Aspen Times Weekly: A step back in time…and into the backcountry
February 16, 2017
IF YOU GO …
Western Adventures, Inc.
555 Allen Way
Aspen is a world filled with glitz and glamour. Even for those of us who have lived and worked here for years, it's hard to ignore the spectacle that is our resort town at times. So when Aspen Times' photographer Anna Stonehouse and I set out for a backcountry snowmobile tour with Western Adventures, it was hard for me to shake the "here we go again" feeling of a tourist-centric day ahead. The minute we turned onto Allen Way, set just above the infamous Woody Creek Tavern, I was knew I was in for something different. And, at least in this instance, first impressions were right on target.
The welcome center for Western Adventures, if you will, pretty much tells the tale of the business — if you look at the details. Trailers and trucks, all run down just to the point of being cool, dot the landscape. A long broken-down tractor, with original ZG license plates, sums up the scene: truly unique, truly original and undeniably un-Aspen.
And then, proprietor Howard Vagneur (indeed a relation to Aspen Times' columnist Tony Vagneur, among dozens and dozens of other Vagneurs who still call the Roaring Fork Valley home) saunters up. His very presence — hardened edges, solid spirit, soft-hearted nature — speaks volumes about the company he runs … and the adventure that lies ahead.
“An adventure like this offers us non-skiers a great way to experience the area and get a real taste of winter sports. Plus, it’s been really fun!”-Ryn Blecke, Asheville, N.C.
As we head into the trailer that serves as the office/dressing room/orientation center, things become even more clear: We are in a time warp. Onesies line the wall, and Howard is not shy to tell us who has worn them (everyone from supermodels to X Games celebs); similarly, a corkboard is dotted with photos, worn at the edges, of those who have ventured into the surrounding backcountry with Vagneur and his family-run operation. At the side of the board is a cartoon, penned with dozens of signatures of those who have hit the trails with Western Adventures: Robert DeNiro, Randy and Dennis Quaid, Perry Farrell … the list goes on and on. But Vagneur will tell you, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"Oh, we've had 'em all out here — Lucille Ball, Buddy Hackett, Christie Brinkley, X Games athletes … they all like a good time out here."
At this point, we meet our guide for the day. Trevor Nye, 29, was born and raised in the Roaring Fork Valley; he's a relation to Vagneur — and he has been exploring these mountains since he was old enough to walk and guiding groups like ours since he was old enough to work.
So as we pile into the weathered Chevy Suburban that will take us to our next stop, I realize the reason this particular "tourist" activity isn't so touristy after all. The people we are with.
As the Suburban rumbles along the road toward Lenado and the backcountry above, the resort town of Aspen — and all that it represents — quietly fades away. Nye, with a thick chew in his cheek and accent that perfectly blends Colorado cowboy with redneck sledneck, tells us the history of the landscape that surrounds us.
Lenado was once a booming mining town; the year-round population, which now hovers around eight (yes, eight), swelled to 2,000 at some point before the turn-of-the century. Later, it was a logging town; the trees that loomed over us were new growth in the grand scheme of things.
And, after we pass through the town of Lenado and up a few loose switchbacks, we get to the end of the road: a place where cars can no longer travel, but where snowmobiles can no longer be staged. It is, in a nutshell, a political time-bomb for those — like Howard Vagneur — who live and breathe the fate of Lenado.
But for today, the problem is resolved: We take a fully rigged John Deere machine the 2.1 miles up the road to a fleet of waiting snowmobiles. After being instructed on how to start, stop, speed up and slow down these state-of-the-art machines, the soft-spoken but engaging Nye leads us up and around the snow-covered hills — with a hot-c0coa stop at a rustic cabin along the way.
Nye's appreciation for the beauty of what we are seeing is apparent; at one stop on the trail, we can see all four ski areas. Nye's passion for snowmobiling equals his deep appreciation for nature; he talks about trips to Wyoming, cliff drops on his machine and guests he has seen both crash and crush the trails we are speeding along.
"There's no better riding than back here — the trails, the views …" says Nye, noting the groups he guides range in size from six to 60, and that all have their upsides.
For Times' photographer Stonehouse and I – who have had the luxury of many backcountry adventure assignments — as well as our tour mates, we can't help but agree: It's not the landscape that is making the day so amazing. It's the perfect Colorado combination of adrenaline and adventure, people and passion, nurture and nature. It's not something that is easily repeated, but always appreciated.