Born to Fly

I wake up with a start. It’s dark as squid ink. A stealthy coyote lurks nearby. I’m grounded, even though I was born to fly. 

Where am I? How did I get…here? 

When I arrived in Crested Butte from Italy, people couldn’t believe their eyes. I can’t really blame them. Compared to a rope tow and other early lifts, I may as well have been from another planet. State-of-the-art and shaped like a spaceship, I could squeeze three passengers inside my bubble, knees interlocked. Skis and poles were secured on the outside. 

I ferried my first skiers up Crested Butte Mountain in January, 1963. Even the $2 lift tickets were shaped like a gondola—just like me and the other shiny new cars. I never saw any of the money, but we machines rarely do. Back in the bubble, my passengers were bundled up in the latest winter outerwear, all puffy and stiff, walking like Frankenstein in their clunky ski boots. Some ascended the mountain in silent awe, soaking in the views of the wild West Elks and their snow-frosted peaks. Others rambled on for the whole ride as if I could not hear a thing, speaking of things I shall not repeat. Their breath would fog the windows as they talked excitedly about aprés ski plans, late-night debauchery and fast turns. Many lifetimes worth of stories were shared within my walls. If only these walls could talk. Oh, wait … I guess I’ll save those stories for another time.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but life as a lift rarely is. Even small amounts of wind would send me swinging side-to-side like a pendulum, and could shut me down for hours on end. On occasion, when you’d least expect it, I’d slide backwards down the cable and slam into the car behind me. Talk about feeling helpless. That move always terrified the passengers, and gave them a good story to tell when they returned home from vacation. The things people will do to climb a mountain and slide down on skis, like an otter gliding gleefully on its belly….

We moved uphill as slow as cold molasses: stop at the bottom to load skiers and their skis, float up the mountain, and then stop at the top to unload. Repeat. The skiers never complained so long as we reached the top, nor did I. 

What was shiny and new in 1963 was antiquated—at least by ski industry standards—by 1973. In 10 short years I went from the top of the world to the bottom of the barrel. I was replaced by the Silver Queen Cabin Chairlift. My fellow gondola cars and I were decommissioned and moved to the ski area’s maintenance yard. We were either sold off to locals or to the scrap yard. Most of us were lost to the snows of time. 

One by one the others disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. After a decade of banging around at the ski area, my outer shell was dinged and dented, the exterior paint faded and scuffed. I certainly wasn’t going to win any beauty contests. Even the field mice scurried by without a second thought. Any crumbs left behind by passengers past were long gone. I was a shell of my former self.

Sometimes all it takes is one person, one moment, to change the trajectory of your life. Fred Berry and his family first came skiing in Crested Butte in 1965. They were from Wichita, Kansas, and family friends of the Eflins—including Dick Eflin, who had founded the ski area in Crested Butte just a few years earlier. At Dick’s request, they made a trip to a little-known Colorado town at the end of a meandering and beautiful road. And that began a nearly 60-year love affair with Crested Butte that continues to this day.

Fred and his family learned to ski in Crested Butte, and I carried them up the mountain more than once. After the gondola was decommissioned, the Berry family continued to visit as often as work and life allowed. They cherished the memories made with their family while riding the gondola and skiing Crested Butte Mountain. 

During one of their visits, Fred happened to notice me languishing away in the ski area’s maintenance yard. Fred always had a soft spot for the gondola. He talked to the right person at the resort, and before I knew it I was loaded onto a trailer and headed to Wichita. 


Turns out there is no skiing to speak of in Wichita. And yet, despite the lack of mountains and snow, I fit right in. The Berrys treated me like a member of the family. Fred’s son Franklin thought I was looking a little worse for the wear, and he decided to restore me to my glory days. He did some restoration work himself and then brought me to an automotive body shop in Wichita to add the finishing touches. One hundred pounds of body putty and a fresh paint job later, and I was looking good as new. 

The loose plan had always been for the Berrys to find a place on their property for me to hang around and ride out the rest of my years. To be a keepsake of their beloved Crested Butte. But Fred and his wife Sue decided that, rather than keep me to themselves, they should return me to Crested Butte so others could share in the history of the ski area and its iconic, albeit short-lived, gondola. I was content with my midwestern retirement, but who wouldn’t jump at the chance to return to Crested Butte?! It’s funny how life, like gondolas, comes full circle. 

Fred and Sue waited to bring me back to Crested Butte until the Mountain Heritage Museum moved into Tony’s Conoco, where there was ample space for a gondola car amidst the other exhibits. But first we had to get from Wichita to Crested Butte, which was no easy task. Franklin built a rack for me to hang from and loaded it onto his trailer. Then I was secured with straps to keep me from swinging around on the long voyage home. Needless to say, I got a lot of strange, inquisitive looks from passersby as we rolled down the highway. We crossed the border into Colorado, and peaks piled up behind the plains. I was almost home.

Even in the dark of night, when the museum is closed and the staff has gone home, I find comfort in its confines, nestled amongst the other exhibits. It’s quiet, peaceful. Like being back on the mountain, long after the last skier made his or her final run, basking in memories and alpenglow. 

During the day, I’m one of the museum’s main attractions. Kids like to crawl in and pretend they’re ascending the mountain or flying through space. Or both. Friends and newlyweds pose for pictures, and dress me up for special events. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the attention. 

It’s been 60 years since I carried my first skiers up the mountain. Now, I get to transport people back in time. It’s been a long journey, but my work here has just begun. 

 As told to Mike Horn, by The Berry Gondola Car

Many thanks to Fred Berry for sharing his stories about the gondola, and to the Berry Family for rescuing and restoring the gondola that resides in the museum to this day. 

Additional references and resources include Sandra Cortner’s book: Crested Butte Stories … Through My Lens, and the staff at the Crested Butte Museum.