TELLURIDE – Roudy Roudebush moseys along as if he were America’s
last cowboy – 10-gallon black hat, red shirt, leather chaps,
worn boots with spurs – leading New Yorkers on horseback into
what he calls his “”Butch Cassidy meadow.” It was in this
aspen-framed paradise, Roudebush tells visitors, that Cassidy’s
Wild Bunch outlaws hid their horses when they robbed Telluride’s
Elk wander through the warm golden grass. The New Yorkers
pull out cameras.
Then they’ll tell Roudebush how lucky he is to be a cowboy
beneath blue Western skies and snow-dusted peaks.
Well, Roudebush has a secret: “”I ain’t no cowboy.”
Not only that, but privately he confides that Butch Cassidy
didn’t really hide his horses here when he held up Telluride’s
bank. (“”The meadow looks like the kind of place where you would
hide horses.”) He admits that the elk are practically tame,
guided by his voice into his clients’ path.
Worth $65,000 an acre, the meadow belongs to Goldman Sachs,
the world’s biggest investment company. Roudebush and the elk
are merely amenities.
As Roudebush puts it: “”We can give you appearances.”
Appearances are worth more than gold for wealthy new land
owners, in love with a mythical West, who are forcing out
workers and real ranching families. By driving up land values,
the new owners hasten the demise of the same Old West
communities they covet.Their takeover is political, economic and
aesthetic. And nothing is stopping it.
Nowhere have the effects been so sweeping as here on this
Rhode Island-sized swath of the San Juan Mountains around
Telluride, Rico, Norwood, Ridgway and Ouray.
In San Miguel County alone, $250 million worth of ranchland
was sold in the past seven years. That’s nearly one $100,000
sale per day. As a result, more than 40 percent of San Miguel
and Ouray County landowners live outside Colorado, according to
state and county tax records.
Many of the new owners could be called “”nostalgia ranchers”
– people attracted to the idea of ranching. In contrast, real
ranchers in Colorado rely on the marginal business of running
cattle and growing hay to support families.
A few years ago, nostalgia ranchers might have bought
mansions near Aspen or Vail. But now those areas are too
crowded; nostalgia ranchers typically want 75 acres or more.
They order peeled-log houses and ponds that conform to a
fixed image of the 19th century frontier as portrayed in movies
and ads. The paragon of this fakery is a custom squeak built
into fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s door. Lauren had carpenters
make sure the new door squeaked, like in movies, to add a whiff
of “”Gunsmoke” at his 13,000-acre ranch on the magnificent
Dallas Divide between Telluride and Ridgway. The squeak heralded
a wave of like-minded enthusiasts, who are following in Lauren’s
footsteps to sparsely populated areas across the West.
In this area, they include entertainment celebrities from
Daryl Hannah to Sylvester Stallone, corporate magnates, Wall
Street dealers and star lawyers. There’s a European mortician in
the Yampa Valley, a millionaire publisher north of Colorado
Springs, Ted Turner in Montana, Sam Donaldson in New Mexico.
One of Lauren’s neighbors, Vince Kontny, the retired
president of Fluor Daniel, the world’s biggest construction
company, shuns modern power lines on his manicured ranch. He
relies on hidden generators and batteries instead.
“”A Marlboro photographer said we’re trying to create a
painting,” Kontny said. “”And that’s right.”
“”It’s that feeling of history,” explains Sandra Carradine,
ex-wife of actor Keith Carradine who left California to run the
opera house in Telluride (pop. 1,896) with support from her
“”People want to be a part of something that existed before.
It helps them feel like they make a difference in the world.”
The new owners preserve scenery. They migrate from New York,
Chicago or Los Angeles, sometimes living only a few weeks per
year in the West.
But their effects are felt every day.
The fierce escalation of land values they trigger drives real
ranchers out of business and prevents working families from ever
owning their own home.
Meanwhile, the nostalgia ranchers take advantage of
agricultural tax breaks designed to help real ranchers survive.
Westerners now must live with, in the language of real estate
ads, “”unique lifestyles” of “”quiet luxury,” which workers
can’t afford any more than they can afford the $740 cowboy hats
in Telluride’s “”Bounty Hunter” shop.
