Telluride’s town park transformed into a mosaic of orange and pink, turquoise and yellow as the enormous canvases were unfurled onto the dewy grass. In early June’s pale morning light, teams of four-to-five people, most of them gray-haired and denim-clad, spread out huge balloons attached to wicker baskets. There was a chill in the air, and the encroaching canyon walls looked almost black as they towered above us in the predawn.
The roar of a propane torch broke the stillness. At first just one, and then many fiery starts and stops caused “envelopes” — the inflatable bags that make up the balloon component of a hot-air balloon — to rise. Within minutes, the park was a garden of color. The sun peeked over the ridge, its golden light spreading tangible warmth as it crept higher into the sky.
It was Day 1 of the 2016 Telluride Balloon Festival, and my husband and I had come early to wrangle a ride in one of the rigs. Jeff and I are normally sporty types — cyclists and skiers who measure a vacation’s success by how tired our muscles are at the trip’s end. But for this getaway, we sought a more tranquil mode of transport. Since getting hitched eight years earlier, we’d moved, changed jobs and had kids, and we wanted to celebrate our anniversary by sequestering ourselves in a place of natural beauty far from the demands of home.
Telluride, a seven-hour drive from our home in Boulder, fit the bill. I’d been once before in winter and was eager to see the town in full summer bloom. We were also curious about the festival, which is tiny by the usual standards — 19 people registered for the event this year, compared with the nearly 600 balloonists who congregate each fall for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
But before we took flight, Jeff and I set out to ground ourselves, arriving several days early and checking in at the Lumière, a boutique hotel in Mountain Village. The community sits at the base of the ski resort, and is connected to town by a free gondola that operates year-round. People often ask if it’s better to stay in town or on the mountain. Either is fine — scenic views abound no matter where you are — and if you’re not staying in Telluride proper, it’s easy to park your car in town and walk everywhere.
Unlike other posh destinations I’ve visited — and it is expensive, a result of its cachet among movie stars and retired tech billionaires — I found Telluride exceedingly friendly, even quirky.
Until direct flights to nearby Montrose (in 1988) — and, this year, to Telluride — were established, it was a five- to seven-hour drive from any metropolitan area. Mainly skiing die-hards made the trip, which wound over at least one steep and winding mountain pass, depending on where you came from. The town features more than 50 restaurants as well as dozens of art galleries and boutiques. With more than 40 festivals each year — including the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Literary Arts Festival and, most prominently, the Telluride Film Festival — there is an event nearly every weekend that draws outsider crowds of as many as 12,000 people.
One afternoon, Jeff and I strolled up to Bear Creek Falls, a popular five-mile hike that wanders from the base of the town up a mild grade through aspen groves and along Bear Creek before arriving at the massive falls. It was an easy walk, and one of Telluride’s many hiking options. The town rests deep in southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, an isolated pocket of the state where most peaks top out between 13,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level. As the area’s topography suggests, there is no end of outdoor activity in Telluride, whether it be the town’s infamously steep slopes or offseason options such as scenic float tours or rough-and-tumble 4X4 mountain safaris.
We returned to town famished and headed straight to the Butcher & Baker, where my turkey sandwich arrived between thick slices of homemade bread and topped with roasted red peppers and a life-affirming aioli. Afterward, we took a historic walking tour — the kind of activity I normally eschew on vacation, preferring to poke around on my own instead of joining a crowd. I am so grateful I ignored my instincts and followed tour guide Ashley Boling up and down Main Street and in and out of some of Telluride’s historic buildings.
I learned about the valley’s original inhabitants, the Ute Indians, who dubbed the area the “Valley of the Hanging Waterfalls,” the most prominent being Bridal Veil, about three miles east of town. Next came hardy miners seeking their fortunes; silver and gold were first discovered in Telluride around 1872, and the subsequent mining boom inflated the town’s population to nearly 5,000. What followed was almost a century of booms and busts, the fates of miners and their families ever in the balance.
Not surprisingly, Telluride was home to San Miguel County’s first bank robbery, which took place on June 24, 1889, when Butch Cassidy stole $22,000 from the vault of the San Miguel Valley Bank. The money was slated for the miners’ monthly payday, traditionally the 25th of the month.
By the 1960s, mining had crashed, and entire blocks of downtown were deserted and boarded up. But the economy began to revive when the ski resort opened in 1972. Back then, real estate was relatively affordable, Boling said, with the average house costing about $35,000. These days, the prices of houses in Telluride start around $2 million and the town, which has little room to expand, is grappling with severe housing shortages even as it experiences unprecedented tourism.
After a few days luxuriating in the high mountain air, Jeff and I were already fantasizing about relocating. The beauty. The recreation. The people. Who wouldn’t want to live here?
We’d heard that one way to ingratiate yourself with the balloon pilots, most of whom were willing to give bystanders a ride, was to make yourself useful, which is how we found ourselves on the rope side of a hot-air balloon, helping keep it tethered as its envelope filled with air.
The balloon, dubbed Snaggletooth for the jagged line that overlaid its colorful stripes, was owned and piloted by Richard Schmidt, a quiet, affable man with gray hair and a mustache.
The good news is I didn’t need any specialized knowledge. All that was required was a firm grip when handed a rope to hang onto and a willingness to lean my weight against the pull of the inflating balloon. Better yet, as I pulled, I also watched, and the combination of cool morning air, coffee and doughnuts, bright colors, and the promise of what awaited — a peaceful flight void of jet fuel or propellers — filled me with an expansive sense of belonging. There in the town park, Jeff and I joined a movement, and as each balloon lifted from the mist-covered grass and painted the blue sky pink and red and yellow, I was grateful to have momentarily woven myself into the fabric of this community.
I was so entranced that I almost missed my chance to hop into the balloon.
“Hurry up!” Schmidt said, interrupting my reverie. “Or we’ll go without ya.”
As the crew ferried us by hand to the launch point, the balloon hovered several feet off the ground. The sensation was similar to that of being in a canoe bobbing in the water. When Schmidt got the signal, he fired up the burners and we began to rise, first 500 feet and then 1,000 feet above the ground.
Another water analogy came to me as we floated over the town’s Victorian facades and brick storefronts. Steering is not possible in ballooning — the air sent us in the direction of the currents like a stick that had fallen into a river midstream. “You go where the wind blows,” Schmidt said. “And you get what you get.”
As our balloon bobbed its way down-valley, the town’s landmarks — the gondola, Bridal Veil Falls, the mesa where the airport is located — shrank until the landscape looked like a Monopoly board. From on high, I saw how physically constrained Telluride is. They call it a “box canyon” because the mountain walls are steep and the valley is narrow — there’s only one way in and out of town. Literally rising above the fray shifted my focus. I now had a greater appreciation of all the things that combine to make Telluride what it is.
Weightless and feeling as expansive as the air inside Snaggletooth’s envelope, I tried to memorize my surroundings. This is unlike any part of Colorado I’ve visited before, and I grew up in the state. I know it well. But in Telluride, in going slow, I saw so much.
Walker is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colo. Follow her on Twitter at @racheljowalker