New Orleans has its ‘Mardi Gras.’ Munich has ‘Oktoberfest.’ Venice and Rio de Janeiro have their ‘Carnivals.’ China and St. Paul have their ‘Ice Festivals,’ and California and Nevada have their ‘Coachella’ and ‘Burning Man,’ to mention just a few world-famous events. However if quantity and variety count, the not-so-famous capital of them all has to be Telluride.
In addition to its reputation as a world class winter ski resort, the little town in the Colorado Mountains offers its visitors a choice of 30 specialty event filled weeks during the summer and early fall.
Telluride’s galas date back to its first film and bluegrass festivals in 1974. In addition to its potpourri of scheduled celebrations Telluride offers free outdoor movies, a weekly farmer’s market and live music in the parks throughout the season.
The Telluride Film Festival, like its sister event at Sundance, has become recognized second only to the famous gala in France at Cannes. It’s a tough ticket because show biz people from all over the world make the trip to this little out-of-the-way venue in the San Juans to preview and vote on a selection of films, any of which could become next year’s Academy Award winners.
But music has always been the town’s big draw. Its various concert events feature many well-known artists and bands in virtually every musical genre.
Telluride… The Nathanson Family Connection
Actually Elayne and I had visited Telluride one winter back in the 70s with our friends Dick and Harriet Gold as guests of real estate visionary, Joe Zoline. Joe flew a group of us to Montrose, Colorado in a chartered DC3 and bussed us up to Telluride. The town didn’t have an airport of its own until 1985. Even today it has only one strip, and landing on that runway surrounded by 14,000 foot peaks is a challenge, even in good weather.
Weather is still a big factor, however the hour-and-a-half drive from Montrose doesn’t seem to bother Telluride’s avid sports enthusiasts and festival attendees.
Joe’s proposed ski area in the mountains above the town was beautiful. He had installed a rope tow high above the town where he planned to develop a world class winter sports venue. The ski run potential seemed unlimited. The man was truly a visionary.
At the time of our visit however, the town itself in the valley below had little to offer. Most of the buildings on its main street were boarded up. There was one small two story hotel and a couple of bar/cafes. Few of the little houses on the side streets were occupied.
Telluride has a long and colorful history dating back to its days as a summer campground for the Ute Indians.
The discovery of gold and silver in the surrounding mountains in the 1870s turned the valley into a mining camp boomtown. Because it involved a treacherous mountain journey by mule and wagon, the miners dubbed it “To-Hell-You-Ride.” A railroad to service the mines was installed in 1890 and the town’s population surged to more than 5,000 mine workers and the courtesans to serve them.
One of the town’s most interesting claims to fame was its historical bank robbery by Butch Cassidy and his “hole in the wall gang” in 1889.
Telluride’s boom was short-lived however. The silver market collapsed in 1893, and by World War I its population had dwindled to a few hundred.
By the early 1970s when a beer was a quarter and dinner a dollar-and-a-half, Telluride had become a hangout for a happy counter-culture hippie population. Many of whom were said to have been World War II veterans or Korean War draft evaders. Others emmigrated to the remote little town to enjoy its relaxed attitude toward controlled substances once its law and order sheriff had been voted out of office.
Joe Zoline believed however, that the area could become the next Aspen or Vail with unlimited summer as well as winter resort destination potential.
Though we enjoyed three great days of skiing during that initial visit, Elayne and I were hardly in a position to invest in Joe’s dream. On the other hand we were captivated by the sheer beauty of the place and made a promise to ourselves to return someday just to experience Telluride during the summer months.
Fast forward twenty years. Things had gone well for our little family. Our children had grown up. There were even a couple of grandkids. I was between business adventures, and we had spent most of our summers traveling the world.
One August the family’s birthday gift to me was a new 35mm camera, a big step up from my old “point-and-shoot” Kodak. Included was a weeklong class in sports photography at “Skyline” a beautiful ranch in the mountains above Telluride. It turned out to be a life changer. My days were spent in those mountains, along the area’s rivers and streams, and in the picturesque town itself, shooting virtually anything that moved as well as images taken during the town’s famous mushroom festival.
Several thousand very happy mushroom enthusiasts were combing the woods that week. Elayne and I knew nothing about mushrooms, except that some are destined to enhance a great steak dinner whereas others might make you very sick or worse. We learned that there is yet another category, the so-called “magic mushrooms,” whose psychedelic properties most certainly contributed to that annual festival’s popularity.
We loved the idea that a couple thousand colorful visitors come to Telluride from all over the country every summer to comb the forest in search of the area’s potpourri of fungal delicacies. There were contests and judges and prizes and a merit system we never understood. However, there were parades and music and laughter everywhere. Whether it was the thrill of the hunt or the music or the pleasures associated with noshing on the delicacy, Telluride’s mushroom Festival was and still is a joyous experience for all.
The week-long photo class ended on a Friday, and with our return flight scheduled to depart on Sunday, we had an extra day to kill. We asked our Skyline Ranch host, Dave Farney if he knew of any property in the mountains similar to his ranch that might be for sale. Dave suggested we meet Steve Cieciuch, a real estate broker friend who offered to pick us up the following morning. So began our next big adventure.
