Durango, Colo. — Eligio Jacquez sat like an impatient little boy getting his first haircut. But Sandra Ream wasn't cutting his locks; she was fitting his head to a conformer, a strange-looking device that gives the shape for making hats. Mr. Jacquez is not a little boy either. At 78, he's been wearing hats for 60 years.
Here in Durango, donning a Western hat is as common as wearing socks. ''A hat is a practical piece of clothing in this part of the country. It keeps you warm. And the brim gives you protection from the snow or the sun,'' said Ms. Ream, who helps manage the O'Farrell Hat Company just off of Durango's historic Main Street.
Durango is located in the southwestern part of Colorado, where it butts up against Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, making it part of Four Corners contingent. Yep, it's western, all right. There's also a natural feeling about it, an unpretentious life style that is often missing in other towns connected with ski resorts (Purgatory, 1,600-foot vertical, is nearby.)
Even its name evokes the image of a live old West show. The jet-set has not moved in, nor does anyone think it will. Here in Durango a dime can still buy two hours of street parking. Life is low key, though a country western band does raise some dust on a Saturday night.
Many movies have been filmed in the area, some as far back as 1917. These range from early John Wayne and Gary Cooper flicks to the more recent ''Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.'' But the first men to seek their fame and fortune here were persevering gold prospectors. Durango became the hub of the area at the turn of the century in response to a need for a rail center to ship the area's precious ore to points east.
The block where the old depot stands today was refurbished in the 1960s. Buildings are restored to their period style. And there are shops and restaurants, one of which, the Palace, is known for its fine continental cuisine; Colorado trout, brought in fresh from a nearby trout ranch fed by spring waters, is its speciality.
But not everything in or near Durango is quaint and historic. Just 18 miles north of Durango is Tamarron, a new resort on 630 acres surrounded by national forest land. Dane and Pam Hudson drove out from Flippin, Ark., to spend their honeymoon here. In addition to its various package rates, Tamarron offers a three-day ''honeymoon'' package ($398 for two): deluxe lodging, meals, sauna, indoor tennis, equipment rental, ski instruction.
There's also ice skating and sleigh rides, first-run films and live entertainment. Just this year the complex opened a four-tenths-mile 172-foot vertical downhill ski run with its own snowmaking machines, double chairlift, and rope tow. The Hudsons particularly enjoyed skiing by torchlight.
Though the slope can be skied in less than a minute by the advanced, it is invaluable for the beginner. It gets the first-timer familiar with the equipment and the tow without being threatened by big-time skiers on a crowded slope, says Rick Miron, Tamarron's ski patrol supervisor. And once the now-confident skier is ready for the ''big time,'' the resort offers a shuttle service to Purgatory.
Purgatory has five chairlifts, a 10,550-foot summit, 35 miles of trails -- the longest is four miles -- on 510 acres, and a view of Colorado's highest peaks in the Rockies. The snow is ample in this part of the western slope, averaging 300 inches for the season, from November until mid-April.
''There's a magical quality about this area that goes beyond the spectacular mountains or the skiing. There are the mesas and the semi-arid deserts that are also attractive,'' said Ken Periman, a literature professor at Durango's Fort Lewis College. Mr. Periman moved to southwestern Colorado from central Kansas and has lived in Durango for 20 years. ''It really hasn't changed much. There's a stable community here with a rugged individualism and down-to-earth people.''
Perhaps the area's most magical feature is the narrow-gauge train ride out of Durango. Pulled by a coal-burning steam-powered locomotive, the 1880s vintage yellow wooden coaches sidewind along high mountain cliffs, cross creeks, and pass through outcroppings of granite, quartzite, gneiss, and schist.
The 45 miles of track traverse part of the 2-million-acre San Juan National Forest, where remnants of the past remain embedded in fossil rock, and the spruce, fir, pine, and birch trees stand tall. The train takes only three hours one way to Silverton, then returns to Durango after a 11/2-hour stopover.
''Six hours isn't enough time to appreciate all of this wilderness. But it's still a wonderful day's worth of nature,'' said Bill Pulley, a banker from Oklahoma City.
Mr. Pulley last rode the train when he was 12. Wanting to share that memorable experience with his wife and college-age children, he drove for two days to get on the train at Durango. As he relived his adventure, chatting about the earlier days of railroading, he sometimes paused and took a deep breath. ''Smell that coal burning? Hear that whistle? Feel the track?'' he said, asking no one in particular.
