Getting high in the hills: A history
A man, a hippie by the tie-dyed, long-haired look of it, stood on the corner on Main Street in Breckenridge. The streets were dirt then, a time when hippies were really hippies.The man lit a joint and took a drag. A police car rolled down the street. The hippie waved. The policeman waved back.Shamus O’Toole, friend to bikers everywhere, former owner of the often-raucous Breckenridge watering hole that bore his name, who came to the mountain town to visit a friend more than 30 years ago, saw this and decided to stay.Summit County and other Colorado ski towns have long had a history of vice. Long before ski towns became known as party towns, the miners who settled these areas made brothels and saloons more profitable than the places that supplied their customers’ pay.To one ski town fixture, it’s simply a matter of the nature of our species.”Human beings have been changing their consciousness since Homo erectus,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis. “We like to get high.”Then came the 1960s, and as the popularity of ski resorts grew, so, too, was the culture of consciousness-expanding recreation. And somewhere along the dilated, flashback-laden timeline, the two became connected. Ski town became synonymous, in reputation at least, with party town. O’Toole arrived in Breckenridge in 1972. He said the town was always a party place.”I could never figure out who the buyers were, because everybody was a dealer,” he said.O’Toole, now a Florida restaurateur in semiretirement (old bikers never die, their memories just get a little hazy), can tell plenty of stories to those who ask, the kind of stories that would make sensational tabloid headlines today.But the way O’Toole describes it, it wasn’t all that shocking in the 1970s: attorneys, elected officials and other notables in the shady corners of bars, discussing business of an underground sort.The stories include a variety of drugs – the “recreational” ones to those who partake, the “controlled substances” to law enforcement and the courts – including LSD, marijuana, cocaine and more. O’Toole can name names, because he was right there with them.”When I first moved here, people would lay out a line of coke right on the bar,” he said. “They’d smoke a joint right there.”Locals who were here to see it can recall the appellations the party antics created: The Ridge Street Rowdies, the Devil’s Triangle and other nicknames for celebration central.And it wasn’t just a “’70s thing” you’d find elsewhere in the country: “There’s a higher-than-average level of hedonism in all resort communities,” Braudis said.But how did it get that way? Those illegal drugs were never pictured in ski town marketing.Alcohol certainly was, and the social atmosphere of aprés-ski cocktails drew its fair share to the slopes and the towns nestled beneath. It’s the sex appeal, the Playboy play, if you will.Kathy Wiedemer, a 16-year Steamboat Springs resident and resort employee, said she remembers it well. Wiedemer worked in restaurants when she first came to the mountains. She remembers, in the years before moving to Steamboat, how all the vintage ski publications featured ads from liquor companies. “When you think of skiing, you think of having a good time,” Wiedemer said. “It’s aprés ski, it’s hot tubs. Then you move here, and to feed your ski habit, people work all night. A lot of them have to unwind, and some of them overdo it, of course. But I think a lot of it got taken out of context, blown out of proportion.”But the people and the parties kept on coming. As Summit County’s ski towns grew through the decades, the drugs never left, they just became more discreet. To be sure, cocaine isn’t something its users show off. Marijuana is still popular – who hasn’t heard a tramway referred to as a ganja-la? – but no one is lighting up joints on Main Street.Part of what has changed is society’s perception of drugs, both in Summit County and the country as a whole.O’Toole and others describe how cocaine was a social drug in the ’70s, before people realized all the problems it could cause.Drugs became an issue of liability. Resorts began testing employees for drug use, not just after an accident occurred on a lift or a backhoe, but to get the job in the first place.And the marketing changed, too. In the 1990s, the leisure industry focused on “family-friendly” vacations. Out went the Jell-O shots, or at least the shot was taken out of the Jell-O for junior.Roll over a new leafAdditionally, those ’60s and ’70s ski bums grew up, had kids and settled down.”I believe that in the ’70s there was a greater prevalence of drug use per capita because you didn’t have the same depth of community structure and involvement that you have now,” said Chief District Court Judge Terry Ruckriegle, a Breckenridge resident for 20 years.He noted that even the attitude toward alcohol has changed. In his younger days as a prosecutor, Ruckriegle said, it wasn’t uncommon for someone the police pulled over for drunken driving to get a ride home. These days, though, no one’s getting a ride home; they’re going to jail.Possibly the greatest change comes from the county’s demographic trends: Along with those ski bums growing older and starting families, more and more families are settling in Summit County. Seniors and other second-home owners are retiring to the mountains in greater numbers. And plenty of others that don’t fit in those population groups are escaping suburbs and metropolitan areas to get away from urban stressors like traffic and crime.In that light, one might see hope for a change in the hedonistic culture of ski towns – a population growing with a demographic that dilutes the party scene, maybe even making it a minority.But that trend cuts both ways. Summit County Sheriff John Minor is careful to point out that criminals go on vacation, and some of them even move to the mountains. Along with families and seniors looking for rural relocation, some criminals are doing the same thing.”I’ll tell you what concerns me now,” Minor said. “We have recently executed a couple different search warrants where drug dealers have video surveillance outside their units.””There’s a reason,” Undersheriff Derek Woodman, head of the county’s drug task force, adds, “and they’re protecting their investment. The bad part is we have no idea how far they’ll go to protect it.”Minor said he sees this as drug purveyors bringing their metropolitan mentality with them to the mountains. Unfortunately, that might mean more of the scary stories people see on the Denver news making headlines in Summit County. Minor pointed out two standoffs with a methamphetamine addict in Summit Cove this summer and said that, without skillful negotiations, the incidents could have turned into SWAT team raids and possible violence.In another twist, a recent marijuana bust indicated Summit County could be more of a distribution point for supply lines to the Front Range. Drug task force agents seized more than 50 pounds of pot that originated from a Dillon apartment. The buyers were from Denver.And some of those ski bums with kids? They haven’t settled down completely, the sheriff points out. There are those still having a good time, and some of their children are following the same path.”We talk to parents, and they’ll say, ‘If they’re going to smoke dope, we’d rather they do it with us,'” Minor said.But the top cops in charge of busting up the drug trade say Summit County’s best hope is to focus on prevention. If the party atmosphere is to become one of responsibility, the change will begin with Summit’s children.”We have very involved parents here,” Minor said. “I’d tell them to pay attention – let’s start there. Find out what’s going on in their world, if their friends are changing, if their attitudes are changing. They don’t have to call the cops. Call a counselor.”Woodman added that residents need to do the same for their friends and neighbors. In a recent bust in a Silverthorne apartment complex, where the resident is suspected of concocting small batches of methamphetamine in the kitchen, a neighbor interviewed later told officers she had noticed strange chemical smells from the unit.”If the neighbor is starting to go down the wrong road, they need to intervene,” Woodman said.
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The 2020-21 ski season is going to look substantially different from previous ones. The Colorado Department of Public Health has released its final guidance on coronavirus protocols for resorts and guests to follow.