By: Teddy Grant
Images courtesy of Steamboat Springs Chamber & Steamboat Ski Resort
The drive from Denver International Airport (DIA) to Steamboat is a beautiful journey through the wilderness and worth every minute of the nearly three-hour trip. Slowly we inch deeper into the mountains via Highway 40. It has been nearly 10 years since I last visited this western Colorado cowboy town, and I am excited to return. Though there are signs of progression along the busy freeway, it very much resembles itself from a decade prior. Six lanes of traffic were seemingly cut out of the mountain to sprinkle visitors at one of a handful of ski towns planted along this now busy roadway 100 years old. It is a different type of visitor that prefers the three-hour drive from DIA to Steamboat rather than to Vail or Breckenridge, whose drives are much shorter.
It is dark by the time we reach the outskirts of Steamboat. Facing west, you can almost catch a glimpse of the mountain range’s rigid silhouette, which is perhaps just slightly backlit from the sunset that is likely just starting to kiss the much warmer beaches of northern California nearly 1,000 miles and two time zones to the west.
Unlike some of the more accessible ski towns, Steamboat introduces itself from many miles away, starting with its quaint downtown rooftops lined with white lights. Then the mid-century highway sign for Rabbit Ears Motel greets you from the south side of Highway 40, just after the speed limit decreases to a modest 30 miles an hour — a much more fitting speed for this old cowboy town, founded in 1900, when perhaps life didn’t move much faster than that. A time when horses, rather than electric cars, lined each side of the very same street, and “cowboy hats” were called just “hats.”
F.M. Light & Sons has sold “hats” to cowboys since 1905, only five years after Steamboat Springs was founded. Its modest storefront anchors the west end of Steamboat’s main street, which is fitting for us Yankees coming in from the east in need of a hat or boots. Here at F. M. Light & Sons, you can select from an assortment of wide-brimmed, big bucket cowboy hats that come in a range of colors resembling nature’s palette. Black, brown, white, off-white and a handful of modest pastels make up the color wheel at this outfitter’s shop. To the west, an entire wall of cowboy boots proudly stand and wait to be chosen. Unlike the warm, wide snow boots found in Minnesota, these boots, like an old cowboy, are tall and slender. Their soles are slick leather rather than rigid rubber. The flawless, shiny bottoms are sure to scuff in a matter of blocks. Just like the boots, an entire wall of hats greets each passing customer. With little debate, this cowboy found his hat — a Stallion Black wool Stetson — and perhaps started to find himself in this west. I wasn’t “in vogue”; I was now “on ranch.”
Walking down Main Street in Steamboat wearing a fresh Stetson is a walk everyone should try once in their life. Your pace is a little longer, hands a little heavier, and shoulders a little taller. Unlike more contemporary ski towns, Steamboat’s downtown is perhaps a square mile of antique storefronts and newly built low-rise buildings that just the same greet passing guests with retail stores and restaurants. The main street is just a little wider than any of its intersecting streets, which slowly climb the mountain in the background.
At Primrose, we find welcoming shelter, delicious food and, best of all, warm company. A midwest transplant, Lacy, stands behind the bar and greets us with an ice-cold martini and a blazing warm smile. The list of cowboy creature comforts on this menu is lengthy, a great way to round off Steamboat’s warm welcome on this cold winter day.
Waking up next to the mountain is a wonderful way to start any day. Standing on the balcony, I look out over Yampa Valley, the eastern sky lit up with many pastels. The crisp mountain air is a welcome treat despite its soft stranglehold on my now seemingly weak lungs more used to that of Minnesota’s flat prairies.
Yesterday was spent in downtown Steamboat; today would be spent on the mountain. There is no shortage of places to stop and explore at the mountain base in Steamboat Springs. A number of places offer a hot cup of coffee or, better yet, a cowboy breakfast, in which every bite is covered with a warm, runny, over-easy egg anchoring the plate. This particular day we enjoy a light brunch at The Paramount, which faces both the skies and mountains.
