IS IT FAIR to say that a good many Washingtonians are a little confused about the geography of the Mountain States and the Southwest? That's all right; most westerners aren't too sure where Rhode Island, Delaware and Maryland go in those map jigsaw puzzles.
Some of my old D.C.-area friends never could get Arizona and New Mexico straight, and weren't quite sure where Nevada fit in. Everyone has heard of the ski resorts of Aspen and Vail, but most people are hard pressed to tell you whether Wyoming and Utah are west of Colorado, or north, or both. When I mention our vacation in Crested Butte, eastern people shrug; is that a mountain in the Rockies or a town near Denver? A few folks (most of them from the Ford administration) do recall that Bo Callaway has a ski resort there.
In fact, Colorado is that square-shaped state just north of New Mexico and south of Wyoming, west of Kansas and east of Utah. The Rocky Mountains dominate everything. They swing across Wyoming from Yellowstone Park in Wyoming's northwest corner to the midpoint of the Wyoming/Colorado border, then form Colorado's spine down the center of that state. They continue into New Mexico all the way to Santa Fe (where they are called the Sangre de Cristos instead of the Rockies).
So much for geography. The important thing is that there are a lot of trout to be caught in the Colorado Rockies.
When we drove from Santa Fe to Crested Butte, Colo., last summer, we followed the western edge of the Rockies north through the borderland foothills; across the flat, green farmland of southern Colorado and up over 10,000-foot North Pass to Gunnison, a mountain valley town of about 4,500.
From Gunnison, it's almost a straight line north to Crested Butte and beyond to Aspen. But the paved road ends at the ski resort community of Mount Crested Butte, two miles north of Crested Butte. There the mountains rise to 14,000 feet and get in the way. Only horses and hikers can continue on to Aspen.
We (my wife, two boys and I) spent an August week exploring the western frontier of the Rockies near Gunnison and Crested Butte, and we've been recommending the area to our friends ever since. It is as untouched as any place in the United States can be these days and still be accessible by family car or a short hike.
A fisherman there can still park by the roadside, assemble his fly rod and catch husky trout within sight of the car--if that's what he wants to do. If he'll canoe or walk or horseback a few miles, it gets even better.
One day we rode horses for four miles up a rough trail through virgin forest to mountain lakes just below Gunsight Pass, an opening in the glacial rock that is so narrow a horse can barely pass between its high walls. Lamphere Lakes, at about the 11,500-foot altitude, are full of broad-shouldered trout that will take size-16 flies in gray patterns--if you can reach the feeding water near the center of the big lake. The surrounding forest is a mixture of fir, aspen--and advice, whistled by fat, gray marmots sitting on boulders near the trail to the pass.
In August it rains around Gunnison. Although the bright sunny mornings persuaded us that we could leave the coats and ponchos home, we learned to take them wherever we went. We got rained on at the lakes and had to borrow canvas from our well-equipped guide, Bill Rottinghaus. Rottinghaus is a rugged young school teacher who left academia to organize Mountain Man Outfitters in Gunnison. He is a skilled guide and great lunch cook who seems to know everything about his native mountains and the creatures in them.
Before we rode up to the lakes (while it was still sunny), Rottinghaus, a student of the 19th-century history of central Colorado who was able to make it live for us, drove us around to Ohio City and Pitkin, old silver-mining towns that once thrived deep in the mountains 30 miles east of Gunnison. Small wood houses, some occupied 100 years ago by the miners, have been rejuvenated by modern-day escapists.
The principal tourist magnet in the area is the village of Crested Butte, about 21 miles north of Gunnison, in a gorgeous valley, surrounded by Alp-like peaks. It still looks much as it did when it was a thriving coal mining town, from 1879 to 1952. In its salad days, Crested Butte's main street boasted fine Victorian buildings, complete with gingerbread detail, fancy cupolas and widows' walks, along with false-front stores and the miners' good, solid wooden homes.
For about 10 years after the mines closed, the town languished. In the mid-'60s, a ski resort was begun about two miles up the road at Mount Crested Butte, and Crested Butte's old buildings and homes were gradually bought up by young people--most of them Easterners--who restored the structures and tried to make a living catering to skiers and other tourists.
Times were tough at first, and more than one developer up on the hill lost his shirt. As a result, that resort--in God's perfect mountain setting--is now a depressing hodge-podge of condominium apartment buildings, chalets and a commercial center, built and located without beauty or unity of design. One development, part way up the mountain, was obviously inspired by the rows and rows of ticky-tacky box houses that march up the hills north of the San Francisco airport. Most of the others are cliche' copies of ski-area condos seen in other Colorado ski resorts like Breckenridge and Vail.
When there are a couple of hundred inches of snow all over everything it probably looks pretty good on that mountain. So a summer visitor should make allowances and merely avert his gaze as he drives from Crested Butte to Gothic, another old mining town, and the rivers beyond.
Above and beyond the ski resort is country of breathtaking beauty. Gothic has become a high altitude research center called the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. The lab holds evening seminars during June and July on the ecology of the Rockies.
Beyond Gothic is the East River, a small, clear stream that winds across meadows, making fly casting a pleasure. There are plenty of fish to be taken, but the best fishing times on the East are dawn and dusk, and the clear water must be fished with some delicacy.
