The hottest cold getaways

(Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel

The last buckle of my ski boots snapped into place, and I started down the checklist.

Goggles. Check! Skis. Check! Poles. Check! Gloves. Check! Boarding pass. Check! OK, ready to go.

Boarding pass? It ranks among my most exhilarating moments in skiing when I walked up to the lift-ticket window at Beaver Creek resort, slapped down my boarding pass from the morning flight into Vail/Eagle County Airport and said, "Give me one. For free, please."

A full afternoon of gratis skiing on the resort's fly-in, ski-free promotion -- you must show proof you arrived on a flight that day and are staying at local lodging -- was the perfect launch to a whirlwind week touring several of the top ski resorts in central Colorado.

Since taking up skiing in my late 40s in 2002, I have been to 27 ski resorts in the western United States and Canada, including venues of three past Olympics and the one upcoming. As a mission to make up for lost time, the pace is sometimes breathless. This time, eight consecutive days of skiing at five major resorts on a 400-mile loop tour: first-time visits to Steamboat Springs and Winter Park and repeats to Beaver Creek, Vail and Breckenridge.

The odyssey would reveal the widespread devastation of the pine beetle but not the Killdozer; provide insights into the quirks of tiny back-road towns, such as how Tabernash got its name; lead to a couple of disparate dances with Mary Jane; suggest that the Worst Western Hotel may have been a better choice than the smoky Silverleaf; and glimpse a bizarre celebration of the end of the work week.

Sometimes it pays to sacrifice sleep to catch the day's first flight out of town, the comp lift ticket dangling from my ski jacket the best proof of that. Did I mention, the plane ticket was obtained with frequent-flier miles?

Fat, slow flakes were falling as I stepped off the Centennial Express Lift and turned down the Redtail trail. As is my habit beginning the first run of each ski trip, I shout out my declaration of independence for the week, this time with added meaning.

"Free at last! Free at last!"

Strawberry Springs forever

Three days into this odyssey of seven-hour days on the slopes, the idea of a soak in a hot springs sounded appealing. But seven miles out of Steamboat Springs, the Strawberry Park Hot Springs seemed an elusive oasis. The pavement of a narrow country road has given way to dirt, much of it covered by snow and ice.

My friend Wally Rutherford is giving me that raised-eyebrow look as he has on numerous wayward escapades since we were in high school. All of this to wade in a hole in the ground? Even I'm feeling apprehensive as the so-called road winds and descends into a seeming abyss.

Apprehensions remained when the sullen old character at the entrance took our $10 fee and gave us a lecture on the rules -- no glass, no alcohol, no smoking -- and sent us off with an ominous warning: "The college crowd won't hesitate to lift your belongings."

Fortunately, Strawberry Park isn't an ordinary hole in the ground. At the base of a steep flight of wooden stairs are several pools in rocky surroundings with water heated to more than 100 degrees by geothermal activity in the hillside. If you come, bring your sense of adventure.

You change in a tepee. You freeze as you scramble across the rocky terrain. Then you settle into the water and . . . ahhhhh. The payoff is heavenly.

Benefits for many ailments are attributed to minerals in the water, including lithium, which is said to lift the spirits. Our spirits were lifted. Fortunately, our clothes were not. Perhaps because the college crowd was occupied breaking other rules.

As the full moon peaked over the hillside and we exited, the distinctive aroma of pot from one of the side pools revealed that more than minerals in the water were affecting the mood of the springs.

A panoramic view

No need to smoke anything to get high on Mary Jane, the sexier sister side of Winter Park Resort. We'd heard about the notorious mogul-laden runs of Mary Jane, which is named for a 19th-century prostitute who once owned the land. We were working up the courage on some groomed intermediate runs when a retiree we met on a lift steered us to the best skiing of the week.

His name was Phil or Bill or Will, from Denver, and he was genuinely living and skiing free. Working 15 days as a mountain host answering questions and dispensing advice earned him a pass for the season, and he was using it five days a week.

