‘Women of Vail’ serialization: Elaine Kelton
Ryan Summerlin November 10, 2012
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.
I did not know how to ski.
I grew up in Philadelphia and went to an all girls’ school then attended Smith College. (You’d think by then I would have realized the world was co-ed). A year in New York City left me well positioned for retail and the fashion industry. My idea of camping out was “no room service.” Vail eventually had lots of “room service,” and we had fun getting to that point.
Gerry White and I knew each other growing up; he had gone to Williams College and I to Smith. We married in 1963 and moved west – living the first 10 months in Jackson Hole as we pursued a dream of “ranching and cowboying,” only to discover that one would be hard-pressed to make a living at it. Fishing and climbing guide friends had told us about Vail and were headed back there to work on ski patrol. Our jobs ended, we packed the GMC pick-up, and a friend drove the VW Bug.
As we traveled from Denver up Loveland Pass on Route 6, those heart-pounding steep drops of the Seven Sisters left us in awe. Crystal-blue skies turned to dusk, and an early fall snowstorm had one of us walking in front of the VW to keep us on the road.
We descended Vail Pass past meadows that were dark and open. Then, we saw lights at the Vail Village Inn. Turning at The Lodge at Vail sign, we passed a gas station alive with people, cars, and music. Turns out it was a wild game dinner benefiting the Vail Country Day School (the game had been shot locally.) We were the only room sold that night at The Lodge. We felt as if we had taken a huge step forward.
Breakfast, with views up Vail Mountain, was seductively spectacular. Exploration and job hunting were next. Someone told us to find “Lazier,” so we scoped out the Wedel Inn. The guy on the roof was Bob Lazier, who, with his wife, was building their lodge. He invited me up two stories on a ladder. When I reached the top, he laughed and said, “Bravo.” We have been neighbors and friends ever since.
VA was hiring, and we found their office in the Plaza Building. Pete Seibert and Bob Parker interviewed us and hired me as social director for The Lodge. Job description: Fill the Golden Ski with customers using rented movies on low bar nights. Gerry became the bellman at The Lodge, and line manager in the cafeteria.
Desire to succeed
That first season seduced us. Vail’s community was welcoming, and there was a sense of democracy. Men and women worked hard, played hard, and were accepted on the basis of their skills. A glass ceiling didn’t exist, but a level of fun did. Vail was contagious in its desire to succeed, and we knew our success was tied to that.
Within days snow fell, and the trailer at what is now Potato Patch was warm and homey. About 25 trailers were parked there as employee housing; the village was a commute.
The ski season started, and employees arrived. The Lodge provided family for its workers, and with neither TV nor decent radio reception, we set up Monopoly games in the back halls; management studiously ignored them. The rented movies were a success, more so than my ability to pace the congenial drinking.
Christmas Week came, along with the Newman Family from Chicago: Three kids in navy double-breasted coats and a suitcase for every day’s stay (14). Pearl Newman Rieger and her family, still dear friends, have a presence and a house in Vail 48 years later.
We were in love with Vail, the sense of community and adventure. Dirt streets, no I-70, no supermarket, no doctor, no vet, and no library, but there was magic and a community with a shared goal.
By March I had learned to ski, spent the year in a trailer at Potato Patch, had a multitude of house guests sleeping on the trailer floor, acquired Stormy, a tri-color Collie, made friends who are still in my life, played lots of Monopoly, and became pregnant, due the following fall.
In September, we rented a duplex in the Bighorn area. Our only neighbors, John and Laurie McBride, were building The Clock Tower. East Vail was miles out of town and had a different weather system. Courtney arrived three weeks early, and Dr. Tom Steinberg sent us to Denver.
Gerry was now assistant manager at the Christiania Lodge for Ted and Nancy Kindel, who were an awesome team training us for the hotel business. By mid-winter he had assumed the management position there, and we knew that a ski lodge was our goal. That opportunity opened up when a commercial lot at the base of Gold Peak became available, and we enthusiastically jumped in. Design, planning, and funding for the construction were incredible. The banking community in Denver was unaccustomed to not being granted the deed of sale as basis for a loan. VA would not give the deed until construction was completed. Vail began its growth spurt, and the Denver bankers gave in, acknowledging Vail’s presence.
‘The Vail way’
The following June we broke ground, and the Rams-Horn Lodge was built in 120 days. We opened for Christmas 1967 with an opening party that included the town. Paul Johnston and Bill and Sally Hanlon from Crested Butte were in the process of opening the Nu Gnu, a nightclub under the post office. Typical of “the Vail way,” they were told to stop by and introduce themselves. Paul arrived, head shaved, elegantly attired in the first and only red satin-lined black wool cape I had ever seen on a man. I was smitten. He re-set the dress standards for Vail; my parents loved his style.
Vanessa was born that February. As our family and community grew, we became increasingly involved with their needs: education and the structure of the town. Vail was exploring its direction; we all wanted to gain our independence and extricate the fledgling Vail from its company-owned status. Out of the many meetings in The Lodge cafeteria, the petition vote passed, and Vail incorporated in 1966. Everyone took on a piece of the responsibility for what Vail needed and took steps to make each a reality.
New businesses opened, but we still hung “Gone Skiing” signs on powder days. Our guests at the Rams-Horn became our families for Christmas, Easter, and every holiday in between. They knew the “White girls” on a first-name basis.
Ashley arrived in 1970, to complete the trio. These three girls grew with the town, knowing the community as their second parents. They skied, skated, and took part in new activities. They started their schooling with Mrs. Gagne at Montessori School in the basement of the Rams-Horn Lodge. Sammye Meadows came to work our front desk, adding whimsy to each day as she shepherded our group.
The overriding direction of Vail was to be the best: World class. VA provided the greatest skiing experience on a one-of-a-kind mountain, and we all provided the support systems: lodging, shops, restaurants, services, a town government and schools. We have done a pretty great job.
Vail has been, and is, a unique experience. It is not often that anyone has an opportunity to “grow a town,” especially one whose world-class reputation means that when you say, “I am from Vail,” a story and a connection follow.
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.