Laid-back in the extreme

Tourists often flock to towns to pay tribute to late, great residents — an author, perhaps, or a president — but the homage paid to one deceased man by this Rocky Mountain mining town is as bizarre as some of its residents.

And that's the point.

Welcome to Nederland, a town of quiet beauty near the Continental Divide in north-central Colorado.

Despite its proximity to Boulder, 17 miles east, it had been largely overlooked since Gold Rush days. Hippies discovered it in the '60s, and such musicians as Elton John, Billy Joel and Dan Fogelberg frequented the nearby Caribou Ranch recording studio in the '70s.

The locals were so laid-back they barely batted an eye when Stephen Stills sat in on Saturday-night music sets at the Pioneer Inn. Indeed, they took great pride in their live-and-let-live attitude — at least until 1994, when the frozen bodies of Grandpa Bredo Morstol and Al Campbell were discovered in a shed above town. That's when the 1,394 residents began to take sides on what to do with these two human guinea pigs from a cryogenics experiment that went somewhat awry.

I discovered Nederland while surveying Colorado road-trip options early this spring. I wanted a dog-friendly mountain cabin far removed from the fancy ski resorts but not too far from Denver.

A bit of Internet browsing suggested this place was not only scenic but also had a sense of humor. Where else could you find a town at 8,233 feet that sold "Frozen Dead Guy" merchandise and spawned Chip and the Chowderheads' musical rendition of "Grandpa's in the Tuff Shed" and an award-winning documentary of the same name?

I liked the idea of a semi-secluded mountain town with a high per capita number of restaurants, and I was pleased to find that the 23-room Best Western Lodge at Nederland welcomed dogs (Bosco, my faithful companion, came along for the ride) but disappointed that it was booked for the mid-March weekend I wanted. Turned out my visit would coincide with the third annual Frozen Dead Guy Days.

This sounded too good to miss, so I booked a room in Nederland for the Thursday night before the festivities and switched for the weekend to a cabin in Estes Park, a pretty 40-mile drive north along the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway.

As Bosco and I drove west across Kansas, I envisioned a setting populated by residents as quirky as those in "Northern Exposure." I wasn't disappointed.

The president of the chamber owns Off Her Rocker Antiques, and a fellow known as the Ice Man cometh every month to keep Grandpa Bredo covered with dry ice.

Befitting its most famous resident, the town seemed frozen in time. I was pleased to find not a single stoplight, Starbucks or golden arches.

The winding drive up from Boulder paid off immediately with a view of the vast Barker Reservoir. I easily found the Lodge at Nederland nestled in the center of town, a leisurely walk to the 200-acre lake as well as the main street, where shops such as the Rustic Moose beckoned. A sign in the window of the I & I Caribbean Cafe appropriately advertised Rogue Dead Guy Ale.

I instantly liked the tiny town and started considering a return trip in the summer to visit the numerous lakes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area in the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests or in the fall to see the mountains cloaked in autumn splendor. It also was near the popular local hangouts — such as the Kathmandu Indian restaurant, Whistler's Cafe, the Pioneer Inn and the Acoustic Cafe — where locals gather to take refuge from the wind and share the latest news about Grandpa and his eccentric grandson, Trygve Bauge.

Cryogenic clienteleThe story of Grandpa's journey to the shed is a bit chilling, although no foul play was involved. He died in Norway in 1989, and his grandson, Trygve, had him shipped to California, where he was cryogenically frozen. Meanwhile, Trygve, who wanted to start a cryogenics business, and his mother, Aud, emigrated to Nederland in the early 1990s, built a house they thought could withstand earthquakes, bombs, floods and fires, brought Grandpa here from California and put him on ice. Grandpa and Al Campbell constituted the clientele.

Trygve was a little slippery about his visa, which had expired. He managed to elude the immigration service for a time but eventually was deported to Norway.

A reporter from Nederland's newspaper, the Mountain Ear, went up to the disaster-proof house to interview Aud, who was mumbling something in broken English about bodies thawing in the shed, and that's how the fledgling frozen people business became public.

While the town was having a melt-down, city officials frantically passed an ordinance prohibiting keeping dead bodies — but soon discovered that Grandpa could be grandfathered in. Campbell was sent to his family in Chicago for burial, and the town warmed up to its newest and most infamous resident. Trygve continues to send money for the dry ice that keeps Grandpa's steel coffin from thawing. (The coffin can be viewed during the festival.)

Eager to explore a town whose chamber of commerce had the foresight to celebrate such eccentricity, I checked into my room. I was impressed with the lodge-style lobby and oversized rooms with comfortable chairs.

I walked over to the B&F Mountain Market, where little RIP headstones decorated the check-out lanes, before heading to the Black Forest restaurant, where volunteers were meeting to review the weekend's events: the Brain Freeze and Grandpa Look-Alike contests, coffin races, Polar Plunge, snow sculpting, senior citizens' pancake feed and a film festival. Residents were reassured that the Frozen T-Shirt Contest was not indecent; participants would have to pry apart a frozen T-shirt and put it on over their clothes.

