A Mountain of Memories
There is, “I came with the dirt,” which means they settled in Vail before 1965, and the often repeated, “the only constant in Vail is change.”
They helped transform mountain pastures into an international resort, whose name today is synonymous with skiing internationally.
In between the dirt and the groomed slopes are the memories of those who lived Vail’s constant transformation from from the day it opened for business Dec. 15, 1962.
Some recollections seem far-fetched or downright humorous in hindsight. Some memories are sweet and speak of moments that can never be recaptured, while other tales tell of treacherous times everyone is glad are in the past.
Vi and Byron Brown settled in Vail two years after it started – with two small boys in tow and a girl on the way. If Vail was a kingdom, Vi and Byron would have blue blood running through their veins.
But the town that awaited them was far from fancy. There was still plenty of dirt to be dug, and change was necessary for sheer survival.
They chose a lifestyle oddly similar that of homesteaders, and they never looked back to Denver, which they left in search for a life near slopes and nature.
Vi says she never regretted the move, despite the challenge of raising three small children in a barely-there town, where Colorado’s first gondola took center stage and a school or clinic were afterthoughts.
“We both wanted to live in the mountains,”says Vi of the dream she shared with Byron, whom she had met at Araphaoe Basin four years earlier.
She had been a beginner skier. He worked as volunteer ski patroller on the weekends in exchange for a season pass.
Vi quickly became proficient on the slopes, they married and started a family in Denver, where Byron worked as an engineer.
One day, Byron, an avid skier who at 71 still heads to the hills, looked at an advertisement in a Littleton storefront, touting lots for sale in a new ski resort called Vail halfway between Denver and Grand Junction.
A broker, noticing his interest approached. Byron said he had no money, but offered to sell lots on site and fix up existing homes. The broker bit.
“The entire conversation took 15 minutes,” Byron recalls with a chuckle. He told his new boss he could go to Vail as soon as Monday. Not fast enough, said the man, insisting he leave Friday.
Their impromptu business deal took place on a Tuesday.
“We took a gamble” Byron says with some understatement that seems to be a characteristic of how decisions are sometimes made in the Brown household.
The streets were dirt, or mud depending on the season. The water and sewer system was a project in progress, spare time was spent digging ditches or fixing up homes, and pre-Vail’s ranchers still ran herds of sheep through the middle of town.
Vi cooked on a camping stove, and sometimes ladled water from the Gore Creek when pipes froze, which happened more than once.
Their home was the only one in West Vail. It stood approximately where the West Vail Conoco service station is located now.
The closest grocery store was in Minturn and the nearest hospital in Glenwood Springs, a treacherous two-hour drive from Vail. Clothes and other necessities were purchased by catalogue – “I ordered an awful lot out of J.C Penney’s,” Vi remembers – and taking care of banking business meant a 45-minute drive to Eagle.
Television and radio reception was spotty at best and even then depended a mysterious constellation of clouds, it seemed.
Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in Nov. 1964, and no one in Vail knew until the day after.
“We all went to the inn, which had newspapers, to find out who won,” Vi remembers, a small smile playing with her eyes which, for a moment, seem to be looking far beyond the views of the “Brown Palace” a cozy home in West Vail.
Thirty-eight years later, as they sip coffee in their living room, decorated in a colorful and happy collage of mementos of a life well-spent, the Browns themselves are amazed and amused by some of their memories.
Like the fact that Byron sold what is now prime and pricey real estate, for $2,500 per lot – to people who sometimes sold them back, worried that the investment was too risky.
Or as a chuckling Byron admits, his own pronouncement in the late 1950s that Vail would never work.
“I really didn’t think it would ever go,” he says with a laugh not in the least chagrined. “Driving through many times, I couldn’t see where the snow would be adequate enough to ski on that hill. It was all further up.”
Or that while some of their friends were jealous that they eft to live in the mountains, some of their families thought their life in Vail was too reminiscent of what settlers went through in the 1800s.
“It did feel like living on the frontier,” says the 64-year-old Vi, “but because we were building everything new, we had modern appliances. It wasn’t quite as rugged as everybody thinks it was.”
