Though many of Colorado’s ski towns have become retreats for the superrich, Telluride remains true to its frontier roots.
January 22, 2018 by David Amsden
As the plane began its descent into Telluride one afternoon, I pressed my face to the window, giddy with anticipation. For years, I had been only dimly aware of this southwestern Colorado town tucked into a remote canyon in the San Juan Mountains, a skier’s haven where Oprah Winfrey owns one of her many homes. And then, the way these things happen, Telluride began to exert a gravitational pull over various close friends, a normally jaded lot who started speaking about it with a vaguely cultish fervor, like techies talking about Burning Man. One particularly zealous proselytizer went so far as to compare his first encounter with its savage beauty to dropping acid.
From the plane window, however, I saw nothing. No mountains, no snow, no hallucinatory alpine utopia. A dense cloud system had gathered in the region, shrouding everything in a fog so blinding that the runway — the highest commercial strip in North America, perilously bookended by 1,000-foot cliffs — was visible only a split-second before the tiny prop plane touched down. On the taxi ride from the airport, instead of marveling at the canyon of sawtooth peaks that frame the destination like a colossal amphitheater, I saw only more of the static white murk. My driver, a benevolent old beatnik in a frayed leather cowboy hat, explained how unusual this was, how winters here tended to vacillate, with metronomic reliability, between skies that dump more than 300 inches of glorious powder and skies that shine a crystalline blue.
“But Telluride,” he then noted cryptically, “is about way more than just mountains.”
You get a lot of this talk here, quasi-mystical murmurings that make sense only if you know the town’s improbable history. Founded in 1878 as a mining colony, Telluride had, by the turn of the century, minted more millionaires per capita than Manhattan. It had also earned a reputation as a bawdy, half-civilized outpost of saloons and bordellos and wistful prospectors. (This is, after all, where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank.) By the late 1960s, with the mining industry verging on collapse, the town was claimed by hippies, who found in it an idyll where they could get weird, 8,750 feet above sea level. Radical hedonism alone, however, was not enough to revive the economy. In 1972, the first ski lifts opened, and Telluride was reborn as a winter never-never land with an untamed, frontiersman sensibility.
Even though I couldn’t admire the landscape, a stroll through town was enough to stoke a pleasant delirium. The thin air was crisp and piney and laced with the unmistakable scent of burning marijuana. The ghosts of Telluride’s prospecting past lurked in studiously preserved gingerbread Victorians, tumbledown shacks, and stately Old West façades along the main thoroughfare, Colorado Avenue. And then there were the locals, an implausibly fit array of characters who seemed drawn from different chapters in Telluride’s history, all of whom emitted the distinct glow of people in their prime. I passed a sinewy septuagenarian walking around shirtless, seemingly unaware that it was 20 degrees outside. I passed a young dude with a teardrop tattoo gleefully recounting a brush with an avalanche. I passed Hilary Swank.
“It’s a deeply bonkers little corner of the world, isn’t it?” said Dabbs Anderson, an artist I met up with that first evening. We were at the Historic Bar at the New Sheridan Hotel, a dimly lit saloon with pressed-tin ceilings and a bustling billiard room, which has anchored the town since 1895. Anderson, a sunny blonde with pale blue eyes and a zanily outsize personality originally from Alabama, moved here a year ago from Los Angeles with her dog, a Great Dane named William Faulkner. We’d been put in touch through mutual friends and, over many martinis, discussed Telluride’s allure: the off-kilter mood, the unpretentious attitude, the emphasis on authenticity over ostentation that has built its reputation as the anti-Aspen. Where Aspen traded its countercultural past for Gucci and Prada, Telluride has no chain stores, no dress codes, no self-consciously swanky hotels. It does have an outdoor “free box” where locals recycle everything from clothing to cooking utensils.
“There’s a crazy amount of money here, of course, but it doesn’t define the place,” Anderson went on. “If people go to Aspen to flaunt their wealth, they come here searching for some kind of off-the-grid enrichment, whether they’re a celebrity or they live in a trailer. It’s a place people come to chase strange dreams, which also happens to have some of the best skiing on the planet.”
Anderson spoke from experience. She’d initially planned to stay only a month, having been offered an informal monthlong residency to work on her captivating, folkloric mix of drawings, paintings, and puppets at Steeprock, a mountaintop artists’ retreat in the tiny neighboring village of Sawpit. By the time her residency ended, however, Anderson saw no point in returning to Los Angeles and stayed on to help expand Steeprock’s program.
