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By Reid Wright

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Rain pattered on the aspen leaves, which shimmered like small coins in the overcast afternoon. The whirr of machinery and sputter of a jackhammer echoed from below. Another lush mountainside was being carved out to make room for more condominiums.

Telluride Colorado is a lavish play land for corporate executives, movie stars and oil tycoons. Complete with ski resort, golf course and all the amenities, it offers a chance for them to get away from it all.

Roughing it

Roughing it

I took one last gulp of thin air and charged for the hill. Muscles strained in my legs, back and arms as I heaved against the stone-laden wheelbarrow on the slippery slope. Mosquitoes swarmed me, despite the rain. One landed on my arm and began to probe for a rich capillary to pierce with its stinging beak. I did not swat it, for fear I would dump my load.

The house was constructed on a knife ridge at 10,000 feet and had no paths to the sides for workers to gain access to the back yard. I was hauling out the flagstone patio in the back, only to haul in new stone for more patios later.

The wheelbarrow hit a clump of grass. My foot slipped on the wet slope, I face planted, and the load of flagstone toppled over and slid over the mountainside with a grinding screech. In that moment, I selfishly hoped the wealthy owners of the house I was working on were very, very unhappy.

After all, they didn’t know the suffering of the people who hauled rocks for their patio, built their houses, planted their trees, dumped their trash, waded through the mud to service their hot tub, or risked life and limb to shovel snow from their roof.

But before storming off to write my own communist manifesto, I calmed down and reminded myself to at least try to understand someone and their way of life before hating them.

An enclosed catwalk extends from the house and descends down a spiral staircase to the garage — effectively creating a $100,000  hamster tube so the rich can get from their house to their SUV without ever having to be exposed to the fresh Rocky Mountain air.

I don’t understand it. In all my years, and all my travels, I’ve never tasted money or been able to comprehend the alien mentality thatIMG_0127 comes with it.

So I should talk to these people and get to know them right? That’s where the real kicker comes in.

They aren’t there.

All these enormous wood-and-stone palaces on the mountain slopes, with their hot tubs, pool tables and indoor bowling alleys are occupied only a few weeks out of the year. The rest of the year they sit empty, racking up tens of thousands in utility and maintenance costs.

Still, I grapple to wrap my mind around it.

The architect of the landscaping outfit I’m working for said the owners are an elderly couple who use the house to gather family and friends on the holidays.

OK, so while I’m a little skeptical, the experts say “family” and “togetherness” are generally a good thing.

We worked on a Telluride mansion last summer that had an entire wing devoted to children. It was wild-west themed with rocking horses, bunk beds, a big-screen TV and an entire collection of western cowboy novels by Zane Grey — ironically a dentist from Ohio.

The children who play here on the holidays will probably never have to dig holes in the rain.

IMG_0129The recession has slowed the manic growth of Telluride, at least a little. The landscaping project we were working on had been scaled down by about 60 percent.

“When billionaires become five-hundred-millionaires, they suddenly don’t want plants anymore,” joked the driver who delivered our shrubs.

To me, landscaping is the ultimate act of arrogance. It is a pompous declaration of man’s power over nature and an assertion that he can create a landscape more beautiful than Mother Nature.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t do it for $15 an hour.

The first large-scale landscaping in western culture was undertaken at the French Palace of Versailles in the 1600’s. It was a demonstration of the monarchy’s power over nature. But it was also a demonstration of power over something else.

Versailles under the reign of Louis XIV was a lavish resort complete with high-society gatherings and balls. It was designed to draw the French Aristocrats away from their power centers and distract them while the monarchy gained centralized power over their lands and people.

Versailles 3

The gardens of Versailles

At the end of the day, I limped dirty and stiff to my van.  A small army of proletariats trickled down the mountain. Carpenters, housekeepers, masons, landscapers, exterminators, electricians, plumbers and irrigators — they lumbered wearily back to their pickups and late-model cars, clutching their lunch coolers and water bottles. Most of them would have a long drive home, since most couldn’t afford to stay in town.

Then I saw them — true Telluride aristocrats — two women and a man, power walking down the path in their jogging suits and sunglasses, pumping their arms like monkeys pounding a drum. The man had slicked-back hair and prattled loudly to his Bluetooth, oblivious to the world around him as he stormed by.

I wanted to stop them and talk, but all I could do was laugh inside. If the aristocrats want a real workout, why don’t they come haul some rock with us? I guess I’ll never really understand them.

After much deliberation, I had made my peace with the aristocrats of Telluride, but decided their mansions and condos must go. It may sound harsh, but anyone who grew up in Colorado and watched picturesque landscapes turned into miles of housing developments will understand.

Someday, these gross symbols of excess will be wiped from the mountainside by mudslide, avalanche or wildfire. While the mountains of Telluride generally have too much rain for wildfires, Mother Nature has a desperate back-up plan.

The great ponderosa pines in Telluride and across the Rockies are dying in record numbers, falling prey to beetles that thrive during warm, dry summers. Dead trees mean more risk for fires and weakened roots create more risk for mudslides and avalanche.

However, if these trees do catch fire, it could poison the water supply for 33 million people across 13 states.

Ponderosa pines killed by beatles

Ponderosa pines killed by beetles

In the end — wealthy or poor — Mother Nature will humble us all.

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