Chasing the Truth in Telluride

In search of fresh runs, free tunes, and a guy named Jack in the twin cities of Telluride.
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It's almost noon on my third day in Telluride, and I still haven't seen Captain Jack. This is odd: In all of my previous trips here, I would have bumped into Jack several times by now. People have told me that he's in town, and Jack's not the easiest guy to miss -- his beard's probably flirting with three feet in length these days.

As I ride Lift 9, scanning the slopes below for telltale facial hair, I can see that the spring conditions I've enjoyed for the past two days have been hardened by today's cooler weather. Though a pair of locals make GS turns through the frozen bumps of Spiral Stairs like it's a groomed run, I see my second run of the day actually beinga groomed run. And when the fixed-grip triple finally deposits me at 11,875 feet, I'm dying to ski (a benefit of slow-moving lifts). Despite my jonesing, I can't help but pause to take in the views; the top of Telluride offers the finest panorama in all of North American skiing. Most of what you see is the San Juans, a multitude of peaks with a verticality that's got more in common with the Alps than with most other North American ranges. And on a clear day, as today is becoming, you can look west across the Telluride Valley and see all the way to the peaks of the La Salles, 100 miles away in Utah.

My aesthetic wants sated, it's time to ski. Though groomed flat, the Plunge is still an expert run, steep and sustained. If your edges are sharp and you ski it fast, you feel like a World Cupper running a super G. I may be on fat skis, but they're brand new and the snow's just beginning to soften up. Cue the cowbells.

Whoa. The Plunge is only half groomed, actually. The left half of the trail is a bump run, and with the consequences for getting out of control ranging from moderately bad (the bumps) to really bad (the trees), focus becomes paramount. A few minutes and three near misses later (two bump skiers and a sapling), I'm shuffling into the corral for Lift 9, shaken ever so slightly.

The lift line of 9 is something of a classic in the ski world. The initial feeling you get here is much like the one you get when you first arrive in Telluride -- that everyone knows everyone else, and you're the only tourist around. It's a feeling that can make you briefly self-conscious, until you realize that, for the most part, tourists are not loathed or dismissed here. Pole through the maze at Lift 9 and you might not be pulled into a how's-the-wife-and-kids conversation, but your presence won't elicit derisive comments and baleful stares, either. It's one of the most outwardly locals' lifts in the ski world, but the Lift 9 regulars don't mind sharing. So as I slide up next to the lift-op, I'm not afraid to ask: "Have you seen Captain Jack?"

"About an hour ago."

Some ski towns are new. Some are old. At Telluride you get both. Mountain Village has all the manufactured glitter of the 21st-century base area. Like Whistler's and Copper's and all the others, it is master planned down to the last water fountain and is what people are coming to expect of ski resorts these days. Walking around, I find myself impressed by the polish and the grandeur. But here in this last week of March, it feels like a ghost town. So, like I've done every night this trip, I'm taking the gondola into Telluride for a night out.

Descending into town, the buildings almost look pretend. They're small and colorful and huddled together, and their crayon colors of red and blue and green and purple give them a playful quality, as if they were built and painted by children. Rising out of Mountain Village, the houses and buildings there seem almost territorial -- nothing is too close together. Their muted colors are somewhat of a necessity: If buildings that big were painted bright yellow, they'd rival the sun.

The towns of Telluride and Mountain Village compete for overnig visitors, and though the two couldn't be more different, each has its merits. If it seems like the relationship might not always be harmonious, it isn't. But that's okay, because the two towns are divorced, physically separated from each other by the ski area and connected by a gondola that shuts down at midnight, assuring that, come bedtime, each must sleep in its own room.

Call me old-fashioned, but there's something about a man wearing an eagle's head made out of cut-up cloth under a beret and carrying a massive boom box playing Al Jarreau that makes me want to stop and hear his story.

"My name is Big Bird Jesus -- that's Gesus with a 'G.' I was born on December 25. I just turned 2001. Er, 2001 and 54." B.B. Gesus winks and smiles. He notices me looking at whatever it is that's stuck to his tooth and quickly explains, "It's kind of like Silly Putty, but you can bake it." He smiles again, revealing two small stones stuck to his homemade tooth. "Diamonds. Actually not real diamonds."

