Tony Vagneur: Aspen’s past lives in Crested Butte
Like drifting into the deepest of dreams, it was suddenly there, a town of people, places and stories from the past, igniting long-forgotten memories. I’d never walked those streets before, but yet it all seemed so familiar, as though I’d been snatched by a time machine and put down in my past. It was a stroll down memory lane without preconceived notions.
Once a mining town, it seemed somehow out of place in its role of pleasing tourists and second-home owners. It was, as dreamers know, as if two worlds had collided and I was in the middle, being tugged in each direction.
The town where I stood was a delicate collection of mostly old miner’s cottages, meticulously preserved in a dedicated and historical fashion that spoke to reality, not contrivance, an honor to those who loved, lived and laughed within their walls. And there was a main drag of bigger buildings that spoke to deep community commitment.
Up on the hill, up in the ether zone where clouds sometimes obliterated its presence, was a ski area surrounded by lodges and hotels, full of all the modern luxuries anyone could want. A little farther up the road was the corral where we left our horses overnight a couple of years ago when we rode over East Maroon Pass from Aspen. As in a dream, we didn’t really explore the town.
Crested Butte, the original town, is like any other mountain locale in that it must somehow find a way to keep its identity in the midst of rising popularity and growth. For now, it’s a wonderful slice from the past, a brand that says, “This is how we want to be.” There is a palpable fear among many of the residents that the Butte may one day become like Aspen.
That could happen, and may I say without blushing that Crested Butte is very similar to Aspen 50 or 60 years ago. Take a stroll down any street in town — there aren’t that many — and Aspen’s past jumps out at you. Wide residential streets with plenty of parking, dirt shoulders without sidewalks, and city lots considerably larger than the relatively small houses that sit on them. No lot-line-to-lot-line nonsense.
Air conditioning has not yet found Crested Butte and people leave their windows open, somehow a friendly gesture almost like an outstretched hand, saying, “We are a trusting community.” The people across the alley from our cozy “barn” carry on a conversation like any two people would, only we hear bits and pieces of it and promise to keep our own voices down.
Each home has been painted, remodeled or expanded in a fashion that keeps historic detail intact. New houses, at least in town, of which there are very few, also are true to the architectural past. No shining contemporary citadels, no oversized, pretentious palaces.
Crested Butte is the capital of tin roofs and skunk cabbage. The Butte missed the arrival of the Bauhaus architecturally trendy fashion that dictated flat-roofed houses and went for steep-pitched tops with tin coverings. The copious amount of winter snowfall slides right off and you don’t have to shovel the roof. You just need to be careful where you park as roof avalanches have no favorites.
Speaking of that skunk cabbage (veratrum tenuipetalum), Crested Butte has some great wilderness hiking trails, enough to keep most people going until either decrepitude or old age drops the curtain, and maybe even beyond. My partner Margaret thought we should tackle Gothic Mountain, possibly the most robust hike in the area. If you haven’t yet blown an early-summer lung on the Ute Trail or a close by fourteener, Gothic Mountain will afford you a gold-plated opportunity to do so. It takes no prisoners.
Excellent dining can be found in small, intimate restaurants entered off the alley, or more mainstream fare can be found behind false-front or western facades on Elk Avenue. French cuisine to a damned good steak — the Butte has it.
For those with a discerning eye, cut-off jeans are still in vogue over there to the southwest, the shorter the better, it seems.
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot — the neighbor’s house had a nice, smooth, well-watered and manicured yard. Behind it sat an old, sagging garage, incapable of holding a modern vehicle, but providing a bit of cover for the piles of discarded “junk” behind it, along the alley. Common stuff like old rental skis, rough-sawn and warped boards, chunks of metal and old window frames lined the sinewy wooden fence. I loved looking at that dichotomous scene over-and-over — it made me homesick for the Aspen I grew up in.
Be careful with the history of your amazing town, Crested Buttians. As Merle Haggard once wrote, “I think it’s gone forever once it’s been erased. Once you drink the devil’s wine you can’t forget the taste”
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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