“The bustle, that buzzy anxiety, that survival mentality — I was burned out,” she told me. In Telluride, she found “a community of like-minded freaks,” as she put it. On warm days, she can often be seen gliding about in purple roller skates after a morning spent making haunting drawings using live gunpowder. When I met her, she was preparing for her first local solo show at Gallery 81435, one of the numerous showrooms and contemporary spaces in the downtown arts district.
“It’s kind of a crazy saga, but that’s the sort of thing that just happens here,” she said. “It has a way of sucking in a very specific type of person and scaring off the rest.”
With that, she polished off her drink and fixed me with a curious stare.
“Be careful,” she added, flashing a grin bright enough to power a nuclear reactor. “You may end up never leaving.”
The next morning, I woke to the bluest of skies and a penetrating hangover. Anderson and I had ended the night at a place called There…Telluride, a welcome addition to the fertile dining scene. Located off West Pacific Avenue, it was about the size of a walk-in closet, had a punkish vibe, and featured a freestyle menu of delicious small plates: oysters and steamed buns, salmon-belly tostadas and elk lettuce wraps. Dessert was a watermelon-flavored pot gummy I’d picked up en route at one of the local dispensaries. Various friends of Anderson’s had joined us — a photographer, a hemp farmer, a peripatetic Pilates instructor who spends summers surfing in the south of France — and it had gotten very late very fast. Mezcal and blood-orange cocktails gave way to tequila shots served in tiny glass ski boots, and at some point in the night, I’d decided it was a good idea to attempt a handstand on the bar. That no one batted an eye explains a lot, I think, about the local nightlife.
I was staying on South Oak Street, arguably the prettiest road in town, at Dunton Town House, a historic home located near the gondola that whisks people up to the ski lifts. A boutique hotel that feels like a B&B, it is the sister property to the much-beloved Dunton Hot Springs, a resort that occupies a former miners’ town about an hour southwest. With its five comfortable, modern guest rooms, the Dunton Town House perfectly embodies Telluride’s polished yet unfussy sensibility.
After a spread of pastries and fruits served at a communal table, I decided to hit the slopes. Two steps outside the door, however, I became momentarily paralyzed. Telluride will do that to a person on a clear day. Even in a state with no shortage of breathtaking towns carved into mountains, the place is uniquely spectacular for being squeezed on all sides by the highest concentration of 13,000-foot peaks in the Rockies. After the previous day’s fog, it was like a new dimension opening up. Everywhere I looked people were standing stock-still, taking in the dwarfing splendor as if staring at the halo of a UFO.
I rode the gondola to the ski area, which is actually a separate town altogether: Mountain Village. Built 1,000 feet farther up from Telluride in 1987 to make the slopes more accessible for families, it is essentially a mini Vail of luxurious condominiums and ranchlike mansions, with its own police department, restaurants, and day-care center. Importantly, it relieved the historic downtown from development pressures. Telluride has since become a year-round destination, with a summer season highlighted by renowned blues, jazz, and film festivals. Without Mountain Village, there would have been no way to accommodate such growth.
Clipping my boots into my skis at the top of the gondola, I began to get a little nervous. Absurd as it sounds, I was anxious that skiing the mountain would sully my burgeoning love of the place. For me, there has always been an irritating disconnect between the fantasy of skiing and the reality of the experience, and my memories of trips to some of the nation’s most storied resorts — Vail, Canyons, Squaw Valley — are dominated less by ecstatically tearing downhill than by shivering in interminable lift lines and slaloming through crowds instead of around moguls. For everything that makes Telluride’s 2,000-plus acres of skiable terrain a paradise — the phenomenal quality of the snow, the legendary steepness, the surreal vistas in all directions — what is most remarkable is that you truly have the mountain to yourself. It was the height of ski season, yet over the course of three days I never waited longer than a few seconds for a lift and often found myself alone, in the middle of the day, on some of the most popular runs.
“That’s Telluride in a nutshell — world-famous but still somehow undiscovered,” Anderson told me that afternoon when we met on the slopes. Telluride’s 18 lifts and 148 runs offer a near-endless buffet for every level of skier. Having spent the morning getting my bearings on the easier terrain, I set off with Anderson to explore the more challenging runs. There were narrow gullies that wound through thickets of aspens. There was the steep and feathery expanse of the Revelation Bowl. There were moguls of daunting verticality that led to groomed, leisurely flats. At the top of the aptly named See Forever, the area’s signature run, Anderson pointed out the dazzling La Sal Mountains in Utah, some 100 miles to the west.
