I wandered into the village with no expectations. I had only barely heard of it and knew nothing.

Bearded folks lounged along the only street. In the middle of the few blocks of the commercial strip, a group of grungy guys and gals waited patiently in front of a sign that said, “Public Baths.” One of them explained to me that the town had no water system and most residents relied on the public bath to clean their body and the public laundromat to wash clothes.

Just off the main street a huge box squatted beneath a sign reading, “Free stuff.”

A park in the middle of town provided sites for the impoverished to pitch tents for free. A few blocks from the park, a ski lift climbed the mountain. Between the coffee houses, a grocery, a hardware store and other useful shops squeezed their way into 19th century brick buildings.

That was Telluride, Colo., the first time I saw it 40 years ago.

Today, the Free Stuff box still sits in the same alley, and Town Park remains a great place to camp, with a large waterfall, a clean river, forest and hiking trails at your back and mountains soaring all around you. But you are a lot less likely to find a shack without running water than a cabin costing a million dollars.

What is remarkable about Telluride is not that, like many of Colorado’s old mining towns, it has changed dramatically, but that it has retained more than a scintilla of the old free-and-easy, laid-back vibe that was a mountain magnet in the 1960s and 1970s.

The approach to Telluride, an hour-long drive north from Mancos, on U.S. 160, between Durango and Cortez, is as grand and wild as ever. You pass through villages with names like Dolores (whose pretty river by the same name is supposed to supply stellar spring rafting), Stoner (which, in the new Colorado of legal pot may be an appropriate name) and Rico, which looks more bedraggled than rich.

Telluride itself is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and although its boutiques and art galleries and French restaurants have driven out the old commercial practicalities, the town retains the kind of atmosphere, somewhere between hippie and yuppie, that Vail and Aspen lost decades ago.

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Leo “Bud” Welch performing Saturday afternoon in Telluride at a concert just for campers at the base of Lower Bear Creek Falls, the most dramatic of the town’s several music venues. Welch himself is a dramatic story: The 83-year-old Mississippi blues guitarist and singer made his first recording, “Sabougla Voices,” in 2013 at the age of 81. This year Rolling Stone magazine listed him as one of 10 “new artists you need to know.” Photo by Thelma Bowles.

What brought my wife and me to Telluride last week was the annual Blues and Brews Festival. Telluride holds a lot of festivals, most famously the Memorial Day weekend Mountainfilm Festival, the June Bluegrass Festival and the Jazz Festival in early August. It has learned how to do them well. For a town of 2,200 residents to organize a three-day party for several thousand guests is no mean feat, yet Telluride pulled it off. It did so with considerable charm, grace and good humor, which is the real reason massive numbers of people keep returning to Telluride. This was the 22nd annual Blues and Brews Festival, and my wife and I have friends who have been coming every year for two decades.

We camped in the same old but much enlarged Town Park where I camped 40 years ago—$10 a person a night for a spot on the bank of the river where the first thing we saw in the morning was a mountainside on which from day-to-day we could track the changing of the quaking aspens from green to gold. We actually felt sorry for our friends imprisoned behind walls in their luxury condo. (On the other hand, they didn’t have to endure nights in the 30s and ice on the tent in the morning.)

A few minutes walk from the park took us to the base of the gondola, the only free gondola in the Untied States, they say. The 3-mile-long gondola runs from dawn to midnight every day, climbing a couple of thousand feet from the middle of town to a high pass and then continuing on to a wealthy suburb called Mountain Village. The suburb owns and has built and financed the gondola. To give you an idea how wealthy this community is, it is in the process of converting all its gondolas to solar power at a cost of $64 million, which it is paying for itself, without benefit of grants or taxes. All this so the residents of the suburb can get directly to town without having to drive several miles on winter roads.

The gondola is not the only free transportation. Every 20 minutes or so a white van called the Galloping Goose circulates through town, although hardly at a gallop.

The organization of the festival is awesome. About 50 portable toilets were set up at the main venue and more elsewhere. All were cleaned twice a day. Several thousand festival-goers managed to get in and out of the main venue, a huge grassy field with a Western-themed stage at the rear, with a minimum of fuss and frustration. The sense of order and good humor was startling.

