Peter Shelton

‘Goodbye to All That’

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Personal History, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on May 30, 2014

Joan Didion opens her famous essay on her New York years with this: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” She arrived in the city at age 20, from Sacramento, intending to stay six months and left eight years later. We came to western Colorado in our twenties expecting what? We didn’t know, beyond a new ski area and jobs with a new ski school. Now, 38 years later, I agree with Didion that seeing beginnings is easier than puzzling through endings, their tangles of reasons and meaning.

I can still recall the tingle of nervous energy as I sat up all night in our tipi writing longhand, by Coleman lantern, an account of the day’s events, a story that would be my first published writing. A man I knew, vibrating from his high-speed retreat, had found me at Trout Lake – this was August 1977 – and implored me to retrace his route to the base of Lizard Head Peak where his climbing partner had fallen and lay dying. I took off, and this fellow ran on in search of a telephone.

I half-ran half-hiked the three miles and 3,000 vertical feet from the trailhead until I too was near exhaustion, hallucinating about what I would find on those rotten rocks. I found him laid out swaddled in windbreakers, as his buddy had left him, but cold and waxy to the touch, staring, vacant, into space. I closed his eyes and waited for the Sheriff’s team with its stretcher.

We rented a house on Colorado Avenue that fall. Telluride was still in transition from its mining past to its ski town future. Every morning a faded blue school bus rolled by our front window carrying miners from Nucla and Norwood who still had jobs at the Idarado. Our neighbor Buckwheat Elliot, who was known for disdaining eyewear, or any sort of dust protection underground, died then, of black lung.

The Coonskin Lift connecting the town and the ski hill was new. Before, you had to ride five chairlifts to get to the top of the Plunge. And then at the bottom you took a bus around to the base lodge. On powder days, skiers were lucky to get two, maybe three, runs down the front. You’d lay tracks down the middle of the Plunge or the Spiral Stairs and then, on returning in the afternoon, scribble another set next to those undisturbed morning lines.

All the streets in town except Colorado Avenue were dirt. Ellen and I thought for a while, after it became clear we wouldn’t be making a living teaching skiing, that we’d buy an old house on South Oak, very near where the gondola terminal is now, and convert it to a B&B. I forget what the original asking price was, but when a bidding war pushed the number to $33,000, we dropped out in disgust.

Ridgway in 1981 counted fewer than 300 residents. Like Telluride it had been bigger, much bigger and grander in the 19th century, when Telluride and Ouray supplied the ore and Ridgway the trains to haul it. The railroad, including the last-gasp Galloping Goose, hung on for a while after the ore ran out. But even worse for Ridgway, the Bureau of Reclamation had plans from the early 1940s to drown the town beneath a dammed Uncompahgre River.

That probability only resolved for good in 1976. So Ridgway was just waking up from a long torpor when we moved there. More than one yard in town wore its despair – abandoned cars, TVs, trailers, scrap lumber, washing machines, tangles of sheep fence and wild roses – as if preparing for archaeologists of the future. There weren’t many young couples in town then, only a few skiers and one ice climber. My mother arrived one winter for a visit with a black-and-white TV in her trunk. “I will not have my grandchildren raised by wolves!” she said.

I started skiing the empty backcountry of Red Mountain Pass with a small cadre of friends, learning the names and tendencies of the avalanche paths between Ouray and Silverton. And I began to get freelance assignments to write about skiing. It was a golden age for magazine writing at Powder, Ski, Outside, and lots of others. They had money to pay freelancers, and to send them out to report from distant snowy places, sometimes very snowy and very distant. Helicopter skiing in Kashmir, anyone?

I wrote at first in the back of our VW bus parked in the street. By this time I had graduated to typing my pieces on a Smith-Corona portable that had been a high school graduation present from my grandmother. But winter was coming, and with two kids under five years old concentration was not going to survive in the house. So I built a writing studio in the backyard, heated with a wood stove. The mayor came by to approve my plan, sketched on a single sheet of graph paper.

Nearly 20 years later, with the girls grown and gone, Ellen and I decided Ridgway was getting too busy for our peace of mind. Infrastructure work on the Solar Ranch subdivision meant that we eased awake every day to the clank of the bulldozer, the roar of the backhoe. You had to wait sometimes for traffic before crossing Highway 62 on your way to the post office. So we found these 13 acres in the Beaton Creek Valley, east of the river and Colona, just over the line in Montrose County. It’s a place so quiet, so daytime empty and nighttime dark, we thought our wilderness quotients would forever be satiated. And they were. But other things changed.

Night after night the Milky Way stretched across the sky until I realized it was rotating above me like the arms of a very slow ceiling fan. The galaxy spiraling in plain sight. (Well, our view of the galaxy anyway.) The floors in the new house were warm with radiant heat, and I wrote, with a MacBook Pro, at a maplewood table in the kitchen. But freelancing was dying, thanks to the Internet and 911. A new millennium: a friend buried by an avalanche and two artificial hips later, and backcountry skiing, which had been sacrosanct, which I had sworn I would never give up, lost a good deal of its charm. The new hips are mine. The friend, who survived, says now, “Peter, we’ve lost our edge.”

