To heaven and to hell, you ride
Maybe the altitude is getting to me, or it could be the Bloody Mary, but things seem to come in dizzying extremes in the old cowboy town of Telluride, snowbound in a dead-end Colorado canyon.
Marijuana is legalised here, the steaks at a main-street Italian restaurant are by Ralph Lauren and a fierce Bloody Mary I order after midnight is garnished with a cheeseburger. This drink is the invention of local foodie Patrick Laguens and could lay claim to the title of world's whackiest cocktail.
Telluride is a neat town with a wide main street filled with Victorian-era shops, galleries, restaurants and bars with a wild-west feel.
The New Sheridan Hotel, rebuilt after a fire in 1895, has boutique accommodation and a trendy saloon that could be right out of True Grit, filmed nearby.
The San Miguel Valley Bank where Butch Cassidy staged his first robbery is still here too. It has long been out of money and out of business but there is a plaque on the door recording the robbery on June 24, 1889.
Telluride is cool in its cowboy vibe and cool in its geographic setting at the base of a world-class ski and snowboard area.
It is in the shadow of the San Juan Mountains, where the terrain can pack as big a punch as the Bloody Mary-hamburger combo.
Telluride extreme skier Scott Kennett, who stumbled into ski-film fame with his dog Zudnick in The Blizzard of Aaahs when VHS was all the rage, says he never tires of the terrain here.
"We have some of the best side-country skiing in the United States," he says. "Side country is back country that is connected to a ski area. I could spend the rest of my life exploring out there and be constantly trying new stuff."
When I meet up with Kennett, he has just just come off some side-country doozies called Hairy Banana and Heaven's Eleven. Both are steep and long skinny couloirs, barely wide enough to turn in and both end with cliffs that have to be manoeuvred around.
"The Heaven's Eleven cliff is about 350 feet . . . You really have to put the brakes on when you get there," says Kennett, who was also the first person to ski down the mountain that features on America's iconic Corrs beer label.
The Corrs mountain is Wilson Peak, one of Colorado's fabled "fourteeners" - 14,000ft (4300-metre) peaks that attract climbers and skiers chasing thrills and bragging rights.
"We can see four of the fourteeners from Telluride," says the ski area's PR man, Tom Watkinson, who points out Wilson Peak, Mount Wilson, El Diente and Sneffels.
The San Juan Mountains are the second-youngest in the US, resulting in dramatic and steep cliff walls punctuated by the fourteeners.
This alpine terrain contributes to Telluride's reputation for the extreme, of which there is plenty - just ask anyone who has breathlessly tackled the hike to Gold Hill Chutes, Black Iron Bowl, the runs that fall off Palmyra Peak or the lifted locals' favourites such as Dynamo and Kant-Mak-M.
But to depict Telluride as only extreme would be inaccurate. It has mellow pockets, corduroy and long cruisers just like any well-rounded resort.
There is at least a groomed intermediate run, or easier, off every lift and the mountain's longest run is the easy 7.4-kilometre Galloping Goose.
The resort breakdown is 23 per cent beginner, 36 per cent intermediate and 41 per cent advanced/expert but you need to keep in mind a Telluride blue run can be tougher than an Australian black diamond.
When it's time to eat, you don't need to look far to find good food on the mountain.
The highest restaurant in North America is the resort's European-style Alpino Vino in a stone cottage at 3647 metres, where the tomato soup with crumbled gorgonzola and a sangiovese are served by immaculately dressed waiters with white shirts, vests, ties, black trousers and felt hats.
The outstanding service and high-quality menu can also be found at other on-mountain restaurants such as Allred's, Giuseppe's and Bon Vivant. Bon Vivant is al fresco French style, perfect on a blue-sky day with elk sausage cassoulet or lamb and chimay ale stew.
"In Europe they ski to eat," Watkinson says. "Everyone is hanging out having amazing food and we are bringing that here as opposed to going through a cafeteria or food court with plastic trays and then struggling to find a spare seat at a table."
Telluride is a long way from anywhere - at least seven hours by road from Denver - and on the way in we pass Joe Cocker's Mad Dog Ranch and fashion designer Ralph Lauren's Double RL Ranch.
Italian restaurateur Paolo Canclini runs Rustico Ristorante in the main street of town and sources his steak from Lauren.
Rustico, with its stone and brick-exposed walls and fireplace, is among a clutch of good places to eat in town and the 450g Lauren steaks are $US52 ($62).
Also sold by the ounce, but not at Rustico, is marijuana.
There are three marijuana shops selling it for medicinal purposes. It is expected the shops will eventually sell to a wider market, because Colorado has just passed laws legalising it for recreational use for residents over 21.
On his excellent town history tour, resident Ashley Boling tells of Telluride's mining heritage, shows us some of the finest period buildings and addresses perhaps the greatest Telluride mystery of all.
"Some people say the town got its name from the rare element tellurium (which was supposed to be in the ground here), but others say it was from the phrase 'To hell you ride'."
Whichever is true, Telluride is a cool dude of a town with a colourful history, strong ski culture and an artistic and intellectual core among its 2300 residents.
The writer travelled courtesy of Colorado Ski Country and United Airlines.
GETTING THERE Fly to Los Angeles (13hr 30min) and then to Montrose (1hr 56min); see united.com. Montrose Airport is about 100 kilometres from Telluride. Several companies offer airport/town transfers, including Telluride Express (tellurideexpress.com). Look for USA deals before booking.
STAYING THERE The choices are to stay in Telluride township at the base of the ski area or at Mountain Village, a purpose-built on-mountain cluster of modern accommodation, restaurants, cafes and bars. Hotel Madeline at Mountain Village has rustic warm rooms, suites and condominiums.
MORE INFORMATION tellurideskiresort.com.