In the Alley

Embracing the imperfections of our hidden gems

By Lani Bruntz

his past spring and summer, I found myself devoting an unusually large amount of time to my alley. It was a period of recovery following a skiing accident that left me with a broken leg. Ordinarily, I would be out in the surrounding mountains, skiing or biking, or guiding guests through these breathtaking spaces for work. Now, I was confined to my alley for my outdoor fix, akin to a sundial, tracking every inch of sunlight from my stoop to my parking spot and back again. One of Crested Butte’s raw, unkept and unpaved alleys, concealed from the increasingly polished streets, manicured lawns, and bustling happenings of Elk Avenue, had transformed into my sanctuary. I observed the unfolding daily life in these tranquil lanes more closely than ever before, and it deepened my appreciation for their unique character.

In the winter, our alley transforms into a one-way route, obstinately blocked by an unyielding snowplug that remains unattended. As the snow piled up on this historic winter, it became increasingly challenging to back my truck out of my narrow parking space with snowbanks that grew on either side. Exiting the alley where the plug blocks thru-traffic allows for a much smoother reverse, but this inconvenience was far outweighed by the quietness that resulted from the mound of snow that only invited the alley dwellers in.

When spring arrives, shovels give way to lawn chairs, and the quietude of winter gradually gives way to the lively chatter of neighbors. The conversations start after work or long days spent in the mountains. We don’t have lawns to tend to, so the space is mostly used for quiet morning coffees or social afternoon hangs. Dog walkers stroll by, and friends visit, perching on lawn chairs for meals.

Our alley, situated just a block and a half from the bustling Elk Avenue, manages to maintain an aura of tranquility. I would sip my morning tea under a cozy blanket as the first rays of sunlight gently kissed my face. The aspen leaves, budding with each passing day, grew brighter, providing solace for my reading and writing in this outdoor haven. I’d crutch the two-block commute to the post office and find myself shocked by the busyness of Elk Avenue—cars trying to find parking, the sidewalks exploding with people, the Secret Stash patio packed. In moments, I’d return to my alley, carefully maneuvering around potholes to my lawn chair that would rest on the crushed gravel driveway space, and quietness that lay just minutes from the chaos.

While a refuge of sorts, the alleys aren’t without their minor inconveniences. I reminisced about my days in an accessory dwelling unit just off Elk Avenue, where open windows invited in the dust stirred by delivery trucks and the late-night echoes of bar-goers. I even purchased my own doggie-waste bags to keep my front stoop clean from the numerous canine visitors. An aroma from the occasionally overfilled dumpsters lingered in the warmer months. Piles of plywood and cardboard stacked up from the storefront shops. Townie bikes and mountain bikes were strewn all over from the various alley dwellers. But these imperfections were what made the alley special, serving as a reminder that its authenticity was never sacrificed for convenience.

In the untamed charm of our alleys, I discovered a connection to the town’s rugged past. Remnants of original cabins and homes of miners held their place amongst the alleys, providing a tangible link to our town’s history. The uneven, unpaved paths whispered stories of resilience and determination. They remind me of our town’s hardiness, unlike that of Vail, where I grew up.

My connection to Crested Butte’s alleys dates back to my high school days when I raced in the Alley Loop, an annual Nordic ski race that winds its way through these distinctive thoroughfares. I also learned about the town’s history as a hub for “klunker bikes” and some of the first mountain bike races held in these bumpy alleys during a childhood bike tour with my dad. Today, fresh corduroy is laid down steps from my front door for the Nordic racers to enjoy, and we willingly move our cars or let the alley get groomed for the event.

Sitting in my lawn chair, basking in the warm summer sun, I couldn’t help but glimmer at the crisscrossing power lines above, partially obstructing my view of the surrounding peaks. The jumbled mix of dirt-laid paths and messy cables overhead may not paint a picture-perfect sense of serenity, but it is exactly this that I appreciate about my alley.

These alleys, the homes of alley dwellers like myself, are more than just spaces; they are the threads that bind the community together. Amidst the quiet, the messiness and the imperfections, a sense of belonging thrives. Neighbors share stories, laughter and a helping hand on snowy days or a cold beer on a hot summer afternoon. It’s a place where the chaos of life is accepted and embraced because, after all, we are mountain people with a penchant for adventure and too many outdoor toys to fit in our small spaces. Piles of used scrap wood might linger or a stash of snowmobile parts or broken down trailer.  

Crested Butte’s unkempt alleys may appear forgotten, but they are far from that. They tell a story of resilience, innovation, and the enduring spirit of a town firmly rooted in its history. Now that I can walk free of crutches, I wander these alleys reminded that, just like the power lines above, our connections to one another are what truly illuminate Crested Butte, especially in the quiet, raw and unkept corners of this charming mountain town.

In these alleys, the town’s transformative journey unfolds, bridging the gap between its past and its vibrant present. It was here that the mountain bike, now an iconic symbol of Crested Butte, was born as a solution to navigate these very alleys without harming cars. The ingenuity of those early bikers gave rise to a sport that has become inseparable from Crested Butte’s identity. The trusty townie bike remains a beloved mode of transportation for locals, continuing to play a central role in our lives.

As I reflect on my time in the alleys, I realize that they are more than just physical spaces; they are the veins that carry the lifeblood of Crested Butte. They are the quiet sanctuaries, the raw connections, and the unpolished gems that make this town truly special. Amidst the chaos of a changing world, these alleys stand as a testament to our town’s enduring spirit and the enduring bond that holds us all together.