Back down the mountain in Crested Butte, we had dinner with friends one night at Soupcon, a small bistro-like restaurant on an unpaved back street. Everything about the meal was excellent: the service was friendly and the homemade desserts were to die for. Everyone had trouble choosing, so we ordered one of each of the half-dozen desserts and passed them family-style for all to sample.
Once we lunched on a second-floor veranda at Eldorado Cafe overlooking Elk Street, Crested Butte's main stem. As we sat up there in the sun eating potato skins with cheese, chives and butter, three dusty fellows rode up on horses, hitched them and climbed wearily to our perch. They had just finished a two-day ride over the mountains from Aspen and regaled us with tales of the wild country they'd seen.
Several times we feasted at the Elk Mountain Lodge in Crested Butte, returning for the breakfasts and Mexican dinners that are favorite specialties in this small hotel on one of Crested Butte's back streets.
Amidst all this eating there was still plenty of opportunity for exercise. Around Gunnison there are hundreds of miles of accessible rivers and streams waiting to be fished.
I drove about 50 miles south one day, along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, to the quaint old mining town of Lake City, on a pilgrimage of sorts. I wanted to meet Dan Hall, the young fishing expert who hand makes fine fly rods there. Hall does business as Dan's Fly Shop in a small building on the main street where, during the harsh winters, he ties flies and hand-wraps graphite fly rods to fill the orders he's taken during the previous year.
In the fishing season, he offers his customers the finest selection of trout fishing gear I've seen in a long time--the best waders, vests, hardware and accessories that the market provides. Hall says he's personally tested everything he carries in his little store. By appointment, he will also teach fly fishing.
"Not just casting, you understand, but also how to fish a stream," he says. "But I believe in moving pretty fast. If I don't get a rise to the fly after a couple of casts I move on. That's the way I teach it."
Or, if you're already a fly fisherman, Hall will take you fishing with him. "I have access to 264 miles of good trout water around here." His walls are covered with photographs of his happy companions holding big trout to which Hall has led them. This year Hall and I are going fishing together near Lake City, whatever else may happen in the world.
I couldn't complain about last year's fishing. I did fairly well in the Gunnison River above and below the town of Gunnison and in the clear, winding streams above Mount Crested Butte.
The Gunnison River, bordered by huge cottonwoods, is about the width of a four-lane highway as it passes right through the town of Gunnison, and I found there's even fine fishing just behind the homes, motels and stores. I took a fat trout one afternoon, wading in front of homes just inside the municipal limits.
One day a young merchant in Gunnison, Jay Miller, took me canoeing down about six miles of the Gunnison River, and showed me some beautiful fishing holes. There are long riffles and deep pools all the way along. I took a fine rainbow just below the river's origin (it is formed of the confluence of the Taylor and East rivers). The afternoon was bright and hot, and that's as good an excuse as a fisherman needs for failing to raise any other fish during that exciting ride. This year I'd like to try the same trip at dawn or dusk.
Our canoe trip ended at Jay Miller's beautiful home on the river, just outside of town. As we pulled his canoe out at his landing, I briefly considered moving to Gunnison. It would be mighty nice to live close to the Gunnison River and all those trout.
But they tell me that there is a surplus of snow around Gunnison during the winter, and it gets as cold as minus-40 degrees there. In Crested Butte, snow piles up to the windows of the second story of homes and stores. And high up, in Mount Crested Butte, the condominium dwellers dig snow tunnels to get to their doors. Perhaps that explains why the Gunnison area isn't permanently overpopulated.
All of that snow also explains why the first chair lift in all of Colorado was built between Gunnison and Crested Butte, just behind the Star Valley Ranch. The old ski lift is gone now, the victim of the federal government, which, one year, ordered the chair lift towers shortened three feet and the next year ruled they should be lengthened a yard to qualify for a National Forest use permit.
But the ranch is now an attractive resort of family-sized log cabins beside a good-looking trout stream. Star Valley's new young proprietors, Amy and Peter Crowley, have just completed their first year as innkeepers, and they showed us around their lodges with great enthusiasm. It is evident that they are in love with the country and see great promise for Star Valley.
"But we have no desire to become some mega-dude ranch," Peter Crowley says. "We're a small, personal lodge, and we want to stay that way. We're an alternative to the modern hotels in Gunnison and the condo."
Our Colorado week went too quickly. And, even with our fly rods cased and the Bronco all picked for the trip home, it happened that our exploration was not complete. On our way, we stopped for a last breakfast, in the center of Gunnison, and there found ebelskivers for the first time. If you've never tasted ebelskivers and don't feel like going to Denmark, it might be worth your while to drop whatever you're doing, fly to Denver, then drive or fly the 200 miles to Gunnison and spend a morning at the Epicurean Cafe on Main Street with a couple of orders of ebelskivers and a cup of coffee.
Ina Gerkey, who runs the Epicurean, says she makes ebelskivers in a cast iron mold that looks something like a muffin tin. The batter is a cousin to pancake batter. You can have ebelskivers with apples in them, or peaches or other fruit, and they come piping hot, with a little dusting of powdered sugar on top and plenty of butter alongside. We left Gunnison with smiles on our faces and two bags of ebelskivers for the freezer.
With all those trout and all that good food and all those nice people, I wonder why anyone goes anywhere else for a summer holiday? We're going back up there this summer.