Snowed in with a Ghost

I moved into a haunted building in a ritzy resort town and sank into a terrifying depression. I never dreamed the thing that saved me would be the woman who died in my apartment.

Snowed in with a Ghost

Editors’ note: This article contains descriptions of the author’s suicidal ideations.

I was already depressed when we moved into the brothel.

“Original bathtub, circa 1840, Silver Bell Bordello.” Rory, my boyfriend, read the inscription on the gold plaque out loud. The landlord stood behind us in the bathroom. I tested the faucet; it was delicate, like it might break off in my hand.

We had arrived an hour earlier. It was November, and winter storms had chased us across the red desert of Utah into Colorado, but it hadn’t snowed yet in Telluride. We had come from California with little money, but a promise that there was plenty to be made working service industry jobs. Telluride is the kind of place where movie stars come to escape paparazzi and tip 200 percent. Tucked away in a box canyon deep in the San Juan Mountains, it’s a fairytale world where streets lined with Victorian houses led to aspens, sandstone cliffs, meadows of elk. I knew I was supposed to be in awe of it, but I felt nothing. I could make out the slopes of the ski resort from the window of the apartment, brown and naked, the skeletal chairlifts frozen. It felt wrong to see it like that.

“Building’s haunted,” the landlord said, with more boredom in his voice than the statement merited. “Ramona. That’s the ghost’s name. She was here when this was a brothel.”

Rory and I looked at each other, both exhausted from the drive. There was a potbelly stove in the living room, a bedroom with no door, and a skylight, not yet glazed with ice.

“Can we move in now?” Rory asked. He flicked a light switch; nothing happened.

“Electricity won’t be turned on for another few days,” the landlord said. “But sure.”

I steadied myself against the wall, a drumbeat headache pounding my temples. The elevation — 8,750 feet — hit me like a hangover. We carried our belongings in, increasingly breathless each time we climbed the stairs. It was dark when we finished. I collapsed on the air mattress, and when I woke it was snowing. It would continue to snow for five months.

Rory took a graveyard shift at the front desk of a ski-in/ski-out hotel. I got a job waiting tables at a restaurant that was only accessible by gondola. Each night when I returned from work, he was leaving, and each morning when I woke, he was walking through the door, headed to bed. I stood in the gray light, sadness sticking to my insides like sap. I wondered if it would destroy me this time, like it almost had before.

The ski resort opened and tourists arrived. They bought $600 down jackets, wore them for the weekend, and left them behind. They ordered Flatliners — martinis that can be made with espresso and vodka — at après ski. They paid for helicopters to fly them to powdery mountainsides for the day and handed their boots to valets each evening.

On Thanksgiving, I boarded the gondola to work. A slender white ermine dove in and out of snowbanks, its fur the same as the coats sold downtown. At the crest of the mountains, the gondola let me out. The restaurant existed in a glass bubble above town. Everyone I met upon arriving in Telluride told me how lucky I was to work there.

It was hot inside. The employees were on edge, discussing a rumor that management tracked tip averages. Supposedly, if anyone dipped below a certain percentage they’d be fired. We pooled tips, which fostered resentment whenever someone netted a few hundred dollars from a single table and had to share.

We began that shift as we would come to begin most shifts: Our manager gathered us in a private dining room and berated us over some minor transgression. A missing knife, a broken wine glass.

I did not belong among these people, as I had hoped. We did not share cigarettes before the dinner rush or drinks after closing.

“You really don’t ski or snowboard?” one of my co-workers asked. We were polishing silverware near the kitchen. The air smelled like roast lamb and rosemary. The other servers eyed me as I explained that it wasn’t my thing, no big deal.

“Seems kind of weird,” one remarked. The subject turned to the legalization of recreational marijuana, and I mentioned that I lived near a dispensary but had never been inside. I didn’t smoke weed anymore; it made me terrified of everyone. “What a waste,” someone said. “Like, why are you even here?” The others laughed.

As we changed into jeans after work, they spoke over me, making plans to ski together. I filled a takeout box with mashed potatoes, went home, and ate alone in my apartment. My whole life I had found myself at the fringes of other people’s gatherings, unsure how to join in. In Telluride, I spent my free time at the library, flipping through old magazines in the blue light of the quiet reading room. I rented documentaries and watched them on my laptop at the Silver Bell, wondering if when Ramona had lived there she’d felt like I did.

We were stop number 14 on the historic walking tour.

“This is the Silver Bell,” a tour guide said, gesturing to the building I’d just come out of. “In the mining days, alcohol, gambling and, of course, prostitution all took place here.”

I heard the word “haunted” mentioned and wondered if the Ramona part was real. I wanted it to be. Whenever I ran a bath, I thought of her, wondering if she had sat in that tub.

