I tried to make it. I really did.
But from the beginning, Telluride seemed too good to be true. Like that sexy, dangerous girlfriend your parents don’t approve of. The one they know you’ll come to your senses about, grow up and move on from. It’s a town straight out of a ski bum’s fairytale. Mountains emerge rugged and beautiful in each direction, ski lifts sit a blissfully short walk away, town venues pop with music and culture. When I arrived as a 24-year-old reporter, I had found paradise. And over the next 10 years, when I lived, worked and played in the iconic ski town, I would often get asked some iteration of this question: “So, how long do you think you’ll be there?” The implication was always, “When are you going to move to a real town?” Nobody expected my answer to be forever.
But a part of my heart wanted it to be so, and I kept those embers burning. Maybe I could grow old here, raise a family of little shredders, find meaningful work to keep me afloat and snowboard until my hair turned silver.
Yet here’s the hard truth of living in a resort town in the ever-crowded West: I was just one of many who harbored that elusive dream.
And when so many people jostle for a spot in paradise, market forces and harsh reality kick in. Those who can afford it, stay.
Telluride has by now become such a hot destination that the joke goes that billionaires have pushed out the millionaires. A 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute ranked San Miguel County No. 8 in the country for income inequality, up there with Aspen’s Pitkin County and Jackson Hole’s Teton County. According to the report, the average income of the top 1 percent in the county is $4.5 million, while the average income of the rest of the population is $65,281.
This explains why the average price of a free market four-bedroom home in the town of Telluride was $2.9 million in 2018, while two-bedroom condos in town went for an average of $759,361.
Like any ski town, affordable housing has been Telluride’s hot-button issue for decades. And local governments, to their credit, have put many resources into subsidizing and developing it. As of December, town staff reported 1,112 deed-restricted housing units in San Miguel County.
But oftentimes, you literally have to win the lottery to end up owning a tiny piece of paradise. And even then, homeowners are beholden to a raft of regulations like income standards and reporting requirements.
And so, for the gondola operators, bankers, bus drivers, restaurant servers, hotel clerks, reporters and employees of the town’s many nonprofits, it’s a struggle to get a toehold. Some get it — by luck, pluck, or family help. Others, well they leave. I’ve watched many friends do just that — lured by grad school, job opportunities, more affordable locales. By some kind of easier existence. Because the cruel reality is that so much of what makes it appealing to live in Telluride also makes it difficult.
My own reasons to leave have been at play for years, shifting inexorably in that direction. Housing, remoteness, health care needs, that container of strawberries that costs $7 at the grocery store. Why did I have to fall in love with such a difficult town? I’ve wondered more times than I can count.
Still, I tried to ignore the signs. I married a ski bum, and we scraped together our savings and bought a home in the only place we could afford: a bedroom community 45 minutes away.
But Telluride is where the jobs are. So we became commuters, joining the river of vehicles that flows in and out of the box canyon each day, spending hours in the to and fro, entering the weekends utterly exhausted.
It worked OK. Until we had a baby. And with our daughter, a new question: What is the best thing for our family? Hard as it was to admit, struggling to make it in a resort town wasn’t the answer.
So we retreated. Retracted our claws, moved to my hometown in Wyoming, where the mountains are blue and lumpy, the cottonwoods massive and everyone drives a truck. It’s still a mountain town, albeit a less sexy and more pragmatic one. Gone is the magical fairy dust of a community where waterfalls are visible from downtown and rainbows make near-daily appearances in the summer. The mountains are no longer right out the back door. But that’s been replaced by a community where we can live, work, get health care, shop for groceries and send our daughter to school — all in one place.
In the quest that possesses so many outdoorsy folks to find Shangri-la, there is no perfect answer. Instead, it’s give and take. In our case, we swapped lift access for being able to afford a home our family can grow into. Swapped summer festivals for a career opportunity that we hope will pay off down the road. Swapped the proximity to friends for proximity to family.
I’ll miss powder mornings on the mountains and the rumble of summer monsoons. Mostly, I’ll miss the closeness of Telluride, the intimate mix of talented, spirited and kind people who are drawn to that special landscape.
But the upside is, I’ll never have to pay $7 for strawberries again.