THERE WERE times, during the six- odd years I lived in Telluride, that the landscape became so beautiful it seemed unreal, a hallucination. Once, in midsummer, during an evening rain storm, the aspens glowed like green neon, and a double rainbow formed over the end of the valley, hanging in the radiant drizzle. Two perfect hoops of color, like a sign from the mountain gods, they must have lasted 10 solid minutes. People stood in the street and cheered.
Another time, in the winter, some inexplicable synergy of full moon and cirrus cloud cast a blue light over the San Juan Mountains. I was cross-country skiing up Bear Creek, alone, when it happened: The snowy forests shone like cobalt, and the great frozen summits to the east were sapphires as big as the Ritz. An unearthly light. What caused it? I really have no idea.
Telluride was about as far as you could go: at the dead end of a long, lonely mountain road in the remote southwestern corner of Colorado, 8,750 feet above sea level. To get there from Denver, you had to ride a low-flying Convair 580, the dreaded "Vomit Comet," over the mountains to Montrose, and then ride another hour, via shuttle bus, over the Dallas Divide. Winters lasted half the year, from November to April, with brutal amounts of snow; the first year the ski area opened, in '72, one unlucky skier ran off the packed trail and actually drowned in loose powder.
Spring, Mud Season, was equally tough in its own way: The unpaved back streets of town were axle deep in muck, and the wet snow, sleet and icy rain pelted down interminably. I remember one April when the sun didn't show for 13 days. The beauties of Telluride may have been intense--I have been in the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Hindu Kush, and I have never seen a mountain town half so spectacular--but you had to pay your dues to live among them. Telluride existence was like a freeze-dried edition of 100 Years of Solitude, a bittersweet opera on the rocks, with enough of both the miserable and marvelous to drive you crazy.
It had been that way from the very beginning, back in the 1880s. Telluride began as a gold and silver camp, one of those manic-depressive boomtowns that popped up across the Rockies after the Civil War. A few people, mostly Eastern carpetbaggers, made vast fortunes in precious metals; most worked, sweated, and stayed poor. Big Bill Haywood's I.W.W. tried to unionize the Telluride mines, and was broken after a prolonged and bloody struggle. So much for the romance of the mining era: indentured labor, opium-addicted prostitutes and avalanches crashing down on the high miners' camps.
Still, the old Telluride was never boring. Butch Cassidy pulled his first bank job there, and William Jennings Bryan, an outlaw of another sort, gave his famous Cross of Gold speech on Telluride's Main Street, in front of the Sheridan Hotel and Opera House. Bootleggers, madames, gambling czars and gunfighters played supporting roles in the chaotic melodrama. Nikola Tesla, inexplicably, brewed up his first alternating currents in a Telluride laboratory. The boomtown energy may have been ruthless, but it made things happen.
The bust came when the richest veins gave out, in the 1920s. All but one of the mines shut down; hundreds of people left. For 50 years, Telluride was little more than a glorified ghost camp: a couple of hunded atavistic people, hanging on among boarded-up houses and shuttered storefronts, in a forgotten valley. The town was so quiet that bighorn sheep used to come down in the winter, during the worst blizzards, and huddle together on the snow-drifted rooftops.
I came to Telluride on the crest of the town's second boom, in the fall of '73. The ski area had been open just one season, and already the population had shot up to over a thousand; there were people who called Telluride "the next Aspen," and really believed it. Boutiques, restaurants and ski shops, all brand-new, lined Main Street; ramshackle houses that had gone for a few hundred in back taxes in the '60s were selling for a quarter of a million dollars or more.
The newcomers to Telluride were, for the most part, educated and moneyed, and they remade the town into a hybrid of Old Intermountain West and New Wave Resort. By the late '70s, an FM radio station, KOTO, was pumping out rock, classical music and jazz; performers like Jerry Jeff Walker, Taj Mahal and Mary McCaslin appeared at the Opera House and the summer music festivals in the Town Park. The Telluride Film Festival attracted cinema luminaries like Frances Ford Coppola, Julie Christie, Leni Riefenstahl, Jack Nicholson and Werner Herzog. There were hang-gliding meets, ski competitions, high-altitude footraces. Local restaurants served everything from excellent bagels (at Jerry Greene's "Baked In Telluride") to veal marsala ("The Senate").
