Go Higher: Telluride, Bluegrass and the Cross of Gold (A Telluride Contest Entry)
My first time into Telluride I was coming in from the East. The summer was hot and dry; the Colorado backcountry better suited to rattlesnakes than trout water. I had been camping up the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, some rutted jeep trail of a Forest Service road that would have seemed an interstate compared to the insanity of Black Bear Pass. That is to say, I drove in from the West, down Leopard Creek Canyon through Placerville by way of Ridgeway. When in doubt, go higher.
“I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened if this were but a measuring of ability; but this is not a contest among persons. The humblest citizen in all the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty-the cause of humanity.”
William Jennings Bryan spoke as such when he visited the town of Telluride in 1896, speaking in front of the New Sheridan Hotel while campaigning for the presidency. Telluride sits astride a narrow box canyon at the headwaters of the San Miguel River. It’s not the sort of place you happen across, that you wander through on your way from here to there. Telluride is a destination.
“Never before in the history of this country has there been witnessed such a contest as that through which we have passed. Never before in the history of American politics has a great issue been fought out as this issue has been by the voters themselves.”
The mines of the San Juan mountains gave birth to Telluride in the 1870s. Zinc, lead, copper, silver and gold flowed from the Sheridan, the Tomboy, the Pandora mines. Miners mined the ore, the town mined the miners. The good times were good. The bad times were bad. Butch Cassidy began his career in crime in June 1889 when his “wild bunch” robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank. Eastern financiers dealt a much heavier blow during the Silver Panic of 1893. It was silver and gold that brought Bryan to town.
“But in this contest, brother has been arrayed against brother, and father against son. The warmest ties of love and acquaintance and association have been disregarded. Old leaders have been cast aside when they refused to give expression to the sentiments of those whom they would lead, and new leaders have sprung up to give direction to this cause of freedom. Thus has the contest been waged, and we have assembled here under as binding and solemn instructions as were ever fastened upon the representatives of a people.”
Over time the mines played out. By the 1970s, “hippies” had taken over many of the old union shacks. The search for silver and gold turned to the perfect slope. And the perfect music festival. According to the Library of Congress, the first Telluride Bluegrass Festival was organized by a bluegrass band, Fall Creek, for the 1974 Independence Day celebration. Telluride, acoustic music and the Festival have all changed a lot since then.
“we stand here representing people who are the equals before the law of the largest cities… The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world.”
Author & professional contrarian Edward Abbey made his home downriver, past where the San Miguel joins the Dolores River and flows into Utah. He lamented the mining at Moab that followed the bust at Telluride. He lamented the rise of industrial tourism that turned desert towns and mining towns into meccas for the leisure class. Abbey’s Moab and Bryan’s Telluride are the same, yet different, than hundreds of others places in the high country. Built and broke on the back of mining and ranching. Reborn as recreational playgrounds, some might say they sold their souls to the new company store. Might say they’ve lost their souls on a cross of gold.
“If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
William Jennings Bryan spoke of literal gold, the heavy yellow mineral competing with Telluride’s silver for status as legal currency. Yet we still today find ourselves pressed down upon: Our crown of thorns is a gold record standard. The over-riding expectation that all that matters is the next hit on the radio chart, the next big thing on MTV, the next Girls Gone Viral on the world wide web.
Telluride is one of the few places that have staked out their own claim outside the Next Big Thing. Citizens of the town work hard to stand up for their land and historic fabric, looking for ways to balance growth and development—to make a place for a ski resort, summer recreation and a functioning community. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival has done as well, balancing a broad and diverse lineup to stay funky yet relevant.
It is no easy thing to resist the lure of easy gold. To resist the urge to get yours while the getting is good. To do better. To go higher.
Telluride is the destination. An amazing music festival is the reward.