Jobs came – Mountainfilm for Ellen, The Watch for me – but then jobs finished. And we began to feel more and more isolated on our hill.

What to do? We couldn’t go back. Telluride had long ago pulled away into the economic stratosphere. Ridgway, once a dusty survivor, is hip now, too, maybe hipper even than its cousin on the San Miguel.

We can’t go back, so we’ve decided to start over, as crazy as that may sound for people in their Medicare years. Beginnings are all we know. Maybe that was Didion’s point all along: the only end is death, and you can’t know your own end.

So, we’re going west, to Oregon, embarking on a singular new beginning that seems clearer, for now, than these threads of history.

12 Responses

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  1. Melanie Mulhall said, on May 30, 2014 at 9:59 pm


    I know something about beginnings and endings. In fact, there was a time, not so long ago, when I was hypersensitive to beginnings and endings. When a friend came to visit my husband and me and left after a few days, it felt like an ending, even though I knew we would see him again in a few months. Spring felt like a beginning. When my husband went to Iraq to train cops as an independent contractor, it felt like both an ending and a beginning. It seemed inexplicable at the time, this sensitivity to endings and beginnings, though I expected it was training for something. It was. Training, that is. Training for many things: my husband’s illness and death a few years after this sensitivity hit; a new and different life alone; changing urges where my work was concerned; etc.

    Thank you for this beautiful and simple statement about life and how it keeps moving, and moving us along with it. Beginnings and beginnings and beginnings (and, yes, some endings, too, because there really aren’t beginnings without them).

    Melanie Mulhall

  2. mjthier said, on May 30, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    So glad you speak of the territory ahead with a tinge of nervousness, but mostly full out enthusiasm for what lies ahead. Your writing is an extension of your strengths and determination. Thanks

  3. Carolyn Janik said, on May 31, 2014 at 4:17 am

    Thank you. I’m a friend of Claire Walter and a writer also. I’m doing a book on happiness in senior years. I’d like to use your quote about beginnings and endings. Will give credit of course. I’m on facebook (Carolyn Janik) and my email is Best of luck in your new beginning. As a former real estate writer – my last book in March of 2009 which was almost on the worst day of the crash did not sell! -this new book is also a beginning for me (my first book on emotions in old age and it is being done, believe it or not, with a retired psychiatrist age 85. (I’m a mere 73.) Carolyn

  4. Anne Doyle said, on May 31, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Last fall we moved from Colorado to the east, back from the west to be closer to family. Thirty years have slipped by since last living in this area and while it feels like a return so much has changed that it almost feels as foreign as the four intervening years spent in France. Moving makes me pause to reflect on what I take with me and what I find when I arrive: What makes a place feel like home? Attention feels like the key. I commend your desire to continue the journey with the keen senses of an artist and creator. All good wishes.

  5. gaildstorey said, on May 31, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    I’m fascinated by your insightful perspective on your life, work, and adventures, and glad that Claire Walter introduced me to your writing. My husband and I started over in our fifties–sold our house, car, and most of our possessions to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, then moved to Boulder (from Houston) with rewarding changes in our work and every other dimension of our lives. It’s heartening to hear of your new adventure, and I look forward to keeping up with your blog to see what happens next.

  6. Barbara Snbow said, on May 31, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks to Claire for pointing us BMWers to your essay. It is particularly poignant for me as I (who am also in the “Medicare years”) am in the process of moving from Colorado to Ecuador. I honor you and your beloved for the courage to begin again where you are called to be. I honor myself for that, too!

  7. Susan Enfield said, on June 1, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Peter, I was an editor at Outside in the late 90s, and am a big fan. I loved this blog, a beautiful way of telling your story thus far with great economy, depth, and spirit.

  8. bennytopa said, on June 4, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Reblogged this on Bennytopa's Mirror.

  9. allthoughtswork said, on June 4, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    If you are looking for the opposite of empty days and dark filled nights, Oregon will provide. I came here from Colorado, too. Immediately and deeply, I missed the solitude of the Rockies. The topography here is milder and easier to chop up into privately owned sections. There is very little “wild.” You have to drive half a day to find a peace without people and even then, you are lucky if have the place to yourself.

    If you stick to the southeastern quadrant of the state, you may find a few Colorado memories–Ponderosa, dry air, rattlesnakes, rock formations like gnarled old knuckles. But if you want to ski a little more, you’ll have to hug a volcano and believe me, everyone and their dog has the same idea. The mountains have aprons of houses and condos.

    However, if you are ready for society, Portland lets you choose from a dizzying variety of laid back philosophies and ready laughs. I offer my services for hiking recommendations.

  10. thoughtsandrainstorms said, on June 5, 2014 at 9:02 am

    Amazing to hear about the Colorado ski scene back in the day, and the way you wrote! I went to Telluride ten years ago and loved it, something about that high air and the way it’s nestled way up in the mountains. I hope you two enjoy Oregon 🙂 Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  11. drapersmeadow4 said, on June 5, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    So beautifully written. Every end is a new beginning, as they say. What a fascinating story. My husband and I are starting over, as well. After losing a child we moved from our home in Maryland and began again in Virginia. Best of luck to you! And Congrats! ~Karen~

  12. wall2ball said, on June 8, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Reblogged this on HouseofWall.

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