Steve, an earnest young local, spent the morning driving Elayne and I around the area visiting the various listings in his portfolio. It was not very satisfying. He was showing us parcels in five to seven acre subdivisions. We wanted to see ranch land; something similar to Dave Farney’s spread. We never so much as mentioned our budget. After all we were just window shopping.
The broker apologized. It appeared that there was nothing on the market that could even remotely compare with the Farney ranch. We were disappointed. However on the way back to town he remembered one particular piece of undeveloped property in an area known as Wilson Mesa. He thought it would be perfect except that it wasn’t for sale. “Would we still like to see it? Are we up for a hike?”
“Sure, why not?” we replied.
Of course we fell in love with the place. It was an 80 acre ranch surrounded on three sides by national forest. It consisted of two levels. The lower area featured a large pond or what we might call a small lake back in Minnesota. There were a dozen cattle grazing nearby. The upper section was heavily wooded but offered a breathtaking view of Mount Wilson and its magnificent snow-capped peak.
At the end of the hike Steve asked if we could spare a moment. We had parked beside the lake. He took a fly rod out of the trunk of his car, rigged it, tied on a fly, and on his first cast retrieved a beautiful rainbow trout.
That did it. “I know this ranch is not for sale,” I said to the broker, “but one thing I do know about real estate is that everything has a price.”
With Elayne’s nod of approval I insisted Steve call the owner. “Tell him that you have a couple from Los Angeles who have fallen in love with his property, and that you have been instructed to ask him to name a price, any price, regardless of how ridiculous it may seem.”
He shrugged his shoulders as if to say “Why not?”
That was it. We drove back to Skyline Ranch and discussed our adventure with Dave Farney. He knew the property well, but shared the broker’s skepticism.
We enjoyed our last dinner that evening with the Farneys, and as we were packing our bags for an early departure the next morning Dave came in to tell us that the broker was on the phone with a number. Dave cautioned that it was a big number, and to his knowledge it could be equivalent to the highest price per acre that had ever been paid for ranch land in the Telluride area.
Elayne and I looked at each other. The asking price was the exact number to the dollar that we had received in cash recently as a result of a profitable business transaction. It was fate. Escrow cleared a couple of months later, and just like that our little family became the owners of a beautiful ranch in the Colorado Mountains.
The escrow period couldn’t pass fast enough. I sent away for custom built log cabin catalogues while Elayne, the consummate hostess, was preparing lists of visitors she planned to entertain.
The property officially became ours in September. We drove up to Telluride, checked in at a B&B in town and headed straight for our new ranch. The colors were changing. The drive up on appropriately named “Silver Pick Road” was beautiful. In less than ten minutes the canyon opened revealing cattle grazing in rolling meadows against a panorama of forest fronting three snow-capped mountain peaks.
We checked out our exciting new acquisition and surrounding territory. We obviously had an immediately adjacent neighbor, evidenced by a small house, an outbuilding and horses in a corral nearby. Our joint properties appeared to be surrounded by forest on three sides. We learned later that the cattle grazing by the pond were owned by another neighbor whose ranch had been in their family for a hundred years or more.
We christened our property “Lone Pine Ranch” in recognition of a magnificent tree standing majestically in a high mountain meadow visible from miles away.
It was apparent that someone, perhaps the previous owner, must have done some grading on our ranch with the intention of building a home or cabin on a knoll above the lake. It was a natural. I visualized a small one bedroom log cabin with a large window looking up at Mount Wilson. Elayne had other slightly more ambitious ideas, which included something more appropriate for entertaining a steady stream of visiting, friends and relatives.
Elayne and I decided to hike what appeared to be a trail behind our property that led into the National Forest. We discovered a beautiful high mountain meadow and two small ponds about a mile up the trail with a magnificent view of not only Wilson Peak, but its neighboring mountaintops as well. We had discovered Valhalla at 10,000 feet.
The following day we met our immediate next door neighbors, Francis Raley and his wife Margaret. Doctor Rayley was Director of Emergency Medicine at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, which also operated a number of satellite facilities in that part of Colorado.
Francis was built like a Greek god. He had been raised in Colorado and was an outdoor guy who built his own house, outbuilding shop and corral. Margaret was an elementary school teacher in Telluride where they also had a winter home. They were the consummate outdoor couple. Their days at the ranch began with an early morning run up the mountain to the snow pack and back. The Raleys also had several children, two of whom attended school in town.
As we walked our combined ranches together, I noticed that the barbed wire fencing bordering our land and the national forest was in various stages of disrepair, which Francis explained accounted for the presence of that herd of cattle leisurely grazing on the hillside above the pond.
Elayne and I became very fond of the Raleys which was a good thing, considering that we shared, for all practical purposes, the same ranch land with nothing separating our properties. Francis was always busy on some repair or improvement project. Sensing my enthusiasm to pitch in, he suggested I assist him in rebuilding our jointly owned dam.
The entrance road to our new ranch had been cleared some years ago. It extended about a half mile into the property and skirted our side of the lake. Access however was impeded by a half a dozen or more fallen Aspen trees.