Past all the shops and restaurants is a brand-new gondola that, despite there being little snow on the mountain, is open for visitors to climb to the tallest peak and enjoy the view. Just like the ride into town from Devner, the journey up the mountain in the comfort of a gondola is worth the investment. Slowly we creep up the rigid mountainside, approaching what I presume is the summit, only to find out it is merely the halfway point. Under us stands a neighborhood of beautiful mountain homes surely owned by the likes of a CEO in Seattle or a well-to-do business owner out east. How interesting to peer into a fortress that is likely designed specifically to keep outsiders out. As we approach the gondola landing, I can feel the wind jostling the gondola cabin ever so slightly.
The bar area inside this summit chalet is more grand than any space at the base of the mountain. Its rough-cut timbers come to a point some 30 feet overhead. From this eagle’s nest, we can see well past the mountain-base village and all the way some 5 miles to downtown Steamboat. I go to open the door out to the deck for a more uninhibited view. The fierce wind fights my flexed arm pushing the door open. I wrestle with the wind until I am overtaken by the same breeze that teased our gondola from side to side. I am speechless for two reasons: first, the breathtaking view of Yampa Valley that meets the blue December sky to the west, and second, the crisp, thin air that spits at my now wind-kissed face, seemingly as fast as if I were on skis making my way down the same mountain (mind you, likely on the beginner-level run). This sharp breeze reminds me of that which can be found in the bow of a sailboat making its way through breaking waves on the unforgiving Lake Superior or cold mid-Atlantic, none of the three so quick to forgive an unassuming visit.
The gondola ride down the mountain is as enjoyable as the ride up, and I pay close attention to the same grand western-style houses. Carefully picking out that one that would suit us if we were lucky enough to win the lottery or perhaps “marry up” … way up.
Despite no skiing, we find plenty to do at the base of the mountain. We take this opportunity to participate in two of my personal favorite pastimes: day drinking and people watching. Outside one of the watering holes is a line of Adirondack chairs that are heated by a nearby fire that fills the large chimney. The sun beats down on wind-burnt Midwest skin. I have shed my outer jacket, thanks to the mountain that shields the strong winter from the North. We make a few more friendly stops as we crawl across the mountain base, then sit and watch each happy skier and snowboarder fly down the hill and return to the short line to start the process all over again.
Each skier proudly displays a slightly wind- and sun-burnt grin from ear to ear. The warm weather and bright sun allow not only me to shed a layer but also many of the downhill skiers, who barely cover their skin to begin with. Even an occasional lone T-shirt is found in the crowd, more fitting for a late-spring ski weekend that closes down the mountain than the start of what is likely a long, cold winter.
At each stop along our walk, there does not seem to be a shortage of others who enjoy the same weather, the same cold beer and the same friendly banter. Locals and visitors alike all seem to let their guard down to strangers at the base of the mountain. Whether it’s the beer or the warm sun or the friendly cowboy brim that covers my brow, men, women and children all welcome this newcomer to a nearby barstool. East and West Coasters, Midwesterners and mountain towners alike have all checked their attitudes so as to embrace one another no matter what we look like or where we are from. Here at 6,900 feet in the sky, folks sit and smile and appreciate the great outdoors.
As the shadows grow longer from the sun slowly setting behind the westward range, music begins to fill the void. “Après” is a favorite pastime on Friday afternoon as the mountain begins to shut down for the night. Après is a kind of “welcome to Steamboat” celebration of the start of the weekend. Today’s Après is perhaps the first of several this ski season. A small band shelter nearby houses a handful of musicians. Just beyond the music is the great mountain, whose silhouette is sharply pronounced against the growing-ever-more-pastel sky. The very last run of the day is by the last of the ski patrol. The tall man draped from head to toe in Red Cross red stands next to me and begins to unstrap his gear — a sure signal that another day has come and gone on Mount Werner.
