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Know the West

The last ski-bum house


When I first set foot in the rambling, drafty, hunched-over house perched above Telluride, it never crossed my mind that I might live there one day.

Ski boots and snowboard bindings lay scattered around the living room. Dogs roamed from room to room, and it was impossible to determine which ones belonged there and which ones were just passing through. The yellow exterior paint was faded and peeling, and what used to be wallpaper on the inside had been unceremoniously torn down, leaving remnants of an ugly floral pattern dangling from the now-exposed ceiling and walls. A large pocketknife, bent and rusty, stuck out of one of these exposed walls, near the back entrance. The floors had a noticeable tilt, and any softball or beer can dropped on the ground quickly began rolling toward Bear Creek to the south.

Some new friends offered me a room in this boarding house soon after I moved to Telluride. Instead, I decided to share a bedroom in a quite-a-bit-cleaner condominium on the other side of town. But several months later, when a room in the yellow house opened up again, I decided to take it and save some money. My new roommates, all eight of them, work in bike shops, a pizza place, and during the winter as "lifties" at the ski resort.

A few decades ago, a still-growing population of Texans, New Yorkers and Hollywood types realized what hippies and ski bums had known since the 1970s, miners since the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Ute Indians since who knows when -- that the Telluride box canyon is a special place.

So people bought old homes and renovated the character right out of them until they were unrecognizable, if not on the outside, then on the inside. Now, many of these homes are only occupied two or three weeks a year. In the town of Telluride, 56 percent of the housing stock was mostly unoccupied in 2013.

But that doesn't mean the only people left here are wealthy vacationers. Plenty of people wholly devoted to skiing, biking, fishing or some other central activity of this community continue to come, living on floors -- or like some of my housemates -- sleeping in converted closets. Others live in tents on national forest land, gleaning clothes and household necessities from the Free Box in town.

It is still possible to live poor in Telluride, though every season it becomes more difficult. The waiting lists for some of the subsidized housing complexes are prohibitively long, and some people who'd like to live here permanently eventually decide to leave town for good. Meanwhile, there's still our house with its dog-piss-stained stairs and floorboard cracks that allow me to see from my second-floor bedroom into the kitchen below. It's not for everyone, but I wonder if this rundown house stands for something, even as it may not physically stand much longer.

With its skis and snowboards stashed in the rafters, stacks of empty beer cans, four dogs and nine humans in four bedrooms and a few closets, the house harks back to another time in Telluride's history — back when this place was "still cool," as some old-timers like to say.

But, sadly, we are the last people who will ever live in this house. It's been sold, and we hear that its fate will be to become just a "wipeaway," as a rustic mansion takes its place. Gone forever will be the throwing knife stuck in the wall and the smell of marijuana wafting from the carpets. For now, though, we've been granted a reprieve from the demolition crew as the developer tries to gather needed government permissions to remake our house.

For a while still, I can relish the thin walls that seem to amplify noise rather than stifle it, the rotted window frames that leave me shivering in bed even in midsummer, and the ever-rotating carousel of dogs that leave their marks in our hallways as freely as if it were the neighbors' yard.

The next occupants may very well be nice people, avid skiers even, who love Telluride as much as we do. But most likely, they will not truly be residents of the community. As San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May told the Telluride Daily Planet, "Nobody that earns their income in San Miguel County will be able to afford a free-market home." I'll always have my memories when I leave. When I'm out of my 20s, and, I hope, living in a house with insulation, I can tell people that I lived in one of the last, affordable ski-bum houses in the West.

Stephen Elliott is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes in Telluride, Colorado.