Authors of ‘Growing Up Aspen’ will see if you can go home again; one never left
For Andy Collen, Chris Pomeroy, Dean Jackson, and Lorenzo Semple, Aspen is much more than a playground for the uber rich and famous.
It’s their hometown — where they grew up and which laid the groundwork for the rest of their lives.
Their new book of essays “Growing up Aspen: Adventures of the Unsupervised,” pulls back the curtain on life in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, through their experiences as kids in the late 1970s and ’80s. Before Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton lined the core and corporate-owned, fine-dining restaurants became the nom de jour, these four had had a much different life, though the wealthy were always a part of it.
“There were a lot of people working in the service industries, just getting by, living in employee housing, which is where my folks only ever lived,” said Jackson. “But except the rare kid who was having a bad day and was being a snot, I didn’t get judgment from anybody. Regardless of whether the kid was a celebrity’s son or a rich person, it didn’t really matter. We were all in public school together, and if my parents were working as bartenders and your parents owned XYZ, I didn’t know about it.”
Delving into the specific issues of being Gen X latchkey kids, “Growing Up Aspen” is a collection of stories that pay homage to being young at a moment in time in this specific place. But beyond that, it is also a small town coming-of-age story readers will relate to whether they grew up in Aspen or not.
“The book speaks to growing up in America as much as it does specifically to Aspen,” said Semple. “It really is an American tale. I mean, look at us. You have Andy, who’s kind of like the jock, sports guy. You have me, who was the stoner. Dean, who was the thespian. And then you have Chris, who was the punk rocker. These are four unique flavors of American ice cream.”
After high school, Collen, Pomeroy, and Jackson all left the valley for college and eventually built lives elsewhere while never fully losing connection with their childhood home. The last time the four of them were all together was “sometime in the mid-1980s” for a senior party.
“It’s been a long time since we were all together,” said Jackson. “I saw Chris in 2017. I saw Andy right before the pandemic. I haven’t seen Lo since the mid-1980s, since before we had gray hair, for sure.”
Collen founded an independent animation studio and lives in Portland, Oregon. Pomeroy, who started his career at The Aspen Times, followed the newspaper business (which he left in the early 2000s) to Athens, Georgia. After some years pursuing an acting career in New York, Jackson made his way to the San Francisco Bay Area. Only Semple, an independent business owner and columnist for The Aspen Daily News, remained in Aspen.
The story of how they came back together to collaborate on this project is a testament to how deep Aspen connections can run.
Some years ago, Collen and Pomeroy reconnected and began working together when Collen learned Pomeroy had left his career in newspapers and was interested in animation. Jackson and Pomeroy, who had been close friends as kids, bumped into each other at Disney World and picked up their friendship like no time had passed. Semple was a bit of an outlier in that he wasn’t in direct contact with the group for decades, but his old friends kept up with him through his column.
“For me, the Aspen connection moves in such weird ways,” said Collen. “We are not necessarily connected with each other all the time, but in the case of Lo, I’d been following his writing a long time. A lot of us friends have, you know, passing it around and saying, ‘Hey guys, good to see Lo this week. What does he have to say now?'”
“Lo’s no outlier because we all live vicariously through his experiences in the paper. And every time I read his columns, they put a smile on my face. Even when he’s mad,” Jackson added with a chuckle.
Thanks to the COVID-19 lockdowns and social media, Collen, Pomeroy, and Jackson began holding virtual Zoom cocktail hours in which they reminisced about the old times in Aspen, which inspired them to independently begin jotting down their memories.
“We thought, there are a lot of people that have had adventures there, and it would be fun to get folks talking and sharing and maybe have that be what sort of brings Aspen together,” Collen said. “You know, we’ve all gone through it, and we all left with a little piece (of Aspen) in our pocket.”
“I started writing because I wanted to try and capture some of that history for my children,” said Pomeroy. “They’ve grown up in a totally different world. The dreams of my parents were different from the dreams of my generation, and so on, and you just watch it change and grow. What I recorded is exactly the snapshot that I remember from being younger.”
As their conversations about the book got underway, they realized that even though they all had different, distinct memories and experiences growing up in Aspen, there were many common threads.
One that stood out: They all had jobs as kids peddling the The Aspen Times. In a funny excerpt, Pomeroy outlines how they would go to the paper’s office every morning with a dollar and buy 10 copies of the paper. They would then fan out across town, hustling to sell their stash for 20 cents a copy, plus whatever tips they could finagle. It was how they learned how to wheel and deal.
“We have this commonality of all selling The Aspen Times,” said Semple. “Now our new gig is selling books. We’re taking that mindset of hustle, entrepreneurialism, small business, and commerce into this adult chapter of our lives. I remember when The Times became free, and I called the editor and was very upset. I kind of let him have it, saying, ‘All these kids grew up selling The Times, and how dare you take this away?’ It wasn’t about him. The drug of nostalgia had taken over reality. It was a commonality that we had in our childhood that was hard to let go.”
