Boxed In 

When you seek the origins of the name "Telluride," you ultimately get to choose between the colorful, romantic West and the solidly practical history of hard-rock mining. Apparently authoritative sources advocating both perspectives disagree, and even the official Chamber of Commerce Visitor's Guide shrugs in bewilderment.


It's certainly the case that the early history of this little town had everything to do with mining. "Telluride" is the name the miners used for extraordinarily rich ore, because tellurium is generally found in combination with gold and silver, making for a bonanza indeed. A local miner, mistakenly, as it turned out, thought he had laid claim to some in the area, so one theory has it that Telluride was named after that ore. It's ironic that neither he nor anyone else ever found tellurium in the vicinity.


The miners probably came over from Silverton, settled first because it lies along the Animas River, which flows south out of the San Juan Mountains to Durango and then joins the San Juan River down by Farmington, New Mexico. Even with its challenging canyons, getting up the Animas is relatively easy, so much so that they built a railroad along it. But Telluride is on the very upper reaches of the San Miguel River, which flows northwest through rugged and remote canyon and plateau country, eventually joining the Dolores River before its confluence with the Colorado just above Moab, Utah. Because the gold-seekers generally came from the east, they found the Animas Valley first, most likely, settled Silverton, and then worked their way over the passes to the northwest and down to the headwaters of the San Miguel.


You have to see those mountains to appreciate just what this little trip—less than twelve miles for a bird—involved. Even today, you get to Telluride up the San Miguel from the northwest by road, or by air—an adventure in itself sometimes, given the challenge of the Telluride airport. It has scheduled airline service, but the runway is just as long as the mesa on which it sits is wide. There's no room for error.


Neither is there room for error on the only other approach to Telluride, the jeep roads. From Red Mountain Pass on US Highway 550 (which runs north out of Silverton), one such "road" climbs the ridge that includes Lookout Peak, Telluride Peak, and the Three Needles (all of which hover well above 13,000'), and it drops—no, it plunges—into the San Miguel valley. This road over Black Bear Pass, replete with warning signs and cautionary notes in the guide books, can be seen making impossible-looking switchbacks down the cliff into Telluride. Another jeep road, nearly as scary, winds over Imogene Pass from Ouray, the little town on the headwaters of the Uncompahgre River. These various roads were first trails made by miners in the late 19th Century, and walking down them, even leading a horse or mule or donkey, would seem to be a mode of travel preferable to trying to negotiate them on wheels.


These challenging approaches to the town, as well as its wild nature in its early days, are the basis for the more colorful history of the name as a contraction of "To-Hell-You-Ride," said to be an admonition to folks setting out from Denver and points farther east.


But what amounts to an obstacle to travel from the east also provides a spectacular backdrop for the place. The perspective driving up the river valley makes the box canyon loom so high that the buildings in town look like someone's model train set.


The mountains have also proven to be the town's salvation. After the gold was tapped out and the price of silver crashed in the 1890s, Telluride eked along as little more than a ghost town until the 1960s. Then skiing happened. Now the place is gentrified in typical Colorado mountain town fashion—trophy homes, fancy restaurants, development pressure, and ridiculous real estate prices.


But it's still a pleasant place to visit, what with the scenery and all. We drove up from Santa Fe for a long weekend last summer—Four Corners Mysteries numbers three and four (or maybe five) are set partly in the vicinity, and several facts needed checking. Research is hell, so away we rode to it.


One side-effect of gentrification in Colorado mountain towns in environmental consciousness. Because the town proper is limited in size by the box canyon it's in, substantial development has occurred in connection with the ski area, and there's a free gondola between the town and the rather large development of Mountain Village. This lets the locals commute and the tourists get around without using their cars, and it also provides everyone with amazing views of the town and its canyon.


They are also protective of their natural resources. The place we stayed was next to the town beaver pond, a nature preserve, where there was a contest going on between the beavers and the aspen trees, and the beavers were winning. So with the spectacular backdrop of the 13,000' box canyon, we watched several of the little critters munching on willows (since they'd eaten all the aspen) and playing the tail-slap game, while upside-down ducks foraged for whatever ducks eat.


Gentrification also means amenities that the trappers and miners who first brought European ways to the valley could not have imagined. For example, there's a sushi bar, with fresh fish flown in daily (weather permitting). Now, it's quite probably that raw trout was something that almost every mountain man ate at one time or other, most likely out of desperation when he couldn't get a fire started quickly enough. But to ask one of those guys to shell out $6 (or its pre-inflation equivalent) per bite for raw octopus, well, that would simply be a good way to get laughed at while being taught new, colorful additions to your vocabulary.


We settled for pizza.


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