My parents took a ski vacation to Aspen when my brothers and I were kids, and afterward John Denver's song Rocky Mountain High became part of our family's soundtrack. I'm hearing it internally as the chairlift reaches Telluride's summit: "He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he'd never been before …" There are peaks in all directions, some of them over 14,000 feet tall, and the awe in that song's chorus is mine for a moment, before I tighten my boot buckles and turn to face the runs.
Telluride native Tom Watkinson guides a small group of us down the mountain, through the snow-covered pines up top, past the copses of slender aspens that blanket its lower reaches. The powder is fresh, the wind bitter, and, after 20 minutes or so, we're on a ridge overlooking the old mining town turned ski mecca.
Surveying his hometown, he speaks of the conflicts in the 1970s between the miners (on their way out) and the hippies (coming in) and points out certain landmarks: the red sandstone miners' hospital turned civic museum; the brightly coloured clapboard cottages where prostitutes used to ply their ancient trade; the halls where early Scandinavian settlers, the area's first skiers, gathered to dance; the brick frontage of the New Sheridan Hotel, which is new in name only, having been built in 1895 to replace one that burned down in what was then one of the West's most wide-open towns.
I've come here for the skiing, but I'd come back – in any season – for Telluride itself.
After the Telluride Ski Resort opened in the early 1970s, one of the activist hippies had a bumper sticker printed up: "Telluride is a Town" – meaning it's not just, and has never been, an appendage to the resort. Telluride's downtown has been on the National Historic Register since 1961, with its false-fronted, big-windowed commercial buildings on the broad main street, and colourful, fish-tiled Victorians off it. As much as any place this side of the Continental Divide, Telluride concentrates a sense of the West, past and present, the spirit of hustle and all-or-nothing gambles.
It's no wonder that Quentin Tarantino filmed much of his just-released western, The Hateful Eight, here with stagecoaches racing along the banks of the San Miguel River, and showdowns taking place against the majestic backdrop of the Wilson Range of the San Juans – the mountains Coors chose to feature on its beers.
Virginian Ashley Boling came to Telluride with university friends in the early 1990s. His friends left. He stayed, working various jobs – helping out with the town's top-tier film festival, heading an environmental agency. He currently runs a historic walking tour of the downtown, one that is a bit stop-and-start, since everyone, but everyone, knows him and wants to say hello.
Inside the Sheridan Opera House, he speaks of concerts and film premieres he's seen here, of Slum Dog Millionaire's electrifying debut, of the moved silence that followed the first screening of The King's Speech. The 238-seater built in 1913 has floral stencils on its wood walls, and posters throughout of past visitors, from Sarah Bernhardt to Arlo Guthrie to Jewel. "The acoustics are near perfect, so to see a big act in the intimacy of this setting can be extraordinary," he says. "But what happens here is just the tip of Telluride's cultural iceberg." He numbers off other festivals – a mountain-themed film fest, a bluegrass gathering, an art walk featuring some 25 galleries and studios. "There's a fire artist and set of industrial sculptors who work out of an old mine, with chandeliers hanging in it – it's crazy."
He walks us by the site of Butch Cassidy's first bank robbery – "$22,000, nearly $750,000 in today's money" – and points out where populist William Jennings Bryan gave his Cross of Gold speech. Telluride's history is more various than I expect it to be. A Telluride businessman was the first in the United States to sponsor an alternating current (AC) power system (in nearby Ames), and the town inspired some key passages in Russian ex-pat writer Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. "He came here to find some rare blue butterflies," Boling says. We walk through the hotel I've seen from above, the New Sheridan, sorting out what is original (the mahogany bar carved in Austria) from what is new (the bison head lately hung on one wall).
One evening, the town's former mayor Stu Fraser meets me in the Sheridan's Chop House. A room with red-and-gold brocaded curtains, and with mirrors multiplying the illumination of Victorian-style candlelights, the decor would have made Mae West, in all her finery, feel right at home. Fraser, a former Hallmark executive with a striking resemblance to Gene Hackman, almost didn't have a political career – "I tied with someone else in my first run for office, and, in true Telluride spirit, we drew cards to see who would get the post – I got the high card, the ace of spades."
He worked hard to bring the Tarantino film to town, and was gratified that the cast and crew mingled with locals, Tarantino frequenting the town's dirtiest dive (O'Bannon's), his Japanese art director patronizing its ultra-refined sushi restaurant (Honga's Lotus Petal), a bushily whiskered Kurt Russell frequently occupying a booth in the Chop House.
Residents like to say Telluride is like Aspen before Aspen went Hollywood – maybe so, but if it's not already gone Hollywood, it's certainly heading in that direction. During my visit, news reports had Oprah buying a mansion with a wine cellar set up to look like a mine – a "wine mine" was what the locals at once dubbed it, a neat marriage of old and new Telluride.
