Gina Murdock: Our mountains remain fulfilling though our town is feeling empty
Lead with Love
When I moved to Telluride in 1999, I spent a few weeks living in my boyfriend’s mom’s minivan while looking for a place to live. The cost of living was high. I had taken a job at a nonprofit radio station doing the daily news, so I didn’t make much money, but the job came with a ski pass and free access to all the festivals, so I felt like I’d hit the lottery.
I didn’t know anyone when I moved there, but quickly became immersed in the town and got to know people. Most of my favorites were the people drawn to Telluride for the Grateful Dead show in 1987 who never left. They were the core. Cool people. Rootsy.
One of the first news stories I did at my new job at KOTO radio was going into the field with my small suitcase-sized Digital Audio Tape (DAT) recorder and microphone to look for people living in the woods in homemade structures called “Woodsies.” I was with a U.S. Forest Service representative who was charged with systematically dismantling and removing these structures. I remember turning on my recorder to gather the ambient sounds of our feet crunching through the woods and then turning toward the representative as she described that these structures were causing damage to the forest and could no longer be tolerated.
I had mixed feelings; while I felt bad that people’s homes were taken away, I also saw how trashed the woods were around these structures. It was the end of an era. The Forest Service and the Town of Telluride were cracking down. One less affordable place for people to live. I knew from first-hand experience that you couldn’t sleep in your van on the street. I was woken up by the police one night at 2 a.m. with their bright flashlights peering through my window. I had to move on. Sleeping in cars on the street wasn’t an option either. After that night, I moved into the town park campground. I couldn’t afford the $20/night so I came in after dark and left before the host came in the morning.
After five years and moving more times than I can remember, there came a breaking point. I was interviewing to be a caretaker and I thought for sure I was going to get the job, but I didn’t. I was done. I had thought I would live in Telluride forever. I felt so lucky to live in such a beautiful place. I loved the community and I felt like I belonged there walking the streets searching for news with my tape recorder, but I couldn’t stand the thought of living in substandard places just to be in the place I loved.
I remember in those days hearing Telluride government officials and others talk about Aspen and how we didn’t want to become Aspen. Telluride felt special, Aspen was already spoiled. One thing they all had a lot of praise for, though, was Aspen’s “affordable” housing. More than any other resort town, Aspen had the vision and had invested in employee housing to try to ensure that the workforce had a place to live.
Cheers to those officials who fought for that. It wasn’t easy then, and it isn’t easy now. Employee housing isn’t just to house the workforce and cut down on traffic, it’s essential to keep a sense of vitality in the town so we are not just old, rich or both.
I was surprised when I ended up in Aspen. A series of unfortunate (or fortunate, I now think) events brought me from my beloved Telluride to the place we didn’t want to be. I can afford to live here now. I am one of the lucky ones. But more and more I hear from friends and colleagues that it’s becoming impossible to live here. I’ve heard the housing issue called a crisis more times recently than ever before, and it’s always been bad. Now, it’s worse.
I don’t have an answer. I just feel it and I think a lot of people are feeling it, too. It’s a vulnerable and scary place to be for a lot of friends who don’t know if they can stay here even though this is where they want to be. And, it hurts all of us if they can’t stay. Aspen is less desirable to me these days. The mountains will always captivate, but the town, busy as ever and busting at the seams, is becoming empty.
Gina Murdock is the founder of Lead with Love, an Aspen-based nonprofit dedicated to shifting culture from fear to love. For more information about Lead with Love, go to ILeadWithLove.org.