And the music! The music, of course, is why you go. On the main stage, a total of 20 bands played nine hours a day for three days. In addition, other performances appear on a couple of smaller stages, on impromptu sites around the periphery if the main field and late into the night at bars and hotels in town. The musicians, from all over the country, included some to the biggest names—Greg Allman, Taj Mahal, Sharon James, ZZ Top, Black Smoke.

What surprised me about the music was how diverse it was. The definition of what constitutes “blues” today is so broad as to be totally unpredictable. Bluegrass and country, soul and jazz, rock and spirituals all flavored the festival.

The thousands who attended provided their own kind of entertainment for me. Listening to the accents and staring at the sometimes provocative or outlandish costumes could have been a full-time amusement. The audience ranged from sleeping babes in arms and kids kicking balls to oldsters hobbling on canes and riding wheelchairs. The great majority, however, fit a stereotype typical of Colorado events: mostly young men, fitter and more hirsute than the American mode, and in large part Caucasians between 25 and 35. Many were from Denver and Colorado Springs, but others we met traveled further, from Dallas and San Diego and New Jersey.

To an awesome extent, the several thousand attendees shared the patient, courteous and friendly attitude of the residents. A young man named Mark kept showing up at our elbows. Other strangers kept coming up and talking to me. It seemed that I had become a bit of a minor celebrity because of a peculiar incident at a concert one night.

The concert was the climax of Friday night’s music when a famous band called ZZ Top was performing. The band seemed to draw a different audience, or at least inspire a different mood, that any other at the concert. The audience was enthusiastic, but more than enthusiastic, a bit fanatical. Quite a few had been drinking heavily, although this was the only time I saw much inebriation.

Many knew the words to ZZ Top’s songs and sang along with the band. They were desperate to get as close as possible to the band, and tightly packed the dirt apron, the mosh pit, immediately in front of the stage. We were perhaps a half dozen rows back, with a couple of hundred people in front of us and perhaps a couple of thousand pressing forward behind us.

Just in front of us a small, attractive blond woman shouted to a tall slender bearded man behind us. “Come here,” she yelled. “You come here,” he replied from behind us. They had this little seesaw argument for a minute before she won out and he started squeezing his way through the tightly packed crowd to her side. For once, the crowd was less than obliging and he had to do quite a bit of shoving to get through, which he finally did.

Then a short man standing just behind me started screaming at him. His problem was not that the tall man was pushing his way through; it was that he was tall, and hence might impede his view of part of the stage.

The two men began to shout at each other. The short man was yelling that the tall man had no right to push his way into the front, and the tall man shouted that he was just joining his girlfriend.

Then the girlfriend began shouting to support her man, and the woman standing beside the short man started screaming to support him.

The short man turned to the crowd and asked if he wasn’t right to object to the tall man crowding him, and a couple of people joined his side.

Then others started yelling in support of the tall man. Both the tall man and the short man seemed a bit drunk. Neither showed any intention of backing down. They became angrier and angrier. The argument was escalating toward a fight.

I didn’t want to just stand there as a brawl enveloped the crowd surrounding me and more and more people took sides and joined it. “Take it easy,” I yelled at the two men,“Take it easy. Calm down. It’s not worth it.”

Suddenly the crowd around us seemed to side with me instead of with the squared-off rivals for two feet of standing space.

Sensing a shift in mood, first the tall man and then the short one stopped screaming at each other. “I’ll offer you a compromise,” the tall man said calmly. “You can come up here where I am and I will stand behind you That way I won’t block your view.” The short man agreed. Confrontation over.

For days afterward, people called to me, “Hey, it’s the mediator,” or “Peacemaker, how you doin’?” Somebody or other that I didn’t even recognize would greet me like a long lost friend. “You were a local hero,” my wife said later. But I hadn’t wanted to be any kind of hero, local or otherwise. If anything, I had been afraid. I just didn’t want to be in the middle of a riot.

From time to time in Telluride I could see the question forming in the mind of someone far younger than I. I could see the question so vividly I could almost hear it: “You’ve lived 75 years, more or less happily, without doing this. Why now?” And I respond in my own head if not with my tongue, “If not now, when?”

Leota Harriman
Leota Harriman

Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at news.ind.editor@gmail.com.