Old-timers still remember when winters in mountain towns meant something more than just catering to hordes of skiers. Sure, those winters were tough; the days were short and cold, and drifting snow restricted outdoor activities and even closed some businesses and high mountain roads.
But mountain winters
had a positive side, too, for they were a mandatory sabbatical from
the rigorous schedules and obligations of summer. By slowing the
pace of life itself, winter provided time for reading and overdue
household projects, reminiscing about yesterday and planning for
tomorrow. Perhaps most importantly, they provided time for
introspection, for contemplating one’s place and purpose in
But with today’s all-weather airports
and interstate highways — the latter kept open by magnesium
chloride and diesel-powered snowplows, only to become clogged by
SUVs — winter in many mountain towns is nothing more than a
cold-weather version of summer, a season when tourists eat, drink,
shop and ski rather than eat, drink, shop and hike. In many
mountain areas, winter’s traffic is worse than
summer’s, and the visitors are even more impatient and
Nevertheless, there are still a few places
left where traditional mountain winters survive. I live in one
— Twin Lakes, a tiny unincorporated village on Colorado
Highway 82, at the eastern foot of the Continental Divide and
When true winter arrives in Twin
Lakes, it does so with suddenness and finality. That’s
because it’s delivered not by way of astronomical solstice,
heavy snowfall, cold fronts, or the hand of God, but by order of
the Colorado Department of Transportation.
November, maybe a little sooner if the snow has been heavy, two
CDOT trucks make their way up Colorado Highway 82 toward
Independence Pass, one heading east from Aspen, the other west from
Twin Lakes. Well below the summit on their respective sides, the
drivers stop at a pair of highway gates. At 11:00 a.m. sharp, they
swing the gates shut and secure them with steel chains and heavy
locks to close the pass for the next seven months.
12,095 feet, Independence Pass is the continent’s highest
paved pass. It’s also a convenient and well-traveled
summertime shortcut between Aspen and Colorado’s Front Range
cities, cutting 40 miles off the Denver trip and 90 miles off the
journey to Colorado Springs. Closing the pass means little to Aspen
which, with its jetport and 35-mile-long, improved highway link to
I-70, is just gearing up for its busiest season. But in Twin Lakes,
closing the pass makes a world of difference.
is a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it kind of place.
It’s got a summer population approaching 150, a general store
with a gas pump and a back-room U.S. Post Office, a restaurant and
art gallery, two bed-and-breakfasts, and a few rustic cabins. All
these businesses depend upon the steady stream of summer traffic to
and from Aspen — sometimes more than 2,000 vehicles per day.
By the time the pass closes in November, the restaurant
has already been closed for a month. The general store is open just
three hours a day, mainly to provide postal service for the 30-some
winter residents. Since Twin Lakes is now near the terminus of a
dead-end road, the only folks who stop in are a few hunters, ice
fishermen, cross-country skiers and the daily mail-truck driver.
There are also a few inadvertent visitors — Aspen-bound
travelers who have unfortunately sped by three separate "Pass
Closed" signs in their frenetic rush to reach the nightspots and
From time to time, someone suggests keeping
the pass open year-round for its shortcut value and to pump a few
gasoline, food, and lodging dollars into the Twin Lakes-area
economy. But considering the pass’s elevation, avalanche
areas, sheer drop-offs and heavy snowfall, the cost of keeping it
open, in both dollars and lives, hardly seems justified. So far,
common sense, rather than the almighty buck, has prevailed.
I know that old-time mountain winters aren’t for
everyone. Many people today prefer — or need — the
traffic, crowded restaurants, noisy bars, long lift lines and
constant din of human voices. And that’s fine. But each fall,
as the snow deepens and the days become ever shorter, I eagerly
await that westbound truck with the CDOT folks on their annual
mission to lock the highway gates. After all, there’s a whole
other side of life that begins on the day they close the pass.