Meredith C. Carroll: More than just a shrine
April 18, 2017
Alyssa Shenk Genshaft wasn't anticipating her most recent birthday with an abundance of enthusiasm, although not (necessarily) because it meant turning another year older. It's been tough to summon joy to celebrate much of anything since Jan. 18, 2013, which is when her 17-month-old son, Max, died of Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood. So on the day before her birthday last week, when her visiting in-laws skied Snowmass and stopped by Max's shrine only to find it had been taken down, it hardly added any sort of happiness to the occasion.
Over 100 shrines ranging from sentimental, historically significant and just plain silly dot the four local ski mountains like hidden treasures. AspenSnowmassShrines.com offers stories about the who, what and when of many of the shrines, just not the where.
It's on purpose that no maps exist detailing the shrines' locations, which serves to deepen the intrigue and up the thrill of knowing where one is or stumbling on one you didn't know existed. Artifacts scattered throughout the shrines include more traditional items like laminated photos, silk flowers and plaques, as well as less conventional relics such as a noose, fake alligators and a sign memorializing John Bobbitt's missing body part.
Max's shrine was lovingly curated and painstakingly assembled by Genshaft's now-9- and 11-year old children, plus her sister and some close friends, almost exactly two years ago from the day it was discovered missing. With his name spelled out in big red letters and nailed to a tree, along with a wind chime and other mementos, it was a regular destination for the Genshaft family and their friends still coping with the chasm left by Max's absence.
Genshaft's kids, to whom Max's shrine was intensely personal and exceptionally meaningful, are feeling the sting. One of them broke down in tears at the family's Passover seder on the night they heard the news.
"It's weird because in the grand scheme of things it is not a big deal," Genshaft said. "But it was part of our healing process and I think it just sets you back a bit and brings pain — in a different way — all over again."
The family understands, intellectually at least, that shrines are not a god-given entitlement, particularly since they sit on U.S. Forest Service land. But as is the case with dogs in restaurants, and jeans and sneakers at black-tie events, Aspenites have a way of establishing as law their own set of rules and standards — the right to shrine being among them.
"I know it's not in compliance with the law, but dear god," Genshaft said.
Aspen Skiing Co.'s director of public relations, Jeff Hanle, investigated the disappearance of Max's shrine and quickly found it wasn't something a Skico employee had done.
"We do not have any shrine removal effort underway so there was no sanctioned removal," he said while also suggesting generous ways in which Skico might be able to help at least recover the missing items, if not also aid in determining the culprit.
Snowmass Mountain manager Steve Sewell called Genshaft and her husband, Ben, to express his sympathy and bewilderment at what had been done. The head of ski patrol, Craig Chalmers, even went skiing with them the next day and bought them lunch after they showed him the whereabouts of the shrine.
The desecration of Max's shrine comes less than two months after the Snowmass ski patrol razed the golf shrine, which paid tribute to links legends including Arnold Palmer and Payne Stewart. They cited a safety hazard from a downed tree and its collateral damage as the reason.
The sort-of-good news is that it appears as if Max's shrine wasn't singled out for destruction. The guy who literally wrote the book on local shrines, David Wood, went to check out Max's shrine after hearing it had disappeared only to discover three more in the same area also had been dismantled in the same fashion — with nails still in the trees but all artifacts otherwise AWOL.
"They were all taken out in the same way: Everything is completely off the trees and everything has been removed from the scene and no remains left on the snow," Wood said. "The average person would never know a shrine had been there; (although) closer inspection reveals some nails and screws still in the tree trunks."
Even though all of the keepsakes are presumably long gone, Max's shrine will return, according to Genshaft's friend Courtney Boyd, who helped construct it two years ago.
"We'll rebuild it at the same location," she said. "I don't know yet if it'll look exactly the same, but it will have even more photos — including of the hearts people have photographed all around the world and sent to the Genshafts as a sign that Max is still with us in some way."
A redesigned shrine will hopefully still feel like a refuge for her family, Genshaft said.
"It's a spot where you stop, it's peaceful, you remember him. Maybe people don't realize how some of the shrines are so emotionally valuable, but even if they don't, why would you mess with them anyway?"
Follow Meredith Carroll on Twitter @MCCarroll. More at MeredithCarroll.com.