Along with all this, the new Tellruide evolved its own flaky version of the Western Ski Town Desperado Syndrome. Trust-funders with unearned incomes of $10,000 a month, from places like New York and Orange County, sat at the bars in beards, cowboy hats and Tony Lama boots, nursing bottles of Coors and weeping over Willie Nelson songs on the jukebox; their women, pre-Raphaelite wraiths in Moon Boots, long dresses and $250 down parkas, gave themselves names like Mesa Woman and Sunlight, put together stained-glass lamps for the jacuzzi and raised sinsemilla in the windowboxes.
I am exaggerating, but not much. A friend of mine once picked up an outre'-looking couple on the outskirts of Telluride, the man in a parachutist's jumpsuit, the woman in Stevie Nicks witch's drag; he asked them if they had been hiking, and the woman replied, in all seriousness, "We have been up in the high country, invoking Isis to help us find a ride to Vegas."
At its best, the Syndrome produced fine moments of idiot outlaw panache. One Telluridian, for instance, celebrated St. Patrick's Day 1980 by stripping, painting his posterior green, and skiing naked down the Plunge, the most popular trail on the ski mountain. A group of four (male) ski bums dubbed themselves the Flying Epoxi Sisters; their most famous wheeze involved rigging up four sets of bindings on a single pair of ultra-long skis and then bombing the mountain in tandem, all four Sisters turning and leaping as one. For some reason, they did the stunt dressed as women. I guess you had to be there.
Despite the foolishness, it was a lovely life. I remember autumn afternoons spent hiking up in the basins to the southeast, through country right out of a Sung Dynasty scroll: mists in the timber, the white roar of waterfalls, dustings of snow on the ground above 10,500 feet. Up in the tundra valleys beyond timberline, there was ice on the stream pools, and the first drifts were forming in the avalanche chutes. I backtracked up over the ski mountain, and descended through stands of luminous aspen and dark pine. The access roads were ankle-deep in yellow aspen leaves. I hiked out to the highway through Alley Oop's cow pastures, and hitched a ride back into town as night fell. Up to Robert and Carol Korn's house for a drink, and then we all went out to the Senate for dinner, and on to the Sheridan Opera House for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Afterwards, more drinks at the old Sheridan Bar, listening to the Ski Patrolmen's tales of avalanches, white coyotes, mega-blizzards with winds so high they bowled you over. After a soak in the basement sauna, we wended our ways home by starlight.
In the winter my architect friend Kimble Hobbs would awaken me for pre-dawn skis up Bear Ceek, or out along the San Miguel River. Icy skies the color of roses, lush fields of powder so cold the skis squeaked, a billion frost crystals glinting. We thawed out with a dozen cups of coffee at the Flour Garden, and talked of springtime in Mexico.
Why did I leave, if it was so wonderful? I am not really sure. Perhaps it was the isolation of the place: I got tired of struggling with bum roads and bumpy plane rides just to get to Denver. And then there was the claustrophobic smallness: In a town of less than 1,200 people, the opportunities for interesting new human contacts are pretty limited, and personal privacy is a bad joke; everyone knows what you are doing before you have even finsihed doing it. The resort subculture began to get kind of old, too: "Go for it!"; "ALL RIGHT!"; Steep and deep, knuckles and buckles, "mighty fine!": the whole brainless ski area version of Soul. Fun, fun, fun, too much fun, like a college campus with no courses and no professors, where nobody ever graduated. It probably wasn't that bad, but it seemed that bad.
It has been two years since I fled Telluride for the Real World; I still don't think I will ever live there again, but I keep going back, four or five times already. In my mind, it is still the sweetest mountain town on the planet. That view up-valley, the town gleaming under huge mountain walls, the silver river coiling away through jade pastures, still gets the adrenaline going. And where else do such dreamlike juxtapositions occur?
On that corner, I talked with Julie Christie during the first Telluride Film Festival. There, in '81, an avalanche came down, across the Bear Creek Road into the Town Park. That old bungalow was a cathouse, back in the gold and silver days; someone dug up a whole cache of empty laudanum bottles in the cellar. In the high, hanging valleys to the east, wolverines have been sighted; golden eagles nest in the cliffs above the old Pandora Mine.