Flurries ushered in blizzards, turning the sky to steel. One frigid afternoon, Rory and I hiked a mountain road. It went all the way to the weathered remains of a ghost town, but we couldn’t make it through the snow, so we stood hip deep in it and gazed out over Telluride. I tried to love it. The night before, a wide-eyed guest at the restaurant had squeezed my forearm and said, “Oh, honey, you must be full of joy, living in a place like this.” She’d meant to be kind, but I’d recoiled, flush with the guilt of not being able to say, “Yes, yes I am.”

“Not a bad view,” Rory said, smiling.

I wanted to admire the triangular summit of Ajax Peak, the Victorian architecture of downtown Telluride, but I couldn’t. Each time I failed, I returned to the Silver Bell, curled up on my couch and slept. Another day in paradise, wasted.

We went to the Telluride Historical Museum, our shoes soaked with snow. It was an attempt to feel the thing people had been telling me to feel: lucky to be here. Happy. In a section dedicated to stories about the red light district, there was her name: Ramona. She really had been in Telluride just like me. And it was there that she’d died, at 21. By suicide at the Silver Bell.

I wish I could pinpoint the moment that my depression began that winter, or in my life in general. People always want that. The arrival of an unsettling creature, like the black bear that would cross the San Miguel River at night and wander through Telluride. All I know is it was there when I arrived, and it got worse the longer I stayed. But it was not new to me.

I tried to kill myself in college. The police came and handcuffed me, brought me to a hospital where a nurse who wouldn’t make eye contact handcuffed me again, this time to a chair in an empty room. An hour later someone took away my earrings and anything else I might use to harm myself. A psychologist with a Santa beard told me how much I’d have to pay per hour if I wanted to talk. We spoke for 15 minutes. In the morning, I took the bus back to campus and ate scrambled eggs at the dining hall, like it never happened. A few weeks later, I returned to my dorm room after a party, grabbed a pair of scissors from my desk, and jammed the end into my wrist. It bled and ached, like I’d punctured my bones. I covered the wound with unicorn Band-Aids and went to class. This is the worst I will feel, I thought.

Five years later in Telluride, I was circling those same emotions. I sleepwalked through work, barely absorbing our manager’s preshift barrage of insults. I called the front desk at Rory’s hotel to say goodnight, my voice wavering. He asked, “Is something wrong?” I said no, not wanting to worry him. Eventually it became impossible to pretend. One night, I laid in bed, silently crying as he got dressed for his shift.

He sat on the edge of the mattress. “I’m scared to leave you alone. Should I call out?”

I shook my head, unable to speak, my heart cracking, my rib cage full of hurt. After he was gone, the snow came down in sheets, insulating the apartment from the world.

I imagined her there. Ramona, sitting where Rory had been. There was no sense she wanted anything from me, or that she was judging. She was simply present, sharing the space, as innocuous as a quiet roommate. I didn’t hear her speak or breathe. She didn’t rattle the windows or open cabinets. It was just the sense that another person was there, the way it is possible to be aware of someone even if they have not announced their presence. I slept, feeling her in the room with me.

Later, I learned that other people who had spent time in the Silver Bell had also encountered her. Some described her as a practical joker, others mentioned her soft voice. One woman bought a pink scarf and hung it on the door because she believed it was Ramona’s favorite color. Another laughed at how she liked to mess up rooms that had been tidied. They said she was benign, content to be with them.

We experienced her however we wanted to, transformed her into what we needed.

By December, the streets were ice. My tires couldn’t gain traction when I tried to drive out of Telluride.

“Why don’t you have a Jeep?” a co-worker asked during a lunch shift, like it was something I should have thought of before moving to Colorado. The town was buzzing with holiday lights and affluent vacationers, celebrities hanging wreaths in their second homes. A famous talk show host breezed by. I thought about the things she had access to, the things I didn’t. For visitors, Telluride was limitless — white glitter snow, palatial hotel lobbies with stone fireplaces. For me it was a box canyon, a dead end.

There was no shortage of lavish spas, but I couldn’t find a therapist. In a community of less than 3,000 people, it was easier to find a sommelier than a mental health professional. The largest nearby town, Montrose, was an hour-and-a-half drive away. The mountain pass to get there was dangerous, but so were the knives in my kitchen, so I called around to therapists, couldn’t find any openings. One suggested I try Grand Junction, another hour north. My health insurance told me to see a primary care doctor, get diagnosed with something, and go from there. Everyone said, “Call 911 if this is an emergency.” Was it? Was it yet?

A magpie chattered outside the Silver Bell on Christmas Day, flashing its blue tail. I thought of the nursery rhyme as I passed it. One for sorrow, two for joy.

The restaurant was fully booked. No time for holiday cheer. We pushed together tables, making space for large parties. The cooks pulled loaves from the oven, lamenting the struggle of baking at a high altitude. I looked out at the steep mountain chute, following it down, down, down with my eyes. I wanted to bury myself in an avalanche. Instead, it would be another night of smiling at strangers. I buttoned my starchy blouse and began. After the sun went down, the panoramic windows showed a void. I couldn’t shake the feeling of tumbling through the glass, into oblivion.

