There's more to Colorado than the slopes

November 15, 1992|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight-Ridder News Service

When the Bogner-bedecked, plastic-booted crowd heads for the lifts in the mornings, I go exploring. I am that pariah of the slopes, a non-skier.

I wander down the streets of the mountain villages, poke my head into shops, stand at the bottom of the lifts and watch the symmetrical beauty of skiers schussing gracefully down the slopes. I ride into the nearby town, if there is one, and check out the old places, the mining-town saloons that have become chic bars, the one-time assay offices that require a modern bag of gold for the smart clothes they now stock, the big old Victorian homes that have taken on new life as trendy restaurants.

At Crested Butte, Colo., an old mining town turned ski resort, I chatted for a bit with Jim White, part owner of the popular Kochevar bar on downtown's Elk Avenue.

The subject turned to gambling, inaugurated last year in three Colorado mountain towns: Central City, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek.

"They had gambling here ever since 1899," Mr. White said, polishing the lovely old back bar. "Over there is one of the old slot machines they had, and up there is the original roulette wheel." This is a year-around bar for locals, but visiting skiers have learned to drop in for a beer and games of darts or pool.

Crested Butte is one of those 19th-century towns that has kept the Victorian look downtown. It's not just a matter of sprucing up old buildings, which has been done. (Renovators lifted the decaying old Town Hall off its foundations last year, restored it, remounted it and turned it into a craft co-op.) But even the new buildings are built in old style to preserve the Victorian look along Elk Avenue.

That means some of it is, basically, fake. But I like it anyway. I like the unabashed color they put on these buildings -- purples and pinks, yellows, greens and even fire-engine reds. I like the old barrels used for sidewalk waste baskets. I like the horse-and-buggy tourist rides.

What the heck. We all know we're living in the 1990s, not the 1890s, but it's fun to pretend a little anyway.

I found the same kind of ambience in another old mining-town-turned-trendy-resort, Telluride. Downtown here still has that old look, too, but the names over the thresholds let you know this is the 20th century. Such as the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon.

On Telluride's sidewalks last July, I ran into former Miamian Cindy Cutler, pushing a stroller with her 16-month-old daughter Virginia.

"I'm having a ball," she said. "I rented a Jeep and paid $100 to some local kids to take me into the back country. We went on some roads you wouldn't believe, but we saw waterfalls and a great sunset." You can't do things like this in wintertime, when snow closes the back roads, but there is plenty else to do. For example, this year festival-prone Telluride is introducing a Winter Festival Series, boasting four events: Winter Jazz Nov. 25-29, Hot Winter Nights Dec. 2-6, DecemberFest and Arizona Days Dec. 9-13 and Surf the Rockies April 3-11.

Unlike the historical towns of Telluride and Crested Butte, Beaver Creek was built totally from scratch in the 1980s. But that doesn't keep it from being possibly the classiest ski resort in the United States.

One of the first things I noticed is that the architecture is harmonious throughout. No jumble of junky condos and jarring fast-food signs here. Everything conforms to the resort's country French Pyrenees style.

I've long had a grudging admiration for Breckenridge, another old mining town gone ski crazy, because its citizens have always been unabashedly commercial.

To get a post office in their early years, its canny people named their town after a high-ranking government official, then Vice President John C. Breckinridge, figuring that a grateful politician will respond in kind. He did; they got their post office.

A couple of years later, though, when Breckinridge opted for the South in the Civil War, they un-named the town by changing the "i" in the middle of its name to an "e." Or so the story goes. Some people say the miners just couldn't spell very well.

A century later in the 1960s, having uncovered some documents that seemed to indicate the Breckenridge region had never legally been incorporated into the United States, promotional-minded citizens "seceded" from the United States and proclaimed the Kingdom of Breckenridge. It was all tongue-in-cheek, like the Conch Kingdom in the Keys, but when they issued coins (good for 50 cents in trade), the feds stepped in and put the kabosh on the whole thing.

Whatever the method, it seems to have helped put Breckenridge on the ski map: It's now the second biggest ski resort in Colorado.

Though the town's grown enormously in the past decade, I still like its Victorian ambience, even though a lot of it is fake these days. I like wandering in town, dropping in at lively spots like Eric's or the Mogul, or dining at the Hearthstone, where, inside its Victorian shell, you can still see the walls of the small residence it once was.

Yes, I may be missing a lot by staying off skis, but I soak up a lot of ambience.

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