In a segue that catches me off guard, he begins to explain the Eagle Sphinx Overpass, a "project" he's working on. The original idea, B.B. tells me, was to build an overpass in Lower Placerville (just outside of Telluride) "to keep the deer from getting killed." B.B.'s belt buckle -- an eagle with its head turned -- then inspired him to build the overpass in the form of an eagle. A glass pyramid would be incorporated, and the whole thing would double as -- what else? -- an amphitheater. "It would raise $10 million a year for open space." I'm not sure how the sphinx part factors in, but maybe the eagle would be crouching like the Sphinx. Oh, and the Eagle Sphinx Overpass will be situated next to a river between two canyon walls that don't echo -- B.B. checked the sound with his guitar.

Pretty random, you say? Maybe in your town, but not in Telluride. This place has got some really odd birds. Though not all as spirituous, shall we say, as Big Bird Gesus.

Skating away from the top of Lift 9, I think I see Jack take off toward Kant-Mak-M. But I've got to catch a snowmobile at the top of Lift 10, on the other side of the mountain. Soon a sled is dragging me up to the ridge where the new Prospect Bowl chair will eventually drop skiers. The 733-acre expansion, which opens officially this coming season, will nearly double the size of the ski area. The terrain is mostly intermediate, but hiking farther up the ridge -- assuming doing so is allowed -- will access some steep, cliff-lined terrain that no intermediate would contemplate.

The run I'm skiing with patrol, from the point where the lift will terminate, is nice but not overly exciting -- which is exactly what the folks at Telluride intended. I made six medium-sized turns down a fairly steep pitch, and now I'm slowly skiing back toward Lift 10. Looking up at the Gold Hill summit, which is now above me, I can see two skiers taking a beautiful line down Little Rose. They hiked probably 40 minutes to get to what they're skiing, which looks like nice powder -- something I haven't found in the past week. I hop on Lift 10, intending to get back to Chairs 6 and 9 and hopefully catch up with that bearded friend of mine.

Riding up 10 alone, I'm amazed by the enormous homes lining the green runs below. These houses look like they could house houses. And with that image in mind, of a quaint little bungalow peacefully sawing logs in one of the mansions I've just seen, I forget to get off the lift and travel halfway around the bullwheel. Man am I cool.

I've had so many good breakfasts at Sofio's, I've decided to eat dinner here. Picking up a copy of the Telluride Daily Planet,I notice that the Sam Bush Band is performing live tonight at the local radio station, KOTO. Jan, the bartender, tells me that the station is just up the street, and that I should walk over and stop in. No way, I think -- if Sam Bush is as revered as he seems, the place will be packed, and there'll surely be some sort of security presence. (Pretty much everyone in Telluride loves bluegrass player and mandolin master Sam Bush -- I once heard him referred to as the de facto mayor.) But I figure I'll at least walk by.

KOTO is right where Jan said it would be and, just as I figured, there's somebody watching the door. I wander closer. "Do you need to know someone to get in there?" I ask. He blows smoke out his nose and shakes his head. Up the stairs I go, and there he is and there I am. The Sam Bush Band, just cooking right in front of me. Someone even hands me a beer as I catch the last two songs.

Not surprisingly, I spot Jack from Lift 9. He's clad in a new school getup, and his beard's tucked into his jacket, but the skiing style is unmistakable. I don't bother yelling, because if Jack stopped and looked up every time someone called to him, he'd average about two runs a day. I'll wait for him up top.

I wait about five minutes before Jack slides off the lift. We say hello and go into Guiseppe's to grab some lunch. In the five years that I've known him, Jack and I have talked basketball ("Larry Bird's the best ball player in the history of the NBA; he didn't need to do all that fancy stuff Jordan does."); we've talked motorcycles ("Michael, you buy yourself a 1981 Honda Goldwing, and you won't be sorry."); and we've talked lots and lots of skiing. And when you hear Jack intoning his opinions in his ya-can't-get-there-from-here New Hampshire parlance, they come off sounding like gospel.

Lunch is quick. Jack's ready to ski. As we make our way toward Kant-Mak-M, Jack proposes a game plan: "I'm thinking we'll ski a little Kant-Mak-M, maybe grab some trees, a little Log Pile maybe." Jack talks about putting a run together like he's a chef that hasn't used a measuring spoon in years. Pinches of this, a shake of that, no need to be exact. We're just skiing.

