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Profile: Kelly Dean, Back to the Garden

By Dawne Belloise

Kelly Dean was thrilled to leave Ohio in the early 1980s and arrive in Crested Butte through a program created by Crested Butte Mountain Resort. The program sought to enlist young college students as workers for a winter semester, with the promise of ski town fun and a small scholarship to the school they were attending.

Growing up as an “army brat,” Kelly had been used to moving, and she wasn’t happy in the grey, dreary, humid winters of Ohio. Kelly recalls that when she and her bestie since they were four years old, Lisa Santelli, arrived in November, they were housed in the Almont cabins.

“I lived in the Jolly Rancher,” she recalls. “I was paid $3.25 an hour and my rent was deducted from my paycheck so, basically, when I got my paycheck I got a Snickers and Coke. The cabins didn’t have full kitchens, just a hotplate with a dorm-sized refrigerator and we’d wash our dishes in the bathroom sink. We’d hitchhike to Gunnison to get groceries because we didn’t have a car, so you were limited by what you could carry back and by your budget. We lived on ramen and we’d drop chopped broccoli and crack eggs into it for protein. We were so thrilled when we figured out we could actually put stuff in it and it didn’t have to be just the chicken ramen.”

Kelly worked in the kitchen pantry of the now demolished Gothic building making to-go snacks, sandwiches, and cinnamon rolls. “It was a blast. We had so much fun in there. We had the greatest crew. Back in those days, the people you worked with were your family,” she smiles. “We’d have Thanksgiving and Christmas together because no one had family here. I had never skied but I skied that first winter of 1980. It was a very low snow year, and it was icy. I wouldn’t have known the difference anyway because I had never skied, and it was great fun.”

The snow was so scarce that season that she remembers, “Ross Matsumoto would stand at the bottom of Warming House Hill by the ice rink with a hose and spray the mud off of people’s ski boots.” There was so little white stuff that the ski area would pay the workers to catch one of the last chairs up and head into the trees to shovel the snow from there onto the runs. “We’d always take a cafeteria tray up with us so that when we were done we’d slide back down to the base on our trays.”

When the lifts closed that year at the end of season, Kelly headed back to college at Ohio University, but before she left Crested Butte she expressed her interest in summer work to a Gunnison outfitter as a raft and horseback guide job for the summer, “neither of which I had ever done in my life,” she mused. It took exactly two weeks back in Ohio for her to determine she wanted to be in Colorado.

“I called the outfitter and he said, come on out, we have a job for you. They were located across from Safeway with a teepee set up in the parking lot. I had to hang out in the teepee on some days since it was the central reservation spot for rafting and horse riding. Other days I was a raft guide or horseback riding guide over old Monarch Pass. Back in the day, to be a river raft guide, there was no formal training. So, I didn’t need any training like they do today, where they have to have a lot of safety training, skills, and on-the-river experience. For me, I just showed up, they handed me the oars, showed me which way to sit in the raft and I floated from Twin Bridges to Neversink and didn’t have a disaster so they said I was hired,” Kelly laughs. “I look back on those days and think how different they were, so easy without a lot of stress, rules and regulations.”

When she returned that summer, she never left. Kelly continued to work for Crested Butte Mountain Resort both winter and summer in various jobs. “All through the early 1980s. I was working constantly but I would camp a lot and try to explore the area. I couldn’t believe the beauty that surrounded me here. From the time I first got off the bus to work for the mountain, I was floored that this is where I get to be and live. I couldn’t wait to get back here to live forever.”

She married Vic Dean in the early 1980s, and her first daughter, Karleigh, was born at the Gunnison Hospital in 1993, followed by daughter Jessie in 1996. When the couple decided to part ways after 25 years, Kelly kept her last name so she would be associated with her daughters, whom she raised in Crested Butte. Even though the girls no longer live in the valley, Kelly is in constant touch with them. “I talk to them multiple times during the week. Karleigh is in Ft. Collins finishing her master’s in greenhouse gas management at CSU, and Jessie is in Salt Lake City going to nursing school, and she’s getting married August 4,” Kelly smiles proudly.

Like so many Buttians, Kelly always had about three jobs, but one of those usually included gardening, either for a company or a second home owner, so by the time she had her first home in Allen Homesites in Crested Butte South, she had really begun to enjoy the art.

“I was loving the beauty it offered to the house and property. You can see the results of your work and when I see a beautiful garden, it gives me joy and just makes me feel giddy inside.” Kelly re-created the things she saw that she liked and learned much from her hands-on experience, “It’s all about the environment and knowing what will grow in that particular environment. When you’re creating a garden, you have to consider both the environment and the space you have before deciding what to plant there. Is it full sun or is it a really shady area?”

Kelly revels in working with earth, “There’s a joy when you get your hands dirty, you get caught up and lost in the creation, and it’s definitely addictive. Once I get started, even weeding, I can’t quit until I have the garden in order and everything is deadheaded, weeded and beautiful. Then you stand back and admire the beauty and that’s when you get that feeling of serenity and comfort. I love it when the garden wraps around you and you feel snug and safe there.”

Having bought one of the locals-only townhomes in Prospect on the mountain in 2009, Kelly now shares that home with her love and business partner, Holt Loeffler. “He’s a big part of my world,” she says. Holt created the business they now share, Alpine Landscapes, “Reflect Your Nature,” in 2007 (alpinelandscapescrestedbutte.com). She met Holt in 2008 while she was managing the Princess Wine Bar and Western Design. The two hit it off and have been a couple ever since. “Holt had some amazing ideas to create a backyard nook for me that included a tiny water feature and terraced gardens.”

Working together, Kelly defines their gardening roles. “He builds the ‘hardscape’ areas of our business projects, adding trees, boulders, all the heavy loading aspects, while I do the flower gardens and the accounting.” Kelly attended the master gardener course through the CSU Extension office to up her game and knowledge.

“Holt has an amazing eye for landscaping and has the vision. We’re a really great team because we both have an infectious excitement that carries over to the clients. We also have amazing employees who have been with us for quite a few years and we couldn’t run this business without them.”

She laughs though about the reality of aging in such a physically demanding business. “We’re getting older, our bones are getting older but we have these young 20-somethings to help us and they have all the energy, and we love that.”

Having been in Crested Butte for 38 years, Kelly still enjoys some things about the long winters here—snowshoeing and Nordic skiing—however, she confesses, “I’m starting to think about being in a warmer climate for part of the winter… where I can garden,” she says. She and Holt do a lot of adventuring in the off seasons, hitting many tropical climes, islands and destinations. “It’s constantly on-the-go with Holt, he’s a kite boarder and loves the Caribbean. I’ve traveled a lot of the world since I’ve been with Holt and I’m immensely grateful for all the places he’s shown me.” Kelly rattles off a list of some of those places—Philippines, Cook Islands, Indonesia, Bahamas, Hawaii, Dominican Republic, Canary Islands, Cuba, Honduras, Madrid.

Even though most who spend a considerable portion of their lives in the long winters of paradise here think about part-time escapes, Kelly shakes her head and considers, “When I think about where else I would go, I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to live, where you feel safe and have the comfort of knowing it is home.”

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