I made the least money that night and the most mistakes. The other servers scowled as we divided tips. One followed me to the bathroom, shouting everything I’d done wrong through the door.

I waited until I was alone inside the gondola cabin to cry. The wind rocked me back and forth in the darkness as I descended from the mountains into Telluride. The jewel box town sparkled in the canyon. I walked the vacant streets home, past bars where the people inside laughed together.

In the warmth of the Silver Bell, I could feel Ramona waiting. I laid down on the bed, too numb to remove my jacket. She was sitting on the corner of the mattress. She was at the kitchen table watching the snowfall. She was the dust in the air, the bricks in the wall, the wooden floor, the ancient bathtub, the hairline cracks in the windowpane. She was everything and everywhere. Imaginary and real. Company. The only thing I had that night. She was the entire apartment, holding me.

Despite its snow globe appeal, Telluride has a legacy of suicide. After I left, there would be three over the course of two weeks. Maybe it’s the isolation, income inequality, access to firearms, or even, according to a study by University of Utah researchers, the link between high altitude and decreased serotonin levels. Whatever it was, it had begun before Ramona, and it would continue after I left. If you glance at a map of suicide mortality by state, the Rocky Mountains are tinged with maroon, indicating the highest rate. That stretch of dark red across America looks like the burnt hue of the cliffs in southwest Colorado, the shade of an alpine stream choked with runoff, the color of dried blood.

I wasn’t sure if I believed, but I bought flowers anyway, because I’d heard Ramona liked them. It was nice to think of her sitting beside me on those desolate afternoons when it seemed like the snow would never cease and I would never feel better.

“Do you believe in Ramona?” I asked Rory. We had driven out to the hot springs in Ridgway. Steam rose around us. I was naked in the water. I put my hands in the snow. Rory was a spiritual person, more so than I have ever been, even after my childhood of lace gloves at Sunday mass, high school theology class.

“I think a lot of it is incomprehensible,” he said. Ramona was exclusive to me, a friend I hung out with whom he didn’t know. The night before, I’d gone looking for something in a cabinet that could only be reached by stepladder. Inside, I discovered a decorative glass rose that had went missing weeks ago.

“Did you put this here?” I’d asked Rory. He shook his head. Ramona, I thought. It seemed like her kind of harmless joke, and it was good knowing her, knowing that about her. It was possible I’d placed the rose there myself, but did it matter?

I wiggled my fingers in the hot springs water, feeling them tingle as they thawed. It was February. In April, the ski resort would close, mud season would arrive, and it would be summer. And then it would be autumn. The aspen leaves would quake, the elk would bugle, and frost would gather on the prairie. Come November I’d be snowed in again. Would I make it another winter? Holed up in the Silver Bell hoping for a fate better than Ramona’s?

“I have to leave,” I said, then, for the first time out loud. Although I think I’d known it since meeting her.

I stayed the summer. Long enough to hike through fields of rosy fireweed and see lakes melt glacial blue. I got a new job at an Italian restaurant with a patio where I could feel the sun on my face and hear bluegrass streaming from the park. I slept by the river, read novels on the steps of the Silver Bell, watched hot air balloons rise up into the San Juan Mountains. On warm summer nights I could still feel Ramona stirring in the shadows of the apartment. Sometimes I believed she was real. Other times, I was sure that she was just a manifestation of my desperation. Either way, she had gotten me this far, but I knew that she could not carry me all the way.

Before I left, I walked downtown and saw a bicycle in the window of a sports shop. I stepped inside and ran my hand over the frame.

“Take it for a ride if you want,” the man working there said.

“OK,” I said. “Just a ride.”

I knew I’d bring it with me when I left. Knew that I was headed for a place where it didn’t snow and I was free to leave, able to keep living, where maybe the next time someone asked me “Don’t you love it here?” I could say yes and mean it. I might not ever be happy, but at least I could try. I rode the bike all around town, down the path that ran from the San Miguel River all the way to the valley floor, where the box canyon seemed enormous, even if it wasn’t really that big. The alpenglow was electric, amber enough to make me believe for a second that the town and my life were both perfect. 

“Happiness is a choice.” That’s what the psychologist had said at the hospital back in college, what a lot of people said to me after. Of course, I knew it wasn’t true.

I returned to the store and bought the bike. I brought it home to the Silver Bell, where most of my belongings were already boxed up. Rory was at work, but he’d be home soon enough. He would stay in Telluride for another winter. We would write letters, talk on the phone.

The bicycle looked good in the living room, in the last precious light of summer. It was pink, so I named it after her. Even if it hadn’t actually been her favorite color, it was a nice gesture. I would leave soon, but Ramona would stay forever.

If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 or the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. You can also text HOME to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line, for 24/7, anonymous, free counseling. International helplines can be found at the International Association for Suicide Prevention.