Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Women of Vail,” by Elaine Kelton and Carolyn Pope. The Vail Daily is serializing the book as Vail celebrates its 50th anniversary. Books are available for purchase at www.bookwormofedwards.com, the Colorado Ski Museum, Pepi’s, Gorsuch, Annie’s and the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.
This is an opportunity for me to dredge up delightful memories. I graduated from Centre College of Kentucky with a degree in history, got married, and moved to Fort Collins in 1966. Though trained to be a high school teacher, I worked as a receptionist at the Hewlett-Packard voltmeter plant in Loveland to support my husband in graduate school. I also learned to ski, and it changed my life. Skiing and the mountains were awesome. I was often reprimanded at HP for not following the rules. Marriage was bad, and I ran away. While searching Denver Post want ads for “secretary” jobs, I noticed in the line just above that section a “sales clerk” job at the Gondola Ski Shop in Vail: Contact store manager Dooper Hicks. I did, got hired, and arrived in Vail for the 1967-68 ski season.
Escape. As a proper Southern girl, I had a lot of guilt over leaving a marriage but also had developed a ravenous appetite for mountains, snow, skiing and freedom. Freedom to breathe without judgment, freedom to ski, and freedom to create my own life. It was the boldest leap I ever made. Since moving to Vail, I have leaped boldly at every opportunity, and life has been rich because of that first leap in 1967-68. I bet I’m not the only one to say this.
The first season, I worked as a sales clerk at the Gondola Ski Shop. I also did a little skiwear modeling for the shop and Hart Ski ads. Dated the Hart Ski Team. Skied as much as humanly possible. The next couple of seasons I worked as reservationist for Elaine and Gerry White at the Rams-Horn Lodge, met fascinating guests, and their three beautiful daughters (Courtney, Vanessa, Ashley), whom I will always adore.
A Vanessa story: at about age 3, Vanessa ran barefoot, in bathing suit, dragging big towel past the reception desk, stopped, came back, and poked her little face around the corner to say to me, “Sam-I-Am, I love you,” then ran on to the pool. Melts my heart to this day. I earned my buckle as a member of the Rams-Horn Demo Team by turning thousands of slow dog noodles down the face of Prima. I left Vail for about a year, returned to work for the town of Vail and later became executive assistant to the town manager, town attorney, and Town Council. I worked for the town until leaving Vail again in 1978 to follow a Blueberry Gypsy to Alaska. In Alaska, I worked mostly for Kodiak Island Natives and hiked and kayaked throughout the Great Land, including an astounding month-long trip through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Beaufort Sea. After Alaska, I ran away from the Gypsy and worked on the film of Milagro Beanfield War. After the film, I went to work as personal assistant for the director, Robert Redford, at Sundance — this, too, had its roots in Vail. I later returned to Vail as executive director of Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. I left to move to Montana and work on the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial as coordinator of the Circle of Tribal Advisors. I now write American Indian history. I am an Eastern Band Cherokee Nation descendant.
The people are the reason behind it all. Friendships for a lifetime, and those friends keep me coming back to visit. With the skiing, a mountain like no other, the Gore Range, and the people. I had more fun than any life ought to be allowed to have. Skiing, hiking, backpacking, climbing 14ers, getting high, laughing, carousing, writing poetry. I was part of Vail’s considerable counter-culture, never destined for the Vail “society” that evolved. I loved, loved, loved to ski (and still do) — on the mountain and in the backcountry, downhill and cross country. And snowshoeing. I loved backpacking (and still do) — with girlfriends and boyfriends and general friends. Together we learned the Gore Range and New York Range like the insides of our hearts. We spent many nights at Piney, Pitkin, Booth, Deluge, Mystic Isle and other lakes, soaking up the (psychedelic) colors of wildflowers in the spring, hiking ridgetops and mountaintops in the summer, listening to elk bugle in the fall. We were wildly blessed.
Hummm … you may not want to print too much about my delicious nightlife. Any place that had a good band also had me, especially the Nu Gnu. Donovan’s Porch after skiing, even with no band. A member of the Alpine Gardens board once asked me if I was “wild” during my early years in Vail. “Yes,” I replied. Since I escaped family life to move to Vail, I basically had none except for occasional visits from my parents and sisters. But I had F-Troop — as a Vail ski patrolman once labeled the group of friends that I skied, hiked and enjoyed altered consciousness with. What’s left of F-Troop, which is now decimated by many premature deaths, is still my family. I especially miss my best friend Mary Ellen Canniff.
The only thing I hoped to find upon moving to Vail was freedom, and I did. I knew it was a small alpine village designed to be pedestrian-oriented, and I knew it was already famous for incredible skiing. Beyond that, I had no expectations. My time in Vail prior to 1970 was just about the happiest I’ve ever enjoyed, and I’ve always been pretty happy.
Of course, Vail had to “grow up.” It was destined for ski country success. In its early years, it was one of the most eclectic, eccentric, creative and caste-free places in the country. Great, wild adventures happened routinely — like Ottie Kuehn’s tower; the Bridge Street Shootout between Jean Claude Killy and Leo LaCroix; a certain boyfriend chasing a naked man out of his home and through the streets with a butcher knife; the hysterically funny melodramas penned by Gregory Beresford Skeffington and Belle Forest, snorkel skiing and the incomparable milk runs, great community conversation, and love of place. It seemed that all who lived in Vail then were accepted on equal footing, not measured by degree of wealth or family background. Those things were magic and had to fade some day. As time went on, I felt Vail becoming more like other places, less eccentric, less free. I grew up a bit, too. But every five years, at the Vail Pioneer Reunion, that early Vail re-emerges — like Brigadoon — out of the mists of time.
“Women of Vail” was produced by a team that includes Elaine Kelton and Carolyn Pope, publishers; Joanne Morgan, designer and production; and Rosalie Hill Isom, writer-editor.