I was 26 years old, on crutches post-surgery, and it wouldn’t stop snowing in the San Juans. It was not my finest hour.
The despair I felt at missing powder day after powder day that winter — while my colleagues at the Daily Planet attempted to stifle their rosy-cheeked giddiness in my presence — became so keen it prompted me to write an essay. I drafted a piece about the exquisite pain of a penned up powder hound in a ski town that was getting pounded by snow. It ran on page 3, and the Cottonwoods column was born.
It was the first of many columns I’ve written for this newspaper. Over the years, I’ve mused about swimming in icy alpine lakes, baking zucchini bread, getting lost mushroom hunting, my German Lutheran lineage, gardening at high altitude and the pleasure of keeping chickens, among other topics.
It’s been a great motivator for contemplating the landscapes, lifestyles and people of San Miguel County. It’s also been a way for me to continue contributing to the Planet. In 2014, after nine years on staff — including three as editor — I had to step away from the daily frenzy of small-town newspapering. But I didn’t want to stop writing for a paper that helped shape me as a person, community member and journalist. The column has provided that avenue.
After all, those nine years — while hectic and harried — also marked one of the most glorious chapters of my life.
I arrived at the paper a fresh-faced reporter, 25 years old and agog at the mountains I had landed in. Back then, we were a mostly young crew, irreverent and mussed, with dogs wandering the office and that classic poster of Nixon bowling tacked to the wall.
We took our work seriously, though. Telluride was in the last throes of the Valley Floor saga; housing was as always in short supply; the ski resort was preparing to open new terrain; there were festivals aplenty; and the recession would soon hobble the town’s economy. There was no shortage of news.
My colleagues and I skied nine laps before work, sat in hour after hour of town council meetings, scraped together stories to fill the dead zone of off-season, attended all the festivals we could, worked late to meet deadline and spent countless hours hashing it all out over Schlitzes at Fat Alley.
Life was good; we had the privilege and duty of writing the first draft of history for one era of the most colorful, charismatic, creative and, at times, contentious communities I’ve yet to encounter.
For a young journalist, it was a helluva education.
That chapter is now drawing to a close; this will be my final regular Cottonwoods column (See that qualifier there? That’s my safeguard against total finality.)
I’ve moved to the square state up north, the colder and emptier one, where dispensaries don’t litter downtowns and you can drive and drive and still find unpeopled land. Up here in Wyoming, things are different; the mountains have softer contours, the skies yawn wider, the philosophies lean more right.
I have a new job as an editor and another as a mother, and I’ve found it harder to continue writing a column for a readership 500 miles away. Without living in the San Juans full-time, the ideas are drying out.
But before I sign off, allow me one final reminisce into a dozen years of writing about a one-of-a-kind place that occupies a prominent space in my heart.
During my time in Telluride, I wrote about the mundane and lofty — roadwork on Main Street all the way to ambitious dreams of a carbon-neutral community. About spats in town council chambers, the dreams of political candidates, the creative ways people got by in a town where economic survival is tricky. I wrote of the Telluride’s fascinating transformation from forgotten mining town to bustling international destination, profiled notable characters like Honga Im and Senior Mahoney, followed the astronomical rise of hometown hero Gus Kenworthy and, with a heavy heart, wrote obituaries for people like Marc Buchsieb, Sharon Shuteran and J. Michael Brown.
Telluride’s festivals bring big names and big ideas to town, and I was granted access to incredible interview subjects — people like Victor Wooten, Louis Psihoyos and Ken Burns.
I wrote about the Valley Floor, a fight over uranium mining in the West End, and many more fights, over zoning, housing, the soul of the town. I wrote about bakers and salad makers, mandolin players and mycologists, ski bums and poets. Droughts and deluges. Construction, destruction. So. Many. Elections. Life and death.
In other words, all the things that make this idiosyncratic, ever-interesting and utterly beautiful community tick. And a pack of remarkable people that I’ll not soon forget.
It’s been a privilege, Telluride.