A stranger in town
"So how long have you been here anyway?"

It's a question that's followed me through much of my life. Particularly strong in mountain towns, it is posed in a nearly Wild West fashion and a suspicious eye always joins the inquiry. On first meetings, you can count on it being the second phrase out of anyone's mouth. When it comes to the response, exaggeration is always the rule.

"Going on four years," is a popular response that actually translates into "two years, two weeks and 14 hours." The real heavy hitters casually slip half a decade onto the end of their answer. I knew someone who went from "10 1/2 years" in a certain ski town to "17 years" in just over a month. The same guy, an Illinois transplant, would frequently boast that his 4-year-old son was a Colorado native.

Still, you couldn't blame him.The consequences of being a short-timer were painful ones. "Hah, five years. You're just a baby. Talk to me after 15," was one jab I heard more than once in Crested Butte. In Crested Butte, the quest for super-local status was measured in deeds as well as days.

Once false terms of residency had been established, the conversation moved on to Herculean tasks performed in the name of residency in the sports mecca.

"I skinned up Red Lady in 32 minutes this morning," was always a popular winter vintage. Acts of endurance were rivaled only by number of days skied the year prior. "I had to go up to Selkirks in Canada for a month, but I got 217 days in last year."

Summer was the season of whitewater heroics, climbing near misses and obscene mileage on the bicycle. Again, there was a belief that your skiing or cycling prowess could somehow erase the reality that your formative years were actually spent in a Connecticut prep school. Like the measure of days, the same laws of exaggeration applied to one's deeds.

After term of residency and backcountry skill level were settled, conversation would invariably turn to how good life used to be.

"Oh, you've only been here five years (actually three and a quarter). You missed the winter of '88. Outrageous stuff. Fourteen feet of fresh in the month of February."

Others would go deeper. "I remember when we only had one restaurant, no grocery store and a season's pass was $75. Man, those were the good old days."

Another would invariably chime in, "Yeah, this place really sucks now. The streets are paved. The houses are too expensive. And the place is overrun with tourists."

In Crested Butte, the real irony was that nearly everyone was from somewhere else. The true locals were a dozen or so Somraks, Mihelichs, Spritzers and Stefanics who had left Slavic Europe in the 1920s to come and work the town's coal mines. While the transplants from the East and West coasts sat inside the bar arguing about who belonged most, the real old timers were content to rock on the porch, take in the view and breathe in the good life. They knew where they were from, embraced those roots and embraced their changed home. These were people who had been around for 70 years, had never put on a pair of skis but were accepting of newcomers and changes to their community.

For me, one of Durango's strong suits has always been that it reflects this state of mind. Virtually everyone here is content to breathe in the good life, and there's no real race for super-local status. Durango locals are comfortable one way or another. Rather than challenges, handshakes are the norm for first meetings.

As for deeds, I know guys who routinely drop the pack on group rides or do 30 miles at the Nordic center and never mention it. I've seen Olympic athletes stop and help with a flat or belly up at the bar to share a beer and a chat.

Granted, I've seen incidents of "stranger" syndrome in Durango, but only at trace levels. For the most part, people are secure in being here and don't feel threatened. As a result, it's a better place to live, even though the elevation isn't as high, the town isn't as remote and the winter isn't as long.

At no time was this more apparent to me than a few winters ago on a visit to my hometown of Telluride. After a day of lift-served, we dropped into the Roma, a downstairs bar I remember first visiting with my dad at the age of 5.

Tipsy and holding a blended margarita in his right hand, a brash guy wearing a North Face jacket approached me. Leveling a suspicious eye, he fired up an Eastern accent and snickered, "I've never seen you before.You just move here or somethin'?"

A few of his buddies chuckled in the background, thinking they'd just scored.

I considered pulling out the big guns and making him question his place in Telluride. Instead, my thoughts turned to this side of the San Juans. Calmly, I replied, "Actually, I don't live here."

Will Sands




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