“”Now my dad, he did wear a Stetson, but it was so old,”
mused Melissa Head, who was forced to pump gas in Ouray after
her father died. He wore plain work shoes.
“”My brothers wear caps. These new guys who wear spurs,
they’re drugstore cowboys.”
She and her brothers now are struggling to stay true to their
father – “”God willing” she says, her eyes glistening – by
keeping the family ranch.
Yet only a few ranchers manage to stay, rolling with changes
as Westerners always have, while workers become ever-more
That is the real story, the consequences, as well-intentioned
elites take a liking to the West.
“”People with money get to determine whose fantasy rules,”
said University of Colorado historian Patty Limerick, who has
led public discussion about the future of the West.
“”The little guy might have an equally powerful vision of the
West. And it’s not that one fantasy is better than another. But
there’s a question of how much you have to subordinate other
people to get your pageant played out.”
The boldest political affront occurred quietly in Mountain
Village, the tony resort between Telluride and Rico, across
Lizard Head Pass from where Roudebush leads horsepacking trips.
For nearly eight years, construction trucks have climbed the
road to Mountain Village, lumbered past the guard booth and
artificial ponds, unloaded stacks of wood, and poured cement.
This year, property owners declared Mountain Village Colorado’s
It ranks among the most luxurious towns – surrounded by golf
greens and ski slopes and spas – designed for people accustomed
to swift, doting service.
This is where carpenter Jason Patton has built rich people’s
enormous getaways for nearly a year, on and off, saving his
money for college, sleeping on a couch in a shared apartment for
workers. He’s 20, and still hadn’t saved enough to enroll for
this fall’s semester at Western State College, two hours away in
Now Patton has learned that he can’t vote, either, thanks to
the new Mountain Village charter.
The charter says that only workers who have lived in the
community for at least 180 consecutive days are eligible to vote.
Yet the charter gives absentee property owners the right to
cast ballots, even though they typically spend even less time in
Mountain Village than seasonal workers.
“”I work hard,” Patton said after a day of pounding nails at
the construction site retired Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf’s new
“”And I deserve to vote, because I work hard. I built part of
Workers’ lives here are severely circumscribed. Signs posted
outside Patton’s apartment warn that overnight visitors must
have passes, or their cars will be towed. Some workers want a
village council that would provide affordable conveniences – a
grocery store, for example, or a local garage.
To become a town, Mountain Village developers convened a
group of property owners to write a “”home rule” charter – the
one that disenfranchises seasonal workers. It was approved Feb.
Property owners “”really wanted the people that cared to be
able to vote,” said village manager Kathy Goodwin. Seasonal
workers “”may not … really care… How involved do you get
when you’re only here for four months?”
The charter “”doesn’t in any way discriminate against
(nonseasonal) workers that you keep,” she said.
One Mountain Village resident, 33-year-old Joan May, mailed a
copy of the charter to the American Civil Liberties Union,
complaining that it was unfair.
“”This gives too much power to people who own property,” May
said. “”American government is based on one vote per person.”
The ACLU plans to challenge the charter in court. “”This
certainly rips away power that we take for granted in American
democracy,” said James Joy, head of the Colorado ACLU.
There are benefits to the takeover by wealthy new owners.
They promise to preserve the West, which is struggling to cope
with America’s fastest-growing population. This may be a
practical way to save scenery and habitat for animals and birds.
Lauren will preserve his RRL Ranch from development forever,
his publicists say. Like many other nostalgia ranchers, he hired
local men to run cattle, feed his white horse, paint the
picture-perfect red barn, and maintain the peeled-log fence,
while he runs his fashion empire.
He’s lavished gifts on the nearby town Ridgway, such as a
satellite dish for the school.
Leading intellectuals and some government officials embrace
the new pattern of ownership.
“”Ralph Lauren makes sense,” said Frank Popper of Rutgers
University, who with his wife, Deborah, has proposed a “”Buffalo
The idea, to control development on sparsely populated parts
of the Great Plains and West, still stirs debate more than seven
years after the Poppers proposed it.
“”Lauren is an example of somebody on the 21st century
frontier in which a place that used to be used for ranching
becomes a place of wide-open vistas for recreation and tourism
and retirement and environmental contemplation.”
