The Real Deal, Minturn, Colorado

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Quaint," "historic," "off the beaten track." Not exactly terms you'd associate with Colorado's Vail Valley, the condo-choked uber-resort area long derided as the ski world's prime example of development run amok.

But nestled just 2 miles off Interstate 70, the snow country autobahn that whisks snow sliders along the nation's busiest ski resort corridor, is a tiny 1,066-person hamlet that earns those idyllic descriptions. Sandwiched between Vail and Beaver Creek like a thin layer of aged cheese between two colossal pieces of white bread is funky, century-old Minturn. And many who make it home would sooner leave the area altogether than relocate to Vail's congestion.

"I couldn't live over there," says Patti Bidez, an 18-year Minturn resident who enjoys letting her two young children run free through Minturn's cozily disheveled neighborhoods. "I just wouldn't feel comfortable letting my kids loose in Vail. In Minturn, everybody knows each other. We keep an eye on each other's kids, we trust each other and look after each other. There's a real sense of neighborhood because we all live here year-round."

That's a stark contrast to Vail, where more than two thirds of the homes are unoccupied for most of the year and where transience is a frustrating fact of life. "This is a real town with real people and real history," says Minturn mayor and life-long resident Gordon "Hawkeye" Flaherty. Flahery is a third-generation local whose father worked at nearby Camp Hale, home of the U.S. Army's legendary 10th Mountain Division, and whose grandfather was a blacksmith at the now closed Gilman zinc mine 8 miles up the road. "Minturn's got a soul," Flaherty states simply.

If you detect a whisper of reverse snobbery, well, just amplify that about 10 times and you'll get the message loud and clear. It's not that folks from Minturn (or "Meen'ern," as scores of long-time Latino residents affectionately call it) don't like Vail. Truth be told, the ski resort's booming economy ensures everyone an ample living, not to mention property values that have more than doubled in the past five years. (At a median price of about $260,000, a single-family home in Minturn still costs about half of what one does in Vail.) And those who ski and snowboard relish their proximity to the resorts' slopes. Just 6 miles from the behemoth's lifts to the east and another 6 miles from Beaver Creek to the west, locals can access a combined 6,269 skiable acres. As epic as those days in Vail's legendary Back Bowls can be, locals still breathe a collective sigh of relief when passing through the Bowls' backcountry gates to the Minturn Mile, a powdery descent on Vail's backside that winds down toward the door of the legendary Saloon, a favorite local watering hole. Its walls are plastered with signed photographs of movie stars such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, both of whom visited here when former New York Yankees catcher Bob Cherry owned the place.

Vail may boast world-class ski-in/ski-out accommodations, but Minturnites find their earthy ski-in/chill-out digs infinitely more satisfying.

You'll quickly get the picture as you exit I-70 East and drive the 2 miles toward Minturn. To your left glisten the whitewaters of the Eagle River, a gorgeous stretch relished by both kayakers and anglers. Lionshead Rock and the towering pink rock buttes of Cougar Ridge and Battle Mountain loom over the river. Their massive cliffs salute the 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross, so named for a snowy couloir that forms a cross near its crest. To your right stands Meadow Mountain, a gentle north-facing slope that boasts some of the area's best snowshoeing, crosscountry skiing and sledding by winter, and miles of mountain bike trails and lush patches of wildflowers in summer.

Simply stated, Minturn's narrow hollow is arguably the Vail Valley's most scenic stretch. But don't take a biased local's word for it, trust the State of Colorado, which in 1994 certified the two-lanne Highway 24 between Minturn and Leadville a "Colorado Scenic Byway."

Unfortunately, Minturn's allure doesn't extend to its architecture, an unpretentious patchwork of clapboard cottages, dingy log homes made of railroad ties and several downright ugly mobile home parks. Founded by railroad men and miners nearly 80 years before Vail's first ski lift even hit the drawing board, Minturn possessed none of the wealth that lavished nearby silver mining towns such as Aspen with grand opera houses. Nor have its town planners had much success preserving the few turn-of-the-century buildings left standing, let alone preventing an unseemly smattering of recent construction projects, which have introduced everything from southwestern adobe to cheesy condominiums.

But what the town lacks in architectural character, its residents more than make up for with a salt-of-the-earth friendliness. No one better embodies the Minturn attitude than Postmaster Jim Madril, a lifelong, 52-year-old resident, whose tidy post office serves as a focal point of the community. "I know most folks on a first-name basis," says Madril. "Lots of people stop by and say hello-even if they don't have any mail."

Like Madril, many Minturn citizens are long-time locals who arrived here in the days when the zinc mine and the Rio Grande Railroad powered the local economy's backbone. The mine closed nearly 20 years ago, and a billion-dollar railroad merger in 1995 halted the steady stream of locomotives that once chugged through the middle of town. But their legacy remains, lovingly preserved by women such as Darla Goodell, another 50-plus-year resident whose Turntable Restaurant serves as Minturn's unofficial museum.

"I have cinders in my blood," says Godell, whose father and grandfather were railroad engineers whose locomotives pushed freight cars up 11,000-foot Tennessee Pass, the highest railroad pass in the country. Surrounded by photos and mementos of days gone by, she laments Minturn's fading history and crosses her fingures that the railroad will return someday. "This was always a railroad town," she says wistfully. "And we need to hold on to our identity."

Rather than turn Minturn into a ghost town, the railroad's departure has sparked a wave of real estate speculation as the now- abandoned rail yard and old homes along the train tracks suddenly become prime river-front property. Postmaster Madril estimates that nearly a third of Minturn's old-timers have cashed out, heading for warmer climes. "I'm the only one left out of six brothers and sisters," he says with a sigh. "But there's lotsa nice folks who've moved in." Indeed, a growing cadre of Vail escapees, among them a sampling of artists, musicians and craftsmen, have taken up residence here. They've started the community's first non-commercial radio station (albeit a pirate one), inaugurated jazz festivals, organized a bustling farmer's market and opened funky joints such as Becky and Jeff Highter's Cougar Ridge Café, another local hangout.

"There's a new generation of Minturnites arriving all the time," Becky says as she coddles her newborn son, part of a mini baby boom that's filled Minturn's sidewalks with strollers in recent years. "Minturn's becoming younger, but we're making sure we hold on to the community feeling that made it so special in the first place."

That won't be easy given Minturn's proximity to Vail. Yet Meen'ernites can be an ornery and defiant bunch, and they've thus far resisted overtures of large-scale development from over the mountain. As long as they hold fast to their hard-rock mining and railroad roots, their historic town will continue to draw like-minded newcomers who'll work to prevent their tasty morsel from turning as bland as white bread.