On my third day in Steamboat, my flatland lungs still try to keep up with this high altitude’s paper-thin air. Each pass up or down the stairwell to the condo reminds me of where I have come from. Despite this struggle, I shall press my luck and go for a short hike near the mountain.
Although the short hike is a great break from Steamboat’s quaint tourism buzz, I look forward to a soak in the natural springs. Well, sort of. There are two options to enjoy a hot soak in Steamboat. The most popular option is at “Strawberry Springs” about 7 miles outside of town. This natural spring has hosted cowboys and cowgirls for hundreds of years, thanks to Mother Nature’s whirlpool carved out of the mountain. The second option is the Old Town Hot Springs spa at the edge of downtown that features an assortment of outdoor pools, hot and cold, for soaking in the brisk mountain air. I practically sprint atop the wet pool deck to reach the warm welcoming arms of the nearest hot tub. Thick steam rises from the tub — so much that I can barely see the others sharing the tub’s sedating grasp just a few feet from me.
I have a newfound sense of energy after nearly two hours at the spa. Hot to cold to hot water again. This process reminds me of a similar experience I enjoyed while in Budapest at a traditional Turkish bath. With the extreme change in temperatures, each new tub seems to break down physical and emotional stress until your body and soul surrender to Mother Nature. Now I again walk down Steamboat’s main street, this time my hands hanging even more heavy, cowboy hat still sitting snugly atop my head.
After asking around town where the locals like to go for an evening cocktail, we find ourselves at Sunpie's. This particular early evening the bartenders offer a kind of jungle juice, whose contents are probably best not known. This “juice” is so potent that the bartender limits each patron to only two servings. This is patrolled with a simple mark on your left wrist from the bartender’s black Sharpie. It is not long into the first glass that two facts become clear: one, that these drinks are in fact very potent, and two, that the locals do like their liquor. By now, the small, modest ski bar has become filled wall to wall with locals, in particular, young adults who spend their days on the mountain and their nights at the few watering holes for locals, Sunpie's apparently being the epicenter. It’s not hard to make friends at Sunpie's while wearing a giant cowboy hat. Strangers young and old are quick to compliment my accessory or ask where they can perhaps find one for themselves.
By the time my second glass of jungle juice is half gone, it is obvious I don’t need to indulge further. The bartender’s nudge to the door tells me it is time for bed, but not until one more walk up the steep stairs to the condo that waits for me. Between the hike, spa, jungle juice and still ever-so-crisp mountain air, I would sleep well my last night in Steamboat.
My last morning waking up at the side of Mount Werner isn’t so different from the previous. A gas fire warms the room, the morning sun slowly creeps up over the western range, and the thin air still reminds me of my aging flatlander lungs. I find my cowboy hat in the corner of the room. Instead of reaching for my normal coat, I instead indulge myself by wearing my bright-yellow ski jacket that had made the long trek from Minnesota alongside me. I felt a sense of duty to let it breathe the same mountain air that I have taken in, even if there would be no skiing on this day nor trip to John Denver’s Rocky Mountains.
Walking through the mountainside village in search of some cowboy creature comfort fare, I feel at home. Perhaps the ski jacket was the last ingredient to this Steamboat-inspired recipe. Never mind the pair of crusty ski tickets hanging from the zipper from a Minnesota ski several years ago, my weathered ski jacket and fresh cowboy hat combination represent everything Steamboat.
Despite traveling some 976 miles from my home in Minnesota to visit a world-class ski town, I failed to complete the one task that inspired this entire journey: skiing. I am reminded of Hunter S. Thompson writing, or better yet, failing to write, after being paid by Rolling Stone magazine to travel deep into the jungles of Congo, about the world-famous bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, aka the “Rumble in the Jungle.” He did not watch nor write about a single punch. Instead, like me, he was enamored with the setting for the Rumble, rather than the Rumble, or skiing, itself.
Like Thompson, I failed to accomplish the very reason for my trip; however, I find this time in Steamboat anything but failure. A new love affair with this small mountainside village has blossomed, surely not the first, nor the last time, Yampa Valley will claim a heart.