My Colorado: For Ski Bums And Entrepreneurs Alike, The Yampa Valley Remains Home
Twenty-nine winters ago, I was a newly minted Colorado ski bum – another fresh import from urban California. I moved into a ramshackle house with a leak in the roof and a party line.
I fell hard for the deep powder, soothing hot springs and rustic charms of rural Steamboat Springs. I also fell for a tall, lanky mountain man. Together, we built a life and a solar-powered log cabin in the aspens. Eventually, we went into the Flat Tops Wilderness, got hitched, and promised ourselves a lifetime of adventure.
Since those early freewheeling days, it can feel like everything has changed here in the Yampa Valley. But then… I kick back on my chairlift swing and consider that maybe the most critical components have stayed the same.
Northwest Colorado got wilder. We welcomed moose and lynx. And now we’ve even got wolves who wandered over the border.
Nature here continues to deliver the goods. Daily.
It’s blessed me with full moon romps on Rabbit Ears and a freakish double rainbow over Michael Franti at the ski hill. I’ve skied, shoveled and savored thousands of inches of snow – and reveled in the short glory of Yampa Valley summer.
But climate change threatens everything. Greenhouse gas emissions skyrocketed during these three decades. Among my neighbors, I feel both hope and despair. What will happen to skiing? And a fossil-fueled economy that stoked the Yampa Valley for generations?
Together, we face the shuttering of coal mines and coal-fired power plants. Foundational changes are upon us.
Since I arrived, Routt County gained one capital-W Wilderness Area – Sarvis Creek – and we expanded one, too – Mount Zirkel. Right downtown, grassroots victory spawned a massive land exchange that forever protected Emerald Mountain as Steamboat’s undeveloped backdrop and unofficial playground.
Among my neighbors, I feel both hope and despair. What will happen to skiing? And a fossil-fueled economy that stoked the Yampa Valley for generations?
Like the rest of Colorado, we got legal weed, and we got a little bit fancy over the years. The days of dive bars for scrappy ski bums to consume cheap beer and dollar tacos are long gone. We saw $1.2 billion of real estate sales last year. Wealth earned in other places helped build a kingdom of money and inequality in our valley.
I’ve watched my county shift from red to purple. And I’ve witnessed folks of all political stripe work together to protect wide-open spaces, working ranches and fragile ecosystems. In Routt County, private landowners have put 140,000 acres into conservation easements since I arrived. I like to think they built a great wall of conservation keeping Steamboat distinctly apart from Vail and the I-70 corridor.
In my eyes, quirks and devotions of local people keep Steamboat’s community character on task.
Local pyromaniacs gave us claim to the world’s largest firework. Regular folks taxed themselves to grow our public library. Citizens saved Perry-Mansfield in Strawberry Park and the Chief Theater downtown. Hometown support grew Strings Music Festival from a circus tent to a stunning Pavilion, and volunteers expanded our beloved free concert series from parties on the courthouse lawn to extravaganzas under the ski jumps.
So yeah, now Steamboat’s got a whole lot more traffic and never-ending construction.
We’ve got more high-maintenance people, and scarier fire seasons.
The lollygagging pace of mud season is extinct.
But we haven’t lost our history, our culture, our dark nights, our celestial skies, or the spectacular goodness of folks who choose to live here – the cowboys and ski bums and artists and restaurateurs who take a gamble on financial struggles and extra shoveling in exchange for a profound connection with nature and the good fortune to just BE here.
After all these years in the Yampa Valley, for me… the meaningful parts hold steady.
Jennie Lay is a freelance writer and editor who works from her cabin in the Yampa Valley, where she’s lived for nearly three decades. Her work appears in publications like High Country News and 5280 Magazine.
For the My Colorado essay collection, KUNC and Colorado Edition want to create a space to hear from each other and to share voices, thoughts and opinions on our Colorado experience. These short audio essays will focus on a specific topic. We welcome all Coloradans to submit their essays — whether you've lived here your whole life, or just moved to the state a week ago.