The Purple Mountains’ Fading Majesty


In the winter the skiers came, seeking multimilliondollar lifts that would enable them to plunge down as many miles in a weekend as some average prewar skiers had covered in a winter. To entertain and house these new enthusiasts, old towns were refurbished— Aspen in Colorado and Alta in Utah are two of the better-known ones. New towns also appeared—for instance, the carefully planned Tyrolean-style village of Vail, Colorado.

Motels, restaurants, garages, filling stations, outfitters, and storekeepers in existing towns were staggered by the concentrated demands of these fluid hordes. For a single example: the permanent population of Lake City, Colorado, located in the heart of a popular trout-fishing and deer-hunting area, is fewer than a hundred people. Then in July and August and for a while in October, upwards of a thousand restless transients flow through the town each day, expecting food, beds, gasoline, and miscellaneous supplies. Since local facilities in Lake City and a dozen towns like it can service only a small portion of the demand, a new kind of supplier has appeared: the man and his wife who during winter operate a desert dude ranch or motel or store in, say, Scottsdale, Arizona, and who at the beginning of the summer load their trucks with saddle horses and dude wranglers, with stocks of gay western clothing, with brooms and portable television sets, and head for the high country—modern-day Yankee peddlers.

Even the decrepit, forty-five-mile-long narrow-gauge railroad running from Durango, Colorado, up the awesome Animas Canyon to Silverton felt the shock. Tourists discovered the exotic little curiosity in the early 1950’s, just when the D. & R.G.W. was preparing, with a sigh of relief, to shed the profitless spur. Such a clamor against abandonment arose that the railroad reconsidered. By 1967 two ramshackle strings of yellow observation cars were being hauled up the wavering tracks each summer day; the so-called Train to Yesterday had become one of the most popular tourist items in the Rocky Mountain area.

Towns overwhelmed by these jostling crowds were not quite sure how to shape their new identities. Some, like Montana’s Virginia City, grew resolutely picturesque and reconstructed themselves to look, they hoped, as they had during the days of the Gold Rush. Others, like Colorado’s Central City and Silverton, succumbed to the carnival trade and filled themselves with tawdry curio shops competing for attention by means of flamboyant signs and amplified barkers. Still others contented themselves with offering comfortable if somewhat standardized accommodations and varying entertainments. A favorite form of the latter was drama, ranging from serious experimental plays at places like Helena to old-time melodramas at Cripple Creek, Durango, and Jackson Hole. Critics of the scene are inclined to sneer at all of them—Samesville, U.S.A., Rocky Mountain style.

Inevitably a few of the people who rolled through the hills began to desire something more permanent than a motel room. Those with modest means obtained title to abandoned houses in the old mining towns by paying the back taxes, then rebuilt the dwellings. More affluent visitors, especially skiers, began erecting second homes at Sun Valley, at Jackson Hole, at Aspen, and at half a dozen other spots. Summer cabins dotted the eastern flanks of the Big Horn Mountains, the meadows of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, the mesas back of Santa Fe. A surprising cultural drift accompanied this movement into mountain camps once notable for their crudeness. Ouray, Colorado, sought to emulate Taos, New Mexico, as an artist’s colony; Central City produced lavish operas each summer; Aspen launched music festivals and intellectual seminars almost as rarefied as the mountain air. Towns as isolated as Cody and Big Horn in Wyoming and Helena in Montana built handsome museums to glorify the work of such western artists as Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington.

Difficult though the problems of adjustment have been for the mountain hamlets, the strain placed on the national forests by recreationists has been even greater. For one thing, the towns wanted the new rush; the Forest Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture originally devoted mainly to conservation, did not. Partly for that reason, the national forests were not nearly as well prepared for the rush as the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service.

The Forest Service was work-oriented. A notion clung in the Rockies, and in much of America, that there was something faintly reprehensible about grown men playing around in the outdoors like unemployed Boy Scouts—unless they were hunting food, in the tradition of the pioneer providers. Thus it was culturally acceptable for rangers to join state fish and game departments in propagating wildlife, but otherwise their concerns were determinedly utilitarian.

Accustomed as they were to that kind of rationale, local supervisors at first looked sourly on the influx of recreationists brought by automobiles. During the early iggo’s, they complained bitterly in their reports about taking care of people rather than forests—of hauling garbage, erecting directional signs, hunting for lost children, and answering foolish questions. Not until skiers began risking their lives en masse did a major shift in attitude occur.