I live content and secure at the end of the road. During winter, Highway 82 abruptly ends just east of Aspen. It's blocked by a locked gate and snow - lots of snow. The Continental Divide, the great east/west watershed, stands 20 miles away, topping out at 12,000 feet. As a formidable barrier and the backbone of our nation, it keeps us insulated, isolated and nicely sheltered. Mountains wrap our little pedestrian-friendly grid like a superhero protecting the vulnerable.
Was I vulnerable? I came from rural America: fallow fields, cornfields, apple orchards, woods. The creeks were "cricks." We cared about our beater cars with big engines, skipping school, rock 'n' roll. It was the Rust Belt meets the Snow Belt, flat land of gray skies and limited economic possibilities.
I participated in one school-sponsored extracurricular activity, ski club. There was no ski team. My parents were skiers. We have family photos of my grandparents hiking up hills in Minnesota with skis over their shoulders. Even in western New York state, where I grew up in the '70s, I had heard about skiing in Aspen. Once, while talking about moving somewhere, anywhere, the older brother of my best friend, who had just returned from a cross-country road trip, said there were plenty jobs in Aspen and you could get around without a car.
Armed with these three vital pieces of information and after a three-day journey on a one-way bus, which came as close as the airport in those days, I showed up uninvited, unannounced, unprepared and under-age. In early January 1979, I was 19 years old and rolled into the valley in the middle of the night, middle of a snowstorm, never been here before, didn't know anybody, no job lined up, no place to live, $300 to my name.
I took a Mellow Yellow taxi into town. After the taxi driver had taken me to all the affordable lodgings, only to discover no vacancies, he deposited me at the Continental Inn. This generous soul had driven me around for half an hour. He would only accept $1 for his trouble. He welcomed me to town with a wave out the open window as he drove off into the intensifying storm.
That hotel room cost $50. One-sixth of my limited resources were gone the first night. The next day, I made my first friend. His name was Dave, and he was one of the people who had informed me of no vacancy the night before. We recognized each other, went for lunch and became fast friends.
Second day, first job, maid at the Aspen Highlands Inn. It came with a place to live and a ski pass. Amazed, I moved into my tiny room 100 feet from the chairlift. Third day, a second job, dishwasher - or in the vernacular of the day, I was a "dive." This job came with a daily meal, the opportunity to save money and many new friends. I skied Highlands all winter. I grew a beard.
And then, boom, Aspen in the summer. Oh, yeah, I think I'll stay. I had found my new world, a world where, among other things, there were plenty of jobs to be had. Compared with where I grew up, this alone was huge. That truth opened up endless other opportunities. I could be anything I wanted to be. What I wanted to be was an expert skier. That was going to take time and effort. I had the time and an unbridled willingness and desire to expend the effort. It was 8,000 feet up and all uphill from here.
A bumper sticker I remember from 25 years ago proclaimed, "Aspen, it's what you make of it." I knew this to be true. I saw this bumper sticker when I was young and still a relative newcomer. I had already witnessed many transformations, the most obvious one being my own. This skinny kid from a far-away place happily blossomed into a serious skier and cyclist, avid reader and traveler.
No longer a maid or a dive, I learned that, among other things, you could get paid to ski, hike, bike and run rivers. This was an epiphany. I actively pursued these things. Here resides my chance to live a life of passion, of interest, something original, authentic and unique. Aspen keeps me inspired, engaged, curious, healthier and much more athletic than I would be elsewhere.
Aspen, it's what you make of it. I discovered a life of living daily in a beautiful place surrounded by interesting and interested people. An example of this is that I have, as most of us have, stories of running into Aspenites in the craziest places in the world. One such encounter was when I skied Chacaltaya, the (now defunct) highest ski area in the world set on a glacier at 17,000 feet in Bolivia. I skied all day with an Aspenite, a friend of a friend that I met on the terrifying bus trip from La Paz up to the glacier.
Living in one of the world's great places is bound to instill worldliness, even in me. It requires that when we travel, we travel to other greatnesses. You're more likely to run into Aspenites in the Himalaya, the Grand Canyon or Chamonix than say, Branson, Mo. In Aspen I've seen people from humble beginnings turn into world-class athletes. I watched as friends created successful businesses. I invented my own lifestyle, an amalgamation of all of the above possibilities far removed from my high school dreams of fast cars with cool paint jobs and fat tires.
Although what I made of Aspen is positive, for some, the intensity and stimulation proved too much. I've witnessed people lose everything to drugs and drink. Others moved away for self-preservation, forever remembering Aspen as some forbidden Shangra La La Land that they were turned out of. Some returned, some never could, still others decided to blame it on Aspen. For them, I guess there is truth in that. Aspen, it's what you make of it. Someone should reprint this bumper sticker because it's as true today as it was a quarter century ago when I first read it.
I figured out a way to stay and thrive. I was lucky, but I was also determined, stubborn and willing to make sacrifices. The uber-athletes, the super-rich, the ski-bum class that still exists, the intellectuals, musicians, performers, restaurateurs, flashy posers, self important short timers, the volunteer firemen and women, the Thrift Shop ladies, artists, trust-funders, the folks that live on the "Backside," lifetime locals fortunate enough to have been born and raised here and all of us transplants that were born in the wrong place but are here now, each armed with our own unique story of discovery, we all mix together, creating this vibrant community at 8,000 feet. And it's all uphill from here.