Colorado, USA: Snowfight at the O.K. Corral

Discovers a slice of the wild west where the cowboys wear skis.

Ray Heid's jacket would look plain foolish in Aspen but round Steamboat Springs it seems to fit right in.

"I made it myself," he says with a slow, proud grin. "It's a one-of-a-kind this one; all road kill. That's beaver on the hood and the rest is elk. It'll keep the cold out just as well as anything you'll buy in some fancy ski store."

Ask anyone in these parts and they'll tell you Heid's about as local as the towering, snow-covered mountains that dwarf this Colorado cattle-rearing, God-fearing town; sometimes, he says, he feels as old too.

He went to school - back when the whole world was at war - just a block or so from the old double-chairlift and the big ski jump above Ninth Street that still look down on Steamboat Springs, though skiing always meant more round here than anything anyone could ever add up or write down on paper.

"Course that's why the town, and the ski resort right beside it, Steamboat, has produced 88 Winter Olympians, and counting - more than any other ski town in North America."

Heid's grandmother alone bore the world five Olympic skiers, and Heid too knows how it feels to represent his country.

Now, I might not have bothered telling you about Ray Heid at all.

I could just tell you about the snow quality in Steamboat, snow so dry and light, and fluffy, they trademarked the term "champagne powder" right here on these very slopes.

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Along with Utah's and northern Japan's world-revered snow, it's considered the best on Earth.

But then, every ski resort in Colorado has the kind of snow that makes travelling on a plane for a day worth every bit of the jet lag-induced insomnia that will follow.

I could tell you too about the fancy condos and hotels that look right out across these pretty Steamboat ski slopes, but barely an hour and a half away at Vail there are fancier ones -and a lot more of them.

And I could tell you about the restaurant on the top of the mountain, that you can only get to by gondola, and a ride aboard a snow-cat in time for an apricot sunset; but mountain-top sunset dinners are hardly unique to Steamboat either.

But what Vail and other big name resorts don't have - and never will have - are locals like Ray Heid. They're the folk who make Steamboat Springs what it still is today: a bona-fide cowboy ski town.

And Vail sure wasn't built with streets wider than two of ours put together, so cowboys could drive cattle right on through town.

Not to mention the Annual Cowboy Downhill race - Steamboat's biggest event.

Since 1974, around 100 of the best Pro Rodeo cowboys in America each year race each other down the slopes and over a big jump for a winner-takes-all prize in the world's most unique ski event.

It's my first trip back in four years and nothing much seems to have changed. FM Light & Sons still sell the best quality US-made cowboy boots in the western United States here on Steamboat Springs' main street, though now they've let the fifth generation of Lights take the reins.

And Ray Heid still takes tourists out on horse rides too, something he's been doing since he was six years old (in 1944) when he'd round up horses outside town and bring them into Steamboat Springs to rent out for a dollar and a half for the day. These days, he's a little more professional.

He takes visitors riding his big stock horses every day but Sunday, even when the mercury heads south of 20 below. We ride across his trails as gunshots echo around the lonely snow-covered hills.

"Coyotes," he explains, noting my concerned expression. "Hunting season's open."

Overhead eagles circle and I can't see a single house; it's about as far from the hectic apres scene of other resorts as I could imagine.

I stay two nights across the road from Heid's ranch near the minuscule village of Clark at a place called the Home Ranch.

In the evenings, local ranchers visit and play music and drink whiskey; mornings before skiing are spent feeding horses.

Out here I can look right up into the mountains that mark where Colorado stops and Wyoming begins; the largest cattle shipping station in the US was just down the road - rustlers used to steal cattle then skulk up to these highlands to hide out from the law.

But if you're imagining a town of redneck types, that's where you'd be wrong. The cowboys are mighty tolerant in these parts and, as at most of Colorado's ski areas these days, new-agers - "the granola types", a local cowboy I meet likes to call them - have left an indelible mark.

Today there's as many whole food stores and yoga workshops as there are cowboy boot retailers in Steamboat Springs.

There's luxury here too, if you want it. Steamboat's home to some of America's highest-end hotel chains, and they're only metres from the slopes.

Steamboat's best attractions don't tug hard at the purse strings: a horse ride through Colorado's former badlands, skiing right beside a cowboy in a Stetson; and a night-life that comes with none of the pretence you can expect at other better-known ski towns.

I find myself frequenting the same apres ski establishments, right beside the slopes where country bands play banjos and double basses and beers come for $3 a pint; or bars in town like Sun Pie with its eclectic crew of grey-bearded locals downing cheap shots and local beer and demanding conversation with new arrivals as they eat pork rolls with fried egg and cheese for $4.50.

"Steamboat turns out more adrenalin junkies than anywhere else in the world," Heid tells me. "It was always the ambition of every kid to go off that big jump you see on the side of town. There's a lot of craziness in this town. But that's the beauty of the place."

The writer travelled courtesy of Colorado Ski Country USA and Travelplan.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Fly to Steamboat via Los Angeles through Travelplan Ski, see travelplan.com.au.

STAYING THERE

Stay metres from the ski slopes at The Steamboat Sheraton, see sheratonsteamboatresort.com; or on a dude ranch with cross-country ski trails, see homeranch.com.

MORE INFORMATION

steamboat.com; skicolorado.com.

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