20 hours in Vail…

Heaven Forbid…A quick trip to Vail to watch Crested Butte local John Norton get inducted into the Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame was, believe it or not, too quick. I was actually liking my time in the big city and would have enjoyed another day in what could have been a Disney Euro ride.

First Norton…congrats to a guy who was recognized by his peers for having a significant influence on the entire Colorado ski industry. His unique, sometimes crazy, ideas matched the lifestyle that comes with skiing…he focused on fun and getting people into the mountains to enjoy what the mountains offer. Norton is a marketer, and his idea of a successful ski area might be different than mine, but his heart and mind are wrapped in these mountains and his home is here. Originally drawn to the mountains by fishing, he grew to love skiing and all things mountain and like it or not, helped make this place what it is. Frankly, without some of his effort, who knows if there would still even be an active ski area in the valley today or not. There was a time that CB was on the same financial path as a Cuchara, but thank goodness he was able to help steer us off that road.

Norton comes of course with the legendary stories such as lighting his Hot Finger gloves on fire in front of a ballroom of ski influencers with “Do Not Try This at Home” scrawled on his chest. When other ski areas were expanding terrain and installing high speed quads, he caught the attention of the ski press by touting the new cheese slicer purchased for the Paradise Warming house because that was about the biggest capital improvement the resort was able to afford that year. 

One of his most famous ad campaigns for CB was built around the taglines, “Heaven Forbid we should ever be like Aspen or Vail” or “This is not Vail.” Former CBMR ski president Edward Callaway told the story of how, with the already crazy idea of offering free lift tickets in CB (because people will pay a lot of money to get something for free!), Norton pushed to hire a plane that would drop tens of thousands of free lift tickets over Mile High stadium during a Monday Night Broncos football game. “Let’s drop enough to stop the game and get the national broadcasters talking about it,” he suggested to Callaway and Ralph Walton, who headed up the resort at the time. While intrigued, they consulted the company lawyer and were told that not only would Norton probably end up in jail, but Callaway and Walton likely would as well. That idea was nixed. But it showed where Norton’s marketing mind was not afraid to wander.

Norton helped put Crested Butte on the ski map. We wouldn’t be fretting about a “restaurant disaster emergency” today if the lifts were shuttered, so don’t think it was always face shots and sunshine. And if you like those T-bars that get you to the Headwall or Staircase, thank Norton for seeing the immense value in that terrain and the return on investment to get there on cheap ground lifts. 

As I have said many times, it is a privilege and joy to live in a ski town. Colorado towns without the amenities that come with a resort, like Pitkin or Cuchara, are probably cheaper than CB. Our amenities, along with our location, keep Crested Butte small but interesting. Having been to both Park City and Vail in the last couple months, we are nowhere near that level‚ thank goodness. But Crested Butte is more attractive, exciting and fun in part because of Norton. For that I am grateful. We remain a real small town in the big mountains. Congrats to him that his peers in the ski world recognized his contributions to a business that anyone living in this valley ultimately depends on.

Now Vail…20 hours in Vail actually didn’t feel like enough. Heaven forbid! Founded about the same time as CBMR in the early 1960s, Vail went on to become the commercial success some in CB salivate about. Despite the changes we are seeing in this valley, CB is not even close and still has more rough soul than its big sister that straddles I-70.

Arriving Sunday afternoon and leaving Monday morning was too fast. The place has a Bavarian patina that comes from a focus on the manicured, with perfect flowers on the balconies and open pedestrian spaces leading past not a single vacant business space. Cool outside art and water features are everywhere. Like here, it was not crowded. There was space to walk, and the flow worked great with free buses helping get people around the sprawling greater Vail area. The roundabouts worked. It was quite pleasant.

I didn’t see what looked like many locals in the main core. There were a lot of foreign languages spoken and people like me that were tourists but in nicer shirts. The path along Gore Creek was fantastic, the gardens and parks beautiful. There was activity going on after 8 p.m. The guy at the front desk said he paid $2,200 a month for a studio apartment outside of Vail proper and he’d been in the area 18 years. 

But I didn’t see a lot of people on bikes, moms walking their kids to school or big dogs wandering around. The trash cans were brown, and the buses could have come off the 16th Street Mall. The Austrian motif set the Euro tone. A beer and a cocktail at the bar topped $30 with tip. Lodging was located over retail, office and restaurant spaces everywhere. The buildings were big (for us) but did have the feel of the Alps and looked great in a perfect picture sort of way.

While I couldn’t live there, it was a nice place to visit, and I actually left wanting more time there.

Coming back to CB reinforced the differences and the comfort of a small, real, western town. The comparisons were evident between the shiny perfections of a Vail and the rough, literally gravelly edges of a small former mining town. A big part of that has to be that so many people still live in and near Crested Butte. While declining, about 64% of the houses in CB are filled year round. In Vail proper, that number is flipped with less than 30% being occupied by full-timers.

The energy that comes with people living near where they work and play makes a big difference. In Vail, we drank our morning coffee on an AstroTurf open space as two little towheaded boys from California kicked a ball. There were cleaners everywhere and everything was spotless, but I didn’t see everyday living activity. Maybe I didn’t recognize it like I would here but more likely it was happening 10 or 20 miles away in Minturn, Avon or Leadville. 

In CB we returned to see the school playground at the entrance to town full of local kids. Construction workers were grabbing a screw or a hot dog at the hardware store. On Elk Ave. a little girl was walking her dog that was bigger than her. People riding townies were on every street. Three dudes that seemed to be taking a break from the new skatepark were lounging together on a bench at Third and Elk. People were picking up their mail and I recognized locals chatting outside the coffee shops. While I didn’t see it in the tourist zones of Vail, I am sure these mundane local activities take place somewhere in the Vail Valley where the real people live — but in Crested Butte real life still takes place in Crested Butte. That is special in a resort community.

Over his decades-long career in the ski business, Norton probably banged on Vail more than anyone. Now he has a display at the Colorado Snowsports Museum located in the heart of the Vail. He has always maintained that CB could never turn into a Vail given where we are located and the limited ski terrain we have. Despite CBMR now being owned by Vail Resorts he appears to be right. I honestly understand the appeal of Vail to the masses but as John once made clear in an ad campaign for Crested Butte — “This is not Vail.” 

Let’s keep it that way.

—Mark Reaman

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