Thursday, January 27, 2011

Max and Edna's Place

     Preface:  I've reposted this article from the same time last year.  Gretta and I went back to Ski Tip Lodge for another visit, and it was just as nice as before.  For some unexplained reason, all the photos had disappeared from this posting, so I re-inserted them, and hope they remain.
Max and Edna’s Place
by Greg Larson

     Gretta and I drove up Montezuma Road, about a half mile east of Keystone Ski Area in Colorado.  “There it is,” I said, pointing to the weathered pine board sign with hand painted letters: Ski Tip Lodge.

     I steered the car into the snowy drive and parking area and noticed the unassuming lodge, covered with snow and nestled among the pine, spruce and aspen trees.  Part log cabin and part stucco Swiss chalet, the layout was somewhat rambling, and it appeared that several additions had been constructed through the years.

     We had reservations at the lodge, mainly because it was a bed and breakfast inn.  I thought it would be a great way to get a hearty breakfast before hitting the ski slopes each morning.  I had no inkling of the amazing history of the site and the structure until we checked in and we received a tour.  We discovered that it is the oldest operating ski lodge in the U.S. That’s when we learned about Max and Edna.

     Before high-speed gondolas, ski-condos, and mega-resorts, there was a young couple, Max and Edna Dercum.  They came to Colorado in 1942, with a passion for skiing, a love of people and a zest for life.  Max was a forester and had a job with the U.S. Forest Service.  Edna, his wife, was raising their young boy, Rolf.  Their dream was to develop a ski slope and build a ski lodge.  It was the quintessential American dream worthy of a book.  At least that’s what Edna thought in 1981, when she wrote her memoirs titled “It’s Easy Edna, It’s Downhill All the Way,” a title that had been a quote from her husband before she started a local ski race in the 1950’s.  In the book, she gives us a glimpse of what rural mountain life was like in Colorado at that time, before plumbing and other minor necessities.

Mega-resorts at Keystone

     We were shown our room upstairs.  It had no phone or television.  On the tour given by a member of the lodge staff, we fell in love with the quaintness and charm of the place.  We touched the handmade, rough hewn columns and beams, as well as some of the wooden ski tips, used as handles on the doors.  A four-star restaurant was on the first floor near the small entry to the lodge.

Ski Tip Lodge

     Overstuffed furniture and antiques dominated the large, log-cabin living room with exposed wood trusses.  Huge plate-glass corner windows made us feel as if we could touch the trees and the mountains outside.  There was also the “Rathskeller,” a large parlor, where people gathered around the giant stone fireplace to visit in the evening during happy hour and to have after-dinner drinks and desserts.  Guests were encouraged to tend and stoke the fireplace.

Gretta reading in the living room at Ski Tip Lodge

     Max had purchased the small ranch with a cabin, which was previously a stagecoach relief station in the 1860’s for the wagons that came from Georgetown.  Passengers and horses took a break after the rocky trip over the Argentine Pass before making their way to the small mining town of Montezuma.

     When Max and Edna began work on the lodge, the original structure was in such bad condition, they rented a cabin on their neighbor’s property.  They set up their temporary residence in it and began in earnest to fulfill their dream.

Exterior of living room at Ski Tip Lodge

     In 1945 Max and Edna began construction on the Ski Tip Lodge, building it around the old cabin.  Max had also been looking at a snow basin located southwest of Loveland Pass for the possibility of creating a ski slope.  He checked the county records and determined that the three mining claims in the basin were tax delinquent, so he presented a bid to the county commissioners and it was accepted.  Shortly thereafter, Max and two of his friends created the Arapahoe Basin Ski Corporation.  Once they received their forestry permit, they began to prepare the slope and construct a tow rope to pull the skiers to the top.  Arapahoe Ski Basin opened in 1946.

     Max and Edna continued work on the lodge, and purchased bunk beds for two large rooms upstairs, planning separate men’s and women’s sleeping quarters.  Once the slope was operational, the requests came in from as far away as Chicago for a place to stay and ski.  Edna started as head cook and lodge manager.  She now had two children to raise: a son, Rolf, and a daughter, Sunni.  She charged the guests $3.50 per day for a bunk, breakfast and dinner.

     Gretta and I woke up on our first morning at Ski Tip Lodge with the outside temperature at fifteen below zero.  But the sun was out and the white peaks shone through the pines.  We took our time getting ready for breakfast and then went down to the dining room.  It was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever experienced.  Gretta had eggs Benedict, and I had blueberry pancakes with macadamia nuts and maple syrup, with eggs and bacon on the side.  The place seemed so cozy that we lingered downstairs before we decided to hit the slopes.

