Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Roughing it in Independence |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Roughing it in Independence

Amanda Charles
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Cover by Afton GroepperPhoto by Pavel Osiak

ASPEN – Most of us enjoy the art of camping in the summer – particularly on holidays like the Fourth of July. We gather up friends and pack our cars with tents, sleeping bags, a smorgasbord of food and enough drink to fill a reservoir. And opposite from the select individuals who hike to the top of 14ers to pitch a tent in freezing temperatures and camp among the stars, the majority of us choose a comfortable campsite like Lincoln Creek up Independence Pass or Lenado outside of Woody Creek. We throw $14 in the collection box, lay out our belongings on picnic tables and relish in nature’s playground – if only for one night out of the year.

But if and when we go camping, most everything involved in the big event usually works according to our rules: We set up camp in the daylight because doing it in the dark is impossible, we pick a night with a clear forecast and moderate temperatures because we don’t want to be wet or cold, and so what if we bring all the supplies necessary to have a backyard barbecue in the middle of the woods? Heaven forbid we go hungry so far away from home.

But this Fourth of July and for the remainder of the summer, Josh Murphy and Alex Brunner will not be camping with the majority.

Now through Labor Day, Josh, 21, of upstate New York, and Alex, 20, of Fort Collins, will eat, sleep and work in the ghost town of Independence at 10,920 feet. Call it an extended camping trip or an “Into the Wild” imitation. Alex and Josh have chosen to be a part of Aspen Historical Society’s “ghost” intern program, working five days a week to provide educational tours for locals and visitors.

Their reward: a complimentary cabin built by miners in the 1800s with no running water, no electricity, no cellphone signals and no escape from the unpredictable weather conditions; simply a 1 1/2-room shelter supported by a central wood burner, a protective roof, one window and two single beds.

“We do have an outhouse,” Alex, a history major in Durango, said as we huddled inside what used to be the town’s general store but what is now filled with photos, artifacts, brochures and flavored sugar sticks. Despite months of no rain, at nearly 11,000 feet the sky was pelting balls of ice onto the barren grounds around the cabins as visitors fled to their cars to seek shelter.

According to the boys, temperatures easily drop to freezing at night, making them thankful for their subzero sleeping bags. The recent fire ban across the Roaring Fork Valley has made life more difficult this year, and therefore the two are careful to use the cabin’s wood burner only when situations call for it.

“It’s not the St. Regis, but it keeps the bugs out,” joked Josh, who just graduated from Notre Dame and is juggling plans between law school and the Forest Service following his internship.

Out of 20 applicants, Alex and Josh were chosen by the Historical Society this past spring after coming across the opportunity online at their selected colleges.

Nina Gabianelli, vice president of programming and education at the society, claims the program, now in its third year, to be equally rewarding. Locals and visitors have access to a town with deep educational roots, and interns share the experience of a lifetime.

“We make our interns very aware of the situational factors they will be faced with upon entering our program,” Gabianelli said. “They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to be, and all of them leave with great memories.”

As reported by participating interns, the ghost town of Independence sees between 9,000 and 12,000 visitors each summer.

Week to week, Alex and Josh work Wednesday to Saturday from 10 to 6 p.m. But because the site is situated within the White River National Forest, making it open to the public at all times, working hours aren’t always set in stone.

“It’s amazing how many people wake us up in the early mornings, trying to come through our door as if no one lives here,” Alex said. “You would think that living up here would give us all the privacy in the world, but that’s not always the case.”

On the contrary, the boys confess that alone time does prove to be quite harsh, especially when the only true contact with civilization is the static-filled voices of the U.S. Forest Service over a handheld transceiver.

“During our days off, we hike and explore the area,” Josh said. “We’ve already seen moose and coyotes, and we predict it won’t be long before we see bear, too.”

In their cabin, the boys stock everything from canned goods, batteries and snacks to a small propane grill, lanterns and a handyman’s bag complete with a hand saw, socket kit, hammer, file set and utility knife.

Aside from washing dishes in the river, the boys drive into town twice a week to shower at the Aspen Recreation Center, drop off their trash and wash their clothes in the basement of the Historical Society, and pick up food supplies at City Market.

“We spend around $13 to $20 per week,” Alex said. “Most of our food comes from a can, so you figure it doesn’t cost too much.”

When work is slow, Alex passes time with his filing kit crafting walking sticks, and Josh surveys the grounds to make sure no one leaves with any ghost-town artifacts. Luckily for the boys, both grew up being used to the outdoors – camping, biking, climbing and kayaking – so the conditions at the cabin, according to Josh, aren’t too far from the usual.

Moreover, with only one month out of a three-month internship completed, the boys already find changes happening within their personalities.

“Living out here is a real eye-opener because you learn to simply let things go,” Josh said. “If we let everything that happens out here get to us, we would be in big trouble.”

Like Josh, Alex has learned to slow down and make sense of what matters most.

“The biggest thing is to be appreciative of the small things like taking a hot shower or sitting down with a family to eat dinner,” he said. “Especially traveling from our cabin in the middle of nowhere to a place like Aspen, … it really shows the dynamics of what we take for granted.”

If one thing is certain, it is that Alex and Josh have time on their side to gain life perspectives that will stay with them for years to come.

“I may not have all the answers for what I want to do with my life, but I know out here I will have plenty of time to think about it,” Josh said.

As Alex and Josh both admit that being a “ghost” intern is probably something they won’t want to repeat at the end of the summer, they flash a big smile when they simultaneously say, “We wouldn’t miss it for

the world.”

Amanda Charles writes frequently for the Aspen Times Weekly.

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