A few childhood mountain memories are burned into my mind.
A flying saucer in the woods.
A sylvan scene in a thick aspen grove.
The smell of beer and the sounds of the Steve Miller Band playing on a stereo.
These are the images of a time long past in the Rockies, from the day when ordinary mountain people lived in the high country to do as they pleased without the strictures of “normal life” to hold them down. People built weird, secluded houses in the forest and took up hermitage or came to biker parties at a cabin with their kids in tow. Disney-like tableaus that could have come straight out of “Bambi” were common just a few hundred yards from the family cabin.
I liked those times. I miss those times. I miss them because for most ordinary people, they’re just memories. The Rocky Mountain West has increasingly become an expensive playground for the well-heeled, and the rest of us are welcome to visit, but increasingly unable to stay.
I was blessed to grow up in Colorado, and doubly blessed when my parents saved up a little money and plunked down about 10 grand on a small A-frame cabin near a little burg called Bailey. The cabin itself sat on an acre-and-a-half of pine forest, accessible by a twisty dirt road the family’s massive 1969 Caprice could barely navigate.
The cabin itself was somewhat spare, but perfect just the same. We had to haul in our own water, and the toilet was outside, in a two-holer outhouse. But it had electricity, was fully furnished and equipped and sported a sweet deck with a hummingbird feeder that entertained me endlessly.
The cabin served as base camp for a lot of my early outdoor adventures, usually short hikes into the woods looking for places to build a fort and play Army with my brothers and whatever friends they brought with them. On one such hike, we went pretty far from the cabin (or so it seemed through my six-year-old eyes), then stumbled into a sunlit grotto of pines and aspens. Sunlight pierced through the leaves and pine needles, illuminating this little corner of the forest in an array of green hues that stopped me in my tracks.
I don’t know how the rest of the gang reacted when they saw it, but it was a real Lady of the Lake moment for me (minus the water, of course), like I was Arthur looking for Excalibur, and there it was, being thrust from the brush by the arm of some unseen wood nymph. If you want to know where my sense of wonder with the outdoors came from, it was there, in that spot, on that day.
Back at the cabin, my mom whipped up dinner that cannot be adequately described in words of praise. She’s that good. Our bellies full, we relaxed to mid-70s soft rock tunes oozing from the 1930s-era wooden console radio that came with the cabin and watched the sky transform from blue to various hues of yellow, orange, red and purple. No sense of contentment was higher than at that moment as the kids played games, pieced together puzzles or read a book.
We had neighbors. Real hippies, from what I can guess. They invited my family to a cookout one summer day, so we all walked down the dirt road to their place and were immediately cloaked in the aroma of grilling burgers and hot dogs. This is where I heard Steve Miller for the first time, and the Eagles, too.
It’s also the place where I first smelled beer. You know the smell. A freshly cracked-open can of Coors, announcing itself with smells of barley and hops. I never tasted the stuff — that was reserved for the adults, a mix of flower children and leather-clad motorcycle enthusiasts. And my folks, of course. Just an ordinary, eclectic mix of, you know, mountain people. A funny, weird, and totally likeable bunch.
My guess is that some sort of hybrid of these people is what built the flying saucer house I saw a few years later with a childhood friend while tooling around the woods near Wellington Reservoir. We’d spent the better part of a few days trying, without luck, to pull trout out of that lake. We usually caught suckers, “trash fish” that resembled carp, but smaller. They had a ravenous appetite for salmon eggs we hoped would tempt the ever-elusive trout. So in between these fruitless exercises in angling came a lot of hiking, exploring wild places like kids do.
And there it was, beyond a “KEEP OUT!” sign attached to a barbed-wire fence: a dwelling made of metal that looked like a 1950s-era, B-movie UFO, not much bigger than a large RV. It takes a special kind of person to live in something like that, let alone want to live in something like that.
So who would live there? Mountain people, that’s who. Mountain people from yore.
Things have changed a bit since then. As it turns out, a wide range of people like to live in pretty places like the Rockies. Those who can afford it build their dream sanctuary there. And if they have a lot of money, they do it up big.
Back in the day, such ventures weren’t all that pricey. Old mining towns that saw their ventures play out nearly withered and died, saved only by their proximity to gorgeous, skiable mountains.
That’s precisely what happened to Breckenridge. A few years ago, while doing some travel writing, I went to Breck and a few other ski havens to see what they were offering these days. We got a tour of the town from one of the local historical society people, who proceeded to walk us through Breckenridge’s storied history in mining.
No one digs in Breckenridge anymore. But there’s plenty of money to be made. It’s home to world-class skiing, and the town now caters to tourists looking to make some turns on the slopes.
As it turns out, plenty of visitors like Breckenridge. Any why not? It’s a beautiful little town, and a good place to ski. So up went the vacation homes, some as small as condos, others palatial. Few if any are lived in year-round. Some are investment properties, and still others are trophies for the well-heeled.
It takes a lot to keep a place like Breckenridge running. Namely workers who are willing to clean those expensive estates, serve you drinks and food downtown or fit you with the right skis, poles and boots before you hit the slopes. Someone has to man the chair lifts, and someone had to be there to pull you off the hill if you get hurt.
