Tabernash: What Kind of Car Would Jesus Be Driving?

The tiny community of Tabernash might not be among your first choices of Colorado vacation spots because the list of tourist amenities it does not have far outweighs the attractions it does, other than the Colorado-class views, of course.

For instance, among the things the town lacks is a motel, a definite impediment for the destination tourist. The Tabernash Lodge, the one nightly rental business that the unincorporated town did boast, converted about 10 years ago to long-term rental.

But, in the can-do attitude of Colorado, let’s dwell on the positive: Snooty Coyote Liquors, located conveniently along Highway 40, does a thriving business. I guess the moral is that if you’re planning on moving to Tabernash you better buy a beer and stick around for a bit, maybe a lifetime, whichever comes first.

Lose the family mule? Make amends with flowers from Margaret’s Gardens.

About 150 full-time residents live in Tabernash and most of them have been there a while.

Tabernash was named after a Ute Indian, shot and killed nearby by a white settler in 1878. Relations with the Utes were strained that year by a solar eclipse the Indians strangely interpreted as a portent that the settlers were trying to steal their ancestral lands. Tabernash, the town, was born in 1904 by construction crews laying the Moffett Railroad over the Continental Divide on the way to Salt Lake City.

The first automobile in Grand County passed through Tabernash in 1904, cheating a bit by being hauled over from Denver on a railroad flatcar. The journey still took the motoring travelers another 2½ days to get about 14 miles from Tabernash to Hot Sulphur Springs, counting the time it took the mules to drag it over Gore Pass.

Tabernash sprung up as a clapboard and canvas community, a railroad service center at the mouth of the Fraser Canyon that grew in importance during the construction of the Moffat Tunnel, as crews inched through the divide at an average of 21 feet per day. The tunnel was built to bypass the incredible difficulties getting trains over the 12,000-foot top of the Rockies through more than 300 inches of winter snowfall.

In 1920, the population of Tabernash was 635 people and probably about as many mules. The tunnel, just over six miles long, lopped more than 28 miles off the distance from Denver to Tabernash, and about 3,000 feet of vertical incline in the process. The first train came through the tunnel in February 1928, scaring off the mules.

There are a few other businesses in Tabernash, and like many mountain communities, several of the buildings have seen entrepreneurs come and go. One Tabernash building today houses Margaret’s Gardens, a popular greenhouse and nursery where you can buy fresh flowers to mollify the wife into forgiving you for losing the mule.

Today it’s a nursery but the building was not always so. In 1973, it was the Manna House restaurant, started by members of a hippy commune whose bus broke down as they were passing through. The times being what they were, they tuned in, dropped out and turned on to the Lord, all changing their names to Christley, for “Christ-like,” in the process. It made it easy to remember the name of your wait staff.

The food was good and wholesome and the coffee was rich and fresh. It became a favorite spot of Clifford Miller, a local businessman, regarded and respected as one of the more memorable characters who helped found the nearby ski town of Winter Park about six miles up the road from Tabernash.

The town of Winter Park, or as it was called then, Hideaway Park, was started in the 1930s as Denver’s alpine picnic ground. Clifford had taught school in Kansas before achieving his dream of building a ski lodge in the Rocky Mountains in the mid-1940s. When I first met him, he was in his 80s, a well-traveled philosopher with the tonsured pate of a monk, quick-witted and interested in everything in the world.

The town may not be booming, but the local liquor store does thriving business.

I’d taken a sight-unseen job, working as his handy man for a month, refurbishing an apartment in the lodge. I saw it as a cool mountain break before heading back to Arizona to start law school in the fall.

I’ve never regretted that Clifford talked me out of my fate, convincing me the only thing I’d learn as a lawyer was how to “blow a lot of hot air about other people’s opinions.” That compelling argument, along with the fact that the lodge was a hothouse of young maids, cooks and waitresses, convinced me to stay.

So we were sitting at a table in the Manna House quite early one morning in June, as Clifford had taken to doing while chatting up the restaurant staff about their beliefs. This was a bit odd, in that Clifford was a deeply dyed-in-the-wool agnostic, but never strident about his own opinions. I could tell that he enjoyed the mental sparring with the deeply religious, albeit somewhat curious, convictions of the restaurateurs.

It was about 5:30 a.m. when the cook let us in and made some coffee for us to enjoy. Just then the waitress flew in the door and announced that she’d just witnessed a miracle. It seemed her car wouldn’t start so she started the long walk to Tabernash when Jesus slowed down on the highway, looked her over, decided she was worthy and gave her a ride into work.

Clifford was seldom without words but the waitress’ statement gave him pause for several moments while he digested the comment. A few minutes later she came around to take our order. Clifford looked up at her and said earnestly, “Miss Christley, what kind of car was he driving?”

Tabernash is one of the towns that built Colorado into the glorious state it is today.

Jon de Vos, who lives near Fraser, took a one-month job at a ski lodge in Hideaway Park (now Winter Park), after graduating from Arizona State University in 1973. He intended to head for law school in the fall semester. That was 33 years ago. “Colorado saved my life,” he says.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.