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Change of Arts: The Green Box Arts Festival

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Once a magnet for summer travelers, Green Mountain Falls had fallen off the vacation getaway radar. Jen Murphy discovers how one man revived a small Colorado town with the Green Box Arts Festival
An alfresco dance performance at the Green Box Arts Festival.
An alfresco dance performance at the Green Box Arts Festival.

I’ve always loved visiting sleepy destinations. Michigan wine country instead of Napa or Sonoma; the North Fork of Long Island instead of the Hamptons. There’s a certain charm and quirkiness to these more under-the-radar spots where locals vacation not because it’s trendy but because it’s tradition. When I heard of Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, a town of fewer than 800 people that sits just north of Pikes Peak, I was immediately intrigued. In a state of famous mountain towns — Vail, Telluride, Aspen, Breckenridge, Crested Butte — Green Mountain Falls has long been a locals’ secret. But in recent years, it’s gained national attention thanks to its burgeoning artist community and the annual Green Box Arts Festival.
New York-based businessman and art collector Christian Keesee is largely responsible for the little town’s revival. At the turn of the last century, Green Mountain Falls was a summer vacation mecca. “I grew up in Oklahoma City before the advent of air conditioning,” Keesee recalls. “Back then, any family from Oklahoma or Texas that could rub two nickels together would summer in Colorado to escape the humidity.” Keesee recalls long summer days fishing on Gazebo Lake, situated in the heart of town, and scrambling up trails to waterfalls in the surrounding woods. When Green Mountain Falls fell on hard times in the 1980s and ’90s, Keesee stepped in to save the place that held so many fond childhood memories.

Festival founder Christian Keesee along with partner Larry Keigwin and son Blake.
Festival founder Christian Keesee along with partner Larry Keigwin and son Blake.

“I wanted to bring back the magic I experienced in the summers,” he says. “Green Mountain Falls had always been a wonderful place for people who like to relax and read and hike. But I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was some intellectual or artistic component to the town.” Keesee, who is a member of the Director’s Circle of the Frick Collection in New York City, set about transforming old buildings into artist studios. In the summer of 2009, he introduced the Green Box Arts Festival. The event, which takes place this year from June 26 to July 4, showcases works and performances from high-profile artists including international fiddle sensation Kyle Dillingham and sculptor Tomás Saraceno. A big draw this summer will be the Oklahoma City Ballet and throwback activities like bingo and square dancing.

An evening concert under the pines.
An evening concert under the pines.

The festival’s success brought back summer crowds, and in turn, created the need for lodging. At the time, the only options were to rent a tiny cabin or pitch a tent. When a six-room lodge dating back to 1889 went on sale, Keesee purchased the building, gutted it and gave the town a destination hotel. The Outlook Lodge, which opened in 2012, was the impetus for a weekend road trip with my friend Katie. We were looking for a summer escape where we could unplug, find a bit of adventure and not break the bank. Green Mountain Falls, less than 90 minutes from Denver and 20 minutes from Colorado Springs, seemed like it could deliver exactly that.

Tomás Saraceno’s interactive sculpture Cloud City.
Tomás Saraceno’s interactive sculpture, Cloud City.

The Outlook Lodge and its new sister property, a restored 1950s motor lodge called the Little Beaver Inn, are best described as low-touch. There’s no reception desk or restaurant. Instead, a “local host” emailed us directions and instructions for retrieving our room key from a lockbox. We arrive to find a young couple from Boston sipping Colorado microbrews in rocking chairs on the wraparound front porch. They were contemplating skipping their conference in Denver and staying an extra few days at Outlook.

Keesee’s boutique hotel, Outlook Lodge.
Keesee’s boutique hotel, Outlook Lodge. Photo by D. Lauer.

Inside, the lodge is decorated with modern and midcentury furniture as well as original pieces by Kate Carr and other works from Keesee’s private collection. The shared kitchen, dining area and outdoor fire pit make the lodge feel like our own private home rather than a hotel. Katie and I set out exploring and well, small town might be an overstatement. Green Mountain Falls has one of everything you need: liquor store, post office, bar, deli, breakfast spot, church.

A special delivery from The Pantry restaurant, known for its hearty “cowboy cookouts."
A special delivery from The Pantry restaurant, known for its hearty “cowboy cookouts.”

We decide to explore the town’s original attraction: its system of hiking trails, accessible a short walk up the hill. Terry, our lodge hostess, prepared us brown bags filled with lunch from the town deli — turkey sandwiches, potato chips, Gatorade and chocolate chip cookies — and trail maps. The 6-mile, out-and-back Catamount Trail takes us up steep switchbacks, past a cascading waterfall and through a technicolor meadow of wildflowers. We pause at the top and find a rock with epic views of Pike National Forest where we enjoy our lunch. We pass just two other hikers on our way down and marvel at the silence.

An evening fireside at the lodge.
An evening fireside at the lodge. Photo by D. Lauer.

To reward ourselves we head to the Blue Moose Tavern, where we feel like locals since we immediately recognize the Boston couple at a corner table. Colorado IPAs and an overflowing plate of nachos can only be followed by one thing: s’mores. Our welcome kit at Outlook included all the fixings — marshmallows, Hershey’s bars, graham crackers and roasting sticks. The four of us retreat back to the lodge’s fire pit.
The clear starry night, the warmth of the fire, the sticky mess of melted chocolate and marshmallow kissing my lips makes me feel like a kid at summer camp. This is the magic of Green Mountain Falls. There’s a true sense of community that even strangers get to feel, whether you bond over the art experience, nature or toasting marshmallows around a fire.

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