A hidden ‘wind phone’ encourages healing on Aspen Mountain

Artist’s installation aims to aid grieving process amid pandemic

An anonymous artist hid a wind phone off a run on the Gentleman’s Ridge side of Aspen Mountain to allow people a space to talk to loved ones to aid in the grieving process during the COVID-19 pandemic in Aspen on Monday, March 8, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Tucked discreetly into a stand of pine trees off a ski trail on the Gentleman’s Ridge side of Aspen Mountain, a “Phone of the Winds” is intended to serve as a tool for the grieving and a portal to connection, according to the artist who installed it last month.

Skiers enter the alpine sanctuary under a slanted fallen tree, which functions as an entrance portico, under a carved sign reading “Phone of the Winds.” Beyond, they’ll find an antique rotary phone and two signs explaining what the phone is and how to use it.

“The Phone of the Winds is physically connected to nowhere,” reads an on-site sign. “It is a portal where you can speak privately to whomever you wish, alive or deceased. On the wings of belief and love, your words will be carried through the trees and on the wind to wherever you want them to go.”

It draws inspiration from the original “wind phone,” installed as a private phone booth in Ōtsuchi, Japan, in 2010 by landscape artist Itaru Sasaki in honor of a beloved cousin. It was opened to the public and became a popular pilgrimage destination after the 2011 tsunami killed more than 20,000 people in the region — a way for anyone to process the weight of loss and a way for survivors to connect with lost loved ones for whom they could not grieve in the traditional manner.

In the years since the original wind phone became the locus of collective grief for Japan, several more have popped up in remote locales around the world.

“Living in the year of the pandemic, there are certainly plenty of people that have lost loved ones,” said the artist, who is based in the West outside Colorado and requested anonymity due to the technical illegality of installing shrines in U.S. National Forest land. “And I thought this would be a great way to be able to reach out to them.”

As this month’s first anniversaries of pandemic milestones pass and as grim statistics mount — surpassing 500,000 dead in the U.S. and 6,000 in Colorado — the artist is hopeful that the wind phone will provide a place for people to process and face their grief in this moment. As COVID-19 has killed so many, it has also severely limited the ability to hold funerals, memorial services and traditional rites of mourning due to public health restrictions on gatherings.

“I’m hoping that people use it, given the power of the need to grieve in the pandemic,” the artist said. “Whether or not there is a voice on the other end doesn’t matter because the feeling of connection happens.”

The artist has a long history of visiting Aspen and in recent years has taken up a casual shrine-hunting hobby, skiing to the many monuments for locals and celebrities tucked into the woods on local ski mountains.

“I became fascinated with shrines,” the artist said, noting previous public artwork elsewhere that has played with themes surrounding religious shrines. “This isn’t really a ‘shrine.’ I’m calling it a ‘portal,’ or you could think of it as a shrine to words unsaid.”

The ritual of picking up a phone and dialing numbers on its spinning rotary is a meaningful gesture, at least for the pre-cell phone generations.

“The act of holding a phone to your ear, there’s something cathartic that I think happens because in that behavior we feel like a real connection is happening,” the artist said.

The artist bought the phone on eBay and crafted the signs for the shrine, then spent time this winter with a backpack full of tools searching for a place on Aspen Mountain, concentrating on favored slopes of the east side the artist has come to love for sunny afternoon runs.

“When I saw that tree that was leaning over, it felt to me like a portal and everybody that comes in, they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a cool spot,'” the artist said.

Nobody was likely to find it anytime soon by accident, so the artist showed it to a ski ambassador, a ski patroller and told a few more people in Aspen about the wind phone, in the hopes that word of it and its location would get around town as people experienced it.

Word of its existence has spread in recent days through posts on “Sanctuaries in the Snow” author David Wood’s social media channels and an episode of the Aspen Times on-mountain video series “The Drop-In.”

“I visited this shrine on Saturday and called my Mom, who passed last March, what a beautiful idea and well-designed shrine,” a local ski instructor wrote to Wood via email. “It felt great!”

Such enthusiastic initial reactions the artist has heard from people experiencing the phone has led to ideas of how to build a community around it, such as using a QR code to allow people to record and share their experiences online or raising funds to install wind phones in other locations around the United States.