Sat, Jan 15, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Rocky Mountain high life

For snowshoeing, heli-skiing, climbing, white-water rafting and mountain biking in style, the exclusive resort at Dunton Hot Springs will fit the bill, but only if your pockets are as deep as Tom Cruise's or the princess of Monaco's

By Anne Goodwin Sides  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Dunton Hot Springs, Colorado

Nothing exceeds like excess in the deceptively sedate little town of Dunton Hot Springs. In the 1890s, Dunton was a rowdy crossroads for trappers, gold miners and prostitutes. Eighty years later, it became a hippie hangout and a magnet for drunken bikers, wannabe poets and singer-songwriters who came to find their muses while camping for the summer in ramshackle cabins, which they rented for a buck or two a week.

These days, it's an Architectural Digest rendition of a miner's camp, a luxury spa hidden in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, where the 19th-century log cabins are filled with hundreds of thousands of US dollars of exotic artifacts and artwork collected from all over the world by the owner's wife, a former art dealer from Munich.

At US$600 to US$800 a night for a couple, the museum-quality cabins are occupied by the sort of people who recognize the unsigned William Eggleston photographs in the former dance hall and appreciate the period antiques in the guest quarters.

On a recent Friday night, my husband and I bundled up against the cold and stepped out the door of Dunton's log cabin library, a snug nest appointed with a bottle of Dickel whiskey, fresh glasses and a grizzly bearskin tossed before a well-stoked fire. We'd been perusing the library's collection of antiquarian erotic art. It was a little after 7, and overhead was a blizzard of stars. Dunton is so remote -- even from the town of Dolores, its nearest neighbor 50km away -- that not a hint of light pollution seeps into its private swatch of black sky.

We followed the guttering light cast by oil torches planted in snowdrifts, past a half-buried relic of a pickup truck and a yoga-massage studio that was once a pony express stop, to the largest building in town, which, appropriately enough, used to be a saloon.

The structure of weathered wood and corrugated metal was wrapped by an L-shaped porch furnished with Adirondack chairs, rusty mining implements and a huge rack of elk antlers. Inside, a pair of cowboy saddles straddled the doorway, perched on wooden posts in a Ralph Lauren-esque flourish.

Tyson Horner, a cherry-cheeked Iowan Falstaff and assistant general manager of the place, stood behind a densely graffiti-ed bar. Sultry jazz from an XM radio channel medicated the room like musical lithium. While Horner poured me a zinfandel, my finger traced the unofficial roster of Dunton's former denizens carved in the saloon's original bar -- from a few hundred gold miners in the 1890s to almost as many hippie nudists and well-marinated bikers who squatted here in the 1970s, leaving bullet holes in the bathhouse roof and the charred remains of cabins they set on fire for the fun of it.

Many of the names and initials no doubt belonged to tourists who came to wallow in the healing waters after the mines played out in 1918. Their inscriptions are preserved with Smithsonian care under a dozen coats of gleaming varnish.

"Did you catch those names?" Horner's eyebrows arched as his practiced index finger nimbly found a prominent "Butch Cassidy," and just below it, a smallish "Sundance."

"Come on," I said. "That's got to be a prank."

"Well," he pulled on the word, grinning broadly, "they're not sayin', but rumor has it they holed up here in 1889, after they robbed the Telluride bank -- their first heist."

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