Feb 23, 2019
Sooner or later, you will find yourself standing side by side with your forever partner in too-tight pants, shuffling into the path of a heaving detachable quad chair. Seconds later, you will be aloft and rising fast over a mountain range, skis dangling, wondering how you got there. I am on a ski trip to Telluride, Colorado, with my husband, Josh, having left our two toddlers back in New York for a bit of crisis-mode R&R (we have two toddlers).
Below us on the chairlift, parents flank a 5-year-old hooting along in a giant pizza wedge. People are reclined in deck chairs at 12,000 feet drinking beer in the sun. My lawyer husband is wearing a neon fair isle beanie with squirrels on it; the buckles are undone on the ski boots he has been "breaking in" for the past 10 years. A lift pass flaps enthusiastically at my armpit. We are recognizably the same people we were before having kids, and yet feel nothing like them.
How did I get here? I think.
Of all the spots on the map to explore in thermal underwear, Telluride has in recent years become the destination among skiers and celebrities fond of buffalo plaid. Spared the gnarled traffic of I-70, it sits in the bottom of a box canon in southwest Colorado's San Juan Mountains, an obscene amount of rock rising sheer out of the end of Main Street, as though Indiana Jones detonated a charge behind him. From every point in town, which is only eight streets wide and just over a mile long, you look up above the neat rows of pastel Victorian homes at tiers of maroon cliffs iced with heapings of snow.
In its third ski season, the town was connected to the lift system, and sometime after that, Jewel bought a house there.
Many ski resorts in the Rockies have little carved bears on the door handles and Pendleton throws in front of the fireplace, but this is truly a dogs-driving-F-150s Western town. On the ride from nearby Montrose airport, which is located near a Rib City and runs direct flights from regional hubs, we pass an actual herd of elk jogging along the side of the highway. The young family sharing our shuttle chatter excitedly: "Look, reindeer!" Further down the road, black cattle mill about, splotches on a vast white carpet. The summit of Mt. Sneffels (14,157 ft) crowns the jagged range beyond. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Utah.
It is silly beautiful, is what I'm saying, the kind of view that makes you think: I should buy a cowboy hat. I would look good in a cowboy hat.
Just a couple of dogs driving an F-150.
Before kids, Josh and I both "worked in the ski industry" (that's how ex-ski bums put it to employers). We taught kids to ski, not realizing at the time how miraculous it was for the parents to zip off on their own while we led their children through candy cane forests and poured them teeny cups of hot chocolate for six hours. We could ski as well as each other; we were competitive in an appealing way (I mostly spent this era of my life trying to out-ski the men); I dated one corner of the triangle formed by Josh, me, and our roommate, and then dated Josh. The decision to marry was a decision to step off the "endless winter" carousel and into the real world. So we got "real jobs" and left the mountains. Then we had to figure out who we were as a couple without the goggle tans and springtime bikini runs. After we had kids, we had to figure it out all over again.
By which I mean we are still figuring it out.
Leaving has always been as much of a rite of passage in these towns as arriving. Silver mining first drew hordes of miners to Telluride in 1872, establishing a permanent camp in the canyon, which had been used by the Ute tribe for summer hunting expeditions deep into the past. At the peak of silver mining, the population was around 2,700 residents, and attracted celebrities like Butch Cassidy (JK he robbed the local bank). The 1985 move in to, and later away from, the gold standard emptied the town out, as guide, Nordic ski instructor, actor, M.C., and man with a great hat Ashley Boling explains on one of his famous walking tours.
After mining came children in goggles and helmets. YouTube/Telluride Ski Resort
Skiing operations began in 1972 in Telluride, and mining and milling closed in 1978, creating a small vector in which peace-loving hippies commingled with pick-axe-wielding miners. In its third ski season, the town was connected to the lift system, and sometime after that, Jewel bought a house there.
The question now is: what has Telluride become?
"We have all of [the attractions] in a town that still looks like it did 100 years ago," Tom Watkinson, director of communications for Visit Telluride, tells me. He is referring to the salt-cave spas and heli-skiing and haute restaurants and boutique hotels that have made Telluride an international destination, while keeping that nostalgic, tight-knit feel.
Tom would know — like everyone in Telluride, he has worn many hats. A tall chap with business-casual sideburns, his parents moved to Telluride in the '70s. He grew up a local and worked as a realtor, a river, snowmobile and jeep guide, and a pen for the local paper before going to work for the ski resort for 15 years, then moving into his current job, which he carries out with an unholy stamina (there is a lot of celebratory eating and drinking in Telluride). He also serves on the town council, the regional transportation board, the Telluride Ski & Snowboard Club Board, and the volunteer fire department — as I say, many hats.