She wrote back to a concerned sister that she had a dishwasher and indoor plumbing.
To dispel cabin fever – a common affliction in a town of barely 200 – Vi would pack up the kids and “go visit.”
“We’d go see each other and their would always be coffee or tea,” Vi remembers. “After getting out you would look forward to going back home and waiting for a husband to come home.”
Byron, who worked as a real-estate agent, handyman and ski patroller remembers working – a lot.
That aspect of life in Vail was part of his sales spiel as a real-estate agent – but not always to his advantage.
“I would tell them that if they wanted to live in this town they had to do many things on their own – build their own streets, work on fire safety. I said “If you want to live here you are going to have to participate, you have to be a doer.'”
Those who lasted were the “doers” Byron says.
Women lobbied for a doctor and a small clinic, raised funds for a one-room school and a new addition to the existing middle school in Minturn. Men dug ditches and eventually paved roads, built homes and ran the ski resort.
Working on ski patrol was a good job in those days, says Byron.
“It was pretty good pay, plus if people got hurt on the mountain, you had to drive them all the way to Denver. There was a lot of overtime to be had.”
Community was spelled with capital letters in the 60s and 70s, says Vi.
“If there was a party, everybody went,” she remembers, adding that there were no class or social worries. “Or if you could get a babysitter, you’d go bar-hopping just to see and meet up with people.”
The town’s business, likewise, was everybody’s business, says Byron. “Everyone met up at Bridge Street and Gore Creek Drive in the morning, drinking coffee and talking. If you wanted something done, that was the place to be. Most of Vail’s business got done in the first two hours in the morning.”
That left time to ski – some skied a lot. Others couldn’t be stopped even by a big belly.
Vi remembers being pregnant with her youngest daughter, Cindy, when she fainted on the gondola because of fellow skier smoking a cigar.
“He opened the window for me,” she says with a laugh.
But he didn’t extinguish his cigar.
Living rugged meant living in close contact with nature. The Brown family hiked and camped in the summer, and skied in the winter.
It wasn’t a surprise that Mike, Todd and Cindy Brown were never fearful to camp out alone, even when they were in their teens.
And all three became expert skiers. Mike even made it onto the U.S. Ski Team. Todd pioneered extreme skiing, and Cindy has coached future Vail ski racers.
Personally Vi and Byron say the day Todd died in a snowmobile accident in 1993 was the saddest day in their life.
As a community, they remember March 25, 1976 as the saddest day. Four people died that day when the old gondola in Lionshead unraveled.
“I think as a community we always took pride in taking good care of our resort,” says Vi, who remembers that locals were discreet with the disastrous news and only eyes shifted towards Lionshead, while guests were treated with unchanged courtesy.
Byron remembers that everyone who was available grabbed their skis and got on the hill to help.
Vail recovered and grew and grew and grew.
The Browns still love living here, and while they still think that change is Vail’s constant and biggest asset – even if the olden days sometimes seem golden.
“If you chose to live your life in a place like Vail, you have to accept the changes that happen over the years,” says Byron now retired from real estate but still a part-time ski instructor.
As Vail is celebrating its 40th anniversary and heading into another period marked by piles of dirt, Byron’s words of caution are few but well chosen.
“We are still an infant by European standards,” he says in reference to more than $700 million in planned redevelopment projects scheduled to happen over the next four years as part of a “Vail Renaissance” in Vail Village and Lionshead.
“We should look towards the far off future and think about how Vail will look in a hundred years so we can avoid the mistakes made in Europe. We have natural resources that need to be protected for all eternity.”
Vi, who assists weary travelers at the Vail Information Booth with her trademark easy going nature and well-developed sense of humor, thinks Vail needs to recapture some of the spirit that built the town in the first place.
“We used to take a problem and just solve it. Not always completely and not always on the first try, but eventually we figured it out.” she says when asked for her birthday wish for Vail.
“I just think we need to lighten up a bit.”
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at firstname.lastname@example.org