Returning from the Highway 50 road trip last week there was for once some hesitation about what we were returning to in the north valley. Based on the limited check-ins I had online over my two weeks away, it felt like the Aspen Apocalypse was here in full storm. Giant houses being built in wetlands, no employee housing anywhere, crappy condos selling for a million bucks, businesses not opening, swarms of tourists descending on us like locusts. Anger, entitlement, fear and loathing oozed online from our home.
There is not much doubt we are on the high end resort trajectory stereotype but there is still hope. Things always change but I think we still have a shot to do things differently. I commented to Diane as we turned the corner to head by CB South that there are a couple of things that still keep this place from going full Aspen/Telluride.
The first one I noticed is the fact that real working ranches still exist along the highway. The open spaces are not filling with condos but instead are filled with cattle and their recently born babies. The ranches here are not hobby horse properties but rather real working cattle operations and we are blessed to live amongst that industry and should support their ability to stay in business. That means protecting their water, their access to public lands and not supporting Front Range efforts to hobble their ability to do business. Initiative 16 that could end up on the 2022 ballot is one bad example.
The second thing remains the people and the deep relations forged in this end-of-the-road place over years and decades (for me anyway). Yeah, the changes to this place are coming at warp speed but where do you go from this valley where there is common experience that celebrates the common community? It takes time to develop community. For me there are regular social gatherings with friends that still anchor me to the valley. There is the ability to sit on an Elk Avenue deck like I did Monday and see scores of people who I don’t normally hang out with but who are part of the fabric of the town and we can connect on a sunny afternoon over a beer.
I see my kid who is living in town and riding the ski bum life developing those types of new relationships beyond the friend group he grew up with. He is connecting with other young adults here for the Crested Butte experience. They are riding trails, kayaking the rivers, closing the Talk and building their own shared experiences that will tie them to this still special place. Some will remain and others will move on but they are building CB bonds that last.
Those lasting bonds that grow here were evident last weekend at a celebration of life for a longtime local Jeff Pike. A crowd of grey hairs came together to reminisce over not just Jeff but the shared experience of his life and how it was intertwined with that group. There were ski patrol stories and construction stories, family stories and mountain life stories. It was a reminder of what the place used to be and what in some sense still is. It’s not just about the pretty landscapes but about the opportunity to be in the mountain landscape and share that with like-minded friends. There are a lot of pretty places to take a hike or dine in a small town, but it is the people element that makes CB unique.
A similar but younger gathering will take place this weekend as the 2021 Crested Butte Community School senior class will graduate on the soccer field. That ceremony is always a community event that brings together those with school-aged kids and those who have never had a child. It is the marking of a new group of the tribe moving on to the bigger world. Some will go to prestigious universities; others will head to “gap year” adventures. Still others will start a career in the trades which given our situation could make them millionaires before their peers get their masters degrees. No matter the post graduation choice, those that have had the privilege to attend CBCS are blessed. Our community school has once again made the list as one of the best schools in Colorado and the nation. That is a tribute to the entire CBCS staff and the community in general. Our community school is still small enough to make each student feel loved. It is still small enough for the teachers to know the names of every kid walking the hallways. It is still small enough to be able to focus not just on AP courses but extracurricular activities and small town life and opportunity. Congrats to this class and may you keep the bonds you made these last few years.
Oh, and one of my favorite gatherings with deep roots is Monday when veterans with ties to Crested Butte march down Elk Avenue to the cemetery. That starts between 9:15 and 9:30 with a mass at 10 a.m., followed by a lunch and polka party in the afternoon at Queen of All Saints. The old timers that come back this year will have a lot to talk about when they see the ‘new’ Crested Butte and compare what their old houses are selling for.
Of course, some of the warp speed changes are definitely making it more difficult for the new graduates and the ski bum crowd to stay and develop the special long-term bonds. What used to be a drafty and cold $150/month rental is now a fixed-up $3 million dollar home. While there are more people living in Crested Butte now than ever before, the new residents can make bank outside the valley and do not need to work as servers or ski patrollers. The young people wanting a cheap mountain town experience are less and less able to find it here. That is sad and a big step away from the traditional CB culture. Lord knows everyone is aware of the need to keep workers living up here and action is being taken seriously by both the public and private sectors to address the problem.
If anyone has the magic wand solution, I hope they wave it so we can fix it. If there is no magic wand, we can all at least keep chipping away to allow people of all economic means the ability to live in the valley. We’ve done better than most places (see page 10) but there will always be work to do in that realm. Bitching and moaning and striking (dumb) and whining is pretty wasted energy – give us some interesting ideas instead.
So, while I will admit that I get frustrated with the richy-rich changes we all see, the road trip reminded me to take a breath and remember the positive side of the valley. Yeah, we have become more Aspen/Telluride than say Silverton and that is not where I would have chosen to go. But there is still the unique ranching culture, the ability to hop on my bike from the office or front door and be on a relatively secluded and beautiful singletrack within minutes, the opportunity to laugh with acquaintances over a beer on a sunny Elk Ave deck, the treasure of connecting with friends with common experience.
Everyone has their tipping point, but it is rare to find someone who voluntarily left this community who doesn’t soon wonder why they did it. Remember — it is the people that keep it unique and that is why there is so much focus on finding ways to keep the people here. And for that we should not simply point fingers on social media, but rather find real ways to make it happen.