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Colorful Colorado: Hidden in the mountains, a town proud of silence

July 17, 2016 Updated: July 17, 2016 at 12:42 pm
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Red Cliff, population 267 in 2010, is the oldest town in Eagle County. The town, shown Monday, June 20, 2016, started in 1879 as a mining camp in the canyon of the upper Eagle River. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

RED CLIFF - A bluesy voice could be faintly heard over the river rushing through this town, tucked in a pocket of the White River National Forest. It was Clarence "Frogman" Henry singing from the satellite radio of a Dodge Ram: "I don't know why I love you, but I do."

In his workman jeans, Bill Squires, 72, cleaned the truck parked in his gravel driveway, off one of the town's six streets. He was tuned into an oldies station. "I just like this stuff," he said.

It was a clear afternoon that lent a quaintness to this place surrounded by green hills. Sunlight danced on Eagle River, winding through the neighborhood, the small, saltbox houses that dangle American flags.

Highway 24 crosses over the Red Cliff Truss Bridge, built in 1940, and the upper Eagle River Monday, June 20, 2016, in Red Cliff, Colo. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

I found Red Cliff, Eagle County's oldest town and former seat, by pulling onto a slim road that drags off U.S. 24. I drove it beside the rapids of Homestake Creek, which was ridden a day earlier by extreme kayakers as part of the GoPro Mountain Games. I was on my way to that spectacle in Vail, where most of Red Cliff's 300 residents work. They get their paychecks from Vail Resorts, and they come home to this hidden place where they can afford to live.

There's no cell service here. There's no gas station. There's no McDonald's or any fast-food restaurant for that matter. There's one restaurant, a grill, and there's a handful of shops run by painters, woodworkers and plumbers.

People here are the "rugged individualists" described in an information pamphlet from the town hall, inside a former schoolhouse that was built in 1937 for the mining families who once scattered this valley. People in Red Cliff take advantage of their backyard, the mountains where they hike and bike and ski. In the river, they fish and kayak. There's no police here, and people take their four-wheelers and snowmobiles to the streets.

There are those such as Cody Rundle, the 23-year-old wearing his flat-brim ball cap behind the counter at the general store, across the street from the post office, open four hours a day Monday through Friday. A few years back, Rundle came here to escape his job in a cubicle. "I just wanted to have fun," he told me.

A Swiss chalet style home stands next to Turkey Creek Monday, June 20, 2016, in Red Cliff, Colo. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Many living today in Red Cliff found Red Cliff. Then there are some who Red Cliff found. Squires is one of those, born here like his mother before him. The town was more than double its current size when he came into it in the 1940s.

Cleaning his truck, he pointed across the street to town hall, the school from which he graduated. Inside there now is a room acting as a museum, storing the past, the grainy pictures of a bustling town. Squires recalls the saloons packed with the boys from Camp Hale, the former Army training site about 7 miles east. He recalls Red Cliff's opera house, its movie theater with the projector that collects dust in the room across the street.

There are becoming fewer like Squires, fewer who can talk of the mining days that made places like Red Cliff flourish. Like his father and about everyone else he knew, Squires worked at the rich depository of lead and zinc in nearby Gilman, now a ghost town sitting on private property. The mine closed in the early 1980s, and Squires went along with others he worked with to the ski resort everyone was talking about.

There are becoming fewer who can say like Squires, "I was around before Vail was Vail." The valley now teeming with commercialism was once a valley of sheep, home to ranchers. Charles Vail and his engineering team in 1940 got to work on what became Vail Pass. The resort opened in 1962, and Vail was incorporated soon after.

Squires worries about his home. Red Cliff is in the hands of people who came along well after him, such as Barb Smith, the town administrator who I found preparing for the town cleanup day. She was making calls to Minturn, the next town over, to see if she could get some garbage bags donated.

Smith has been a ski instructor in Vail for 35 years. She came to Red Cliff in 1995. "It was different from Vail," she told me with a chuckle. "It was nice to find a quieter spot."

She's proud of the museum down from her office. Standing in the room, she told me most people in town aren't aware of the place's history, and that seemed to bother her. On a shelf of yellowing bottles from the early last century, I noticed the familiar Jack Daniel's label. "That hasn't changed much," I said. "No," Smith replied. "That's part of the best thing about Jack Daniel's."

Across the street, I asked Squires why he's never left Red Cliff. "It's awful quiet," he said. "It's real quiet."

He shrugged and got back to his truck. The river ran and the music played on: "I don't know why I love you, but I do."

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Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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