Marooned in Colorado

A type-A journalist is forced to unwind at an idyllic, isolated (accessible only by narrow-gauge railroad or helicopter) Colorado resort.

Published November 25, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

As soon as the helicopter sets us down and we are shown to our suite, the silence, beauty and utter isolation of this place starts to suffuse my very being with calm. God, this is going to be painful.

I immediately want to pin the blame on Erin, my tree-hugging, granola-eating college-student daughter, who had convinced me we needed to stop in Colorado on our marathon coast-to-coast road trip. "I've never seen it!" she had pleaded. I never could resist those baby blues. "And we're going to need a few days of PEACE and QUIET before we drive across, you know, Oklahoma!" Peace and quiet in a road trip? Peace and quiet in my LIFE? It seemed as unlikely as finding quality food at freeway offramps.

But I didn't want to disappoint my wonderful progeny, who would make my life miserable if I didn't allow her input. So I devoted a few minutes of the several hours a day I spend on the Web to investigating possible destinations. Plugging the words "Colorado" and "resort" into my search engine, the computer came up with Tall Timber. The scenery sounded beyond belief: at 7,500 feet on the rushing Animas River, with the crags of the San Juan range jutting up all around. Isolated -- the only way in being by narrow-gauge railroad or helicopter -- but rated five stars by Mobil, Tall Timber had its own chefs, gourmet high-altitude picnics, a golf course, horseback riding, fly-fishing and a hot tub to soak away the rigors of the road. Rustic but elegant. My only misgiving: a statement on the Web site about there being "no telephones and no televisions."

Surely that couldn't mean NONE; everywhere in the world nowadays has such amenities, from French chbteux to surf huts in Fiji. Besides, I'd heard that Tall Timber entertained everyone from movie stars to vice presidents; people that HAD to stay in touch as much as I -- a San Francisco Type-AAA arts journalist -- had to stay in touch. So I worried not ...

We arrive in charming Durango, the nearest town, and are directed by phone to the local airport. Denny Beggrow, the resort's owner, had long ago invested in a helicopter; the two hours by train it takes to get to Tall Timber is chopped to 15 minutes by copter. Ed, the amiable pilot, surprises us with two roses! And loads our bags for the quick trip. Spectacular as the flight is, with Ed dipping into scenic ravines up the river, seeing Durango fading away rapidly in the background causes my urban heart to flutter. Wait, isn't this the week that my favorite No Depression band is playing the Fillmore? What if Keanu Reeves comes out and I'm not there to report it? Will my writers' group talk about me behind my back at the weekly dinner?

I scarcely have time to ponder the ramifications of these possibilities when we touch down in a glorious meadow. The sky has begun to rumble, as the dying summer is serving its notice. Big droplets begin pelting us as we emerge from the copter to a smiling lineup of resort staff. (Erin, poor unfortunate child vacationed in budget inns, is perplexed. This, I explain, is what five-star resorts do.) Our luggage whisked away, Denny takes us on a tour of the 180-acre property -- at least, the part that's not inhabited by mountain goats. He tells us tales of deer he had rescued that became pets at the resort, and of bear sightings near the railroad tracks. Erin is enchanted; I'm thinking what a great magazine story it would make if I were chased down and attacked.

We are taken to our suite, a split-level, ski lodge-style affair deep in an aspen grove. There are only a handful of units; Tall Timber limits its guests to 30 at a time. Doors are never locked, unless guests want them to be. (At this price, and with this privacy, who's concerned about crime?) Erin has her own half of the condo, with her own bathroom (always a plus with a teenager) and fireplace. Throwing open the sliding doors, she rapturously beholds the sound of ... what? "The river!" she calls. "And ... the AIR!" Oh God, I should have brought my boom box. Sneaking onto the deck, I try my cellular phone ("Just to check messages!" I explain to an irritated Erin), but it's no use. No signal.

We take a walk down to the hot tubs, which are located in a gazebo right on the river. At this altitude, walking can be a lung-bursting pursuit if you're on any kind of incline at all, although we're told that this passes in a day or so. The Jacuzzis are divine; as you boil away you can watch the sky change colors and cloud patterns. Cloud patterns? Wow, that's pretty cool, I note with a rare display of wonder. Erin just shakes her head.

After changing clothes (clean jeans -- no one dresses up here), we trudge up the hill to dinner. There's a lot of walking to do at Tall Timber, but fortunately everywhere you go is gorgeous. The lodge, which features sweeping views of the valley from every table, is also where Denny's family lives. This night, the chef is offering Chinese food, which is scrumptious. Walking back to the condo is more like a jog -- the temperature has dipped into the 40s. Fires have been laid for us, and after a bath in a huge spa-tub, I wrap up in a Tall Timber robe in front of the flames, announce to Erin I'm going to write some notes about the trip, and promptly pass out. So much for urban insomnia.

The activity for the next morning, Erin decides, is a hike upriver. Good! I think. I can try my cellular phone at a higher altitude, where it's sure to get a frequency. The hike follows the tracks of the antique Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge railroad, which rumbles through Tall Timber a few times each day, belching enough smoke and coal fragments to necessitate a follow-car with a working fire hose. You want to time your walks right; there are spots where the only way to avoid an oncoming train is by leaping into the river. It is breathtaking. But she wants to head up a trail, and I reluctantly follow. Soon my lungs are aching, and I urge her to go on ahead. Feeling nature's call, I hunker down on the side of the trail to relieve myself. Without warning my cellular phone slips out of my pocket and into the line of fire. Erin returns to see me frantically wiping it off. She can't stop laughing. "Serves you right!" she howls.

After we return, Denny offers to take us to a high(er) altitude lake for a picnic. His wife, Judith, an amateur photographer, goes along. The flight takes us between jagged peaks and above jade-green, bottomless alpine lakes. One of them -- owned by the Beggrow family -- has enough land alongside to provide a landing space. For two hours we simply inhale the vistas and try to count the number of wildflower species, which seem to number in the hundreds. It is quite simply the most beautiful place we have ever seen. "I think this is what heaven must look like," Erin breathes. It takes me until well after we return to realize I did not check my cellular phone up there. Judith laughs. "We get that all the time -- executives from Denver and all over are dragged up here by their wives, and it takes them DAYS to unwind. So you're right on schedule."

After another fine dinner -- made more so by the company of Judith and manager Barbara Heyton -- we sleep soundly again, lulled by the sounds of the river and crickets. The following morning, before our helicopter ride back to civilization, I make the following notes while sitting quietly on our deck: "Aspen are magical trees, a self-contained light-and-sound display that rivals anything at the Fillmore. Like the perfect wind chime, they kick into gear at the slightest stirring of the breeze; the fluttering turns the leaves into paper emeralds."

Erin is there at my shoulder. "Aw, mom. Good for you!" she smiles, never too far from the place I came a long way to find.

By Sara Baird

Sara Baird is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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