News & Features

Tracing the Life of D-Lo

Larger-than-life Whitefish native Dillon Candelaria left an impression on everyone he met. Now, after his sudden death, his friends, family and community are ‘smashing life’ just the way he taught them.

Barbara and Craig Candelaria’s new puppy keeps wandering off.

The husband and wife, both in their 60s, are reminiscing on the patio of the Whitefish house they’ve lived in for 32 years, overlooking City Beach with an impossibly perfect view that stares down at Whitefish Lake and out at the zigzagging runs on the face of Big Mountain. The puppy, a Shepherd mix with oversized paws, sweet saucer eyes and a cute little yelp, meanders off the porch, into the yard, and, one time, even farther to greet a fellow canine passing by.

The dog isn’t theirs, at least it wasn’t supposed to be, but Barbara and Craig aren’t the types to turn away anyone in need of a place to stay. Craig is a silversmith and Barbara a fine artist, and in their youth they caravanned from their home in California to Whitefish and never left. They had two boys, Lewis and Dillon, and turned their property into Camp Candelaria, where their sons’ friends would come and go frequently. Sometimes there were root beer floats and smoothies waiting after school, sometimes sleeping bags lined the patio, and occasionally someone could be found snoozing on the trampoline in the yard. The boys and their friends lived a wild and free Montana childhood, venturing onto the slopes half of the year and into the water the other half.

Dillon was on skis before his third birthday and started snowboarding a few years after that, in the early 1990s, back when the sport was fully entrenched in the counterculture and its riders were unfiltered iconoclasts. That it shares so many similarities, both in culture and technique, with skateboarding, and that so many riders do both, only served to bolster its anti-establishment cred.

In Whitefish, the overlapping skateboarding/snowboarding community is small but extremely tight-knit, with dozens of boarders forming a deep bond with one another that extends well beyond the mountain, and in the 1990s and early 2000s, perhaps no pack in that community was more visible than the Robinsons. The matriarch was Pam, a Brooklyn-born liftie, and while she was mother, officially, to her three boys — Jason, Aaron and Sean — she was the unofficial mother to every other snowboarder in Whitefish. Dillon, the same age as Jason, came to call himself the fourth Robinson brother.

As they grew older, the boys started to reap rewards from their years and hours on the mountain, translating their love into skill, and that skill into careers as professional snowboarders. Many of them, including Dillon and Jason, piled up winnings around the U.S. and Canada when they weren’t busy in the backcountry, but it was Aaron, two years younger, who was the true prodigy. He won The North Face Masters of Snowboarding twice by his early 20s, had a bevy of sponsors, and was sought after by prominent ski and snowboarding filmmakers. But for all the accolades, Aaron, like his friends and brothers, stayed true to his independent roots. He was committed to their mantra, to “smash life,” and sought powder, friendships and experiences far more than money or fame.

Smashing life has not come without a price, however.

Members of the local board-riding community have been familiar with death from a young age, and they continue to encounter it far more often than they would like. They subsist by living close to the edge, craving bigger challenges and greater risks, and that pushing of the envelope — both on the snow and off it — has taken a heavy toll. Most everyone who grew up snowboarding in Whitefish makes the trek back for the annual Nate Chute Banked Slalom and Boardercross, and while that event started as a remembrance solely for its namesake, a snowboarder and instructor who died by suicide, it now ends with a solemn recounting of those who have been lost in the two decades since, a list that never seems to stop growing.

In 2011, Aaron Robinson joined that list. He died at just 24 years old in an accident in the Chilean backcountry. In death, he bequeathed “smash life” to his friends and family, and they have done their best to carry it forward. Jason Robinson recommitted to snowboarding and is now one of the best backcountry riders in the world, while Dillon Candelaria tattooed the phrase across his toes and focused the radiant energy he already possessed into a life lived fully and boundlessly.

After leaving Whitefish at 17, Dillon spent nearly a decade living near Lake Tahoe, and in the years since he split his time mostly between Whitefish and Bali, where he surfed, hunted for crystals and started a business importing yoga clothes. He started hand-making jewelry, too, just like his father, and launched a business to sell those pieces back home.

It wasn’t long after his most recent trip to Bali that Dillon found a place back home in Whitefish and settled in for the summer and early fall. He spent time staring at the beach from his parents’ patio, caught some fish, connected with his people, and got a new puppy. She was a Shepherd mix with oversized paws, sweet saucer eyes and a cute little yelp. He named her Osa.

