Joan Didion opens her famous essay on her New York years with this: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” She arrived in the city at age 20, from Sacramento, intending to stay six months, and left eight years later. We came to western Colorado in our twenties expecting what? We didn’t know, beyond a new ski area and jobs with a new ski school. Now, 38 years later, I agree with Didion that seeing beginnings is easier than puzzling through endings, their tangles of reasons and meaning.
I can still recall the tingle of nervous energy as I sat up all night in our tipi writing longhand, by Coleman lantern, an account of the day’s events, a story that would be my first published writing.
A man I knew, vibrating from his high-speed retreat, had found me at Trout Lake – this was August 1977 – and implored me to retrace his route to the base of Lizard Head Peak where his climbing partner had fallen and lay dying. I took off, and this fellow ran on in search of a telephone.
I half-ran half-hiked the three miles and 3,000 vertical feet from the trailhead until I too was near exhaustion, hallucinating about what I would find on those rotten rocks. I found him laid out swaddled in windbreakers, as his buddy had left him, but cold and waxy to the touch, staring, vacant, into space. I closed his eyes and waited for the Sheriff’s team with its stretcher.
We rented a house on Colorado Avenue that fall. Telluride was still in transition from its mining past to its ski town future. Every morning a faded blue school bus rolled by our front window carrying miners from Nucla and Norwood who still had jobs at the Idarado. Our neighbor Buckwheat Elliot, who was known for disdaining eyewear, or any sort of dust protection underground, died then, of black lung.
The Coonskin Lift connecting the town and the ski hill was new. Before, you had to ride five chairlifts to get to the top of the Plunge. And then at the bottom you took a bus around to the base lodge. On powder days, skiers were lucky to get two, maybe three, runs down the front. You’d lay tracks down the middle of the Plunge or the Spiral Stairs and then, on returning in the afternoon, scribble another set next to those undisturbed morning lines.
All the streets in town except Colorado Avenue were dirt. Ellen and I thought for a while, after it became clear we wouldn’t be making a living teaching skiing, that we’d buy an old house on South Oak, very near where the gondola terminal is now, and convert it to a B&B. I forget what the original asking price was, but when a bidding war pushed the number to $33,000, we dropped out in disgust.
Ridgway in 1981 counted fewer than 300 residents. Like Telluride it had been bigger, much bigger and grander in the 19th century, when Telluride and Ouray supplied the ore and Ridgway the trains to haul it. The railroad, including the last-gasp Galloping Goose, hung on for a while after the ore ran out. But even worse for Ridgway, the Bureau of Reclamation had plans from the early 1940s to drown the town beneath a dammed Uncompahgre River.
That probability only resolved for good in 1976. So Ridgway was just waking up from a long torpor when we moved there. More than one yard in town wore its despair – abandoned cars, TVs, trailers, scrap lumber, washing machines, tangles of sheep fence and wild roses – as if preparing for archaeologists of the future. There weren’t many young couples in town then, only a few skiers and one ice climber. My mother arrived one winter for a visit with a black-and-white TV in her trunk. “I will not have my grandchildren raised by wolves!” she said.
I started skiing the empty backcountry of Red Mountain Pass with a small cadre of friends, learning the names and tendencies of the avalanche paths between Ouray and Silverton. And I began to get freelance assignments to write about skiing. It was a golden age for magazine writing at Powder, Ski, Outside and lots of others. They had money to pay freelancers, and to send them out to report from distant snowy places, sometimes very snowy and very distant. Helicopter skiing in Kashmir, anyone?
I wrote at first in the back of our VW bus parked in the street. By this time I had graduated to typing my pieces on a Smith-Corona portable that had been a high school graduation present from my grandmother. But winter was coming, and with two kids under 5 years old concentration was not going to survive in the house. So I built a writing studio in the backyard, heated with a wood stove. The mayor came by to approve my plan, sketched on a single sheet of graph paper.
Nearly 20 years later, with the girls grown and gone, Ellen and I decided Ridgway was getting too busy for our peace of mind. Infrastructure work on the Solar Ranch subdivision meant that we eased awake every day to the clank of the bulldozer, the roar of the backhoe. You had to wait sometimes, sometimes minutes at a time, to cross Highway 62 on your way to the post office.
So we found these 13 acres in the Beaton Creek Valley, east of the river and Colona, just over the line in Montrose County. It’s a place so quiet, so daytime empty and nighttime dark, we thought our wilderness quotients would be satiated forever.
Night after night the Milky Way stretched across the sky until I realized it was rotating above me like the arms of a very slow ceiling fan. The galaxy spiraling in plain sight. (Well, our view of the galaxy anyway.) The floors in the new house were warm with radiant heat, and I wrote, with a MacBook Pro, at a maplewood table in the kitchen.
But freelancing was dying, thanks to the Internet and 911. A new millennium: a friend buried by an avalanche and two artificial hips later, and backcountry skiing, which had been sacrosanct, which I had sworn I would never give up, lost a good deal of its charm. The new hips are mine. The friend, who survived, says now, “Peter, we’ve lost our edge.”
Jobs came – Mountainfilm for Ellen, The Watch for me – but then jobs finished. And we began to feel more and more isolated on our hill.
What to do? We couldn’t go back. Telluride had long ago pulled away into the economic stratosphere. Ridgway, once a dusty survivor, is hip now, too, maybe hipper even than its cousin on the San Miguel.
We can’t go back, so we’ve decided to start over, as crazy as that may sound for people in their Medicare years. Beginnings are all we know. Maybe that was Didion’s point all along: the only end is death, and you can’t know your own end.
So, we’re going west, to Oregon, embarking on a singular new beginning that seems clearer, for now, than these threads of history.