During my first visit to Crested Butte, Colo., in 1984, there was nothing north of the village but verdant mountains towering above an intimate valley. Now the road north to Mount Crested Butte leads past miles of high-rise apartments and blocks of condos strewn haphazardly across the once wild mountain slopes. Arrival in Mount Crested Butte, the ski area for Crested Butte, is a vast parking lot, then a charmless mall hiding an amphitheater where popular bands perform free concerts once a week. You can judge the town’s character by this statistic: Despite thousands of condos and apartments, the incorporated town had a permanent population of only 801 in 2010.
This is the new Colorado.
So too is the latest evolution of Aspen. In the long-ago, it was a funky village where gonzo writer Hunter Thompson was almost elected sheriff. Now mere millionaires can no longer afford to live there.
So too is the “old town” of Crested Butte where a bargain pizza and a glass of beer cost $35, where a saloon founded in 1985 can brag of being the oldest in town, where a small, somewhat shabby and entirely uninteresting cement house is on the market for $925,000.
So too are the dead, blackened and eroded forests extending mile after mile in the southern San Juan Mountains around South Park and Wolf Creek Ski Area—once among the most beautiful mountains in America. Or the dead forests blanketing the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Such scenes might make it easy to conclude that Colorado, the utopian Colorado of beauty and tranquility, of exploration and isolation, of intact villages snuggled into pristine valleys, is no more. You’d be wrong.
Go for a ride, as my wife and I did last week, through Crystal Valley, hike along Crystal Creek, wander through the old but flourishing village of Marble, stand wide-eyed across the rushing stream from the 1892 Crystal Creek Mill—manmade grace and beauty in the midst of nature’s grace and beauty.
Marble’s population has shrunk from 5,000 in the past century to 131 today, but it has about the right number of houses and businesses to serve its residents and an adventuresome scattering of tourists loaded into Jeeps and ATVs. Marble bills itself as “Colorado like it used to be.” Although ungrammatical, the slogan conjures up a factually accurate image.
This is the old Colorado. The Colorado that endures. The Colorado that still makes visiting the state an adventure, an exercise in the unexpected.
Two states, utopian and dystopian, exist side by side in western Colorado. The steep mountains and rugged canyons divide the area into isolated pockets of habitation, each one remote even from its nearest neighbors. Such geographical frontiers permit stark contrasts within a few miles of each other. They allow the worst and the best of our civilization to coexist cheek by jowl.
Our visit to Marble actually began a day earlier during a stop at the Crested Butte Tourist Information Office, where Pat Wing singlehandedly manages one of the most informative tourist offices you’re likely to find anywhere. “I came here for one year and stayed for 39,” she told us. “Now I’m selling my house and buying a condo in Albuquerque.”
She advised us to drive over a couple of passes. A good gravel road crosses Kebler Pass. If you turn south here and go over Ohio Pass, you come to a trail to a lake that passes through a temperate rain forest, where the ground is covered with ferns. Continuing west past Kebler, you drive through the largest aspen forest I’ve ever seen, where stately old aspens line the road for miles and extend on both sides to the horizon. It must be even more magnificent in September when the quaking aspens turn to gold.
A paved highway goes over McClure Pass to the turnoff for the village of Marble, where Wing said we could eat the best barbecue she’d ever tasted at the Slow Groovin BBQ and find out about the nation’s most beautiful marble, then hike out around a couple of lakes and along a lovely mountain river to the finest old mill in Colorado, maybe in the West. We did as instructed.
The notable thing about Marble is that it is worthy of its name. Marble blocks were first quarried and carved here in 1905, then later in the 20th century until the 1940s. In 1990 mining resumed and continues today. A dirt road winds several miles up a mountain to the site of the quarry, which is still in full operation but barred to visitors.
Marble here is extraordinary. It was used to build the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial—the most beautiful monument, perhaps the most beautiful building, in the united States.
Marble is ubiquitous in Marble. White blocks of marble demarcate parking areas and line roads. They provide barriers at precipitous turns. Carved marble is on sale at the Marble Gallery. Small hunks of marble can be picked up for free as souvenirs from a basket at the Marble Mill Site, a 25-acre outdoor museum that has been on the National Historic Register since 1976.
Every year since 1989, Marble has held the Stone Carving Symposium where sculptors train artists in the fine skills of carving marble. “Marble is a place where carvers of all abilities gather to create sculpture in a non-competitive, culturally diverse atmosphere of camaraderie and sharing,” the symposium brochure says, adding, “It’s the carving experience of a lifetime.”
Heading east up the valley from Marble, Crystal Creek (a river by New Mexico standards) is one of those picture-book rushing mountain streams in which Colorado abounds. Unlike many, however, this one looks clean and transparent, with an enchanting emerald color. The town is in the process of applying for federal Wild and Scenic River status.
There are two ways of exploring the valley. You can drive it along a rough four-wheel-drive road, either in your own car or in a rented (or guided) Jeep, or you can walk it. We did a bit of both, driving a few miles in our 16-year-old Nissan Xterra and hiking the last 2 or 3 miles. It’s worth doing either way. The forests here are unscathed. Two pretty lakes collect in the valley. A couple of water falls plunge hundreds of feet from the mountain ridges into the valley.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Marble is what it isn’t. Although located in Pitkin County, whose county seat is Aspen, Marble isn’t Aspen.