The day they close the pass

  • Independence Pass

    Ed Kosmicki
  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 the world.

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 demanding.

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 Independence Pass.

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.

In early 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.

At 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.

Twin Lakes 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 ski lifts.

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.

Steve Voynick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. He is a writer in the vanishingly small town of Twin Lakes, Colorado.