This is in-bounds. Yeah.
We can't walk more than a block without him running into someone. He'll introduce them: "This is Fred, he's on the fire department."
Tom knows everyone in Telluride. They are all on the fire department.
We get into a conversation about mountaineering legend Jimmy Chin, who you watched perform impossible feats in Meru and Free Solo while you sat on the couch in your Patagonia joggers. "I know Jimmy! Nicest guy you'll ever meet," says Tom.
Conrad Anker? "Conrad! Also the nicest guy."
I can see Josh imagining our life as Telluride locals and friends of the best climbers in the world. We don't have that many friends as it is, but having Jimmy Chin around would really give our marriage a new shine. This is what you tap into when you fly in from Newark and don your best down puffer: you immediately feel more vital. I sensed it on seeing a dad of four slip his arms into a red Bogner puffy as soon as he got off the plane: could see him shimmying back into a facet of himself that perhaps only exists here. We live in houses and apartments in the suburbs and then, when the planets align, slide down mountains with our children like covert superheroes.
Tom can't wait to show us the mountain, and without drawing a trail map, let me explain the general layout.
The entire town of Telluride is a National Historic District. Not pictured: Oprah's $14 million home. Shutterstock
Town is one base area, connected to another — Mountain Village — by a free gondola that runs an incredible 18 hours a day (Tom is also on the gondola sub-committee). Above that, the chairlifts take you up to the top of the world: 2,000 acres of skiing that receive around 300 inches of snow a year. The elegant and gristly Palmyra Peak (13,320 feet) forms the chairback to an immense bowl you can shoop down whether you're a beginner or an expert. "They're at 12,000 feet and they're beginner skiers," says Tom of the kids and rookies whizzing along the groomers. (At most other ski resorts, the bunny hill is at the bottom, and sometimes literally skids you out onto the parking lot, resulting in disheartened skiers traversing back to their car over the asphalt in their Rossignols.) The groomers are gloriously wide and evenly canted, and your skis bite easily into them, allowing novices through experts to trace arcing curves down the hill.
There are four backcountry gates on the mountain, and a hanging back bowl, Revelation Bowl, as well as more inbounds hike-to terrain than you can shake a rental pole at. For the best photo op, head on over to Gold Hill Stairs, which lead you up an otherwise unassailable ridgeline to the east. In the distance to the west, "14ers" Wilson Peak, El Diente Peak, and Mt. Wilson stab the sky. They are each great to look at.
Tom leads us up a short hike off the Prospect Express chair to Genevieve, which my husband does a very respectable job of busting down. I feel a hint of that old competitiveness rousing in me, even though each turn is me instructing my legs, "Turn!" and my legs searching their handbags for the know-how. The memory is in them, but, like the "vegetable melange" in your freezer from 2017, it is degraded.
When you're out of practice, it is a matter of gripping your edges, gritting your teeth, and cranking the body you've got, and if that isn't a good description of parenting on a given day, I don't know what is.
Just a girl skiing in front of a man, asking him to love her ankle flexion.
Regardless of my ski skills, the base is superb snow you will never ever see in the East, and after a bunch of runs we acquire the kind of hearty appetite that only comes from screaming, "Yeoow!" while carving down a mountain, all that sunshine and cool air in your face.
A word about the food in Telluride: somewhere between the '80s and now, keeping a squished PB&J in your pocket to snack on has been unseated by some serious dining. We stop into SideWork Speakeasy, the passion project of three New Orleans chefs, to replenish the energy we have lost one hamachi + jalapeño carpaccio at a time.
SideWork Chef Patrick Laguens trained in Naples, Italy, before winding up in Telluride, as one does. "Every culture does on thing in common, and that's celebrate around the table," he tells me.
It goes on for minutes, this little child running in circles trying to catch flight.
Amid cocktails, cured duck pastrami, and fried green tomatoes with shrimp, Patrick, a rascally man with a Captain America jawline, tells a series of hysterical off-the-record anecdotes. When he hears that we have small children, he gets excited and pulls out his phone to show me a video of his 6-year-old flapping a pair of homemade balsa-wood wings. It goes on for minutes, this little child running in circles trying to catch flight. At one point, the child's arms move up and down so fast I almost think I see liftoff. "Hey," Patrick says, suddenly remembering something, "What do you call fake spaghetti?"
The family who skis together, stays together, as Warren Miller once said. Photo courtesy of Telluride Ski Resort
Patrick is very, very excited for the upcoming cardboard sled derby. His life is, I suppose, a vision of the life Josh and I could have had if we stayed and had ski-town babies. The question to ask the locals in places like Telluride is always: how did you end up here? But I also constantly think about this question as a parent. I meet Tom's wife Robin later, and get another vision of a punchy, adventurous couple living the ski-town kid-life. She's talking about how to get freebies in town and drinks a cocktail with lunch; I want to be her.
