Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2019

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After almost three decades, a passionate protector leaves Mount Charleston

Mount Charleston Becky Grismanauskas

Stephen Sylvanie / Special to the Sun

Mount Charleston resident Becky Grismanauskas stands behind her home Friday, May 27, 2016. She’s pointing to a ridge charred by the Carpenter 1 wildfire, which consumed more than 27,000 acres in 2013. Becky and her husband, Duffy, played a key role in getting a flood channel built after the fire.

Disappearing bird feeders gave wildlife the first clue that something was afoot at the large, gray house nestled among pine trees on Mount Charleston.

Becky Grismanauskas didn’t want to do it. She loved sitting beside the picture window in her kitchen and watching the critters outside — raccoons, chipmunks, bobcats, burros, coyotes, foxes, deer, the occasional mountain lion and, of course, many birds. But the birds' free feast wouldn’t be there forever.

After 27 years, Becky and her husband, Duffy, are leaving their mountainside retreat and moving back to the Las Vegas Valley.

“I’m just devastated leaving these animals,” Becky, 71, said recently, staring into her backyard wildlife-haven, where a chipmunk scampered across the rocky terrain. “I don’t want them to be totally destroyed when we move.”

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A Palmer's chipmunk peers atop a stump near a tiled home on Friday, May 27, 2016. The roof covering the stump was created by Duffy Grismanauskas near his home in the Rainbow subdivision on Mount Charleston. Duffy and his wife, Becky, have built homes and feeders for many breeds of wildlife living outside their home.

And so in February, when she removed several feeders circling the property, she asked a neighbor to hang an extra one to accommodate her beloved finches. One multifeeder remains on her deck, frequented by both birds and chipmunks. It’s her way of weaning the animals off human kindness — an act that wouldn’t surprise those who know Becky well. If this mountain is her serenity, she is its protector.

“She will be missed,” neighbor Mike McGroarty said. “Everything that got done up there was done through her.”

But, as the old saying goes, what goes up must come down. And the Grismanauskases know it’s time to say goodbye.

• • •

State Route 157 charts a course over desert lowlands, then wends its way over hills that transition to steep peaks, the sagebrush giving way to towering pines. The wooded enclave, just 20 miles from the northwestern edge of the Las Vegas Valley, captured Becky’s love at a young age.

Her family moved to Henderson in 1949 when Becky, the youngest of six children, was 4 years old. Her father served in the Air Force, which meant that once a year the family stayed in barracks on the mountain — a miniature getaway for military members and their loved ones.

“I want to live there,” Becky recalled saying as a child.

Several decades, a husband and two sons later, she was on her way to fulfilling that dream.

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Becky Grismanauskas gazes out the windows in her favorite room in her Mount Charleston home on Friday, May 27, 2016. Becky and and her husband, Duffy, are moving to Henderson after 27 years spent living on the mountain.

Becky and Duffy, who met on an athletic board that organized a charity football game between police officers and firefighters, purchased property in the Rainbow subdivision on Mount Charleston in 1986. The cabin they envisioned soon morphed into a 6,000-square-foot home, which they built mostly themselves. In 1989 they moved in, looking forward to all the next decades would offer.

“We wanted to grow old here and live here until we knew we had to leave,” said Becky, who commuted to the valley for her job at the District Attorney’s Office. Duffy, a Clark County firefighter, did the same for many years. Eventually, they retired, but they didn’t slow down. Especially Becky.

Shortly after she'd moved into the Rainbow subdivision, a neighbor asked her to join the Mount Charleston Town Advisory Board. She has served ever since — 27 years total. March 31 marked her last meeting as chair of the board, which provides insight and information to the Clark County Commission.

She also served as a volunteer emergency-medicine technician and wildland firefighter; helped secure Clark County Fire Station 81 on Mount Charleston; and played a crucial role in procuring the community’s first four-wheel-drive rescue unit and engine.

But if you ask Becky about her contributions, she’ll more passionately describe fighting for the preservation of her mountain community. She’ll tell you about her crusade against a proposed Western-themed commercialization project. (She won.) Or her battle to get a flood channel built alongside the Rainbow subdivision. (She won again.)

“Becky probably embodies the best of the long-term folks,” said Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who owns a home at Echo Canyon and has been friends with the Grismanauskases for more than two decades. “She was always reasonable but passionate. Her voice never got lost.”

And that’s saying something. She stands 5 feet tall and weighs just 105 pounds, which made carrying her wildland firefighter gear — roughly equal her weight — a nearly impossible task.

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Becky Grismanauskas stands outside her Mount Charleston home on Friday, May 27, 2016, as she describes a flood that hit the area several years earlier. Becky and her husband, Duffy, are moving to Henderson after 27 years spent living on the mountain.

