It’s tough living here.
“Definitely, you’ve got to be a hearty soul to make it a long time,” Mayor Gary Goettelman says.
Just ask Erik Mursewick, 41, whose family has been here for decades. He’s shoveling the sidewalks outside what used to be Alma’s Only Bar, now boarded up like other structures around the place. Shoveling, he says, is how he makes money in the winter so he can live in the surrounding hills spotted with cottages and sideways-leaning shacks.
“I mean, look at us!” Mursewick says, himself and myself the only ones this afternoon on the main street of the 275-person town, the mountains all around billowing snow. “This is 10,000 feet, man!”
This is 10,578 feet, according to the welcome sign: “North America’s HIGHEST incorporated town,” it reads off Colorado 9, leading to the main street, with the first sign of modernity being the weed dispensary that advises passers-by to “get rec before Breck!”
If you know about Alma, you already know this advice on your way to Summit County: Slow down. Maybe you’ll do so at the sight of the often-posted cop car occupied by a uniformed mannequin.
It’s easy to miss the place, to zoom onward up Hoosier Pass to tourist central. For many, the only reason to stop might be for a marked-up necessity at the general store, Al-Mart.
But spend time here and you’ll get a rough-and-tumble picture. It’s a place of people on the fringes, many without things such as cars or phones or bank accounts, many who feel free to shoot their guns out their backdoors.
Alma is seemingly not far removed from its Wild West beginnings of the late 19th century. Drinking and gambling were allowed to boom here while, according to history maintained by the town, the acts were admonished in other nearby mining settlements.
Today, one watering hole stands: the South Park Saloon, which, you guessed it, dubs itself the continent’s highest saloon. It came under new ownership last year.
“It was a party,” recalls a cigarette-smoking fellow who locally goes by Leroy Shanks and tells me he’s been around for 22 years, long enough to see people run Alma’s Only Bar into the ground and the Saloon down the street nearly with it. “Too much drugs, too much alcohol, too much abuse. It needed a change.”
Anouk Patel is working on it. She’s a wife and a mother, a tattooed straight-talker and classically trained chef who over her past three years living in Alma saw the Saloon “getting a dark reputation.” Her young boy goes to the little Montessori school down the street. The darkness was tough for her to see.
“We want to make this a safe place, a family place,” she says inside the cabin-themed Saloon, which closes earlier than it used to. Now, there’s homemade comfort food. The drink special is hot cocoa on this day.
Not long ago, Patel says, she flushed someone’s cocaine down the toilet. Which brings her to the point she wants to make to some regulars: “Don’t bring your coke and serious drugs in my bar.”
Competition might be on the way: Alma’s Only Bar is being renovated, under the supervision of one of the town’s many handymen, the handlebar-mustachioed Johnny Schmidt. “You name it, it happened here,” he says with a chuckle inside the boarded-up confines.
He expects Alma’s Only Bar will reopen for business sometime this year. For now, after work he goes over to the Saloon for a shot or three of tequila with his buddies. At the corner of the bar, there’s a FedEx guy nursing a beer, waiting for his truck to be towed from a snowy ditch.
I heard some people in Alma say they love to hate Alma. They hate the cold but love the summers. They prefer the isolation and then they don’t; Everybody knowing everybody has its challenges, but good times can be had at the potlucks held at town hall. Food occasionally comes from the Saloon.
“People can be tough, the environment can be tough,” Patel says. “It’s definitely frustrating, but you have to step back and see the goodness.”
Outside Alma’s Only Bar, Mursewick steps back for a shoveling break. He takes in the view looming beyond Main Street: the towering mountains bunched together.
“Just beautiful,” he says. And he wonders why he’d ever leave.
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