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Aspen Institute will turn to the wilderness to spark new ideas

Allyn Harvey

If ever the Aspen Institute is going to make the transition from being a purely cerebral organization to one that espouses the virtues of physical and intellectual well-being, it will occur in about two months.

For six days in mid-September, about 15 or 16 people will be taken from the world of great ideas that has long been the Institute’s forte, and into the wilderness that helped inspire the Aspen Idea.

“We’ll climb up to some ridge at 11,000 feet, sit around on rocks and discuss how the myth of the West affects our culture,” said Institute Vice-President John Bennett in an interview last May.

“Frontiers of the Mind” is the Institute’s latest step in opening its doors to the community, and about 10 openings remain for the Sept. 12-16 symposium.

The program calls for hikes up Capitol Creek and along Richmond Ridge, and a two-night stay at a hut in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness Area. Participants will also be immersed in readings that include excerpts from Genesis, Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Wallace Stegner’s “The Gathering of Zion,” Ron Arnold’s “Ecology Wars: Environmentalism as if People Mattered,” and Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.”

“This seminar will be the thinking man’s Outward Bound,” said local outdoor writer Paul Andersen.

The idea for a seminar that takes participants into the wilderness has been stewing around in Andersen’s mind for about a decade. He was attending a symposium at the Institute that sent the participants out for 20 minutes to contemplate nature – it didn’t matter what, anything from a blade of grass at the Institute’s campus to the distant peaks of the Maroon Bells.

“Everyone was so moved by that experience. It inspired me to create a seminar that connected man with both great ideas and nature,” he said.

The opportunity to turn that inspiration into reality came last year, when the Institute hired Bennett to reopen the 50-year-old organization to the community. Bennett and Andersen spent several months crafting a program that would expose participants to the wilderness, without making it too difficult for people who live at sea level or might not be regular hikers.

The hut they’ve chosen is a relatively easy six-mile hike up from the village of Lenado. Participants, wearing daypacks,

will have all day to get there, and several stops in open meadows and along stream banks are planned. Most of the gear and food will be transported to the huts by vans.

The readings, too, are carefully balanced. They include some of the most recognizable names in both the conservation movement and the wise-use movement, which defends the concept of private property and the rights of owners to do what they please with their land.

As moderators, the Institute recruited Roderick Fraser Nash, a professor emeritus of history and environmental studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and Roy Smith, who helped develop the corporate team-building program for Outward Bound. Both are avid outdoorsmen.

Nash is best known for the definitive book “Wilderness and the American Mind.” Smith was a member of the National Geographic team that made the first winter crossing of the Brooks Range in Alaska – a 400-mile, 40-day trek on skis.

“I’m excited about getting an Aspen Institute program out of the classroom and into the field,” said Nash. “I’ve sat through endless meetings in my working career looking out the window wondering why we aren’t outside – now we’re going outside.”

Nash said one of his goals as moderator is to help participants use the wilderness as a springboard to bigger issues and a more philosophical understanding of the relationship between man and society and nature.

Frontiers of the Mind costs $1,400. That hefty price tag covers the cost of the entire seminar – opening dinner, a slide show about the only known hunter/ gatherer community on the planet, field trips, hut accommodations and meals at St. Benedict’s Monastery and in the wilderness.


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