Monday, January 12, 2009

Glenwood Springs comes up in the world

Glenwood Hot Springs last night, when the air temperature was 25 degrees F and the rising mist thinner than usual.

When I began research for Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America in 1990, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, was trying to shake off its reputation as the town of residence for "the help" that worked at the ski resorts of Vail and Aspen. One old friend, who had risen teeteringly high on the status ladder from our boyhood and owned a condo in Vail, sneered at my idea of stopping in Glenwood Springs and making it part of my book.

But in my three years of research for the book on the train that calls at Glenwood Springs, I encountered more young ski bums than elderly cleaning ladies. It seemed as if almost every waiter or waitress in the town's restaurants was just making a living to be able to ski, the way servers in Manhattan restaurants tend to be up-and-coming actors.

I liked the town because it was so unpretentious, yet free of those awful downmarket Jellystone Park attractions that mar so many Western tourist towns. The only concession to Declasse Road Culture I could see was the huge water slide at one end of the Hot Springs thermal pool. (There are two slides now.) That was smart of the pool operators -- the slides keep rumbustious youngsters well away from the adults devoted to Taking the Waters.

In the early '90s Lady Friend heard so many languages in the pool -- German, French, Spanish and dozens she couldn't identify -- that we deduced Glenwood Springs is a favorite stop for foreign tourists. It still seems to be, she said yesterday, as we parboiled ourselves in the 103-degree therapy pool.

Glenwood Springs has expanded a great deal since the 1990s. New motels have gone up all over, as have chichi (and excellent) new restaurants, some of them with Manhattan prices. The town's grand old hotels have been refurbished and even rebuilt, and are also commanding decidedly non-downmarket rates. A soaring tourist tramway has gone up the mountainside north of the town. New homes, both small and palatial, have been built everywhere. A huge new mall is in the planning stages.

What's more, townspeople tell me with a touch of schadenfreude, the moneyed residents of Vail and Aspen now are self-consciously mingling with "the help," buying necessities at Glenwood Springs' Walmart and Target stores. Sic transit gloria . . .

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