My sister Lynda and niece Lyndsey drove from Denver for Saturday's festivities. We had our pictures taken in a coffin cutout before moseying over to 1st Street, the short parade route, to browse in the shops and buy Frozen Dead Guy Days T-shirts.

We jockeyed for position to watch the parade, a sort of Mardi Gras meets Day of the Dead affair that included the obligatory politicians, the reigning Ice Queen, antique hearses (one sported a 1 Foot In license plate) and teams of "pallbearers" holding aloft coffin creations that would be used in the races.

After lunch we walked to the Acoustic Cafe for chai tea on the way to the coffin races at Chipeta Park, where, even though a team of local politicians bribed the judges, reigning champs Working Man's Dead again posted the fastest time over the obstacle course.

The great outdoorsAfter the rough-and-tumble races, we drove back up to Estes Park along Peak to Peak (Colorado Highway 72), known as the showcase of the Front Range.

Estes Park in the off-season was a joy: There was no traffic, scores of elk and deer grazed along the roads and the lines were short at Laura's Fine Candies. I had found a phoneless cabin near the majestic Stanley Hotel, where we could pretend to be roughing it or we could walk several blocks to a Starbucks.

The green cabins were nondescript on the outside, but inside ours was tastefully decorated, with French doors leading to a small bedroom. Our kitchen went unused except for storing snacks in the fridge.

For dinner we chose the Dunraven Inn, a popular roadhouse snuggled into the trees on the west edge of Estes Park, and enjoyed the homemade lasagna.

In Estes Park are two entrances to 400-square-mile Rocky Mountain National Park. The next morning we browsed in one of the information centers but weren't energetic enough to take part in anything more strenuous. Not much of a hiker, I made note of a return trip of the free shuttle bus that runs in the summer from Glacier Basin to Bear Lake, with stops at various trail heads.

Instead we drove 17 miles down the mountain to the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, which had been given to Boulder by its sister city, Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. It took 40 artisans in Tajikistan three years to create the hand-carved and painted decorative elements for the ceiling, tables, columns and exterior ceramic panels. It was still a little early for lunch, so we grazed on appetizers (the best was the Asian vegetarian pot stickers with sesame dipping sauce), desserts and tea.

After my sister and niece continued home to Denver, I drove back to Estes Park to scout restaurants for my last evening. I chose the Grubsteak, where I had a marvelous pan-fried trout fillet and Sunshine Wheat Beer from a microbrewery in nearby Fort Collins.

Poor Grandpa will never get to sample these delights, but it's said that he's not unhappy. To make sure he was resting in peace, a psychic from Boulder was summoned to determine whether Grandpa minded being the town's unofficial mascot. Fortunately, he's cool with it.

*

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R&R in the Rockies

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, nonstop service to Denver is available on United, American, Northwest and Frontier, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on Delta, America West and Alaska. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $173. Nederland is about 50 miles west of the Denver airport.

WHERE TO STAY:

Best Western Lodge at Nederland, 55 Lake View Drive, Nederland; (303) 258-9463, http://www.nedlodge.com . Twenty-three rooms, all nonsmoking; high-season doubles begin at $99 ($10 per night for dogs). Continental breakfast is included.

Cinnamon Bear Mountain Cabins, 120 W. Wonderview Ave., Estes Park; (970) 586-4256, http://www.cinnamonbearmountaincabins.com . Ten family-owned cabins (some allow pets). High-season rates begin at $85.

Sundance Cafe & Lodge, 23942 Hwy. 119 S., Nederland; (800) 817-3797, http://www.sundance-lodge.com . Twelve rooms, stables, view of Continental Divide from restaurant. High-season rates begin at $85.

WHERE TO EAT:

Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, 1770 13th St.; (303) 442-4993, http://www.boulderteahouse.com . Breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, afternoon tea. Open daily, 8 a.m. until 9 or 10 p.m. Entrees $7 to $19.

The Dunraven Inn, 2470 Colorado Hwy. 66, Estes Park; (970) 586-6409. Open at 5 nightly for dinner. Specialties are seafood and homemade Italian dishes; entrees from $8.

The Grubsteak, 134 W. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park; (970) 586-8838. Ribs, steaks, trout; entrees $5.50 to $19. Open daily, with shorter winter hours.

The Pioneer Inn, 15 1st St., Nederland; (303) 258-7733. Open daily 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. for breakfast, lunch, dinner. Skillet sandwiches, steaks, ribs, Mexican dishes. Entrees $4 to $17.

TO LEARN MORE:

Nederland Visitor Center/Chamber of Commerce, (800) 221-0044 or http://www.nederlandchamber.org .

Colorado Tourism Office, 1625 Broadway, Suite 1700, Denver, CO 80202; (800) COLORADO (265-6723) or (303) 892-3885, fax (303) 892-3848, http://www.colorado.com .

— Cynthia Mines

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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