I recruited my brother, Butsy, who drove down with Linda from their place in Aspen to lend a hand. Francis suggested we borrow his tractor and chainsaw. Observing the helpless look that passed between us he offered to show us the ropes. Fortunately my brother was a quick study. While we were at it, we brought in professionals to drill a well and grade a proposed building site above the pond.
In time we met some of our other neighbors on Wilson Mesa. The creek below our pond flowed through our property down into a ranch owned by Jim Kennett, a young fellow who lived in an interesting little dwelling he had built into the side of a hill. He had a few horses, and from what we could tell he lived there year-round. It must have presented a challenge, because Silver Pick Road was certainly at the bottom of the county’s winter snow plowing agenda.
The large ranch to the west of the Raley’s was owned by the Schmids, whose colorful family had actually homesteaded the place many years ago. It had recently been declared a national monument. Those were the Schmid cattle that appeared to enjoy free range on our place.
East of us was another large ranch owned by Hans Jones and his wife. Hans was an executive with North Face, the large outdoor clothing manufacturer. The Joneses had built a small one room cabin on their ranch complete with outdoor privy where they chose to rough it during their visits to Wilson Mesa.
Apart from our neighbors, the No Trespassing sign on our ranch discouraged most visitors. I was once approached by one of the men working on our entrance road for permission to access the national forest through our ranch during the elk season. I checked with Francis who explained that one elk would feed that man’s household for a year.
During our first summer in Telluride Elayne and I rented a house in town with a couple of extra bedrooms which of course she managed to fill with a parade of visiting guests from Los Angeles. Our Malibu neighbors, the Kiewits flew up in his personal jet, and Telluride became a stopover for a host of friends and relatives motoring through the American West. Of course our kids and their kids came to visit, as did my sister Nancy and family and our dad, Gil Nathanson who grandson Dan took fishing in the pond in Francis Raley’s canoe. The inevitable tip-over happened of course. Despite their impromptu swim they managed to bring back several beautiful rainbow trout for dinner that evening.
Each year Elayne and I drove up to our little ranch via a different route. We were in no hurry. My brother used to say he could drive to Aspen in 15 hours. We on the other hand tried different circuits every summer, following the thinnest lines on the road map. We ate at “Mom’s Cafes” and slept at Best Western motels. It might take us as much as a week to reach Telluride, as we immersed ourselves in the American west.
During the eight years we spent trying to decide what to build on our “Rancho Grande” we continued to rent various houses in the town of Telluride itself where we entertained a steady stream of visiting family and friends flying or driving up from Los Angeles.
Our bodies had given up skiing a few years before, so we never had occasion to visit our Lone Pine Ranch during the winter months. However, son Tom and his girlfriend Susan drove over from Boulder to check it out. Judging by their photos, it was beautiful.
I’ll never forget the day I received a phone call from Steve Cieciuch, my broker friend. He had a client that wanted to buy a portion of our Lone Pine Ranch. “Not for sale,” was my reply. After all, we had owned the property for less than seven years.
“Would we sell the upper parcel?” asked Steve. “The buyer is a wealthy young man from Indiana whose family has fallen in love with the location and its magnificent views.”
“Just consider it,” pressed Steve. “It would involve no more than thirty acres and he’s suggesting a price that’s probably five times what you paid for the whole property. Steve was persistent. “Discuss it with Elayne… think it over. You and the buyer can agree on a building site that would be set back in an area which will allay your mutual concerns about privacy. He can build a separate entrance road. You won’t even know he’s there.”
El Rancho Glendale
So what happened? What happened to our dreams of a ranch in the Colorado Mountains? How come we never built one of those beautiful log homes? Well no surprise… Wouldn’t you know it? Our new friend from Indiana, decided he really wanted the whole property, urging us to “just name a price, any price.” That sealed it. Come to think of it, Elayne and I never did agree on the size and scope of our proposed log house. On the other hand my new fly fishing hobby was taking me away with my brother or my pal Bob Karp for as many as two or three days at a time. The idea of Elayne, the tenderest of all tenderfeet, spending nights alone out there in a cabin by herself just wouldn’t work.
Did we suffer through bouts of seller’s remorse? Sure, but not for too long. We resumed our world travels, and in time our “dream ranch” evolved into a beautiful office building in downtown Glendale. So much for our Nathanson Family’s adventures in the Wild West.
Today Telluride is a world-class ski resort, and the Telluride Valley has become the summer festival capital of America. Joe Zoline’s Mountain Village has boomed into a contemporary year-round vacation destination, however thanks to the Telluride city fathers, the colorful little town in the valley below has been preserved as a national monument.
Telluride’s gold rush has taken on a new life. If Butch Cassidy and his gang were to return they could rob their choice of the eight different banks and/or seven ATMs. And if he timed it right, they could stick around and enjoy a “Rocky Mountain High” at the town’s annual mushroom bacchanal.
*Note: The beautiful Skyline Ranch Dave and Sherry Farney bought for $168,000 in 1968 sold to eBay CEO Meg Whitman for $20,000,000 in 2005.