     We made our way over to the ski slopes at River Run Village at Keystone, and boarded the high-speed gondola to ascend the mountain.  The gondola cab gave us protection from the wind. Our plan was to stay on the easy slopes for a while, since we hadn’t skied in several years.  Once we exited the gondola, we soaked in the bright sunlight at the top of the ski runs.  We stood in awe of the natural beauty before us.  The white peaks of the Ten Mile range and the Gore range looked like giant molars glistening in the sun, with the deep green forests draping the lower slopes.

Gretta at the top at Keystone

     In the early years of the lodge, Edna cooked breakfast for the guests, and then hurried up to the slopes to teach ski lessons, with the smell of bacon grease still on her clothes.  As the ski slope and the lodge became profitable, Max and Edna hired a cook and assistants to take care of the lodge operation.

     They never advertised their lodge. It’s popularity spread by word of mouth.  Their clientele, mainly wealthy skiers from Chicago, St. Louis, the East Coast and Texas, returned year after year.  Max and Edna became long-time friends with many of them, and they participated in the Rathskeller entertainment in the evening.  It usually consisted of swapping ski stories, having a few drinks and singing a few songs.  Many times the partying continued through the night, with only a couple of hours remaining for sleep before dawn.

     Today, you can see pitons anchored near the rafters of the living room stone fireplace, where two inebriated mountain-climbing guests proceeded to demonstrate climbing techniques to the other guests, decades ago during one of the evening parties.


     Over the years, the Ski Tip Lodge accommodated a variety of well-heeled and famous guests.  some Chicago mafia stayed at the lodge, but registered under fictitious names and addresses.  Several movie stars frequented the place, including Henry Fonda, who came one summer to relax.  Many of the male guests insisted on helping in the kitchen, especially if the hired assistants were young, blonde women.

     Gretta and I enjoyed our routine of eating a grand breakfast each day before the ski slopes beckoned. We skied to our heart’s content until late afternoon before returning to the lodge. After a good soak in the deep tub, we’d go to the living room and have a beer and some pistachio nuts. In the evenings, we played gin by the fireplace, and threw a log on the fire every so often. We sat back and watched it crackle and pop, with sparks sticking to the flue momentarily, like fireflies ready to launch into the sky.

Apres ski beverage
     We visited with folks from various places like Texas, Illinois and Arizona.  Some were guests at the lodge.  Others had come just for dinner.  Some lived in condos nearby.  We enjoyed the two male guests from Holland, who I dubbed ‘Hans and Dieter.’

     What Max and Edna accomplished was nothing short of amazing.  Their passions were skiing and people, not wealth or fame.  They were talented ski racers and ski instructors.  Max and a handful of other ski instructors established the Professional Ski Instructors of America, Inc. in 1961.  Edna’s mom and Max’s parents moved nearby, and gave them a boost while they raised the kids, built a ski lodge, and developed the slopes.

     In the ‘60’s, Max had another dream of developing the mountain at Keystone into a ski area.  In the summer he drove his jeep up into the forests and walked every part of the mountain, seeking the best places for different ski runs.  Max and his friends partnered with Ralston Purina Company to develop what is now the Keystone Ski Area, which opened in 1970.  When the high-speed gondola was installed, Edna christened it.

Greg warming in the sun at Keystone

     On our last evening, we made reservations for a special dinner at the highest operating restaurant in the U.S., the Alpenglow Stube.  It is located at an elevation of 11,660 feet on North Peak at Keystone, and it is accessible only by gondola.  We were given the royal treatment by the Keystone workers and the restaurant staff.  When we boarded the gondola, the man in charge gave us a couple of blankets and wished us a great evening, then closed the gondola doors to prevent any night skiers from boarding with us.  It was a romantic dinner and evening, with a ride back down the mountain in the moonlight.

     At our last breakfast, I thought of Max and Edna, and all the history at the Ski Tip Lodge.  Even though it is now operated by the Vail Resorts, it still retains the spirit and charm of a small independent ski lodge at Keystone.  It is hard to express the feelings we had while staying there.  It was so comfortable I wanted to call it ‘home.’

     Edna died in 2008 at the age of 94, and Max passed away in October, 2011.  But their original dream, Ski Tip Lodge, is the best kept secret in Colorado.  It remains tucked in the solitude of the winter forest, just off Montezuma Road.  As we left, I quietly spoke to Gretta, “I think we need to book another trip here…same time next year.”

     “Shhhh,” she said. “Let’s don’t tell anyone.”

Outdoor solitude at Ski Tip Lodge

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Universal Language

by Greg Larson

     I am convinced that men and women are wired differently when it comes to conversation.  Men often use few words, sometimes mumble and use an occasional grunt in their vocabulary.  They communicate mainly when it is necessary to help them complete their work or to find something they need…like a car part or a tool.  Women, on the other hand, network and connect on a more emotional level.  Gretta’s recent experience, which she shared with me, solidified the “women” side of my theory.

