When Max Dercum told his wife, “It’s easy, Edna, it’s downhill all the way,” little did they both know that downhill would actually mean uphill — way uphill — from the gently rolling hills of Pennsylvania to a life they never could have imagined in the high Rockies of Colorado. The changing face of the West was made by intrepid people such as these two, who saw opportunity where others might have seen only obstacles in the harsh and intense landscape of the High Country.
The lives of Max and Edna Dercum, co-founders of both Arapahoe Basin and Keystone, and my beloved grandparents, are documented in Edna’s charming and iconic book, “It’s Easy, Edna, It’s Downhill All the Way.” Brimming with old photos, beautiful color-plates of son Rolf Dercum’s paintings and poems and drawings by Max Dercum, the memoir is truly a family love letter to the county that embraced them and gave them a palette upon which to paint their dreams.
Though now out of print, this self-published (1981, Second Edition 1991) gem of history is still available to enjoy, with used copies available online and through Ski Tip Lodge, the gorgeous Keystone-run bed and breakfast where Max and Edna began their pioneer adventure.
To read Edna’s book is to step back into Summit County’s recent past, when the now-famous ski resorts were just the idealistic imaginings of a handful of plucky mid-century settlers. The story begins in the sleepy town of Old Dillon, where the Dercum’s arrival from the East is met with a gunfight in the dusty street, and Edna wondering what madness has greeted them.
Reading like the transcript to a fireside chat with your Nana — a comparison completely relatable to those who knew my Nana — Edna’s book uses anecdotes and an informal and easy style to place the reader in the not-too-distant past of Summit County with a warm and cozy sense of nostalgia. It is easy to look back on events in history with rose-colored glasses, but in the case of my grandmother, the sentimentality of her reminiscing is not overblown, for they truly did live blessed lives.
As one reads more deeply about their time in Colorado, one gets a sense of inevitability surrounding Max and Edna’s gradual communion with the slopes that became A-Basin and Keystone, for their can-do spirit inspired them in every choice they made. They underwent the shift from outsiders to locals quickly, as despite Edna’s early concerns, their sensibilities were a natural fit with the handful of spirited and stalwart residents of the high mountain community.
What comes through most clearly in the book about these two amazing Summit County pioneers is their zest for life and their sense of enthusiasm for the unknown. They lived every day with a “carpe diem” mind-set, whether the days were spent with Max manning a fire station on the lonely top of Mt. Evans, or with Edna serving as Summit County Clerk, or with her cooking meals for eager ski bums, or with both of them sticking with dreams so long that those dreams turned into two of Colorado’s most iconic and epic ski areas, and left Max and Edna with ski racing careers that placed them in the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame.