on lifelong ties and Telluride

reflections on friendship, community, and nature

26 March 2024

The small plane bumped down on the tarmac of Montrose Regional Airport, a modest building with distinct wooden beams and rustic charm. Weary from the early morning flight out of Boston, I hefted my backpack and stepped out into the crisp, thin air of Colorado’s high country. There in the pickup area stood Anneke, my childhood best friend, flashing that mischievous grin I knew so well. We squealed at each other’s sight and hugged tightly before piling into her trusty truck, a 1993 Toyota complete with the endearing quirk of needing to manually crank down the window — a vintage allure. We embarked on a 1.5-hour drive, winding around the San Juan Mountains range and its sprawling ranches and rugged terrain dotted by grazing horses and elk. Time flew by as we laughed and gossiped like old times. Our destination? The enchanting town of Telluride, where I would spend the whole week immersing myself in its charms, meeting cool people, and spending quality time with my bestie.

Anneke and I first met as pint-sized Yehudi Menuhin wannabes at our very first violin recital when we were 8. With toy-sized violins in hand, all of the Suzuki students played a series of songs in unison at a gymnasium of a local elementary school. As the songs progressed and increased in difficulty, other students stepped back until Anneke and I were the only two left standing. Our proud dads in the audience struck up a friendship, bonding over their musically gifted children, and from there, our families grew close, and Anneke and I became inseparable. Sometime in the 4th grade, I transferred to her elementary school, and by the time we got to middle school, we were good enough at the violin to attend a performing arts school where we spent our mornings and afternoons playing chamber music and solo work. We were always together, and everyone knew that. After school one day, I waltzed into one of my teachers’ offices, and he asked, “Where’s your other half?”

When college came knocking, our paths diverged. Anneke continued her music education in Chicago while I traded in my violin for textbooks in Providence. Throughout college and the immediate years afterward, we tried to keep in touch, though admittedly not as consistently as we would have liked. While we could always easily pick up where we left off even after months of not talking, keeping each other more updated on our lives and making memories together grew increasingly important to me. So recently, we made more of an effort with monthly phone calls and seeing each other in person at least once a year. So here I am!

Telluride is like an amusement park that also happens to be featured on the front page of a “Visit Colorado!” brochure. The main road is a series of buildings that exude the old west mining town aesthetic from the early 1900s. Everything you could need is right there — coffee shops, bakeries, Thai food, a bookstore, boutique shopping, cheesy “I heart Telluride” mugs, a well-equipped gym, and Instagram-worthy backdrops. The atmosphere is buzzing with tourists who are united in their mission to have a good time. The fashion scene is a spectacle in itself, with visitors donning their finest western hats and stylish boots. Just a quick gondola ride away is Mountain Village, a European-styled alpine retreat populated by fancy hotels, resorts, restaurants, and, of course, the Telluride Ski Resort. At one point on a gondola ride, Anneke and I met and chatted with another pair of lifelong friends from the South whose families annually returned to Telluride. It’s like the thin air here makes conversations flow easier. Despite the modernism and abundance of consumer goods, the commanding presence of the mountains is a constant reminder that we are humbly encroaching on nature’s sacred domain. Look around, and you’ll be overwhelmed by red rock formations, evergreen trees, pristine snow, and an endless blue sky.

As my guide, Anneke showed me all of the hidden gems of Telluride and introduced me to all of the locals, who caught me off guard with their warmth and friendliness. Everyone we met seemed genuinely excited to meet me. They asked me lots of questions and listened to me intently. Conversations felt authentic, rich, and unhurried. This was a stark contrast to the fast-paced, reserved demeanor of the northeast that I had grown used to. Here, the love language is immediately obvious. The community runs on kindness, mutual care, and favors (I was a beneficiary as I was able to borrow some ski gear and take advantage of unused ski passes). I also learned that once you live in a mountain town, you develop an uncanny ability to recognize other locals amidst the flurry of spring breakers. Even on the slopes, where faces were obscured by ski helmets and goggles, Anneke impressively pointed out, “You see that person over there? That’s so-and-so”. “How can you tell?” I would ask. She would respond, “eh you just know.” The community is also characterized by a strong creative spirit. For instance, the Telluride Theater, a local gem, serves as a gathering place where folks come together to transcend reality and embark on immersive journeys through each other’s stories. The talent is boundless here. Actors, musicians, designers, and educators all contribute their unique artistic expressions. The overall ease made me feel like I could be part of this community too.

While I had the time of my life getting to know the townies, one experience stood out above all: the opportunity to immerse myself in the daily life of my childhood friend who had, over the course of 20 years, transformed into a mature young woman. While I knew her well already, witnessing Anneke in action as a prominent musician and respected community member in Telluride was an entirely new experience. She was instantly recognized at every turn, and people held her in high regard. It was like high school again, where she was the social butterfly and I was just kinda there. I got a glimpse into her typical winter week, watching her perform guitar and violin at a hotel restaurant—we jokingly called this ‘take your best friend to work day’ — and seeing her ski between shifts. It was the first time in years I heard her sing and play her instruments live, not just through FaceTime calls. I learned other things about her too, like her evolving relationship with cooking (especially banana bread) and her avid reading and revisiting of books we pretended to read in high school. We immersed ourselves in quintessential Colorado activities: she taught me to ski, we cold plunged at the hot springs, we visited nearby towns, we listened to sad country music, and we attended hilarious theater events. 20 years of friendship meant that I had a relatively deep understanding of who she was at her core. However, this trip to Telluride allowed me to see her through the lens of our late 20s. I’m so proud of the independent woman she has become!

On my last day, as we drove to the airport, sadness crept in, and I couldn’t help but already plan my next visit. This whole experience gave me a renewed sense of being present and appreciating my community. It’s also taught me about resilience. Tourist-dependent mountain life is not without its challenges. Soaring property prices, driven by the influx of affluent out-of-towners and high gas and food costs, push many locals to seek affordable housing in neighboring cities and rely on food stamps. Despite these economic challenges, the locals persist and endure. This experience has also made me reflect on my own priorities in life. It sounds cliche but it’s true — friendship, community, and kindness are the most important things. How can I uphold this in my daily life in Boston where communities are a lot less tight? Lastly, while I had grown up in Colorado and was no stranger to its beauty, I couldn’t help but be speechless at the Rockies as an adult who had grown accustomed to the fancy, schmancy skylines of the northeast. As a kid, I was desperate to get out of Colorado to “finally start my life” but as we drove deeper into the mountains on that first day, I couldn’t help but think: Who could ever leave this place?

© 2024 Uka Battulga