Bus driving is ‘gratifying’ at Roaring Fork Transportation Authority

Jill Beathard
The Aspen Times

A friendly greeting and a smile are what skiers and snowboarders get when they ride the bus with John Pennington.

The 66-year-old Rifle resident began driving for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority in 1997 after taking an early retirement from the Garfield County School District in Parachute, where he was superintendent for 12 years. He drove for three winters before his managers asked him to go full time.

“I needed something to do,” Pennington said. “I worked on the house for six months on the property and decided I needed something else to do other than just work on the house. It’s been good for me.”

On a typical day, Pennington picks up riders downvalley in the morning and brings them to Aspen and then runs the Aspen-to-Snowmass route during the day. In the summer, he runs the Maroon Bells route three days a week, which involves a bit of tour guiding.

“Having been a science teacher before, it’s great for me because I get to teach again,” Pennington said. “We have 10 points we have to cover. Because of my science background I can go into a lot of the ecology, the plants and the animals and the avalanche chutes. … And I always try to make it very entertaining.”

Driving to Snowmass, he typically only stops when riders signal to him. However, at skier-shuttle stops, he’ll stop to ask people where they’re going in case they’re from out of the country and can’t read the signs.

“I like to interact with people, so hauling skiers, we interact with skiers as they board the bus, as they leave the bus, when they have questions, things like that,” Pennington said. “And because you’re driving, you’re constantly busy, focusing on the road and making sure things are safe, looking for passengers to pick up.”

The bus never leaves a stop early, but it can run behind because of road conditions or other reasons. On icy days, loading the bus also takes longer.

“It’s slick,” Pennington said. “You’re just going to take a bit more time to load the bus. And you have to remember, our function, it’s a service-related industry, so we’re going to be patient, wait for them, because we don’t want them to fall. I never encourage them to hurry.”

Eight to 10 a.m. is the busy time for passengers headed to Snowmass, and about 2:30 p.m. on is the peak for returns to Aspen, Pennington said. Even the 10:45 a.m. bus on Wednesday was full by the time it arrived at the Snowmass Village Mall.

“It’s always gratifying, … like today, we had a good group of people who came on board,” Pennington said. “They were interactive. They were happy, and they’re on vacation. That’s a pleasant group to be with.”

When people are not friendly, Pennington said he deals with them like he would any situation.

“(You) don’t let that dominate what happens,” he said.

Pennington has a horse on his property in Rifle and a girlfriend in Aspen, who taught him how to ski at age 62.

“If you like being outside, which I do, this is the closest thing I can do to be outside and still have a nice climate and beautiful scenery,” Pennington said.

Editor’s note: “On the Job” is a series that profiles locals and the work they do. It runs every other week in The Aspen Times.