This train, originally built in 1882, is the only remaining narrow-gauge passenger line in the country. In the winter you can't go all the way on the train from Durango to Silverton. But from now through May 14 the train will run halfway to Silverton and turn around at a specially constructed wye, just above Tall Timber resort, a small five-star resort accessible only via rail. (The resort's season, by the way, runs from May 15 to Jan. 15.)
Completely overhauled and refurbished by owner Charles Bradshaw, the rail line officially opened last March. The coach price is $15 round trip; $25 for a reserved seat in the parlor car. There's also an open-sided car and snack car.
There's no need for any music aboard. The trip itself is pure entertainment, says stationmaster and company executive Amos Cordova. ''In the summer you need to make a reservation. But since this will be our first winter run (the last was in 1953 with the old company), we're still testing the schedule out to see how popular it will be. We hope that we can attract the skier to take off just one day from the slopes and ride the rails.''
Even though the train doesn't resume through service to Silverton until May 15, there is a bus service and rental cars in which to make the hour-long drive. Spending the night in Silverton is worth a couple of days off from the slopes.
Silverton is a mining town settled in 1873. Its population was 5,000 when things were booming and 250 when they weren't, but it now enjoys a quiet pace with 800 people, some good restaurants, and a sprinkle of accommodations. In 1901 $1.50 could buy a room at the Avon Hotel. Now a room at the Teller House Pension with breakfast costs $24 for two. The Grand Imperial, across the street, charges $38.50 with three meals and provides transportation for skiers to Purgatory. There are some other places to stay, too.
At an altitude of 9,318 feet, surrounded by peaks over 13,000 feet and populated mostly by miners, Silverton is a live-and-let-live town. ''We don't get snowed in here. The world gets snowed out,'' said Tom Zanoni, a third-generation Silverton resident. Mr. Zanoni has spent nearly all of his life in Silverton, except for a short stint in Denver, but the pace there ''forced'' him back home.
''Silverton is still 'the mining town that never quit.' We watch gold prices here like some folks watch soap operas,'' he said. When he's not mining, Mr. Zanoni volunteers for the fire department, or the search and rescue squad, or the ambulance driver's association. A man of many hats, he's also the county coroner. (It must here be confessed that Silverton is the only town in the entire county, though there are many ghost towns scattered in the hills).
Other people have trickled into town, educated, artisan-pioneer types who have started their own cottage industries. One such is Tom Drexel, a Rutgers graduate who makes offhand glass objects -- his specialty, ''piggy banks.'' And there's George Crane, owner of Silverton Victorian Mill Works, who manufactures moldings and corner blocks for restored interior and exterior properties.
The Durango area was first explored by the Spanish in the late 1700s (Durango itself takes its name from the city in Mexico.) But long before the Spaniards came, there was the influence of the native American.
West of Durango is Mesa Verde National Park, once the home of prehistoric inhabitants called the Anasazi, or cliff dwellers. The Pueblo Indians in Arizona and New Mexico are considered to be descendants of these people. The Anasazi were principally farmers who raised corn, squash, and beans on the mesa where they lived in pithouse dwellings dug into the ground. By the end of the 12th century they began building their homes in caves in the cliff sides, creating what might be called the first apartment house. Spruce Tree House, which is the third largest of more than 500 sites, was constructed between AD 1200 and 1276.
Mesa Verde is open during the winter with limited tours of the dwellings, which are ranger-escorted only. But panoramic views of the canyons and the cliff-side dwellings can be seen on the mesa rim drive, where deer roam freely among the juniper and ponderosa pines.
Other archaeological sites in the Durango region include the Aztec ruins, Chaco Canyon, Mancos Valley ruins, Hovenweep, and Chimney Rock. There are hot springs in Dunton, also.
East of Durango is the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. Its administrative buildings and community center are located in Ignacio. In May the Southern Utes hold their Bear Dance and in September, the Harvest Festival. (The Southern Ute reservation is not to be confused with the nearby Ute Mountain Indian Reservation.)
Professor Periman gives public lectures on the folklore of the area and illustrates his talk with slide presentations. (Contact Fort Lewis College.)
Practical details: Durango is about 200 miles from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M., and twice that distance from Phoenix, Ariz., and Salt Lake City. Frontier Airlines services Durango out of Denver with three daily flights. And just recently Pioneer Airlines started its twice-daily, 19-passenger planes, also out of Denver.
For more information: Chamber of Commerce, Box 2587, Durango, Colo. 81301; Tel. (303) 247-0312; Tamarron, Box 3131, Durango, 81301; Tel. (303) 247-8801.