In March, the commission presented a proclamation to Becky, recognizing her “outstanding service” to Mount Charleston, home to several hundred full-time residents. Another 1.2 million people visit the greater Spring Mountains area annually, according to the USDA Forest Service.

“Thank you for this honor,” Becky said, standing in the Clark County Government Center next to her husband and ally, 69-year-old Duffy, who also spent a lot of time volunteering. “We have worked hard.”

• • •

The couple’s time on the mountain came with hardships, too.

The first happened in 2007, when Becky and Duffy were at a pig roast with friends in lower Kyle Canyon. Someone noticed smoke billowing from farther up the mountain. Then a steady stream of fire trucks raced up State Route 157. Something didn’t feel right.

“I told Duffy, ‘Let’s go,’” Becky said.

They arrived to find their road blocked and their house ablaze. An electrical fire likely started the inferno that killed their six cats and consumed all their belongings. Fortunately, Becky’s brother had unexpectedly picked up their 93-year-old mother, who was living with her at the time, earlier that morning.

Devastated, they resolved to have the home rebuilt and moved back in the next year.

Fire threatened again in July 2013 when the Carpenter 1 wildfire gobbled up nearly 28,000 acres on Mount Charleston. The Grismanauskases reluctantly evacuated after it moved perilously close to their subdivision, charring neighboring trees and vegetation. Their home survived unscathed, but two months later, a new threat emerged.

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Charred husks of trees line a ridge that was burned in the Carpenter 1 fire, as seen Friday, May 27, 2016, on Mount Charleston. It's just a few steps away from the Rainbow subdivision home of Duffy and Becky Grismanauskas who, after 27 years living on the mountain, are moving to Henderson because of health reasons.

Standing on her deck one Sunday morning in September 2013, Becky looked up toward the mountain peak and saw water rushing down the ravine. She yelled inside to Duffy, who had settled in to watch a NASCAR race. With the fire-ravaged mountain slopes stripped of vegetation that helps hold the topsoil in place and slow the flow of rain runoff, torrents of water swept into neighborhoods, flooding some homes and wiping out anything else in its path.

The water carried Duffy’s red truck down the street and battered Becky's Escalade in their driveway. It also ruined Duffy's log-splitting equipment and halfway-filled his ground-level workshop.

The home fire “was devastating enough, and then that flood hit,” Becky said. “Everything we worked for (outside) for 25 years was gone.” The bright spot: No one on the mountain died in the flood.

But the scary situation triggered Becky’s fight to have a channel built near the neighborhood. A second flood in July 2014 that pummeled several neighboring homes further enraged her. The Army Corps of Engineers was willing to build the channel — they just needed another government entity to step up and maintain it.

“I went nuts,” she said. “I had gone to everybody I could go to.”

Then Becky happened to see that Gov. Brian Sandoval had appointed a new chief of staff.

“I thought, well, OK,” she said. “So I wrote a three-page letter to him.”

Days later, the governor’s office called her, setting in motion the construction of the flood channel. Now, the fruit of Becky’s persistent nagging — a crevice of gravel and rock — is visible out the couple’s back windows, protecting their neighborhood from sudden flash floods.

• • •

In mid-May, a moving truck pulled up to the Grismanauskas house. Out came most of the heavy furniture, destined for the couple’s new dwelling in Henderson. Slowly but surely, they’re emptying their Mount Charleston home. It’s a process two years in the making. Becky and Duffy purchased their Henderson home, near Pacific Avenue and Horizon Drive, in June 2014 with one idea in mind — “take our time.”

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Minnie, one of four cats belonging to Becky Grismanauskas, sits in a window of her Mount Charleston home on Friday, May 27, 2016. Becky and her husband, Duffy, have decided to move to Henderson after 27 years spent living on the mountain.

“My knees are giving out,” said Duffy, who has had knee-replacement surgeries and recently spent several days in the hospital for heart-related problems. “As your health deteriorates, it takes the wind out of you.”

Living on Mount Charleston is no easy feat. There’s the wood cutting. The snow shoveling. The altitude adjustment. So when it became apparent that everyday living was a little more difficult, the Grismanauskases knew the time had come. They found a new home — the bonus being that it’s near their grandkids — put on an 800-square-foot addition and updated the landscaping. This spring, they begrudgingly hired the moving company.

They’re sad to leave their Mount Charleston friends, the gang they’d get together with for drinks and count on for an extra egg or milk. And they’ll miss their family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas, playing cards with snow coming down outside.

“We hate to leave,” Becky said. “I think we did a lot of good up here.”

They still haven’t spent a night in their Henderson home, mostly because their four cats haven’t made the move yet. But they know that day is just around the corner.

After all, Becky already planted tomatoes at the new house. The plants are safe from deer there.

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