A few weeks after bringing Osa home, on Sunday, Aug. 25 of this year, he grabbed his skateboard and went outside his parents’ Whitefish workshop to hit a quiet street and clear his head. He was alone.

More than an hour after he began to ride, a passerby saw an unconscious man on the ground, stopped his car, and called 911.

“Luckily enough there was someone there at the end,” Craig Candelaria said, “holding his hand for his last breath.”

Dillon Candelaria’s puppy, Osa, sits at the feet of Barbara and Craig Candelaria on the porch at their Whitefish home on Sept. 13, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

There is life and there is death, so those fullest with life seem furthest from death. And no one, his loved ones say, was more full of life than Dillon Candelaria. It was evident from the first time anyone met him.

“He’s one of those people that you could meet one time and you’d never forget him,” Kyle Duty, a fellow Whitefish snowboarder and one of Candelaria’s closest friends, said. “Whether you knew him for five minutes or for your whole life, you remembered him.”

The imprint Candelaria left was driven home in the days and weeks after his sudden passing. Almost immediately, his Facebook page became a gathering place for grieving friends, with one heartbreaking post after another, dozens of them in all, and a large block of concrete near Woodland Park in Kalispell became a makeshift memorial when someone drew his nickname, D-Lo, on the face of it. Less than a week after his accident, hundreds of his friends in Lake Tahoe paddled out on kayaks and canoes to pay tribute, and the community there held an impromptu concert days later in Candelaria’s honor. Back home in Whitefish, a paddle-out on Whitefish Lake drew hundreds of mourners, and a pair of events on the weekend of Sept. 21-22 continued the celebration of his life, culminating with a fitting memorial at the summit of Big Mountain on Sunday.

A sketch of Dillon Candelaria, by his friend, Dylan Parr.

The annual A-Rob Plant a Seed Skate Jam was on Sept. 21, the day before the memorial, and is one of several annual fundraisers for the Plant a Seed Project, a nonprofit started by Pam Robinson after her son passed. The charity provides season passes to Whitefish Mountain Resort and a full closet of gear for young snowboarders who could not otherwise afford it. Organizers sent the flyers for this year’s skate jam to the printer on Aug. 23 but called them back the following Monday to add Candelaria’s name, and the skate jam itself ended up drawing a larger-than-usual crowd and raising a significant sum of money, part of which came from sales of T-shirts, hats and stickers that featured a sketch of Candelaria done by his friend Dylan Parr.

In addition to all the public memorials, Candelaria’s family and close friends have gathered often, including at the home Duty shares in Whitefish with his fiancée, Madisen Cross, on Sept. 12, which would have been Candelaria’s 35th birthday. At the end of the evening, Duty announced that he and Cross were expecting their first child, a fateful twist that did not go unnoticed by attendees mourning the end of Candelaria’s life.

Duty and Candelaria, along with Jason Robinson, moved together to Lake Tahoe in the early 2000s to immerse themselves completely in snowboarding and, because they were young, enjoy all the things that unencumbered youth tend to enjoy.

“Ski bumming and snowboarding every day,” Duty remembered. “Just doing whatever we wanted. It was an awesome time.”

They partied a lot and had their own house turn into a “crash pad,” where they were eventually joined by a handful of other Whitefish snowboarders. On the snow, they piled up winnings, landed sponsorship deals and were successful enough to afford their rent and their lifestyle. They appeared at major skateboard events, too, like the 2004 Rock the Bells festival, where they showed off in the parking lot of Angel Stadium in Anaheim for an event that drew around 50,000 people, Duty said.

Taking on the persona of Pirate D, Dillon Candelaria sprays the audience with his snowboard as he easily crosses the near 90-foot pond at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Beacon file photo

Candelaria landed them that gig, and he seemed to be at the forefront of just about everything the young men did. While the Robinsons and Duty were more on the mellow side, Candelaria was “a Tasmanian devil,” Duty said, thrashing his way through the crowd at metal shows and generally exerting a gravitational pull on those around him. Their friends were almost all made through Candelaria, even if, especially while he was drinking, he wasn’t always the most popular party guest. Then, more than 10 years ago, Duty and Candelaria were on their way up the mountain in Whitefish when a very hungover D-Lo started to cry. Three days later, he got a tattoo on his right leg of a bottle with wings, flying away. He celebrated 10 years of sobriety in 2019.