     She had gone to Panera’s, a bakery and deli in Prairie Village, with expectations of meeting an informal Italian conversation group.  According to a friend, the group met there every Wednesday at 3:30.  Gretta thought it would be a nice opportunity to hear and speak the Italian language.  Since it was her first time to meet with the group, she arrived at 3:35, thinking that it would be easier to spot them in the large dining area.

Gretta walked into the deli and inhaled the familiar smell of coffee, soup and the warm, fresh bread.  She scanned the interior, but didn’t see any obvious groups conversing in Italian.  She saw mostly groups of two or three people at the occupied tables.  Not sure of what to do next, she bought a cup of coffee and began to wander through the dining room.  Maybe I have the wrong date or time for the meeting.  She strained to hear snatches of Italian conversation.

     Gretta plucked up the courage to find out if others were also waiting.  She approached two women who were in the middle of a conversation, one a younger, dark-haired woman, and the other an older grey-haired lady.

     “Excuse me,” said Gretta, “Are you here for the Italian conversation group?”

     The women smiled at each other and sheepishly chuckled, apparently sharing a private joke.

     “No we’re not here for Italian conversation,” said the older woman, as she smiled and pointed to the younger woman.  “But I do have to tell you why we’re laughing.  My daughter here lives in Rome!”

     “Oh!” exclaimed Gretta, “My husband and I just came back from a trip to Italy, and we spent two nights in Rome.”

     “Where else did you go in Italy?” asked the daughter.

     “We were on a bike tour in the Abruzzo and Molise regions, and then we spent four days in Florence,” answered Gretta.

     “Very nice,” replied the daughter.  “It sounds like fun.  I hope you find your conversation group.”

     “Thanks.  I guess I’ll keep looking for them,” said Gretta as she began to wander farther into the dining room.  There were no new signs of a group gathering for discussion, so she approached two well-dressed women who were having coffee together.

     “Excuse me,” said Gretta, “I’m looking for an Italian conversation group that meets here, and I wondered if you were here for that, too.”

     One of the women laughed and then spoke a bit sarcastically, “Oh sure, we speak Italian!”  Then she politely continued, “No, we don’t speak Italian, but I wish we could.  I hope you find the group.  Speaking Italian sounds like fun.”

     “I’m learning Italian and when I heard about this conversation group, I thought it would be good for me,” said Gretta.  “I’ll keep looking for them.”

     She continued to wander through the dining room, feeling somewhat like the storybook chick that was lost and kept asking each animal, “Are you my mother?”

     No, I’m not asking the two girls by the window.  She watched one of them texting, while the other talked on her cell phone.  Then she noticed a middle-aged woman with blonde hair, sitting by herself.  I’ll ask one more person before I give up.

     “Hi! I’ve been looking for someone who’s part of an Italian conversation group,” said Gretta.

     “Well I’m not part of it, but won’t you sit down?  I noticed you’ve been looking for someone.  I’ve had a hard day,” said the woman.  “My name is Carol.”

     The woman looked tired but seemed eager to chat.  “This is the first chance I’ve had all day to get some lunch,” she said as she dipped her spoon into the bowl of chicken noodle soup.  “I grew up here in the neighborhood, but I live in Louisiana, now.  My mom just moved to a nursing home, and I’ve come to visit her and work on getting the house ready for sale,” she sighed.  “There’s so much to do!”

     “You must be exhausted.  I know how it feels.  We just sold my mom’s house and had an estate sale.  It took months for us to go through all the stuff,” Gretta empathized.

     “I went to Shawnee Mission East,” Carol reminisced.  “Now when I drive around here, so much has changed.  My mom and I used to go to the Tippins restaurant across the street, and now it’s closed.  We used to have a big piece of French Silk pie…oh, that was my favorite chocolate pie.”

     “You can still buy Tippins pies at the Hen House grocery store,” replied Gretta. “They have whole pies, and I think they sell them by the slice in the deli department.”

     “Oh, that’s wonderful!” exclaimed Carol as she grabbed a pen from her purse. “I’m making a grocery list, and I’ll add the pie to the list.  My mom isn’t eating well, and I think the pie would be just the thing to perk her up a little.”

They visited for about ten minutes.  Carol finished her soup, and Gretta was done with her coffee, so it was time to go.  They said “good-bye” to each other and left Panera’s.  Their random paths had crossed and now separated.

     If I had been the one to seek out the conversation group, but not found it immediately, I would have bought a cup of coffee and left.  But not Gretta.  She and Carol had connected, and their day was brighter because of the conversation…even if it wasn’t in Italian.