I don't know if it's the beard, but watching Jack ski reminds me of a sorcerer. It's as if he conjures a cushion of air that his skis float upon. He snakes through the deep, rutted bumps of Kant-Mak-M like they're simply not there.

On the slow ride back up 9, I ask Jack what's kept him here so long.

"It's simple here," he says. "I picked this place a long time ago for the quality of skiing and the quality of hang gliding. Those were the two biggest things in my life. I've worked really hard at my ski-bumming career so I could stay here. I have a house here now, something I thought I'd never have. I've lived in garages. I've lived in cellar holes. I've lived in attics. I lived in a one-room cabin for 13 years to stay here.

"This is grassroots skiing," Jack tells me. "Despite everything that's going on, I think the ski area is still on the primitive side. I like that. We've got old lifts; we've got a rugged mountain. The thing that I like is that it's a U-turn mountain. You get off the lift, and you make a U-turn to the fall line, and you go down the mountain. Then you get on the lift, and you go back up."

Captain Jack and I spend the rest of the day making U-turns off the lift. We ski down the mountain, and then we go back up. It feels just as right as he said it would. Simple. Perfect.

For more traveling to Telluride, check out Destination: Telluride, Colorado in the related links below.me sort of security presence. (Pretty much everyone in Telluride loves bluegrass player and mandolin master Sam Bush -- I once heard him referred to as the de facto mayor.) But I figure I'll at least walk by.

KOTO is right where Jan said it would be and, just as I figured, there's somebody watching the door. I wander closer. "Do you need to know someone to get in there?" I ask. He blows smoke out his nose and shakes his head. Up the stairs I go, and there he is and there I am. The Sam Bush Band, just cooking right in front of me. Someone even hands me a beer as I catch the last two songs.

Not surprisingly, I spot Jack from Lift 9. He's clad in a new school getup, and his beard's tucked into his jacket, but the skiing style is unmistakable. I don't bother yelling, because if Jack stopped and looked up every time someone called to him, he'd average about two runs a day. I'll wait for him up top.

I wait about five minutes before Jack slides off the lift. We say hello and go into Guiseppe's to grab some lunch. In the five years that I've known him, Jack and I have talked basketball ("Larry Bird's the best ball player in the history of the NBA; he didn't need to do all that fancy stuff Jordan does."); we've talked motorcycles ("Michael, you buy yourself a 1981 Honda Goldwing, and you won't be sorry."); and we've talked lots and lots of skiing. And when you hear Jack intoning his opinions in his ya-can't-get-there-from-here New Hampshire parlance, they come off sounding like gospel.

Lunch is quick. Jack's ready to ski. As we make our way toward Kant-Mak-M, Jack proposes a game plan: "I'm thinking we'll ski a little Kant-Mak-M, maybe grab some trees, a little Log Pile maybe." Jack talks about putting a run together like he's a chef that hasn't used a measuring spoon in years. Pinches of this, a shake of that, no need to be exact. We're just skiing.

I don't know if it's the beard, but watching Jack ski reminds me of a sorcerer. It's as if he conjures a cushion of air that his skis float upon. He snakes through the deep, rutted bumps of Kant-Mak-M like they're simply not there.

On the slow ride back up 9, I ask Jack what's kept him here so long.

"It's simple here," he says. "I picked this place a long time ago for the quality of skiing and the quality of hang gliding. Those were the two biggest things in my life. I've worked really hard at my ski-bumming career so I could stay here. I have a house here now, something I thought I'd never have. I've lived in garages. I've lived in cellar holes. I've lived in attics. I lived in a one-room cabin for 13 years to stay here.

"This is grassroots skiing," Jack tells me. "Despite everything that's going on, I think the ski area is still on the primitive side. I like that. We've got old lifts; we've got a rugged mountain. The thing that I like is that it's a U-turn mountain. You get off the lift, and you make a U-turn to the fall line, and you go down the mountain. Then you get on the lift, and you go back up."

Captain Jack and I spend the rest of the day making U-turns off the lift. We ski down the mountain, and then we go back up. It feels just as right as he said it would. Simple. Perfect.

For more traveling to Telluride, check out Destination: Telluride, Colorado in the related links below.

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