I learn of another layering of past and present Telluride while being pulled on a sleigh by a snowcat to a meal in a tent on a mountainside. The hearty feasts are the brainchild of Ashley Story, whose family, the Aldasoros, were among the many Basques who came to the West generations ago to herd sheep. "My grandfather was as stubborn as they come, and he bought land and held it, refusing many offers. For a long time it was worth little, but then the resort took off and we developed part of it – we had Texans with oil money coming, L.A.-types, Tom Cruise. When Brad Pitt's jeep got stuck, my father neglected his duty to me, and didn't call me. I was free; I could have helped," she laughs.
Still, the place's dramatic setting and storied past speak even louder than its plush, celebrity-studded present. One crystalline morning, I take my first ever snowmobile ride to an old ghost town high above the city, overlooking the Wilson range. The guide speaks of heavily-laden mules falling off cliffs and the many immigrants who came from all over the world, in the late 19th century and early 20th, to live four-to-a-room in a still extant dormitory. "Not many of them struck it rich, the work was back-breaking, but look, look where they got to live."
I fly-fish for the first time in a nearby river, with many sandhill cranes and a sole bald eagle circling above. My casts aren't exactly out of A River Runs Through It, but, after snagging almost every bush on the bank, I, at last, catch (and release) a beautiful little speckled trout with a pink belly.
Another ski-town standard, this time a tune by the Eagles, visits me while I'm fishing . A peaceful, easy feeling steals over me, as I watch my line float downstream in a river turned golden by the afternoon sun.
IF YOU GO
Where to Stay
Madeline Hotel & Residences This recently renovated 130-room hotel, right on the slopes, has a first-rate spa, a decent in-house restaurant and a dedicated ski concierge to store equipment at day's end. From $299 (U.S.). 568 Mountain Village Blvd., 970-239-0119, madelinetelluride.com
New Sheridan A charming historic property with 26 different suites, recently given a sensitive renovation. From $209. 231 W. Colorado Ave., 970-728-4351, newsheridan.com
Matthew Inden/Colorado Tourism/Matthew Inden/Colorado Tourism
Where to Eat & Drink
Allred's Chef Mike Regrut proffers innovative food in a mountainside restaurant with superlative views – it's a free gondola ride halfway up the mountain. Gondola Station St. Sophia, 970-728-7474, allredsrestaurant.com
The Butcher & The Baker No minor attack of the blues could withstand Megan Ossola's lemon tart, a must-have at this light and airy brunch specialist, a conversion of an old pool hall. 217 E. Colorado Ave., 970-728-2899, butcherandbakercafe.com
There You expect (and get) good food and drink from Andrew Tyler, formerly of New York's Nobu 57, but the vibe tends to the raucous: In addition to Asian-accented snacks and sophisticated cocktails, it serves "shotskis" – jiggers of liquor adowned by a group from an alpine ski. 627 W. Pacific Ave., 970-728-1213, therebars.com
What to See & Do
Telluride Historical Museum This Smithsonian affiliate tells the story of the town's past through a number of key artifacts, among them, an 800-year-old Pueblo blanket, the basket once used to bring dead miners down the mountains, and a nude portrait of a former prostitute painted by the brothel piano player – who allegedly fell for and married her. 201 W. Gregory Ave., 970-728-3344 , telluridemuseum.org
Telluride Outside Weather permitting, the region's premier outfitter offers fly-fishing outings, both with easygoing, knowledgeable guides. 121 W. Colorado Ave., 970-728-3895, tellurideoutside.com
Telluride Outfitters One of this company's guided snowmobile tours takes the scenic route up to the old ghost town of Alta. 455 Mountain Village Blvd., 970-228-4475, tellurideoutfitters.com.
Ryan Bonneau/Visit Telluride
Where to Shop
Between the Covers This small bookstore, with a café in back, carries a good selection of real books, including, usually, Tomboy Bride, the compelling memoir of a resourceful woman who long ago moved to a mountaintop near here with her mining engineer husband. 224 W. Colorado Ave., 970-728-4504, between-the-covers.com
Overland Sheepskin Co. Not everyone can carry off the Davy-Crockett-worthy coonskin hats and resplendent shearling coats on offer in this shop, but for those who can – and, what's more, wish to – this is their place. 100 W. Colorado Ave., 877-789-0004, overland.com
Over the Moon Fine Foods The ideal supplier for an après-ski party, with charcuterie, cheeses and other kitchen sundries to take away. 200 W. Colorado Ave., 970-728-2079.
Wagner's Custom Skis Using a mix of high-tech and MacGyver-type tricks, local entrepreneur Pete Wagner manufactures the ultimate Colorado ski-trip souvenir: custom-made skis, matched to the skier's style, with hand-picked board-top art. From $1,750. 120 Front St., Placerville, 970-728-0107, wagnerskis.com
The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Telluride. It did not review or approve this article.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of the company running a snowmobile tour. This version has been corrected.