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What brings visitors to the Wet Mountain Valley in the deep winter?

By W.A. Ewing

This is the seventh of a multi-part series exploring how Valley residents actually navigate the winter months, managing cold, wind, snow, and ice while going about the daily activities that provide our livelihood and sense of community. We conclude the series by looking into who intentionally comes here to be with us for a time, for winter pleasure or business.

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Not all matters related to winter living in the Valley are related to hunkering down or hibernating or surviving. As we have seen in this exploratory series, some folks find winter to be a favorite season, whether it is for outdoor activities or quiet contemplation or getting on with school work in good fashion. One further measure of how the upside of the season is enjoyed, we suggest, is by way of looking into who intentionally comes here to be with us in the Valley during the winter.

Of course, this exploration can only be a random sampling of who comes here, and for what motivations, yet provides some good news both for the economic stability and the pleasant reputation of the Valley.

Sheila Mitchell, Guest Relations Manager at Westcliffe’s Main Street Courtyard Country Inn, believes strongly that the personal touch of the innkeepers has much to do with why and how people come, and return, to the Valley over winter. “Guest visits slow down over the winter,” she notes, “and there is a huge difference from the summer, when there is more to draw people to the area…but one thing that’s different here is that we make personal connections with our visitors, we talk with them directly about why they are coming, and what we can do for them.” Mitchell went on to reflect on how our culture might be losing the sense of an older tradition of the inn and inn keeping, “common, say, in the Route 66 era.” But it’s just as important now, as it was then, “to encourage people to get outdoors, and simply explore.”

Mo Johnson (left) and Sheila Mitchell in the Courtyard Country Inn patio garden during a full-bloom summer day. – Courtesy Photo

Consequently, a number of the Courtyard’s winter guests are doing just that, and amongst those explorations are the Valley’s Dark Skies, “a huge draw” to the area in Mitchell’s experience with the Courtyard. She adds that she and the Johnsons—owners Mo and John—“work hard to provide an amazing experience for our guests so they can create memories sure to last a lifetime.” And of course, happy memories bring people back for more.

Speaking, as Mitchell did, of the older traditions, Candice Stipanovic is actually known as “the inn keeper” at the Westcliffe Inn on the southern edge of town along Highway 69. Living on site, Stipanovic has ample opportunity to be in touch with guests there in all seasons. Across the winter, those guests are often friends and family members of fulltime residents here, but a surprising array of folks find their way to the Inn: workers and laborers from the o6 Ranch (formerly known as Wolf Creek Ranch), hunters, staff of United Business Bank here during the local bank’s transition to their ownership, holiday visitors with friends and relatives, and “people passing through from Texas to the ski areas—we seem to be about half way for a lot of travelers.”

The winter season also provides inn keepers with the chance, Stipanovic adds, “to catch our breath! In the summer we just run, run, run, but in the winter we have some time to tend to longer term maintenance and upgrading to keep up to our standards.”

Bianca Trenker, just completing her second year at the newer Raven’s on the southwest corner of 5th and Main, Westcliffe, is pleased that her second year showed a slight increase in short term stays: “Lots of visitors coming to enjoy a peaceful getaway from the crowds, some time to disconnect…still close enough [to home] to check in.” Like Stipanovic, Trenker notes that Raven also see’s “people passing through or staying from Texas for mountain enjoyment in the area or on their way to ski resorts.” Intertwined with Raven’s short term stays are the long term stays by “people who are moving or building in the area,” another reflection, perhaps, of a sounder all-season economy in the Valley. Trenker also operates the B and B, Raven’s Off Main, at 11 Granada Court, Westcliffe.

On the northern edge of the Valley, Hillside Cottages is seeing a good number of winter visitors who are first timers in the area. Tara Seegers, the Cottages co- owner and operator, has learned from many guests that they “find the experience far surpassing their expectations—the views, the hikes, the Dark Skies, the quietude, all of which consistently lead to a ‘we will be back!’ comment upon departure.”

So, while things might be a little slower in tourist visits and in the numbers of people who simply want to take a break to see what lies here in the Valley, that “slower” is still a constant in our midst. As Stipanovic put it, “It’s a break, but we’re busy enough!” Perhaps it is quite an accomplishment, achieved through adventurous business people and the community of friendly faces strangers bump into here at the market, on the street, in the historic Jones, in a church new to them, or in a restaurant or coffee shop, that our rather isolated—or at least not so easy to get to!—high mountain Valley continues to be a destination for winter wanderers. We have an environment here which we hope we never take for granted: scenic wonder, quiet, a peacefulness of spirit and intent, a sense of being alright with where we are and how we comport ourselves. So much so that folks will come in the depths of winter for an experience of all that, braving perhaps for the first time an ascent and descent of Hardscrabble, a turn into the Valley from the Interstate, a journey up from the Arkansas River at either Texas Creek or Cotopaxi.

The Tribune has enjoyed poking into the hardiness of our community across the sometimes harsh, yet always beautiful, reach of winter. Ranchers, retailers, hoteliers, students, the library and other service groups, residents who enjoy the outdoors and the challenge of a hike in the snow, those who tend to our physical and mental health in all seasons: just a small trace of all the realities that make us who we are in the Valley. That “who we are” abides across the winter stretch, positively and, it turns out sustainably, thanks to all who anchor here in the storm, and provide a welcome haven for visitors as well.

– W.A. Ewing

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