MINTURN • Rebecca Callender says hello to a friend. The friend has a question.
“Are you coming to the meeting tonight?”
It’s a town meeting about a proposal to transform a historic property into a bathhouse, fit for some religious ritual. It seems a surprising development for this no-stoplight town, this hideaway that is close to Vail but feels like a world away, locals are proud to think.
Minturn is a little place tucked between mountains and lined by a river and railroad gone silent. It’s a town frozen in time, it seems, if it weren’t for the occasional sighting of tall condos and houses with that polished timber and cobblestone that recalls a certain posh elsewhere in the valley. The steep, narrow geography here limits building out, but there are signs of building up. And there are other, subtler signs of change.
Indeed, the bathhouse is surprising to many here. Many deem it unacceptable, including this visitor to Callender’s antique shop.
“We need as many people as we can get. We’re just trying to get them to save the building. It’s just sad. So sad.”
Callender just listens. Listens as she has listened to laments of Minturn newcomers for some 40 years now. (The friend moved here a few years ago from Texas, following a long line of retirees, while Callender came when trains still ran, blowing smoke and dust.)
Everybody around has an idea of what Minturn should be and what it should not be. It has always existed somewhere in the middle — somewhere between the grit of Leadville in one direction and the glitz of Vail in the other. A neighbor of both and yet a stranger. Minturn was a railroad town, never destined for fortunes from mining and skiing.
“No, it was not a Leadville, with its fancy Tabor Opera House, and certainly not a Vail, a place at its inception of recreation and leisure,” reads the introduction to “Minturn, A Memoir,” penned by Bill Burnett, born here in 1920.
What is Minturn now? The debate goes on.
Like the mayor before him, Earle Bidez has pledged to maintain the town’s “funky” vibe. Look elsewhere in Eagle County — Vail, Eagle, Avon, Basalt — and Minturn’s differences are “pretty astounding,” says Bidez, a resident since the 1970s, another Southern transplant.
“Everybody who lives here is very passionate about our town,” he says. “That’s kind of why it hasn’t really changed much.”
Minturn might resist change, but it struggles to evade forces plaguing mountain towns across Colorado, namely affordable housing. Second homes are a flashpoint; the latest Census data show about 20% of 561 dwellings sit vacant for some time.
And there are similar questions asked among residents here as there are in other desired nooks: Say no to development for the sake of historic charm, or welcome it for the sake of finances?
“I think everybody who owns property in this town has sometimes thought, ‘If I sold out now, man, I could retire,’” Bidez says. “I could’ve retired 15 years ago if I wanted to leave. But I don’t want to leave.”
Nor does Callender. She has another visitor to her antique shop, Andi Saden. Saden lives in West Vail, but she finds herself constantly drawn to the exit down Interstate 70.
“It’s old-time Colorado,” she says. “I feel like Vail is not just a city, but a corporation. And this …”
She trails off, letting Callender finish the thought. “This is Mayberry.”
Callender grins. “It’s the only place in the county you can still hang your laundry out.”
Not so back in the day. Along came the trains with their billowing debris, “and heaven help the wife who had left her wash out on the line,” reads Burnett’s book.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad blazed tracks across the Eagle River Valley in the late 1880s. A bustling station would be established and named Minturn, for the New York financier who secured funding for the expansion. Charles Minturn is said to have never set foot in his namesake town — a sort of irony not lost on today’s population of non-natives. Just about everyone who has left a mark on Minturn has come from somewhere else or, in fact, didn’t come at all.
There are reminders from those early days. There is the Minturn Saloon, appearing very much as it did in 1901, minus the photos of skiing and snowboarding luminaries. Jake Burton’s signature accompanies one, along with a message: “Every good day ends on ‘The Mile.’” That’s the run known to start in a back bowl of Vail and end down in Minturn.
With the resort well underway in the ’70s, the saloon’s new owner had an idea to turn the place into a skier hub in the decades after halls were packed by boxers and betters. Yes, gambling prevailed, as did beer and whiskey in that Prohibition era.
As a kid, Burnett recalls spending his fight night earnings at the candy shop. “My favorite was a strip of candy bacon, one cent a strip,” he wrote in his memoir, published in 2007. “Today I know of nothing you can buy for a penny.”
Nothing at the saloon. That’ll be $35 for the time-honored duck dinner. The prices might change, but “the saloon simply goes on,” says Lisa Fox, a server here for 17 years.
She came to Minturn from big cities in other states, came as many did: to ski the resort, only to discover a much different place on the other side of the highway. A haven.
“There’s so much going on in the big world,” Fox says, “but my reality is this tiny town.”
It’s easy to miss. The winding mountain pass of U.S. 24 meets Main Street, which hardly stretches a mile before the interstate.
“It’s just a stretch,” says Raj Manickam, getting his usual breakfast at Sunrise Cafe. “It’s just a stretch of goodness.”
A stretch where people wave. Where they say hello to people and dogs. Where they walk and listen to the river. Where they stop and listen to a local musician; one private patio has opened to artists and audiences, any and all welcome.
And yes, along this stretch people stop to debate the day’s developments. That heated up after 1960, as Vail came into shape.
”The Eagle River Valley is no more. It’s Vail Valley,” Burnett wrote later, a mournful end to his memoir. “Everybody works for Vail Resorts or works for contractors who are building Eagle County to become one big city someday. What the next sixty-five years brings to Minturn, someone else will have to write about.”
Not Callender this afternoon.
She leaves her antique shop for her similarly nostalgic home, which is built on a bed of railroad ties. It is a humble home, like others around with their faded sidings and tin roofs. Nothing fancy. Nothing to block the views.
Nothing obscuring the meadow across the street, up against a sloping forest. The land is preserved, Callender explains.
“It’ll always be open space,” she says. “Which is nice.”
This content was originally published here.