] last few years we would go snowshoeing and hiking everywhere here."
"He loved Elkhorn, he loved this place," Smith said. "Nothing went on, but he would make it seem like something was happening. He'd be a good newspaper guy."
And so John kept being the John Bonan that most people knew—the "mayor of Elkhorn," its unofficial one-man tourism office, and its most colorful, eclectic resident.
Smith told me that what struck him the most about John, what defined him to Smith, was "his friendliness, without a doubt, his openness to everybody. He has an ability to make everybody welcome. He was unassuming and he made everybody feel comfortable."
On summer days when tourists flocked to Elkhorn to visit the two preserved, historic community halls across from John's cabin that constitute Montana's smallest state park, John would be out front telling people where to go and what to see in the area, and showing visitors the array of rocks, crystals and other artifacts that he and McNeal found in the area and displayed on tables in the front yard.
"There's hundreds of kids out there with rocks from John," Giordano said.
"All those kids are going to talk about the old guy in Elkhorn. He's going to be remembered in such a good light," McNeal said, adding that John gave out jewelers loupes too, so kids could see the fine details in the rocks they picked out from the tables. "It gives them something real to look at a little bit closer."
Smith recalled, "He started just giving a few [rocks] away to kids, he had a little table, but six or seven years ago he started collecting crystals. Every child who came to town, he wanted to make sure they got a rock, sometimes three or four. Sometimes he'd get letters back from people."
And he lived with nature as closely as he could. As we watched a buck wander through Elkhorn this summer, Giordano recalled a mountain lion encounter of his own just behind John's cabin, and he remarked that "you'll see every species you see in the woods in his yard—his house is like Snow White." John's final memory of Elkhorn wildlife, Giordano believed, was watching his dog and a buck gently greet each other nose-to-nose behind the cabin.
John's life was simple: hike in the summer, collect rocks and wood and natural experiences, snowshoe and burn wood for heat in the winter, shower at the Boulder Hot Springs and cook simple meals on a single hotplate all year long. That, plus a lot of work helping to maintain Elkhorn. But living that simple life was a complex man of seeming contradictions.
"He's a hippy. I went to school in Oregon, so I kinda liked hippies. John was a hippie surfer," Smith said. "But he was real conservative, he never asked for anything. He was a big Trump supporter. After you get to know him I think you think it was pretty normal."
As we walked around Elkhorn, Heesy remarked that John was remarkably idealistic and very trusting, "maybe too trusting," to the point that he could be taken advantage of. On the other hand, as Giordano experienced, "He was a pretty paranoid dude. When we first met, it took him a while to trust me. If you were let in, he trusted you. I don't think there were too many of those."
"He was a lot of fun, but he was driving himself crazy with the radio at night," listening to late-night conspiracy programs that he really took to, McNeal said, recounting with a laugh all the times she told John to stop tuning-in.
"I think John gave everybody different versions [of himself]," Giordano said. But through it all, what seems to define John, still, is how Heesy described him in our phone call: "He was a loving father and one of the nicest people that you'd ever want to meet. If I broke down near the Mexican border, he would come and get me. That's the kind of guy he was."
"It's pretty amazing how many people liked and loved the guy. John had that wild side, and that's where me and him got along," Giordano said. "There's a lot of proper older people. John was a backwoods, hippy, hillbilly bastard."
Wild, like a few years ago when he fell to the ground on a falling tree he was trying to cut, injuring his back and leaving him crooked, hunched and in pain.
Grinning and shaking her head, McNeal told me that what she remembered from the episode—aside from warning him the day before not to go near the tree—was that, "When he rode that widow-maker down … he was very proud of himself because he threw the chainsaw away far enough—it was still running."
Wild as he was, though, by last fall you could tell "that something was up," Giordano recalled.
"Something that was very odd was that in the last six months, people were like, 'he's getting grumpy,'" McNeal remembered, so she asked him why. "He said he was so busy doing his 'life review.' He said, 'I don't know why, but I'm doing an entire life review. I'm going over every part of my life and thinking about it.'"
"He told me that and I was like, 'Are you going to die on me?' He said, 'No, I've got a film coming up!'" she recounted, referring to what was slated to be video producer Doug Chester's follow-up to a 2020 short documentary on John. Filming was scheduled for the week John died. "He was so excited about life, but this last year was so hard."
About a year ago, she said, John had been at a Veterans Affairs clinic and a doctor was concerned about his prostate. John didn't elaborate to his friends, and he didn't pursue treatment, but they figured it was cancer. McNeal said John had decided he wasn't going to fight it but that, she thinks, he underestimated the severity.
McNeal visited John in Elkhorn in mid-June. About three days later she was attending Mass in Boulder and planned to visit John after. Her fellow worshippers broke the news: John was dead. Having just visited with him, she headed up to the cabin in disbelief.
"I knew if the money jar was gone, the stove was cold, he was gone. I went up, his cat had been on his pillow for two days. Money jar was gone, stove was cold. The stove's never cold."
"I think the end was tough, but he was so damn hard. I think he just was over it. If you're sick, you know you're gonna die," Giordano said. "He was a private person. He went out with dignity. He wasn't one to have people pity him or feel sorry for him—he was the best on that one."
"John," McNeal said, "till the day he died, he was alive."
Just like that, John slipped away and Elkhorn was quieter, less colorful and a bit less eclectic. People who visit for the first time might wonder who lived in the funky little boarded-up cabin across from Gillian and Fraternity halls, but they won't examine rocks in the cabin's yard or hear stories from the man who lived there. That man is back with his family now—his wife, his children, his parents and brother too—all together again in the cemetery behind St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church down the mountain from Elkhorn along state Highway 69.
"One thing he said in the last year was, 'I'm afraid no one will remember me.' He's going to be remembered, he's not going to die away. It's not going to be the end. John was wrong," McNeal told me. "He was always afraid that he wasn't going to be remembered, because he had no one to go after him, no kids. But John has hundreds of kids. There are kids who will remember and tell their kids and grandkids about the guy in Elkhorn and show them the rocks."
"What matters is who he was as a person. He loved people, he loved animals, he loved rocks, the mountains, the ancestors. He loved the people who lived in the town. He was so filled with love that the only way you could describe him was a man of love. He loved children, he loved innocence," she added, emphasizing her conclusion: "He will live on."
It's difficult to track down a person you've never met once they've died. It's especially challenging to write about who they were, having never met them, and knowing so many of your readers knew him. I owe deep gratitude to Brian Giordano, John Smith, Fred Bell, Cecilia McNeal and Fred Heesy for spending time with me and sharing with me their memories of John.
Through them, even though John is no longer around, I got to meet him still—these were the people he knew and loved, and that's what he lived for.
What was it that drew people to John Bonan, I asked Heesy as we stood outside John's cabin on Sunday.
"He seemed like he belonged in a different time," he replied.
So does Elkhorn, and it drew John there. In Elkhorn, John Bonan found something comforting, something healing and life-sustaining. Elkhorn has now lost John, but whatever it was that he found, it's still up there.