Through the process, Collen, Pomeroy, and Jackson documented their stories independently from one another and didn’t share copy or themes or even really talk about what they were working on. But they were surprised at how many memories they shared.
“Now, granted, we grew up in Aspen in this grandiose place and whatever people’s perception of that is, but there were more than a few common threads,” said Pomeroy. “I remember writing some idea down, and then about a month later, Lo wrote a similar piece for his column. And I called Andy, and I was like, ‘Hey you didn’t show that to Lo, did you?’ Andy said, ‘No.’ So we just figured out that we all had similar things that happened to us.”
Aside from their early business training, the essays tackle a range of mountain town experiences from boyhood shenanigans to teenage tomfoolery, outdoor adventures, and early days of partying — almost all of it away from the prying eyes of parents and other adults.
Along with family members, friends, and neighbors, other familiar names in the community make appearances throughout the book from the inspirational like their former Aikdo sensei, Thomas Crum, to local celebrity John Denver and the infamous Steven Grabow and Hunter S. Thompson.
“In writing this book, there is one thing that I realized that profoundly influenced who I became, and it was the influence of Tom Crum,” said Collen. “As a kid, Tom Crum seemed like a Jedi warrior person. I felt like his teachings on how to balance and weave and go through things gave me the skills to be able to bob and weave and survive and do the things I’ve done. And I don’t think I realized just how much that affected me until I wrote this book.”
The Dark Side of Paradise
And while there are many fun, nostalgic, and heartwarming passages throughout the book, it doesn’t shy away from the darker side of growing up in a glitzy mountain town experiencing the hangover of the ’70s and the shifting culture and economics of the ’80s.
Especially when it comes to Dean Jackson’s stories.
“Compared to these guys, I was there for a really short time between 1975 and when I graduated high school in 1986,” said Jackson. “The last time I was back was in 1991. So I only have that snapshot of growing up there, and I have no frame of reference for current Aspen. It really enabled me to go into some of those positive memories of our crazy childhood, but I also delve into some of the darker things. And it was somewhat cathartic for me.”
Jackson arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley in 1976 with his mom and the man who would raise him and become his father. Resources were tight, so his first month here they lived in a one-room log cabin off Highway 82 across from the Conoco in Old Snowmass. His parents worked in the service industry, and the late-night commute from town during winter weather was harrowing.
He writes very openly about his time in the midvalley, the alcohol and drugs in his home, and his own dark periods as a teenager. Eventually, he and his parents moved to employee housing in town, but for many years, all he could think about was getting out, which he eventually did when he was accepted to New York University. Yet he doesn’t discount the positive, either.
“I think my lesson from growing up in Aspen was you can make it through,” he said. “I had, in some respects, a very difficult period growing up there and didn’t necessarily see a light at the end of the tunnel until I was able to leave, and it was some time before I could look back nostalgically. So the lesson that I learned was through difficulty that there can be a better tomorrow.”
The final chapters of the book came together when Collen recognized the missing piece was a voice that could tie the book to the present day. He approached his old friend Semple and asked him if he would consider contributing some of his columns.
“I was reading his stuff that was so in his voice talking about current issues, and his writing captures both the past and present, so could act like a bridge from then to now,” said Collen. “One thing Lo said in our last talk that really resonates is he compared it (the book) to a Venn diagram of all four of our opinions, where they all intersect and meet. I thought that was a perfect analogy.”
Soon, Collen, Pomeroy, Jackson and, Semple will reunite in Aspen for the first time in almost 40 years when they appear at Explore Booksellers on Saturday, June 17, to talk about “Growing Up Aspen.” The men are looking forward to seeing each other again back in the place where so many memories were made, even if there is some anxiety about seeing what Aspen is like now.
For Semple, who is rooted here, having his old friends back in town will be welcome. And although he is not blind to the ways his hometown has changed and the challenges it faces, he’s optimistic.
“In my defense, my very first Instagram post on Aspen five years ago was a little pile of vomit by the Opera House. I’m just trying to, as they say, keep it real,” he said with a laugh. “But I still really feel a sense of community here. Sometimes I feel like the world is closing in on me, and the walls are closing in on Aspen; but I’m bullish and positive on Aspen, and whenever people bag on Aspen, you’re insulting me, I live here. I have noticed if you get mad you carry that around with you. It will make you sick. Physically. And I don’t want to be sick. I maintain my positivity by spending time alone, outdoors, getting dirty, not getting sucked into the drama, not getting too sucked into fights, and not harboring anger towards change.”
Local 14 year old writes young adult novels
Nyala Honey has done more in her 14 years on this earth than many people accomplish in decades. The 14-year-old Basalt resident has published two young adult novels, which she’ll talk about and read from at Explore Booksellers at 2 p.m. on June 8.