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The logs in the potbelly stove crack and hiss with heat. Jess McLaughlin sits in front of the roaring cast iron beast rubbing her hands together. She can see her breath inside the house this morning. It’s November 1981. Jess is 10 years old. Her father has taken a job in Telluride, Colorado. The house her parents are renting is new to Jess but it’s old to the town. She arrived late last night and when she jumped out of the car she felt ice cling to her lungs, her insides frosted over like a pond in the winter. She has never experienced cold like this. It’s going to start snowing on Thanksgiving and it won’t stop until after New Year’s. She’s the new kid in town, the out of place blonde girl with a fading SoCal tan in sixth grade. She wants to be anywhere but here and eventually she leaves. But Jess returns to Telluride because we all need a heart to survive.
The town was filled with free-spirited families and smoke in the early 1980s. The wood stoves and chimneys of families heating old, drafty homes supplied the box canyon’s foggy canopy. The rich hadn’t yet found out about the tiny mining town tucked away in a valley of towering 13ers. Telluride was on the far periphery of ski culture. The ski resort was less than ten years old and still in the midst of growing pains. “Telluride was full of hippie families back then,” Jess recalls. “Everyone lived in town and it was vibrant. We were all the same. No one had any money but we always had what we needed.”
Telluride’s children grew up in diapers together, and then ski boots. Their playground was the mountain and within the community existed a pulsing collective consciousness: get outside and enjoy, together. There was nothing to do but ski, laugh, and rely on one another. Jess skied for the first time in her life in 1981 and something clicked. “I never looked back,” she remembers. “I joined the bump club the following year and competed in freestyle skiing through high school.”
Jess left Telluride for her college years, following her best friends back to the suntan lifestyle of Southern California. But after graduation she promptly moved home to Telluride to live out the post collegiate ski bum dream. The 1990s were a really good time to be young and free and wild in Telluride. The town was full of beautiful but authentic mountain people working to ski and skiing for work. It was right before the word got out about Telluride, the subdued ski bum whispers would spread to the masses in just a few years. Many refer to the 90s as Telluride’s golden era, an irreplaceable time perfectly captured by town council member Rasta Stevie’s heady ramblings in Greg Stump’s The Blizzard of Aahhhs. Jess coached the freestyle team she grew up with, worked in a ski shop at the base of Lift 7, and somehow managed to party on Main Street 5 nights a week…maybe more.
Feeling boxed in and the pull to explore, Jess left again when she was 28. She met and fell in love with Will, lived in Vail, and started ski patrolling at Beaver Creek. But she grew weary of the I-70 corridor and longed for the strength and security of Telluride’s undercurrent. “I wanted to be part of the community again. My parents were here and we wanted that connection and support of a small town,” Jess describes. “My memories are really only positive from being a kid in Telluride. I wanted that for my children. I am proud to be a mountain kid and I wanted that for them.”
Following the birth of her first son, Jess returned to Telluride for good. She’s been a ski patroller there for the last ten years. Some say Telluride has lost its roughness, that everything is bright and shiny now, that it is nearly impossible to make a living and a life. But the physical beauty is omnipresent and enduring, and that is reflected in the strength of community. Today, Jess and Will have three boys and all the magic that existed in the Telluride of Jess’s youth is still alive and well. Doors of houses and cars stay unlocked. Her red-cheeked children run up and down Main Street playing tag and leap frog. They sleep in line to run tarps into the town park and reserve a spot at the bluegrass festival. The boys hike Ajax and Bear Creek, ski Revy Bowl and Millions, and love finding excuses to dress in costumes for street parties. Time is relative in Telluride; weeks are filled with laughter and lessons, and days smash into one another to simultaneously feel long and short and always full. Jess’ children exhibit the same explorative passion for the mountains that clicked for her when she was 10.
The town has surely changed since the “good old days,” before large marketing campaigns and television ads sought out the big bucks of mega-millionaires. But how can you find fault in that? Once it takes ahold of you, you just can’t help but share the Telluride vibe. For Jess, passing on her experience is a no-brainer. “I hope being exposed to nature and the outdoors makes my children grateful and resilient,” she says. “I hope they will always have a connection and concern for Mother Earth. I think they won’t truly understand it all until they move away from the valley. But once they do, they’ll realize the mountains are a part of them. Because the mountains, this town, they shape the very best parts of all of us.”
Adventure Journal, January 18, 2017