A Crucible of Ski Bums and Billionaires

In Telluride, O'Bannon's was a refuge for mountaineers, nomadic hairstylists and one very famous foot fetishist.

The first time I moved to Telluride was in the summer of 2005. (In total, there would be five deployments there, precipitated by everything from jobs and love to existential angst and my unwavering craving for the mountains.) When I arrived, I was already well-acquainted with O’Bannon’s Irish Pub—a friend had introduced me years before. If I’m being honest, it was, in part, responsible for my relocation. Emotionally wrecked from a breakup, I fled the Bay Area to clear my head and find solace in the tiny, isolated ski town in southwestern Colorado. It didn’t hurt that my favorite bar on the planet was frequented by legions of flirtatious outdoorsmen, who I felt sure would salve my wounded heart. (They didn’t.)

A dank basement-level joint, OB’s opened in 1987, after Harry Force, a Korean War veteran from Illinois, roared into town on his motorcycle and saw a for-sale sign. Maybe he was Irish, maybe he wasn’t, but as I recall—imbibing at 8,750 feet is not without its hazards—O’Bannon’s was always filled with oddballs. There was the former Hollywood stuntman who flipped me over his shoulder after I boasted about my boxing skills; the nomadic, drug-addled hairstylist who gave on-demand cuts regardless of her sobriety; my sweet, intelligent, alcoholic, and often incontinent co-worker who wouldn’t shower for weeks on end; and a brain-dead house painter who named himself Squirrel.

Back then, Telluride was still a scrappy, eccentric ski town mostly devoid of megaresort excess, and OB’s was just a seedy, subterranean refuge populated by its ski bums, day laborers, service industry warriors, trustafarians, down-valley tweakers, low-key billionaires and the occasional celebrity. (Quentin Tarantino made the news after allegedly being caught “sampling the toes” of a local lady or two in OB’s deteriorating bathroom.)

With its pervasive old beer odor, warped wooden floors, low ceilings swathed in a globe’s worth of flags and moldering hand-cut rock walls, O’Bannon’s was the antithesis of après ski. The drinks were ferociously strong, the barstools tattered, the entryway opaque with cigarette smoke exhaled by patrons of varying levels of sketch. There was a pool table, a killer jukebox that skewed OG country-western and classic rock, and a Big Buck Hunter Safari arcade. The cramped ladies’ room stall was short a door, and the toilet paper dispenser was oft used for snorting coke.

Depending on whom you asked, Harry, with his shock of white hair and pale blue bloodshot eyes, was either sweet and generous—he once purchased a bike for a single bartender’s young daughter, and was known to empty the till to bail an employee out of jail—or a loathsome vulgarian. Once, he stopped in his tracks to shout at my horrified, tank top–clad friend, “Ya got great tits, Julie!” Several times, during daylight hours, I found him pouring drinks attired only in sagging briefs or asleep atop the bar; although he owned a home in town and was reputed to be quite comfortable financially, he often slept at OB’s.

Whatever friction he may have incited, Harry and his salty, longtime bar staff knew how to maintain equilibrium in a town inhabited by polarizing forces. Everyone was welcome at OB’s regardless of socioeconomic status, so long as the upwardly mobile didn’t flaunt their privilege. (Telluride still prides itself as being a town where celebrities live and vacation when they want to be ignored; otherwise, they go to Aspen.)

To be clear, ski town bars are not establishments that cater to tourists, though some cross-pollination is inevitable. They live not in ski resorts (though there are notable exceptions, like Squaw Valley’s Le Chamois, aka “The Chammy,” and the late Sundowner Pub in Vail) but in places borne of another era. Whether founded on precious metals, coal, ranching or the railroad, Western ski towns share parallel trajectories, and their present-day dives—sometimes housed in spaces previously occupied by historic watering holes—serve a purpose familiar to vacation meccas everywhere: to relieve locals of the rigors of seasonal tourism. OB’s resided in a 19th-century brick building originally home to the San Juan Hardware Company, and was at least the third in a string of bars. Telluride’s other dive, the Last Dollar Saloon (aka “The Buck”), built in 1899 as a clothing store, became a notoriously rowdy drinking and gambling establishment called the National Club by the turn of the last century.

Offering liquid therapy after a grueling shift or an escape from a season’s worth of congested sidewalks, ski town bars bear impartial witness to solitary day drinking, local gossip and all the weirdness between. The guy at the end of the bar might be divorced from the woman opposite, and the former mayor you thought to be an affable, aging hippie might introduce you (and by you, I mean me) to his wife and suggest a threesome. The bartender’s possessive girlfriend might try to punch you (again, me), when you politely inform her that she’s sitting on your coat, left behind on the barstool while you used the bathroom.

It was this perpetual strangeness, this ragtag sense of community—all of us eking out a peculiar subsistence, working three or more jobs, living in absurd situations, just to feed our respective fixations with snow, slopes and rivers—that I loved. In the collective five years I spent in Telluride, I was variously employed at a mountaineering shop, as a waitress, a cleaning lady, a burrito cart vendor, a barista, a dog- and house-sitter for a traveling millionaire, and, of course, a writer. Amidst this frenetic existence, OB’s was a north star. At least for the time being.

In 2010, Harry died at age 67, reportedly of natural causes. A self-published book, written by a local conspiracy theorist, posits the idea that he was murdered, the crime covered up by the local police. (According to my research, these theories remain stagnant, though the belief is befitting of Harry’s reputation.) A longtime bartender took over, and OB’s soldiered on for another six years before the landlord decided to transform the space into a more welcoming, revenue-generating venture. Predictably, locals were up in arms, and a new lease was secured down the street in a former music venue. I’ve never been to the new OB’s.

In 2009, I moved away from Telluride, and in 2016, two months before it closed, stopped by OB’s for what turned out to be a final visit. The place looked the same, but felt distant and unfamiliar. Norteño blared from the jukebox. My new boyfriend and I ordered whiskeys and were playing pool when a young couple suggested a game of Cutthroat, resulting in more whiskey and several lively matches. Newly in love, a freshly minted magazine editor—the circumstances of that night felt like a lovely postscript to the life of squalor I’d led in Telluride years prior. But then, just before last call, the couple leaned in and asked if we were interested in swinging. To be clear, we were not, but it was comforting to know that some things never change.

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