I was in Steamboat Springs, Colorado recently – great town, fantastic locals, and natural features that are completely synergistic with the town. The Yampa River literally runs through town and is the site of the namesake hot springs that used to puff out the sound of a steamboat (and its stinky sulfuric eminence). Mt. Werner looms over the town like an ever watchful parent. Howelson Hill harkens back to the pre-industrial ski areas, with its small profile, but hugely traditional ski jump and training center that still fine-tunes some of the best ski huckers in the world.
I was in Steamboat as part of an effort to start a local Trout Unlimited chapter in that town – something that they have not had in 20 or so years. TU offers great opportunities to be part of a national organization, but with a grassroots emphasis that is unique in conservation organizations. Given the importance to the Yampa River, and other streams in the area, to Steamboat’s image and economy, it got me thinking about the culture of towns like this.
The tradition of Steamboat, and how it applies to today, is interesting thing to think about. Certainly other towns like to claim a real Western feel – but do any of them really have ‘it’ like Steamboat does? Do you feel it as you drive into town, or stand in a local river and look up at the hillsides? To me, it's that the town has not overly glossed itself up with an artificial identity, but has kept many of the same businesses and core residents over the years – and those are still the people that you come in contact with everyday. The smiles you see in the shop owners and wait staff – the wholesomeness that the river guides and grocery store owners still project – the pride in their community. It doesn’t feel forced, it's honest.
It's is as much why we go to these towns as anything. Frankly I avoid the places that are trying too hard, and trying to be something to everyone. Or are simply not in touch with the beauty and history they have around them.
Then, by extension, does any of the West really have what one would consider an authentic western feel? Does it still have to be Cowboys and sheep (like Steamboat or Meeker), or could it be mountain bikes and hikers (like Crested Butte or Boulder), or wide open spaces and ample traditional recreation (like Durango or Lander)? Can a ski town be ‘Western’ or does it need to only be cattle drives and dusty streets?
I think it can have all of those things, and as long as it doesn’t slip into pretention, it can do those things well. The blend of community spirit, great natural treasures, and a vibrant and sustainable economy are all part of what makes a community great. And in the West, it seems that it comes naturally because of the connection to the landscape around the places we love the most. This is certainly not to say that the East or Midwest or South is bad…but it's different – isn’t it?
There has to be more to it - there has to be something else…maybe it's in the water.