Sobriety suited Candelaria well. The boisterousness that could get out of control as a younger man softened, but his natural magnetism never lessened. Candelaria was a force of nature, loud and rowdy but compassionate, too, driven to make everyone he met feel comfortable and loved. And he was certainly one-of-a-kind, unabashedly himself in a way that always stood out.

Candelaria was a self-proclaimed pirate, something he announced to his parents as a young boy and that he managed to pull off without a hint of bashfulness. He had pirate tattoos, started and ended texts with a pirate “yarrgh,” and even got his friends to don pirate outfits with him and hop on their snowboards. He actually kind of looked like a pirate, too, with long black hair, a scruffy beard and an unmistakable, rumbling roar of a voice that forcefully announced his presence. When the evening rolled around, Candelaria was quick to start a fire or launch fireworks, which he relished almost as much as snowboarding.

Put simply, he was a swashbuckler, one could say. Candelaria refused to live life with any restraint, choosing to “smash” it instead. He was in Indonesia when he found a manufacturer selling yoga clothes at a bargain rate, so he started Dia Clothing and handled everything for the company, from importing to sales. When that wound down, he turned a passion for digging for crystals into a jewelry company, DBC Designs, and was selling his work to shops in Whitefish when he died.

Stacey McGough, of McGough and Co. in Whitefish, knew Candelaria for most of his life and picked up his jewelry to sell in her store, though it has since been returned to family and friends. Barbara Candelaria and Duty both wear necklaces made by Candelaria, adorned with crystals he dug, and friends said Candelaria would pop crystals in their jackets when they weren’t looking or give them as gifts for no particular reason. His memorials have been filled with stories from even the most casual acquaintances, all with some small remembrance.

“We’ve had people that only knew him 15 years ago, remembering a detail,” Barbara Candelaria said. “One was ‘quick to give a hug and strong words of encouragement.’ Now, with (his death), I think there’s even more of an impact.”

Dillon Candelaria lets out a battle cry at a snowboarding event in March 2019. Courtesy photo

Candelaria’s legacy is secure, in some ways more visibly than others. Justin “JT” Magarett helped organize this year’s Skate Jam and showed up Saturday with Candelaria’s visage freshly tattooed on his arm.

“You were never in a bad mood (around him),” Magarett said. “I want that picture tattooed because when I leave my house … it’s like, ‘Yup, I got this.’”

Magarett and others also hope Candelaria’s death will help spur change in the skateboarding community. Candelaria’s fatal head injury would likely have been mitigated if he had been wearing a helmet, something that has long been stigmatized as uncool among skateboarders. McGough donated $500 to Stumptown Snowboards ahead of the Skate Jam to pay for helmets, and anyone who wanted one could take one, although not all skaters took them up on the offer. Magarett, however, says he will never ride without one again, and the same goes for Sean Malone, the general manager of Stumptown Snowboards, who said his store saw a spike in helmet sales in the days after Candelaria’s death.

“Unfortunately, it took us losing Dillon for a lot of us stubborn idiots to start wearing helmets,” Malone said. “And I’m one of them.”

Barbara and Craig Candelaria talk about their son, Dillon Candelaria, from the porch of their Whitefish home on Sept. 13, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For others, Candelaria’s legacy will be much more personal. Nearly a month later, Duty is still coming to grips with his friend’s death, and is working to chart a path forward by living the way Candelaria did.

“I have tried every day to wake up and harness his energy and smash life, to get out there and live life to your absolute fullest,” he said. “That’s what’s going to keep all of us going … because it really is hard, but that’s what he would want us to be doing. Get out and smash every day, go do it and do it the best you can, and have the most fun that you possibly can in everything you do. It’s really inspiring, and I will be inspired by him for the rest of my life.”

The pain at Candelaria’s childhood home is even rawer. Craig and Barbara have marched ahead admirably in the face of the unfathomable loss of their child, and they take solace in the memory of his last night on earth, which he spent with his parents on their patio, sharing their stories and their lives. Dillon had a powerful impact on his parents, too, and has gifted them a future filled not with sadness but with inspiration.

“He went beyond what a parent would ever expect as far as being a good person,” Barbara said. “I am the mom of a pirate and (his dad) is Captain Craig … I get to be D-Lo’s mom for life.”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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