Across a snow-covered field 9,000 feet up in the Rockies, my wife and I spot Clint Eastwood in a flat-top cowboy hat and gray-and-black serape, puffing a cigarillo as he stalks an Old West landscape. It could be a frontier town film set: a cluster of dilapidated timber shacks, a saloon, a tepee, and two hot-springs pools hidden in clouds of steam. It's easy to imagine that at any minute, a gang of desperadoes on the hunt for cheap liquor and loose women will ride across the wooden bridge over the Dolores River, a-shootin' and a-cussin'.
Barbara and I have been at Dunton Hot Springs for only a day, and no one warned us how hard it can be to breathe—or even think—at this altitude. Or did we stay in the hot springs too long?After a 15-minute soak in 106-degree water suffused with intoxicating but healing lithium, we can't be sure what's what.
Yet this is no movie: Dunton Hot Springs is a former ghost town in the shadow of Colorado's Mount Wilson, 30 miles south of Telluride. We soon find out that the Clint-like character is actually one of the owners, Bernt Kuhlmann, who hails from Salzburg, Austria. A hundred years after Dunton's heyday, when it had both a bordello and a schoolhouse, Kuhlmann and his German business partner, Christoph Henkel, have transformed the town into a luxury wilderness resort. It's an idealization of frontier America; a grand illusion; a trip back in time, with all the modern conveniences.
As we drove up the west fork last Thanksgiving, the town appeared over a rise, looking just like what it had been for decades—a wretched wreck of abandonment. Then we were led to one of the seemingly ramshackle cabins, and Dunton was revealed as a Potemkin village turned inside out, its postcard-imperfect façade hiding a heart of gold, with a bed like a cloud, a blazing fireplace, and our very own hot spring—fed tub, big enough for five. Though the three-day blizzard that had just begun would turn our planned hiking trip into an indoor event punctuated by brief stumbles outside, we knew we were still in for an adventure.
Dunton's story, full of twists, turns, and not a little adventure, is what attracted us. Founded in the 1890's for workers at nearby gold mines, the town grew to 500 people but was deserted by 1918. Though resurrected that year as a dude ranch, it soon fell into disuse and remained so until it was sold to a group of Wall Streeters in 1973. They couldn't decide what to do with it, so a bartending caretaker who traded beer for admission to the hot springs helped usher in the town's second ßing with notoriety. Motorcycle gangs, hippies, and nude volleyball aficionados promptly overran the town, many of them carving their names into the saloon bar beside the apocryphal signatures of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (who supposedly passed through after robbing their first bank). Dunton remained lawless into the eighties.
"You wouldn't come here unless you had a gun and had it showing," says Billy Joe Moffat, one of the former owners, who still lives nearby in a stove-heated cabin. By the time Kuhlmann and Henkel arrived, in 1994, the metal roof of the bathhouse was riddled with bullet holes and there were elk carcasses in the freezer. Spotting charm where others might see only caved-in roofs, rodents, and a total absence of amenities, Kuhlmann and Henkel took all of 15 minutes to decide to buy the town. They ended that day in the hot springs, "bubbling away," Kuhlmann says. They never left.