There are a ton of other workers serving you and other visitors. Most of them have one thing in common (other than being employed in the service industry): Very few of them actually live in Breckenridge.
Chances are, they don’t live in nearby Frisco, either. Even Dillon is going to be a stretch. It’s just too pricey for the poor to middle class to live in these places, and for many who do, they end up shacking up with lots of roommates in cramped apartments, trailer houses or other small-but-cheap-enough dwellings that get them close enough to the places where they work and play.
But actually living in Breck? Maybe some of the business owners. And some of the wealthy to whom they cater.
You can bet you ass that none of them are living in flying saucers with “KEEP OUT” signs or hosting parties for their biker friends.
This goes for plenty of other mountain towns. Take Crested Butte, for example.
It’s a gorgeous little community just south of the mighty Elk Range. It surrounds Mount Crested Butte, which holds some of Colorado’s sweetest ski runs. Like a lot of ski towns, moneyed travelers fell in love with the place, built homes and sort of moved in. Housing prices went up. People who work in the Butte got priced out. So they moved to “South Crested Butte,” just down the road.
South Crested Butte is pretty, too, and still has easy access to those beloved slopes. There is a river that runs by with incredible scenery. Supply was met with demand, and acreage was parceled off for large vacation homes and such. So soon enough, anyone not making major bank got priced out of South Crested Butte, too.
The next closest town, unfortunately, is pretty far down the road – Gunnison. I like Gunnison. But it’s far different from Crested Butte. Whereas CB is all green forests, grassy glades and steep mountain peaks, Gunnison is more arid: open spaces, wide valleys and sage-covered hills. Gunnison is windswept and, in the winter, one of the coldest places in the lower 48. It’s a cool town with good places to eat and quick access to some amazing places (you need to see the Black Canyon), but it’s not Crested Butte.
However, this is where a lot of people who work in Crested Butte live, about 30 miles away. And even then, that’s changing.
It was after a fishing trip in the Black Canyon that I got to talking to a guy who lived in Gunnison. His home was this rustic, two-story house sided with corrugated metal, just the kind of unique structure you’d expect to see in a mountain town. He was kind enough to lead me and my friends to one of his favorite fishing spots in the canyon, and once we got through we got to talking about the costs of living in the Rockies. He lamented the fact that even in Gunnison, prices were going up.
In terms of appearances, Gunnison and Crested Butte might as well be in different worlds. But the economics of gentrification have seemingly left them irreversibly linked.
Before that conversation, I looked at Gunnison as a place I could live. Now I’m not so sure. It may yet be one more mountain town where I can only visit.
This topic came up a few months ago at the tail end of a backpacking trip in the San Juans.
The trip itself was amazing. A crew of us hiked into Chicago Basin and climbed some mountains there, a place so remote that you couldn’t get to it by road. It was truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and the thrill of the peaks was matched by the company I kept – reconnecting with friends from past hikes and climbs, as well as meeting new friends with a shared love of the high country.
Eventually, it was time to go home, and four of us – my friends Matt, Bill and Jenny, and myself – took a pit stop in another cool little mountain town and one of its microbreweries. Salida’s Elevation Beer Co. is a pretty simple place – they make beer and have a small bar and shop where you can sample the goods.
We snagged our brews and pulled up a bench at a thick, wooden table and shot the breeze for awhile, and the topic of high country gentrification came up. I’m probably the guy who brought it up, and the high-point beer loosened me up to the point where I got pretty animated about the subject. It’s hard for me to say, but if you were to poll my friends, they’d likely say I was rather passionate about it.
I’m not sure why this subject eats at me so. I haven’t lived in Colorado since I was a teenager, and my parents sold that cabin the year we moved across the country to northern Illinois. As much as I travel to Colorado and New Mexico, I really don’t have a dog in this hunt. I’m not a stakeholder in any real way, just another visitor gawking awestruck at the towering peaks and endless forests of the alpine wonderland that is the Rocky Mountains.
But you can’t underestimate the power of nostalgia. There is a part of me that wishes very badly that I could somehow recapture the wonder I felt as a kid, walking into that brightly lit glade or perhaps joining a neighbor’s party as classic rock poured out of a beat-up old sound system. I’d like to own a piece of that dream, maybe become neighbors with the weirdo who lives in the UFO house. I think I could live in a cabin with an outhouse, just as long as it had that deck with the hummingbird feeder and that killer view of pine forests all around.
But I fear (perhaps irrationally) that the “everyman” mountain people are mostly gone now, displaced by the nouveau riche landowners who only live in the mountains part-time, relegating the old-timers to far less scenic, far more desperate communities. So much of the Rockies now belong to large-scale ranchers and vacation home owners that the dream of settling down amidst the peaks looks all but unattainable.
(I also understand that beyond gentrification, jobs are harder to come by, and even those in professions that normally pay well in other places pay less in the mountains because employers know workers will accept less pay to live in the grandeur of the high country, yet another consequence of mountain life that feeds into its unattainability for most.)
I hate to think that someone who loves the mountains as much as I do may be assigned to permanent visitor status, but that’s where gentrification has taken us.
At least I still have my memories, and the ability to make more. But sadly, that may be where line has been drawn.