Patrick has another good anecdote, this one safe for print. At a sleepover, his son, child of a chef, raised on good Southern manners, was asked how his pasta was.
"Not very al dente," the boy replied politely.
Ashley Boling offers a tour of the town, back to the times when the male:female ratio was about 8:1 (today, he guesses it's 3:1).
After epic days, tourists and locals alike celebrate by getting a drink at one of the dozens of bars, saloons, and restaurants in town — this is taken very seriously. Tom points out that it is the only ski resort with a director of wine: "There are sommeliers attached to every restaurant in town."
And good for Josh, whose constitution seems ripe for backing up a full days' skiing with as much foie gras as he can manage, and then dousing it with the very best wine. (The family we rode the shuttle with are headed to Tacos Del Gnar, but who is to say your 7-year-old wouldn't enjoy house-cured duck pastrami?)
There are no children stealing bites out of my hand. It is MINE ALL MINE.
On our second day, we visit the newest addition to Telluride's dining scene: The National, named for the original "National Restaurant Club" that operated in town around 120 years ago, and not for the band. The wine is happy, the food is superb and, I am pleased to note, cashew cream has definitively arrived to ranch country — a real win for the yoga crowd.
In the distance at right, Mt. Wilson, El Diablo Peak, and Wilson Peak puncture the 14,000-foot mark.
In days gone past, women weren't entitled to sit in some of the saloons, relegated to the waiting room at The New Sheridan Hotel ("new" is somewhat ironic in this reupholstered hotel first built in 1885) while the men smoked cigars. Likewise, the eating was somewhat carnivore-centric.
Former Top Chef contestant Eliza Gavin, who owns and runs the cozy and superb 221 South Oak in a Victorian house near the base of the gondola, has rectified this with an optional vegetarian menu. I order the biggest pile of black trumpet mushrooms on the list then pilfer Josh's seared trout — far and away the most popular dish at 221 South Oak. There are no children stealing bites out of my hand. It is MINE ALL MINE.
The feeling that has so clearly pervaded the locals, that life there can be whatever you make it, has filtered through to me. We could just stay. We could run for town council. We could run for coroner — that's what one of Tom's friends did, unseated the incumbent coroner. "Is he a doctor?" We ask.
"Nope! Don't have to be!"
A curious thing happens when the unicorn of a trip without children lands in your lap. You wish they were there.
All day I see kids Japhy and Scout's age having the time of their life in teeny skis and enormous helmets with their ski instructors. We FaceTime with our pair, aged 2 and 3, from in front of a fireplace at the cozy Hotel Telluride, and discover that Japhy has a new lovey: a plastic banana he now brings to bed.
"How is Cororado?" Asks our daughter Scout.
I wonder why I was so set on cordoning off this time for my marriage — that old sluice that still works; that got us to the next stage: kids.
Bring the kids! I thought. That's why ski school exists!
After three days, the relationship between me and Josh (and Tom) feels stronger than ever. It also strikes me that we are so often triangulated against something else: the old roommate; someone cool we both want to impress; our jobs; our own kids. We are very out of practice at focusing straight on each other, trying to impress each other. Why else am I wearing Patagonia soft shells a size too small, if not for my husband?
Meanwhile, in the flatlands of the East...
On my final day pretending I live in Telluride, I tour the Wagner Custom ski factory in Mountain Village, where technicians cut, layer, smooth, and bake skis in a series of rooms (the three-week fabrication means you can have custom-made skis waiting for you on arrival if you call ahead). The entire process is totally hypnotic, like those clips of newspapers being printed you used to watch on Sesame Street. Three women in fur hoods peer in the window as a self-professed "ski chef" drizzles PVC onto a layer of fibre glass, then smooths it neatly into the fabric. All of us stare, mouths open, alpha waves flowing across our cortexes.
Afterward, Tom and I stop into the new tasting room for the Telluride Distilling Company, and the main things to know about this are a) to try the peppermint schnapps, aka "Chairlift Warmer," and b) I saw a guy from Baywatch there.
Master distillers Joanna Smith and her husband Abbott Smith are two of the owners of the Telluride Distilling Company. Photo courtesy of the Telluride Distilling Company
Tom then tucks a whiskey barrel under his arm for the gondola ride back to town, and we part ways. I am off to fetch my husband: before we leave, we want a properly awesome run to remember.
So here we are, kicking toeholds into the spine up above Black Iron Bowl as snow blitzes by. It is close to 0 degrees, and I don't feel competitive anymore; Josh and I are banded together in the knowledge that we are doing this.
