A late-season storm rolls through, a big one, the day after the Telluride ski area closes. A cruel irony? A classic bit of ski-bum lore? It has nevertheless happened an unlikely number of times since we moved to this part of the world.
In fact, the first instance we knew about was that spring, the spring of 1976, before we left California for southwest Colorado, before we’d set eyes on Telluride or its mountain. We saw it documented on screen, in the silent, unedited rushes of a 16mm film our friend Lito Tejada-Flores was making.
Lito had been commissioned by Telluride’s original developer, Joe Zoline, to do a promotional film for his fledgling ski area, just then completing its fourth season and struggling in the anonymity afforded a place 300 miles from Denver and an hour and 40 minutes from the nearest stoplight.
I don’t recall how Lito and Zoline connected. Lito was not exactly a well-known filmmaker. He was our ski-teaching buddy at the small but intellectually potent Bear Valley ski area north of Yosemite National Park. But his 1969 documentary Fitz Roy: First Ascent of the South-West Buttress, had won the Grand Prize at the Trento Mountain Film Festival. And we knew our friend to be a prodigiously creative man, as a writer, photographer, inventor of fonts, and practitioner of the slow-dog noodle.
Lito came back to Bear Valley breathless from his trip to Telluride that April of 1976. He had arrived in Colorado just as the ski area was shutting down for the season. He’d missed the lifts, but he was there for the big postseason storm.
He threaded the film through the clicking, flickering projector, dimmed the lights, and the living room wall lit up with a seemingly static image: the horizontal line of a snow cornice separating blue sky above and an unbroken field of powder below.
“I’m thinking of having pan pipes in the background here,” Lito said. He may even have put on a record of the breathy South American flutes. (Lito’s father was from Bolivia.)
The image didn’t change, and then it did. In slow motion, a red-sweatered skier burst through the cornice from the back, coming straight at us, landing, eventually, in a thigh-deep custard of windblown snow.
The skier was fellow Bear Valley instructor Ragnar Håkonsen, a leggy, athletic émigré from Norway who had made the trip with Lito. Ragnar drove his skis in deep (long, skinny skis), compressed and extended, again and again, as bricks of dense snow flew off the wave in front of him and up into the cloudless sky.
This was Mammoth Slide, when it was just an avalanche path and not a named ski run. They had ridden a snowcat to the top, courtesy of Joe Zoline, just for the filming. It was wild, hypnotic, fantasy footage.
Lito then trained his camera on downtown Telluride. Then, as now, off-season had begun and the streets were empty. Only back then, with a population under 700, with no Mountain Village and no airport, empty was really empty.
Ragnar donned cross-country skis and strode effortlessly down the unshoveled sidewalks of Colorado Avenue. A foot of fresh snow balanced on delicate iron railings and on chairs left out in the storm.
He floated past the Floradora Saloon, past the Opera House, with its sign, “Picture Show Every Evening, Admission 10 and 15 Cents,” painted right on the brick wall. And the words indicating a Bath House in the basement, a steamy downstairs refuge already well-known to newcomers as a place to get warm, to get naked. The town’s steep-roofed, narrow Victorians seemed to sleep under the white blanket, put to sleep as if by a spell, like Brigadoon – no particular hurry to wake up.
Lito raved about other aspects of the town, the surprising civilization he’d found sprouting from the decay, where mining was dying and skiing was ascendant. “Two bakeries!” he said, as Ragnar glided through the frame. “Two newspapers!” (the hoary, hundred-year-old Telluride Times and a utopian upstart whose name I forget). “A movie theater!”
None of which would astonish an urbanite, or a denizen of an established ski town like Stowe or Aspen. But to us, it did sound amazing. Little Bear Valley, population 150, had none of those things.
Lito didn’t stay around to film the snow melting. He kept his camera eye on the blinding white slopes and streets.
He wanted to go back. He wanted to live there, at least for a while, in this slowly awakening place transformed, softened, disguised (but not really; surely this was the real Telluride) by an April blast.
It didn’t take him long to convince the rest of us that we should join him.