Road Trip Report: Looking through the mirror in Steamboat Springs
The Aspen Times
My thighs were purple and yellow, like beets with mustard squirted on top, from a couple hours of shoving herky-jerky rods between my legs and getting yanked around.
This was my first time riding a Poma lift, and as a snowboarder that meant contorting my body, clenching as hard as I could and hoping I didn’t look like a fool as I was dragged up Howelson Hill in Steamboat Springs.
I was in “The Boat,” as the locals call it, to spectate — er, review — the WinterWonderGrass bluegrass festival. My experience with the genre only involved listening to Sirius Radio in my dad’s Oldsmobile, but that apparently was more than anyone else had who could road trip for the weekend at The Aspen Times. So away I went up Highway 131, through tiny towns with one convenience store and no bars, to a mountain that’s a little different than my own. Let’s just say Steamboat has a Sears.
The burning question on your mind, I’m sure, is “Why did they name it Steamboat Springs? Isn’t it landlocked?” Apparently, when the first white explorers came to the valley, they heard a loud whistle in the distance, like a steamboat, and thought they had stumbled upon a new, advanced civilization. They encountered some natives, who led them to the hot spring geysers that were making the noise, and the name stuck. At least, that’s what some guy on the chairlift told me. Go look it up yourself; I’m not Google.
Today, all that remains of that sacred site is an aquatic center and hot tubs filled with many children. Don’t forget to bring your own towel or get stuck dabbing yourself with toilet seat protectors in the changing stall.
I arrive in town with enough time to get a huge jalapeno margarita before scouting out the music venue and gondola plaza area. I have about 50 minutes before these edibles kick in, so I need to map out my entire weekend NOW. Let me reiterate how much I hate appearing lost or confused. I fear looking like a gaper so much, I blush if the Ikon Pass in my wallet is accidentally exposed.
But push these doubts aside, because it’s time for everyone’s favorite tourism game, “Figure Out A New Town’s Public Transportation System,” all-star edition!
To navigate the SST, you really have to keep your wits about you.
Green line, red line, purple line — nobody knows which one we’re on or where anything goes! Blue line turns into orange line, which sucks if you’re colorblind, and then they all become the night line, or also the night condo line (be careful not to mix them up in the dark … at night). The locations don’t flash on the sign inside the bus, so the drivers just mumble next stops through an intercom. Everybody is wide-eyed and cup-eared, swaying back and forth and trying to get off the Vomit Comet before it blasts them into outer space.
I’m handed a shot glass upon check-in at WinterWonderGrass. A coupon falls out.
“What’s this for?”
“You can redeem it for a reusable cup later. Our shipment was delayed because of coronavirus.”
“Oh,” I say, second-guessing if I actually want one. “I thought maybe I was a millionaire. Or perhaps I am. You don’t know.” I flash my media wristband.
The clock is officially ticking on how long I’ll be able to listen to bluegrass with an open mind. Tick tock, tick tock, 1:58:42 and counting. The problem with bluegrass is you can’t really dance to a jaw harp and washboard. You can like, do-si-do or whatever other prancing you perform with Grandma at weddings, but when all the songs’ time signatures are 32/32, your options for showing off your mating ritual are limited without completely spazzing out.
Speaking of which, there’s some kind of primal attraction to a band full of women in animal onesies rocking out on heavy-ass instruments and plucking all those chords. Della Mae started playing both kinds of music — covers and originals — around this proverbial 50-minute mark, and I found the production pleasant. Voila, review.
I liked moving between the three stages, taking in the various cornucopias of pot smoke visually disguised by the crowd’s frozen exhalations. Snippets of conversation: “Just trippin’ balls”; “I think we need to take everyone else’s pain into the world and carry that around with us.”
Near dusk is when I started noticing them, as the beer lines grew longer and the crowd filled in like we were at Live Aid. But no, this is Billy Strings, and the nice thing about cramming thousands of hippies together all on the verge of an anxiety attack is that everyone affords others some personal space.
Now I couldn’t unsee it, and everywhere I turned there was another one. These guys with flannel shirts and mismatched beanies, shoulder-length hair, some facial scruff and who could stand to lose 15 pounds or so (and easily could if they WANTED to).
They all looked just like me.
And here I stood in the middle — the Bennest Ben in a sea of 3,000 versions of myself. This wasn’t the venue where I imagined us all meeting one day, but perhaps after nearly six years of living in the mountains the stereotypes start growing on you even if you don’t want them to, like a morel mushroom suddenly sprouting under the showerhead.
Oh god, they’re sentient, too. “Team beige!” one of the clones cheers when he catches me gawking at his outfit, which matched mine. “Jacket brothers!” another yelled while giving me a high five in the same coat I was wearing.
I doubt there’s ever been a fight at one of these things (panicked mass cullings of dopplegangers excluded). While “bluegrass festival” may invoke images of the Clampett family drunkenly brawling in the mud, my brethren and I were cheers-ing and profusely apologizing to anyone we accidentally bumped into. Seeing all the smiles on faces that were sort of similar to mine was a comforting experience.
An announcement from the emcee: “The cups have arrived and will be available for pickup at 7:30.” An excited murmur from the festival-goers. Yes, yes, I thought to myself, rubbing my hands together like Emperor Palpatine. Let’s see some rioting over sustainable kitchenware!
I cut to the front of the line (“Media pass! Media pass!”), acquired my cup and fearlessly chugged a beer from the unwashed receptacle. As (maybe) a coronavirus survivor myself, I felt confident that A) you can’t catch it twice and B) if I do, I’ll just kick its ass again with another two-month Vicks VapoRub binge.
Yet, this wasn’t the spectacle I had anticipated. Too much sobriety — I guess that’s because nobody had anything to drink out of. But then a bespeckled man leapt onto a chair and held his pint glass aloft like Excalibur, displaying on one side the logos of the WinterWonderGrass sponsors.
“This is the corporate imprinting of our culture!” he bellowed.
What I hoped would happen next and what came to fruition weren’t exactly the same. In my mind, a hush fell over the tent as we considered the implications of his words. Technically, I suppose he was right. “Hear hear!”
“Down with our capitalist overlords!” I imagined another guy yelling before sprinting toward the wall and flinging his body out the window. Except the “window” was just clear plastic, so he kind of ricocheted back into the slush, knocked over a table and sent spiked seltzers and whiskey-gingers flying.
Here’s the carnage! Here’s pandemonium! Chicks in hula hoops snipping off each others’ dreadlocks. A dude in neon pants and a raccoon hat doing a kegstand, then hurling the empty drum into the crowd like a trebuchet. Frat boys and van dwellers alike dueling with reams of corn on the cob. One of my twins firing pretzel bites through a fiddle bow. It’s bedlam.
Unfortunately, though, in this dimension of reality, everyone simply lined up single-file like an elementary school fire drill.
I was growing weary and delusional. With time expiring on my mental constitution, I decided to try a new self-help method called “responsibility,” nurse my bruised legs and rest up for my ski tour tomorrow morning instead of spending all night belligerently heckling people in Portapotty Village and then yakking while riding the gondola at 9:05 a.m.
I opened the door to my room, flipped on the lights, and where in most standard hotels is a second queen-sized bed was instead a giant hot tub. I’m ready to cap off the evening in my own style, with the jets on, a drink nearby, the concert audible from a safe distance through my window, and not worrying about coronavirus or being a fat kid soaking in the neon-colored bubbles of a Quality Inn honeymoon suite jacuzzi.
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The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is restarting its writers-in-residence program that had been on pause during the pandemic. Residents include “Call Me By Your Name” author André Aciman. Public events begin June 15.