We ended the day with a bottle of sparkling rosé, kept chilled in a bucket of snow, under the heat lamps at the outdoor terrace of Alpino Vino, which, at 11,966 feet, justly bills itself as the continent’s highest fine-dining establishment. Not surprisingly, we bumped into people Anderson knew, and our group quickly expanded to become a repeat of the previous night’s little party: wine, platters of antipasti, strangers quickly coming to feel like longtime friends. At one point, a friend of mine from New Orleans, where I live, sauntered over to the table and joined the proceedings. I had no idea he was in town. That he was the one who had likened Telluride to taking LSD was especially fitting, since by then the comparison no longer sounded so loopy.
That night, while dining alone at the bar at 221 South Oak, which serves incredible house-made pastas, I struck up a conversation with J. T. Keating, a young man who’d moved to Telluride six years earlier. Like all the locals I met, he was warm and welcoming. “I come from a pretty conservative world in Florida,” said Keating, who works in a hotel. “Cheesy as it sounds, I kind of found myself here.” It didn’t sound cheesy at all, I told him. “Yeah, there’s just something in the water,” he said. “I came for the mountains, but stayed for the people.”
“I hope you like a good hike,” Anderson said. It was my last night, and we were standing at the base of the driveway that leads to Steeprock. During my stay, Anderson had introduced me to numerous après-ski pleasures. We’d had the mandatory steak at the New Sheridan Chop House & Wine Bar. We’d caught the sunset from Allred’s, a restaurant at the top of the gondola with the most phenomenal view of downtown. We’d munched on appetizers at La Marmotte, an intimate French bistro housed in an old icehouse. We’d sipped espresso at Ghost Town, an artsy coffee shop, and craft cocktails at the Butcher & the Baker, a fun little café. Visiting Steeprock, she believed, would complete my conversion.
The compound, which in the past three years has begun hosting artists of all disciplines, from blacksmiths to photographers, is not an easy place to get to. The driveway, a quarter-mile of loose shale up steep switchbacks, is navigable only by 4 x 4. Since we didn’t have one, we would have to walk. It was exhausting, but worth it. The place seemed straight out of a fairy tale: a chalet of wide, rough-hewn floors and intricate, rust-scabbed metalwork, all warmed by fire, its lights powered by the sun. Blowtorches, paints, and tools were scattered all over the downstairs workroom. Though Steeprock offers occasional classes, it is not yet open to visitors on a regular basis. Anderson, however, plans to spend the next year or so making it a place for art shows, events, and experimental performances. She also wants to create a more formal application process for the residencies, since currently it’s a word-of-mouth affair.
Earlier during my stay, I’d met the owner of Steeprock, Isabel Harcourt, a fixture in Telluride for the past 20 years, who works with artists on the logistics of ambitious projects (say, a photo shoot in a mine). The property was built 20 years ago by her husband, Glen, a swashbuckling jack-of-all-trades who’d turned it into a kind of ad hoc commune. “Artists came and lived in yurts and tepees,” she told me, explaining that in the early 2000s, they’d turned Steeprock into a home-building company. Then tragedy struck, in 2006, when her husband died in a plane crash. Two years later, the mortgage crisis hit, and the business sputtered out. Now, Steeprock is once again an artists’ haven. There’s talk of rebuilding the tepees and yurts, and even constructing small cabins, to complement the main house. “With Dabbs,” Harcourt told me, “it’s really come full circle as a kind of microcosm of Telluride — this revolving door for interesting people.”
Anderson and I went out to the deck. The sky was clear, the stars majestic. You could see the gossamer parabola of the Milky Way.
“Oh, and you should see it here in the summer, with all the festivals,” Anderson said. “And the fall, when the leaves change. The first time I saw the colors in the valley I started weeping.”
“Careful,” I said, getting up to go. “I may be back before you know it.”
I’ve said this to countless people in countless places around the world, knowing as the words leave my mouth that they’re ultimately hollow. With so much out there to see, why keep returning to one place? But there was something different about Telluride. I understood why so many people kept going back. Indeed, just a few months later, I got on my motorcycle and rode 1,500 miles to see the place again. Pulling into town, the mountains again delivered their shock, but of course by then I knew that Telluride was about so much more.