Even before it was fashionable to preserve the Wild West,
ranches were failing.
They are reincarnated in photos displayed on real estate
storefronts along Telluride’s main street. One real estate
business used to be called “”The Ranch Shop,” offering
ready-made ranches right off the shelf, like hats.
Not far from Lauren’s ranch, Faye and David Wolford worry
that their 100-year-old family ranch soon will be reincarnated
to fit somebody’s fantasy.
Their fences – barbed wire, not peeled logs – need fixing.
Power poles lean precariously. (Nostalgia ranchers in the area
want the San Miguel power company to bury power lines, because
the new owners consider them an eyesore. The Wolfords are
concerned that burying power lines could tear up fields they use
to grow hay.)
In their living room recently, the Wolfords did some
figuring. Calves were selling for 63 cents a pound, down from 85
cents a pound last year, 73-year-old David calculated.
“”You go to Safeway, and they don’t lower their prices,”
Faye said, shaking her head.
For years, Faye worked happily at the Ridgway post office,
and David drove a road grader for the county, to shore up family
Their two sons have nonranching jobs for the county.
But inheritance taxes, soaring as land values soar, loom like
a snowstorm during calving season. The Wolford children would
have to pay an estimated $150,000 to inherit the ranch. That’s
more than they can afford without selling some land, or agreeing
to conservation easements that the Wolfords oppose on principle.
They don’t want to give up control.
“”There’s something wrong,” Faye said.
David looked on the bright side. “”It’s progress, I guess.
Before, this was just a community.”
The Wolfords leafed through photo albums, laughing wanly as
they contrasted their old pictures with recent changes in the
Faye found a photo from the 1950s showing concrete sidewalks
in Ridgway, just like in big cities. But today those sidewalks
are wooden planks, like on Hollywood sets for Dodge City, built
over the old concrete to make Ridgway seem more Western.
David recalled driving a big yellow road grader, about 25
years ago, when John Wayne was filming “”True Grit.” Wayne rode
by on sawhorse mounted on a moving truck, twirling a pistol and
a rifle, shooting blanks.
“”He wasn’t even on a horse!” David said. “”In the movie, he
looked just like he was riding along.”
At least one rancher, 63-year-old Raymond Snyder, intends to
“”We just have to get along as well as we can,” he said over
coffee in the solar-heated dining room at his ranch house near
Norwood, 33 miles down the San Miguel River valley from Telluride.
“”We have to stay on our land as long as we can make a
Born along the Utah border in Paradox Valley, Snyder has run
sheep and cattle all his life on thousands of acres stretching
from the mountains to the desert.
He has a rugged face, deep voice and wry sense of humor. His
eyes are sharp enough to spot a ram chasing sheep on the
horizon. He has always adapted to changing conditions, rather
than clinging to some mythical West.
His doors, unlike Lauren’s, swing open without squeaking.
Snyder deeded his land to his sons back in 1978, minimizing
the inheritance tax crunch.
He bought a tractor-trailer rig to round up his cattle since
he can’t find good cowboys.
He served on the San Miguel County Commission, enduring
seemingly endless meetings “”to protect ourselves from all these
He negotiated yearly leases to graze cattle on some of the
neighboring 25,000 acres, owned by developers, who are selling
the land bit by bit to nostalgia ranchers.
“”I can’t blame these people for wanting to come out here and
set up their lifestyles and homes and things,” Snyder said.
“”And Ralph Lauren, he does a lot for Ridgway because he’s got a
lot of money. They support the 4-H. They support this and that.
But with absentee landowners you lose your community’s spirit.”
Snyder spoke of pool halls, a willingness to help neighbors,
a shared love of steak and lamb and potatoes. Norwood citizens
would take care of their needy not only by sharing money, but
also by socializing in the pool halls and, as Snyder’s father
did, sitting with the sick during hard lonely nights.
“”So many times,” Snyder said, “”big money has only been
there to make a buck. The absentee owner just don’t put into a
community what the person who lives there and works there does.”
The wealthy up here export garbage 46 miles down valley to a
dump near Nucla. Workers drive 58 miles to Montrose, because
Montrose has a Safeway, hospital, bowling alley, movies,
Laundromats, among other basic conveniences.
