A Crested Butte woman tries to rebuild her life—one scoop at a time.
Kendall Tankersley fiddles with the knob on her propane torch. It’s a mild day in May, and she’s in her commercial kitchen in Crested Butte preparing for Third Bowl Homemade Ice Cream’s summer opening in two days. The torch is an odd tool for making ice cream; she needs it to blacken the habaneros for her pineapple-habanero concoction, a favorite among customers of her year-old shop, but the darn thing won’t light. As she leans forward, she says with a sideways glance, “For an arsonist, I’m bad with a torch, huh?”
It’s an offhand, but revealing, comment. In the past decade, this self-proclaimed worrier—with her wide blue-green eyes and freckled face, a dandelion tattoo peeking out from under her purple T-shirt—has learned a few things about handling stress. Tankersley, when she went by her birth name, Sarah Kendall Harvey, was a lookout, a conspirator, an aider and abettor—and according to the United States government, an ecoterrorist. Her adopted organization, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), wreaked most of its havoc from 1996 to 2001. For the record, Tankersley says today she never actually lit any of the group’s protest blazes—including the 1998 Two Elk Fire in Vail—which resulted in a total of more than $40 million of damage.
In fact, she spent only six months with the Eugene, Oregon, group, thanks more to her romance with its ringleader, Jacob Ferguson, than to any violent revolutionary ambitions. In December 1998, after she heard the U.S. Forest Industries headquarters in Medford had been torched, she realized the organization was too extreme. She cut ties with Ferguson and ELF, changed her name, and eventually ended up in Tucson while ELF’s campaign continued without her.
Tankersley went on to earn a degree in molecular biology, and she worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic. It took seven years for her past to reappear. She’d been waiting to hear back about her medical school applications on that morning in December 2005 when she was awakened by a knock on her front door. The 28-year-old opened it to find five federal agents on her step. Tankersley had so successfully buried that part of her life—she became adept at pushing aside the queasy memories “like you would remembering an unpaid bill in the middle of the night”—that she says she honestly believed it when she told them, “You’ve got the wrong person.”
A mix of eggs, milk, cream, sugar, and a dash of xanthan gum sloshes inside a five-gallon steel pot as Tankersley hoists it onto her store’s kitchen stove. Other batches are pasteurizing, or chilling, or churning out frozen from a machine sitting in the corner. She tries to make 10 batches a day, six days a week, all summer long. The nasal-clearing chemical bouquet of capsaicin emanates from the freshly blackened habaneros and fills the small prep room. It registers first in Tankersley’s chest. “I think I’m more sensitive to peppers after all those protests,” she says between coughs.
Eugene’s 1990s environmental movement stirred a passion in Tankersley that she couldn’t find at the University of Oregon, and she dropped out after one semester. The activists were initially nonviolent: She performed tasks such as helping file injunctions against timber sales and joining road blockades to delay loggers while the courts weighed the motions. Unlike some of her peers, Tankersley, a Cleveland native, had a keen sense of what a life bereft of nature could look like, and she quickly became protective of all unspoiled environments.
Soon after Tankersley joined the movement, though, the police presence at protests began to increase, as did their aggressive tactics. Now, instead of merely monitoring the demonstrations, officers forcibly peeled back protesters’ eyelids and blasted them with pepper spray. They used cherry pickers to tear protesters out of trees and dragged them away in strangleholds before sending them to jail.
The activists grew increasingly angry and disheartened as their civilly disobedient practices—trying to use the courts to stop loggers, in addition to the protests—failed one by one. The grief of returning to those once beautiful, now clear-cut tracts of land was so devastating to Tankersley, the memory still makes her pause while describing it. “I knew people who, in the face of those same losses, were able to keep a level head and have good faith in the work they were doing,” she says.
But for many, when the political became personal, “grief to rage was an easy transition.”
That transition would turn out to be her biggest regret. “I look at the moment that I and some of the activists turned toward violent retaliation and property destruction as a big, childish tantrum,” she says now. “Most of the people in the movement were young, privileged white kids who were used to getting what they wanted. That was the case for me: Somebody took away my beautiful thing that I loved, and I was pissed.”
Goading her on was Ferguson, the charismatic leader who had wooed the quiet, somewhat geeky Tankersley. She didn’t yet realize he was the mastermind behind ELF’s destructive reign—until years later when he became an FBI informant and ratted out the group to avoid prison. (He later wound up imprisoned anyway, on drug charges.)
