The awakening giant

All right, I confess. I just can’t take the guilt anymore. The rumors are true.

I’m one of the people who ruined the Town of Telluride.

The beginning of the end hit deep in the Dark Ages. I believe it was 1985 to be exact, a time when Michael Jackson and the corporate honchos at Members Only were still happily fleecing innocent teen-agers. But back then, Telluride was still safe and relatively insulated, still the happy, hippie hamlet that’s been immortalized in story and song.

The same collection of misfits that first colonized the busted mining town in 1972 was continuing to hang on at the edge of paradise. Dirt streets, Socialist politics, deep powder and good living still dominated the local landscape. Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and John Hartford were making some of their early Telluride Bluegrass Festival appearances. The all-nude bathhouse, the Boiler Room, had only been closed a few of years. There was still a restaurant called the Tofu Shop in town. And we students at the Telluride School still received the gift of $40 season ski passes from the Telluride Ski Co.

But like a hard breeze blowing into the valley, reality shifted. A new senior vice president, a man who understood the meaning of financial success, arrived at ski central, and the days of free living ended abruptly.

Early on a random autumn day, an announcement crackled over my school’s intercom. “All students report to assembly … all students report to assembly.” Right in tune, each of the 80 members of the Telluride High School/Middle School dropped what we were doing, lined up and packed into the school assembly hall. The new Telluride Ski Co. exec, a tubby fellow whose receding hairline hailed from the West Coast, briefly greeted us and then explained that the-times-they-were-a-changing.

The new discounted rate for season ski passes would be $70 for students, and in order to get the discount, students would have to produce 10 hours of labor. Don’t fight it, he added with a grin, your parents already know – resistance is futile.

And so, all 80 members of the Telluride High School filed out of the assembly hall and two nights later back into the THS cafeteria. Our new best friend and the new face of the ski company was waiting for us – now decked out in one of the first leather jackets Telluride had seen – and standing next to dozens of large cardboard boxes. In that moment, Telluride’s first child-labor sweatshop was born.

We spent the next few nights stuffing tens of thousands of large, glossy brochures into large, fancy envelopes, addressing and stamping the envelopes and collating them according to zip code. Unfortunately that noble invention, the envelope licker, hadn’t found its way into San Miguel County in the mid-’80s, and the school’s choicer female specimens scored the few moist sponges provided by the shift boss. The rest of us developed a strong tolerances for glue.

After only a few minutes and 100 or so licks on the job, I lost focus and decided to peruse the product. On the cover of the leaflet sat a stunning photo of Wilson Peak bathed in pink alpenglow. Emblazoned below the photo were the words “Telluride – the awakening giant!”

Inside, the leaflet told of a pristine community, blessed by endless cham

pagne powder and inexpensive real estate. It mentioned the new regional airport, which was nearing completion, plans for the Mountain Village, a European-styled, slope-side community; and … “Get back to stuffing,” the leather coat shouted as his hand dropped upon the open brochure. “You can read in class during the day.”

So we all got back to stuffing, licking and stamping, each of us kids putting the only real Telluride touch on that special marketing campaign. A few mornings later, tens of thousands of envelopes went out with the mail, and we got our season passes.

But shortly after those fateful evenings, the giant awakened. Telluride became known to the outside world.

Crafty resort leadership, flights connecting to New York and LA and a little help from children’s fingers and hands put out the message. Growth, then money and then profit came in over the roads, through the air and across the wires. The cycle of boom began.

That once idyllic community was quickly turned upside down. Small-time restaurants were replaced by posh joints pushing nouveau cuisine. Many Telluriders traded in their blue-collar backgrounds for real-estate licensure. Friendships were severed, politics changed, and Range Rovers began to eclipse Subaru wagons.

That big city the people of Telluride had been trying so hard to leave behind had rediscovered them. And money, more than buildings or crowding, crept into that valley and set up shop. The rest of us were left with little more than paper cuts and sore fingers.

I moved to Durango years after I’d stuffed my final envelope. But the memory of those nights and what happened after has never been far behind.

Lately, I’ve seen more than a few Porsches and Hummers cruising Durango’s Main Avenue. I’ve seen more than a few attempts at the Bavarian trophy home in the hills surrounding our town. And more than a few new west “ranch” developments are crowding our valleys.

But I’m happy to report that the giant is still fast asleep, and possibly comatose, in La Plata County. The Durango of today feels much like the Durango I first encountered back in the early 1980s. You can build houses, subdivide ranches and fill parking spaces, but there’s really only one way to awaken the giant (or monster depending on your perspective).

It happens after the community decides to change sides, when the glitz and glamour starts to take over the dusty streets, when the normal paycheck no longer cuts it, when thousands become millions.

So we’ll keep holding on here at this ragged little edge of paradise. And as the years go on, I’m going to keep my eyes wide and be damned sure the only envelopes my daughter stuffs contain nothing more than river permit applications.

– Will Sands

In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows