Finding home down a country road

By Stephanie Maltarich

When I first moved to Crested Butte in 2011, I found a cheap room to rent in a trailer near the edge of town. After a lifetime of dreaming about becoming a ski bum, I was elated to finally be living the life. I loved being in the center of it all: the heartbeat of the town, friends, and endless trails. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever leave. 

But in 2017, my partner had plans to start graduate school at Western Colorado University in Gunnison 30 miles south of Crested Butte and he wanted to be close to campus. That summer, we started planning to relocate from the north end of the valley down south. 

Although I never imagined I’d live in the south end of the valley, it was becoming more common for younger couples who wanted to purchase a home to move to Gunnison. For us, the move was one of convenience, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it.

Our housing search was typical for locals: we told everyone we knew that we were looking. Soon after, a friend mentioned our mutual friend Donny. A ski guide in Crested Butte, he was planning to move out of a small accessory dwelling down a country road five miles north of Gunnison. We called him immediately, and he invited us over to see the place. 

We drove down on a sunny summer afternoon. I remember thinking the hills and surrounding sagebrush would feel quite different than the jagged peaks around Crested Butte. After driving down a long dirt driveway shaded by cottonwood trees, we arrived to the house, which was attached to a ranch-style modular home. We parked in the dirt driveway and peeked through the screen door; Donny was in the kitchen whipping up a batch of crepes on a two-burner hot plate. After welcoming us in, he explained why he found the place to be so special. From the shelves he built in the kitchen to the long-standing Norfolk Pine, he wasn’t very excited to leave the place he had made a home. 

He also loved living away from the increasingly busy and crowded north end of the valley. Laughing, he admitted he’d only ridden one trail in Crested Butte that summer, and he pulled up a map outlining obscure dirt roads and unnamed mountain bike trails he’d been exploring. 

After a short tour, Donny led us outside to a small gear shed. The shed doubled as Donny’s ski tuning shop, complete with a wooden bench lined with ski clamps and littered with remnants of wax. 

Before hopping back in our car, Donny pointed out a perfect view of the Anthracites. He laughed saying if he could, he’d build a bandstand where he could sit and enjoy the view of the jagged peaks.

We were smitten with the place, and if someone as cool as Donny could make the up-valley/down-valley life work for him, we figured we could, too. We moved into the space in September when Donny made his way south to Chile to guide ski trips on volcanoes.

Small, quirky, and efficient

As soon as we moved in, we felt lucky that we inherited a home from Donny, who is creative and good with his hands. Many of the quirky aspects of our place were his vision and attention to detail. The space is small, about 600 square feet, so being conscious of how we utilize each square inch is imperative. 

The first thing most people notice (whether in person or on Zoom) is the potted Norfolk Pine tree. It’s huge, probably about 15 feet tall. Donny left us with caretaking instructions, and over the years, we’ve grown attached to the tree. With some research, we’ve learned that it’s a natural air purifier, and it provides warmth throughout the year. We’re scared to re-pot it, and we hope it never dies. 

Our home is essentially a studio with a loft. We don’t have any doors or rooms (except the bathroom, of course). We inherited some antique apple crates that create a partition between our bedroom and the living room. It also doubles as a glorious bookshelf. Donny found the crates at an estate sale in Paonia for $5 each (an unlikely find these days). He offered to “indefinitely loan” them to us when he moved to Chile. 

We technically don’t have heat. The heat from the main house seeps through two small vents, but otherwise, we rely on a wood-burning stove. We love the process of making a fire each morning. We usually start in the late fall and burn one last fire in the spring. 

Our first winter was frigid and somewhat brutal. I guess that’s to be expected when you live without heat in one of the coldest places in the U.S. Each night, we’d pile blankets on top of our bed, and we’d often wake up to a frozen bottle of olive oil in the morning. After several weeks of suffering, we reached out to Donny to ask are we doing something wrong? He told us a long morning fire was key to staying warm. Years later, we have a morning fire routine, and we hardly notice the cold.

Each fall, we look forward to the seasonal process of gathering and stacking wood. We load up the chainsaw and splitters and head to our favorite spot up Kebler Pass where we cut and split enough wood to last the winter. 

Many friends are surprised to learn we don’t have a “real” kitchen. Instead, we make do with a two-burner hot plate and a small convection oven. Donny assured us that he had hosted many extravagant dinner parties, and the kitchen shouldn’t be a reason for concern. We look forward to having a full kitchen someday, but for now, we hardly notice the shortcomings of the space while cooking three meals a day.

Donny’s small installations he created for organizing a small space have kept us sane over the years. One example is a large pegboard filled with an assortment of hooks and buckets to maintain order of the exorbitant stock of jackets, gloves, hats, buffs, and headlamps necessary for a life in the mountains. Every outdoor adventure requires a visit to the pegboard to ensure we are properly layered and ready for the unpredictable weather of the Gunnison Valley.

After four and half years in our unofficial tiny home, we’re grateful we’ve grown to love both ends of this amazing valley we call home. We’ve slowed our pace a little, and found smaller ways to adventure. In addition to short daily walks to the Gunnison River, and evening hikes up Cranor Hill, we’ve discovered new trails in the West Elk and Fossil Ridge Wilderness areas – the mountains we can see from our home. 

And, we are grateful that the north end of the valley, where we used to live, is a short 25-minute drive away.