Paul Andersen: Forty years of loving Crested Butte
The snowfield near the top of Pearl Pass was steep and sketchy when I crossed it a week ago. A slip would have meant plummeting into a boulder field.
That would have ruined the magical weekend I had just spent with hundreds of old friends who gathered in Crested Butte to celebrate a 40-year town reunion. I made extra sure to punch in steps while dragging my mountain bike across the snow to the boulder-strewn pass, my high road home to the Roaring Fork.
Riding and pushing the gnarliest jeep road I know gave me time to ponder how the Shangri-la dreamscape of Crested Butte enriched my life. Reaffirmed was how critical “place” is to “being.”
My first time living in Crested Butte was in the spring of 1970. The population was about 350. The streets were dirt, coal smoke hung in the air, and Serbo-Croatian was spoken in the bars, shops and restaurants by the relic coal miners. At night, polka music mixed with the yips and howls of coyotes in the high mountain air at 9,000 feet.
Crested Butte was like a museum diorama depicting an otherworldly mountain refuge in the Elk Range where snow banks reached up to the eaves of quaint Hobbit houses through May, and where a nude co-ed bathhouse provided intimacy with my closest friends.
Sunshine’s Paradise Bathhouse is long gone, but to those who frequented its dim, steamy confines wearing nothing but our birthday suits, the mammaries stand out. (I mean, the memories!)
In 1970, the town’s economy was marginal during ski seasons and nonexistent during the lazy days of summer when a dog could sleep all day long in the middle of Elk Avenue. Crested Butte was the most beautiful, wonderful, transformative place I had ever experienced — a far cry from suburban Chicago, where I grew up. I still see the town and its funky charms in my dreams.
By the late ’70s I was reporting for the Crested Butte Chronicle, practicing the fine art of biased journalism. Crested Butte was battling against a huge industrial mining company then, and we at the Chronicle twisted the journalistic ethic of objectivity into finely tuned propaganda against the mine and in favor of the town. Our prejudice was clear.
That was my proving ground in the years before I rode my bike over Taylor Pass for a job interview at The Aspen Times with Bil Dunaway and Mary Hayes. Crested Butte was the perfect prelude to Aspen, grooming me for old Ute City and another rewarding chapter in life.
In the intervening years, Crested Butte has grown and prospered. Today it suffers an identity crisis between community and commodity, a threshold Aspen crossed many years ago. There are good arguments for both values, but one thing is for sure: There is no going back to the innocence and simplicity that geography and history conspired for picturesque mountain towns that once offered refuge from the madly spinning world.
The Forty Year Reunion last weekend reminded me that community is defined as love for a place that others, too, find special. What many found there was a tribal sense of belonging, all of us having shared something so unique, original and vital that nothing could ever match it.
The impulse is to feel loss, not only for the way things were, but for the way we were — young, frivolous, happy, free-loving. How fortunate that the stars aligned to plant us in a small grid of streets that delineated an old coal mining town in the Slate River Valley surrounded by verdant alpine ridgelines, all of which were mantled with steel wool storm clouds on the day of the reunion.
The patter of rain on the big white party tent created a cozy atmosphere as conversations were shouted over live music. The ensuing community chorus was music to my ears. Equally touching was the familiarity of smiling faces, endearing mannerisms and nods of recognition.
For me, Crested Butte provides a mythic place and time that I can recreate in heart, mind and soul — a mosaic of choice, indelible memories that conjure my personal paradise.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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