Ferguson preached to Tankersley about the cathartic healing of arson. It’s destruction of property—not even close to killing living things. It’s the great American tradition of protest—just look at the Boston Tea Party! You wouldn’t even have to do anything—just let me know if someone is coming. Today, Tankersley is clearly ashamed of this period of her life. She was young and impressionable—and, Tankersley hesitantly admits, she just wanted to impress a magnetic man. After federal officers rousted her on that morning in December 2005, Tankersley’s transgressions would cost her 41 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, Florida.
Inmate #83240-008 was released from prison in September 2010. She found refuge in Crested Butte, where her parents had bought a second home. She’d first visited the area with them as a nine-year-old from Ohio and realized for the first time that places like the ones pictured in her Sierra Club calendar were real. This time, Tankersley arrived back in Colorado with the psychological issues that plague most former inmates: anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and agoraphobia. Even so, she realizes her assimilation was comparatively easy. “I had a college degree, incredible family support, and a place to live,” she says. “I came home to a town that has known my family for years and said, ‘Of course, we’ll give you a chance.’ And it was still hard. Felons have a bigger burden of proof. People wonder if they will steal or hurt someone, or assume they’re immoral for making bad choices.”
That stark reality forced her to abandon a medical career. A local restaurateur gave Tankersley her first job “on the condition I didn’t burn down the kitchen,” she says, laughing. Soon after, she met her eventual partner, Matt, and the two hatched a plan to make some ice cream. Third Bowl opened in June 2012. Thanks to its unexpected success, for now she won’t have to worry about having awkward conversations with potential bosses.
Sitting on her mother’s porch, Tankersley’s gaze shifts between Gothic Mountain and Crested Butte Mountain. It’s the afternoon before this summer’s opening day at Third Bowl, when flavors like pineapple-habanero, salted caramel, and PB&J will disappear by the scoopful. The excess of spring snowstorms this year has blessed the slopes with emerald grass gilded with yellow glacier lilies. She leans back in her chair and fidgets with the string running through her hooded sweatshirt, contemplating a kid’s understanding of the world, so black and white and usually derived from cartoons. To a child, jail is a place where bad people go.
It’s preoccupying her because soon she’ll have to explain to her stepchildren, a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, that sometimes those in jail are good people who made bad decisions. As far as they and almost everyone in Crested Butte know, Tankersley spent four years “in Florida,” with no further explanation. “I know more kids’ names in our community than their parents’ names,” she says. “The last thing I want to be is someone the kids won’t trust.” The truth is, youngsters tend to focus on only the important stuff anyway: Questions from her nine-year-old niece about prison included “What did you wear?” “Are people nice?” And, “They fed you, right?”
Tankersley realizes grown-ups are trickier, yet she still hopes for their understanding and tolerance. “Redemption is central to most major religions. People make mistakes, pay for them, and change for the better,” she says, throwing up her hands. “You have these stories and yet, we don’t forgive people in this country. You hear the word ‘criminal.’ What does that mean? I’m a criminal, but I’ve changed. Does that matter?”
Even though society can be unfair and quick to ostracize—imagine if we were all permanently defined by the stupidest thing we did at 21—as Tankersley’s husband points out, “A lot of us could be felons if we had only gotten caught.” It might be easier to lie, to start over someplace where she isn’t known. Tankersley wants no part of that. “I want to tell stories about my life, and I don’t want to censor myself,” she says. “I had to do that in Eugene. I had to be quiet about my thoughts for all the years I was in Florida. I want to use the real words, not ‘when I was in Florida’ but ‘when I was in prison.’ ”
When Tankersley first debated telling her story, she consulted a friend, the poet and musician Tim’m T. West, whose work never shies away from the topic of his being HIV-positive. “I asked him, ‘What if everyone knows?’ ” she says. “He changed the tone of the question—poets, that’s what they do, right?—and he repeated back to me, ‘What if everyone knows?’ He told me that there is life on the other side of whatever that reaction will be.”
That’s when Tankersley says she realized she is more than her past. “We should live openly, showour flaws, our humanity,” she says. “We’d fight less and be less violent, love each other more and hate each other less, because we would see our commonality and messy vulnerabilities in ways that are imperfect. Wouldn’t that be nice?”