Durango, Colorado

Outside magazine, July 1995


Durango, Colorado

A town where you can have a real job, a real life, and still get to move in with the scenery. Several reasons to split the city and head for the Big Outdoors.
By Mike Steere


Population: 12,430; La Plata County, 13,275
Gestalt: Hardbody Valhalla

If looks were everything, all these people would be stampeding somewhere else. But this scenery is made for sweat more than Kodachrome, and Durango has infectious high energy. Its scruffiness and failure to charm, at least by mountain-town standards, seems to make it all the more irresistible. Even at this late date, you can feel like a discoverer. The real Colorado. Yeah. This ain't Aspen.

Locals say that the influx of iron-thighed youths and sportif grayhairs with too much money began about five years ago. I witness half a dozen people getting Durangoed. One is a college-age bikie from Missouri gawking at fat-tireabilia in Ed Zink's Mountain Bike Specialists. He looks from Ned Overend's race-winning jerseys to the actual Ned Overend, who lives in town and once worked for Zink. The same powerful emotions that make him decide to move to town might have caused someone else to take holy orders. Others smitten are an East Coast widow, her daughter, and two college-age grandsons, who are having a new house built on 160 acres. They announce at a party that they're opening a brew pub downtown the likes of which Durango has never seen. The room is knee-deep in doubt, but they're too high on Durango to notice.

Out there: Poised between desert and mountains, Durango is close enough for quick trips to either. At 6,500 feet, with 300 days of sunshine, the weather constantly yells for you to get outside and do something. Eight world-champion mountain bikers live and train in Durango, where you're never farther than a half-mile from a trail. The city has set aside a 200-acre Gordian system of tracks as the West Side Mountain Park. Durango also supports its river jocks, some of them world-level competitors, with a whitewater training/competition park on the Animas River. Skiers and snowboarders make a 45-minute dash to Purgatory Resort, in the San Juans. The range's 14,000-foot peaks are close enough to admire or assault. Though daunting at first, the presence of big-dog outdoor athletes has a curiously liberating effect. Wannabe competitiveness is so ridiculous, you're free to be mediocre.

Paycheck: Local witticism: "If you want to be a millionaire in Durango, bring $2 million and don't stay too long." Making a decent living in a traditional fashion doesn't fit into the picture; choices include Mercy Medical Center, Fort Lewis College (3,801 students), and government offices.

Home: Brick mini-Victorians on Third Avenue, prime address in the downtown historic district, cost $300,000 and up. In-town prices get more realistic on the west side, where $150,000 buys a plain, humble 1950s tract house; $200,000 is low-end for a new log house on about an acre in the North Animas Valley boonies, 15 miles from town.

Neighbors: Early-retired aerospace exec and spouse from the West Coast, who are volunteer ski hosts at Purgatory. Young renters taking courses at the college but really majoring in single-track, snow, and whitewater.

Très Durango: Barely get by with three part-time jobs, then spend a surprise $3,500 bequest on a competition kayak and bike upgrades; wear denim, not technical garments, on the street, and be so fit that loose jeans say you're spectacular in spandex; make culture runs to Santa Fe; use "Californian" as a pejorative.

Please, no more: Real estate agents. They came for the boom and are now desperate to keep it alive.

Prices of paradise: Buying in at this point seems dicey, as if any minute the real estate market might start rushing toward sea level. Durango is already wondering where the next Durango will be.

Kindred spirits: Hood River and Bend, Oregon; Moab, Utah.

Mike Steere still lives in Chicago, where he writes frequently for Outside.

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