His advice was that we head directly to the Mary Jane side and take the new Panoramic Express, billed as the highest six-passenger chairlift in North America, to the top of the Parsenn Bowl. Because the route was tricky, involving two lifts and two runs, he offered to lead the way. We struggled to keep up and never did verify his name, but his tip was dead-on.

The five-minute ride up the Panoramic Express leads to a 12,060-foot peak where the wind is wicked, the view is dramatic and the skiing is wonderful. We spent the rest of that afternoon and the better part of our second day at Winter Park, carving various powdery paths down the broad face of the Parsenn Bowl and picking any of the seven vague routes through a glade of scattered pines.

Lest you think of skiing and boarding as a sport for the young, our intrepid mountain host was one of numerous retirees we encountered during the week, notably at Winter Park and Steamboat Springs. On one of the many trips up the Panoramic, I overheard a man telling a companion that he was getting ready to return to Florida. He said he was a retired New Yorker with a home near Winter Park and another in Sarasota. And I'm thinking, he's living my dream.

Plight of the pines

We weren't the only ones making this trek through central Colorado. Everywhere we went were signs of a group that leaves its mark like a heavy-metal band on a hotel suite. Hordes of tiny beetles are tearing through acre after acre of lodgepole pines and leaving behind vast stands of red, dead trees.

It is another sign of the climate changing for the worse. The beetles have always been present, but state forestry officials say warmer winters during the past 10 years have enabled them to spread their blight through higher elevations.

Vail was clearing 30 acres of thousands of dead trees, but it is a futile exercise. A recent estimate was 1.5 million acres of pines lost to beetles since 1996. And it is certain to get uglier on the slopes of Colorado's premier resorts. Barring a return of colder winters, it will likely take the inevitable fires to slow the beetles and pave the way for regeneration.

Small-town antics

About a week before this trip I happened upon the saga of the Killdozer late at night on the History Channel. Marvin Heemeyer, a welder with a grudge against officials of the small town a Granby, Colo., turned a Komatsu bulldozer into an armed fortress and in 2004 used it to destroy 13 buildings, including the town hall and newspaper office, and do $7 million worth of damage. (You can check out video of the rampage on You Tube).

Plotting the route of the ski loop, I noted that we would pass through Granby while traveling Route 40 from Steamboat Springs to Winter Park. It made me realize there was more going on in the seemingly nondescript towns than might be apparent.

Some of them wore their quirks as a mark of distinction, such as the Worst Western Hotel in Fraser. Kremmling, where Zane Grey wrote some of his Westerns and which stages annual snowmobile drag races, had some intriguing signage, notably a cow drowning in a coffee cup outside the coffee shop. We learned that tiny Tabernash was named for an Indian shot by a sheriff's posse in 1878 after a group of Utes "began horse racing and generally raising a ruckus."

In Granby, there was no visible evidence of the Killdozer or Heemeyer, the only human casualty of that ruckus. As a member of the Fourth Estate, I was pleased to see the rebuilt newspaper office next to the highway.

Couldn't help wondering what life was like in some of these remote towns. And then, just after 5 on Friday afternoon, we noticed a gathering of pickup trucks on a frozen lake. They were gunning their engines and skidding on the ice, spinning and spinning in the strangest TGIF celebration I've ever seen.

Quick, open the windows

A trip involving extensive driving -- we logged more than 500 miles -- in the middle of ski season is risky. We were blessed with roads clear of ice and snow all the way. The trip went without a glitch until the final stop in Eagle when the Silverleaf Suites mixed up our reservation and stuck us in a smoking room.

But the slacker in the backward baseball cap working the front desk earned redemption with his dinner recommendation. The Broadway Cafe looked like nothing special, but the meal was the best I've had anywhere in a long, long time. The short ribs melted in your mouth, the martinis were mellow and the waiter, Brent Stone, could give a lesson in service to many overrated, big-city establishments.

That led Wally to sum up the week: "We're skiing gypsies, and we've been very lucky."

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