Telluride Thinks Out of the Box

The fiction writer cherishes her mountain town’s anti-commercialism, as epitomized by the local swap stop, a regional landmark

Telluride, Colorado is Aspen's younger, less glamorous, not so naughty sister. (Scott S. Warren)
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The Free Box is even a useful navigational tool. Place yourself there and west is out of town; east is toward the dead-end box canyon and inimitable Bridal Veil Falls; south is Bear Creek Road, the most popular hiking destination; and north leads—among other things—to our little house, crooked and dwarfed, on whose porch sit two perfectly good chairs carried home a few years ago from the Free Box.

In the old days, a man nicknamed the Polite Motorcyclist (he never revved his engine when he went by, coasting on gravity) stationed himself at the box, hand-rolling cigarettes and monitoring visitors. Brother Al, priest and civic servant, swept the sidewalk. For a while the city had essentially taken over the box's maintenance, which, the town manager estimated, amounted to something like $50,000 a year. Last fall some residents wanted to get rid of the box or at least have it relocated, complaining that the upkeep was costing the city too much and that it had become an eyesore—and it's true the contents were often of dubious use (broken crockery, half-filled food packages, outdated catalogs). To preserve the landmark, a local citizen's group, Friends of the Free Box, stepped in and since the winter have taken over the care of the box, posting a bulletin board to list big items and hauling away trash.

Still, in a town that every year seems to grow closer and closer to that place it feared becoming—movie stars and other extraordinarily wealthy people live here now; the gated communities and private jets have arrived; articles on the need for "affordable housing" run alongside the ubiquitous Sotheby Realty ads in the town newspaper—I don't think I'm alone in clinging to the markers of Telluride's resistance. The Free Box is one of those, a small patch of common ground. Drop off a DVD of a Cary Grant movie and see it fly into a stranger's parka pocket; hold up a black cashmere sweater and get a nod of approval—lucky you, to grab it first—from the thrift-store maven. Send the kids out to occupy themselves, to discover some curiosity or treasure there. Later, you can give it back.

You take and you give, give and take. Maybe we can reassure ourselves we won't entirely turn into Aspen if we still have the Free Box.

Antonya Nelson's Nothing Right is the latest collection of her short stories.

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