A mountain town ghost story for the season
Candy took her sunglasses off as it started to snow. She smiled to see the snowflakes melt on the hood of her black car, perfectly round droplets from little white falling stars. The ephemerality of it all.
It was the first snow of the season, and she knew everyone would be happy in Vail. The clouds dropped low over Giant Steps and Pepi’s Face on the mountain as she drove down the Frontage Road.
She had a ride to pick up somewhere near Golden Peak. Klara Stuttner. It was a name she seemed to remember seeing in the paper, giving money to the symphony or sharing a memory about the history of the town. The directions said she had a party to go to.
Candy grabbed a scrunchie from the glove box and pulled her long red hair back into a ponytail as she drove up the winding driveway with aspens all around. It was a little white house that looked like something from a fairy tale. Tyrolean style, with green shutters, white walls, and a red door.
A tall, gray-haired woman in a dark dress and a white-buttoned sweater was standing there. She was looking up at the snow as if she were dreaming as Candy stopped the car.
“Yes,” she said. Her breath was like smoke in the air.
“I’m Candy, your driver.”
Candy offered her arm to walk Klara across the driveway and noticed the small bouquet of wilted flowers she held at her waist. The way Klara’s pale blue eyes searched her face as she asked, “Do you mind if I sit in the front of the car?”
“Oh?” Candy said. She never had anyone ride beside her. “Of course. It would be my pleasure.”
Candy turned up the heat as they drove back down the driveway. It was getting so cold. She felt like she needed to make conversation, a little nervous with someone beside her, and said, “I’m so excited for the snow. I just learned to ski last year.”
“Skiing is a wonderful thing,” Klara said slowly, measuring the words. “That is what I miss most of all. I skied that mountain for more than 50 years.”
As they turned west on I-70 toward Minturn, Klara looked past Candy to the ribbon-like swaths of the ski runs on the left of the highway, where the slopes were turning white as sugar with the increasing snow.
She told Candy, “I always felt just like an angel when I skied fresh powder in the Back Bowls. That heaven should be as simple as a blue sky and a white mountain covered in snow.”
Klara smiled as she remembered Pete Seibert and the men of the 10th Mountain Division who had been instrumental in building the ski area. The years before Eisenhower Tunnel when Denver skiers had to drive over Loveland Pass, skiing with President Gerald Ford and astronaut John Glenn, and aprés with the ski patrollers at Donovan’s Copper Bar.
She talked about the Lionshead Gondola accident in 1976, when four people died as the cars jumped the cable and plunged to the hill. The freak skiing accident that killed Archduke Alfonso de Borbon y de Dampierre of Spain in 1989, when the World Alpine Ski Championships returned to America for the first time in 40 years.
And in 1977, when the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy murdered three women in Colorado, and escaped from jail near Aspen. Klara said, “Everyone thought he was coming back to Vail.”
Then she sighed, and Candy thought all the air had gone out of her. But Klara said, “That was all so long ago.”
Candy thought she saw tears in Klara’s eyes as she said, “It’s the town I loved the most. Movie matinees at the Crossroads on Saturday afternoons, cocktails on the patio at Pepi’s, dinner at the Swiss Chalet, and when you came outside, the first smell of winter in the air.”
As they took the exit to Minturn, Klara asked Candy to stop the car.
At the dirt pull-off, Klara said, “Peeper’s Palace, the old volunteer ski patroller’s lodge used to be here. But it burned to the ground.”
Then Klara looked at Candy and nodded, her chin and cheeks as gray as the clouds. She said, “You’ve been so kind to listen to my stories. And to drive me here. If you don’t mind, I’ll go ride in the back now.”
Candy sat perfectly still, staring intently out the front window until she heard the winged-windows rise in the wind behind her, then the click and the lock of the trunk door. And there was only the sound of the wipers as she drove her black hearse through the blizzard of snow, up to the gates of the River View Cemetery, where a grave had been dug for Klara many days before.
Elevation Outdoors editor-at-large Peter Kray is the author of the God of Skiing. The book has been called “the greatest ski novel of all time.” Don’t believe the hype? Buy and read it here: amzn.com/dp/0692028331
Cover photo courtesy of Getty Images