"Are we doing this?" We ask each other. A ski patroller clomps by. We're doing it. We'll just follow him.
Hiking up above 13,000 feet isn't nothing, I find as I grip my skis to my shoulder and lean into the mountain. I curse my stocky tibias as I try to heave my way up the giant man steps.
If you ski a chute with someone, you automatically re-up your marriage for another five years.
"These steps are too high!" I huff in a voice that is as close to asking for help as I get — the same voice I used to announce I was basically ready to push my second baby out and can we get an Uber two hours ago when our son was born. Josh starts to kick shorter steps. I gratefully fit my boots into the holes my husband has stamped onto the side of the mountain, then plug on up toward 14,000 feet, step by step by step. This — this is marriage, I think. Getting sandblasted and making a bilateral decision for the one of you with taller legs to take on a bigger burden until you get over the hump. Kids have been a (great, amazing) hump, but I think we've often spent the days kicking our own steps up the mountain, rather than socking our way through together.
Something about the feel of the town is unique. Why else would Oprah have a home here? Vibes.
I think back to something else Patrick told me. "Everyone is here on purpose, and that is a different community. You can feel the difference."
Why are families flying from New York and Houston and Chicago to this mountain, above everywhere else? I don't think it's the fancy restaurants or lack of lift lines or ridiculously gorgeous scenery and rim of 14,000-foot peaks, though those are all great draw cards. Whether you're a child of the mountains or extreme athlete or Matthew McConaughey in plaid, something about the feel of the town is unique. Why else would Oprah have a home here? Vibes.
"No one is accidentally here," Patrick says with sudden clarity in my mind, a small child flapping its wings in the distance. Josh and I leap off the edge once more, this time with meaning.
By the time you leave, your lungs are full, your legs spent, your identity crisis has been defused (who are you? who cares), and you have your next destination for the great family ski holiday lined up. As we skate off, Josh gives my butt a playful whack with his ski pole. We are back.
Oh and hey — what do you call fake spaghetti?
1. Yes, we are getting helmets. 2. You can see Mountain Quail in the shadowed crevice directly above my pom pom.
How to get there: Direct flights to Montrose regional airport are available from Denver, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Phoenix, New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City.
Telluride Express offers shuttle service from Montrose to Telluride. 888-212-8294.
Where to stay: The New Sheridan Hotel & Chophouse, a historic three-story hotel established in 1895. 231 W Colorado Ave, 970-728-4351.
The Hotel Telluride, a boutique stone hotel on a quiet street with outdoor hot tubs and shuttle service to the gondola. 199 Cornet Ln, 866-468-3501.
Where to eat: SideWork Speakeasy, a cozy 1950s-style American lounge serving cocktails and sharable plates. Executive Chef Josh Klein, open Weds-Sat, 225 S. Pine Street. Contact: 970-728-5618.
The National, elevated modern cuisine with extensive wine list. Executive Chefs Ross Martin + Erich Owen, open seven days, 100 East Colorado AvenueSuite B. Contact: 970-728-1063; reservations@TheNationalTelluride.com.
221 South Oak, farm to table fare with a full vegetarian menu on request in a historic home, as well as cooking classes. Executive Chef and Owner Eliza Gavin, open 221 South Oak Street. Contact: 970-728-9507.
Bon Vivant, on-mountain open-air restaurant serving lunch 11-3 p.m. daily. Located at the top of the Polar Queen Express Lift (5), no reservations.
OAK: Beer, Bourbon & BBQ, for casual southern fare and drinks. Located at the base of the gondola, 250 San Juan Avenue. Contact: 970-728-3985
Where to drink: Telluride Distilling Company, with small batch vodka, whisky, and award-winning "Chairlift Warmer" peppermint schnapps. Tasting room located in Mountain Village. Contact: 970-728-2910, email@example.com.
What to do: Historical Tours of Telluride: explore the historic landmark town with expert storyteller Ashley Boling, tours by appointment. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-728-6639.
Telluride lift tickets: Full-day lift tickets for adults from $139, children 5 and under get free tickets at ticket window. Contact: 970-239-7045, email@example.com.
Telluride Ski & Snowboard School: private and group lessons available for guests aged 2.5 and up. Contact: 970-239-7060 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Telluride Sports ski rentals, sports skis packages from $64/day, junior ski packages from $50/day. Order ahead at rentskis.com.
Telluride Nordic Center, Telluride Town Park, open 10-4 daily. Contact: 970-728-1144.
Telluride Outside guided snowmobile tours, half and full day tours available from $199, and $399, respectively. Contact: 800-831-6230, email@example.com.