Ominously, the tour itinerary read “A Two Hour Stop in Vail, the Skiers Paradise.” But it was May. Not a snowy slope in sight. Which was perhaps a blessing for this ski-o-phobic, who still blushes at the recollection of the first (and only) time he took his teeners skiing at Pine Knob in Michigan. I didn’t break a leg or do anything to earn slopey credentials. Instead, I landed very ignominiously on my butt, simply trying to hang on to the primitive tow rope. I slunk off the bus, hoping maybe there’d be a compensatory mountain trout dinner al fresco.
The Vail Transportation Center, for rationalizing the shipping of platoons of skiers to their assorted slopes, was a surprisingly satisfying piece of Plain Modern architecture. It makes the prevailing Shilly Chalet style—Alpine Alpo if you’re looking for a sneer worthy of its doggishness—look all the worse to the architectural eye. For, unlike most skiing villages in Colorado, which are mining towns looking for a viable future, Vail—I was to discover in a very creditable hour-long video—started from scratch when a canny New Englander raised enough scratch to float all the condos that cluster to form a village of transients.
Another surprise! I may be a flop as a skier, but I found to my delight that the history of skiing is absolutely fascinating. Which is what I found in the Skiing Heritage Center on the ground floor of the Transpo Center. Skiing Heritage Center!? (If Cleveland can lay a Rock and Roll Museum on us, why can’t Vail take a penetrating look at the past it has turned into a profitable present?)
For a start, skiing started among Nordic workers in the nearby mines, after work, to while away those long winter hours. A primitive kind of skiing anyway, with a pair of 11-foot-long barrel stave-like runners, and one long pole to fend off trees and other unserendipities.
And later on, who were the first to ski “seriously?” Mailmen and ministers! No kidding. They were the only workers with motivation enough to risk the impassable mountain passes with unpredictable avalanches. Going over the Red Mountain pass (11,000 feet-plus) between Silverton and Grand Junction, our tour guide pointed out two side-by-side funereal monuments—one memorializing highway workers who had their overtime tickets punched on three separate occasions in the past two decades, and one praising the mettle of a minister who had disappeared until spring when an Easter snowstorm had caught him and his daughter driving between Easter Saturday and Sunday church meetings.
Indeed, we almost didn’t get to go over that time-saving pass ourselves because heavy rains had dumped boulders eight to 10 feet in diameter onto the roadway—just before Memorial Day weekend. To turn such big ones into little ones to cart away took an all-night dynamite session. Had they not opened it up, it would have added 300 miles of backtracking to our trip from Durango to Grand Junction.
That’s why Otto Mears, the man who first conquered Red Mountain pass, is still a local hero. In the fine city attic of a museum in Silverton, I learned what he charged on his personal “toll road”: $1 for one span of horses or mules, 25¢ for a horseback rider, a nickel for each steer, sheep, or pig.
The Vail development grew out of the National Ski Patrol formed in 1938 to encourage safety in the newly booming sport. They argued that the experience of the Finns in turning back the Soviets in the White War meant that Americans should also train such troops. They did, under harrowingly hairy conditions. When the ski troops were finally deployed to chase the Germans out of the Apennines, there wasn’t snow enough to take their skis in a dramatic April campaign. But their valor and energy impressed everyone in command, and the story of their battle group is gratefully highlighted in the Heritage Center.
One beribboned vet came back to Colorado less one leg but nonetheless started winning skiing prizes. He put his steely will behind a scheme to raise money back East, after an oldtimer showed him the Vail setting, ideal for development.
How to turn a minority pastime into a big-league sport? The Flying Norseman joined Barnum and Bailey in the teens. In the ‘20s his notoriety encouraged Sunday skiers to form weekend clubs. Then Colorado native and ski fanatic Lowell Thomas turned on his dulcet tones for covert adverts for the sport in his radio broadcasts and movie newsreels. The stage was set for big time investment. If you were bold enough to put down $2500 in Vail Associates in the 1960s, you were worth $2.5 millions today.
Vail has no fewer than three Welcomats, free weeklies with as much opinion as advertising. From them, you infer that not all is heaven in this four-season Eden. The big money is winter wealthies. Summer is daytrippers after “Having a wonderful pit stop, don’t you wish you were here too?” T-shirts.
It takes some finagling to get these diverse constituencies to jibe. Throughout the no-longer-wild-enough West there is a housing crisis. No room for the minimum-wage coolies in their inns. And the gaming option has its downside. The entire graduating class of Cripple Creek (a town “blessed” with a gaming license) was quoted as splitting the old home because casinos had wrecked their ambiance. There’s no slope like a slippery economic slope. Can’t snow the locals, who get stuck with the tacky jobs.
So the next time you get stuck with the lemon of a May Sunday in Vail, make a refreshing lemonade in their Ski Heritage Center. I even learned what the Sitzmark Hotel means: the imprint your behind makes on the snow when you suddenly stop skiing midway down the mountain. I’m a world class Sitzmarker.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark - Hazard-at-Large, March 23, 1994