What would you do if a nail punctured your tire deep in the
Telluride box canyon as a snowstorm moved in? On the surface,
Telluride looks and feels enough like other American small towns
that you’d expect to find a friendly mechanic.
Roudebush laughs wildly.
“”It could take months!” he says.
Telluride has become so exclusive that no mechanic can afford
the high rent. Bulldozers last summer leveled the last garage
where mechanics patched tires. Developers wanted more room for
“”It’s kind of neat,” says Dan Neumann, 38, a painter,
standing by the white sports car he drove from Florida. “”It’s
nice not having all the industrialization.”
Yet the 17-mile drive to the closest mechanic, Joe Kray in
Placerville, means watching out for rockslides, avalanches and
“”And I don’t fix tires either,” Kray says. Kray owns Joe’s
Garage. A 49-year-old peering up from an engine, he says he’s
hard-pressed to keep up with major repairs.
“”A mechanic would have to charge $90 an hour to run a garage
in Telluride,” he says. “”Attitudes are weird up there. Their
priorities seem to be off.” A couple more miles down valley, at
Placerville Tire and Auto, Gene Wingate finds time to stick on a
“”That’ll be $12.50,” he says.
By the time Roudebush collected from the New Yorkers and
their friends, his telephone answering machine was blinking
furiously with messages about a Wild West Weekend. Daryl Hannah,
Ricki Lee Jones and others were coming to raise nearly $50,000
for Sandra Carradine’s arts foundation. The money is to maintain
the renovated Sheridan opera house, and cover costs of hosting
underprivileged children from cities and Indian reservations for
weekends with entertainers in Telluride.Wild West Weekend
organizers wanted Roudebush’s horses for security guards to
ride, so that the guards would look like cowboys.
Roudebush rolled his eyes. The last time he lent his horses
to a movie crew, the crew exhausted the horses, filming scenes
over and over without giving the animals enough water.
So Roudebush blew off the phone messages, climbed into his
big old red truck, and went to visit some friends.
He passed the park where workers play soccer in the evenings,
heading up to the Idarado Mine, where Lynn Gray was fixing a
“”You should bring some New Yorkers up here,” she joked.
“”I’ll let ’em ride around in my backhoe.”
The foreman at the mine, Jerry Albin, had a pained expression.
“”Hurt my leg sumo wrestling,” Albin said, rubbing his calf.
“”Benefit down at the firehouse in Placerville.”
A local firefighter’s daughter, diagnosed with leukemia,
needs expensive medical treatment at out-of-town hospitals. In
one night of sumo wrestling at the firehouse, the volunteer
firefighters raised nearly $1,000. Another benefit is being
Albin had more bad news.
“”People keep getting shot,” he said.
“”Now who?” asked Roudebush.
“”Kevin O’Brien. Last weekend down by RRL. Guy from Minnesota
thought he was an elk.”
Albin had laid off O’Brien when Idarado closed. O’Brien had
been trying to start a heavy machinery business to support his
wife and two children. He also worked for free as Ridgway’s
emergency medical technician and as a firefighter.
Hunting near Lauren’s land, O’Brien neglected to wear an
orange vest. He was blowing his elk call. So was the hunter from
Minnesota, though O’Brien recognized it as a whistle.
The hunter from Minnesota apparently fired without looking,
Ouray County sheriff’s deputies said. The blast shattered
O’Brien’s left arm.
Workers held fundraisers for the O’Brien family, too.
“”The donations will get us through a few months,” O’Brien’s
wife, Cheryl said, thankfully.
After talking with Albin, Roudebush took a long walk through
Telluride’s gravel alleys, behind buildings, where miners and
cowboys used to walk on their way to dance halls and bars.
Roudebush chatted with a few friends he passed. Then some people
with cowboy hats were waving and calling down to him from an
overlooking porch cafe.
It was the New Yorkers and their friends that Roudebush just
finished leading on horseback. They were waiting for pizza.
“”Hi!” one said brightly.
Roudebush looked up, waved, and then looked away. He put his
hand in his pocket. Under his fingers, their $20 bills felt
warm. He shrugged. “”I’ve got to do something for a living.”