Paul Andersen: What has befallen Bedford Falls?
February 22, 2004
Now I know how George Bailey felt in the classic holiday film Its a Wonderful Life.Dont worry, its not the attempted suicide by the despondent Jimmy Stewart character to which I relate. It is after Bailey is saved by a guardian angel and is shown his hometown as it would have been without him.The Bedford Falls George Bailey discovers is corrupt with crime and a lack of values. Worst of all, Bailey is unknown and forgotten. He is a stranger who has lost his community, his touchstone. He has lost the meaning to his life.A few weeks ago I revisited Crested Butte, my own Bedford Falls. I was there on assignment to do interviews and write a cover story for The Aspen Times about the sale of the Crested Butte ski area and an impending commercial and real estate boom.This was when I morphed into George Bailey and the past came back to haunt. As I walked the streets, I could not seem to shake my point of reference 1970 when I first lived there. It was a 33-year time warp that gave me the Bailey complex.When I first lived in Crested Butte, the town was a fantasy, a chimera. It was like a museum diorama. The town exuded a rare sense of the past secluded, buffered from the world, so hidden, so secret, so beautiful as to be a dream. With fewer than 500 residents, the town was a cloister on the Western frontier.The mountains rose up around town in grace and grandeur. The buildings were worn but elegant Victorians. The night sky was dotted with stars and the blue sky of day was lustrous. Summers were warm and idyllic and winters were deep with downy snow. The snow … when a winter storm blanketed the town it was like wearing earmuffs.Such are the discoveries of youth, when the mind is fresh to new places, new friends, new ideas, before the calcifying influences of age creep into your being and ossify it like brittle bone. In Crested Butte, I awoke to new possibilities and those possibilities became part of my persona. I fell in love with this place.For me, intimacy came from the acrid scent of coal smoke and the distant echoes of coyotes yipping from Gibsons Ridge, now a subdivision. It was conveyed in the thumping of polka music and dancers feet pounding the floor at Frank & Gals, which burned to the ground 30 years ago. I was young, wide-eyed and hypnotized by Shangri-La.During my interviews, I learned of a big change in the Butte, a tectonic shift in the economy prompted by the ski area sale. I was told that an infusion of growth and a transfusion of capital would be focused on business, land development, new prosperity.The new ski area owners are smart, and they know a gem when they see it. That gem is set in the scenic rapture of the Elk Mountains, where the highway dead ends in a cul de sac of snow-covered peaks, where time has been kind to a pastoral valley, where rapacious growth is poised like a vulture.As I walked across town from a friends house, where over beers we had bemoaned the commercial success everyone seems to crave, banks and real estate offices seemed to crowd the streets. I heard the distant roar of a crowd and saw the glow of lights.A huge pile of snow had been scooped up on Elk Avenue and formed into a jump. The air was cold and wisps of steam emanated from the cheering faces. Brilliant lights showered the town in harsh incandescence and held the town in the thrall of a spectacle.Suddenly, a murmur of excitement swept through the people lining the street. A snowmobile revved with a high whine, then shot off towing a snowboarder on a long rope. The jumper let go the rope and flew over the jump to a delighted roar.I looked at the faces and knew no one. I shielded my eyes from the glaring lights and turned away. Suddenly, 1970 was a dream, and so was the Crested Butte I had fallen in love with. Something had happened to her. She had changed and lost her innocence. She was painted and gaudy and garish. She was the dark side of Bedford Falls.Unlike George Bailey, I did not try to reassert myself into a community fabric that no longer fit. I walked slowly through the arctic night, feeling the weight of loss, looking up at the stars for a signpost, saying goodbye to more than a memory.Paul Andersen hopes for a Frank Capra ending. His column appears on Mondays.
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