Digging up Aspen’s past: Walk with the Dead tours
October 25, 2012
ASPEN – The tour is called Walk with the Dead, it takes place in an old cemetery in a dark corner of town, and it’s timed for Halloween week. But don’t expect Dean Weiler, who leads the walk, to appear ghost-like from the bushes to give his audience a mighty scare.
To clarify: the Walk with the Dead does begin with Weiler emerging from the bushes of Ute Cemetery. But there’s no fake blood, werewolf mask or hair-raising screams. Weiler’s entrance is sober (not counting the flask of whisky in his back pocket); his costume, including a vest and pocket watch, recalls only slightly a character stepping out of the Victorian past. Weiler’s Walk with the Dead is intended to bring participants face to face with actual history, not such over-the-top mythological creeps as Freddie Krueger, Chuckie and Dick Cheney.
Which is not to say that Weiler isn’t interested in resurrecting some ghosts. But the spirits he’s interested in are the dead souls who did, in fact, occupy Aspen decades or even a century ago. You want to break through the walls that divide the everyday world from the unseen? The best way might be to show interest in the people whose remains are buried underground and in the lives they led while they were still among the walking.
“If there really are spirits there, if there’s anything going on down there, that’s the best way to commune with them – really knowing about who’s buried there,” Weiler, a 41-year-old Aspenite, said. “Halloween’s true tradition is the day of the dead – you go to the cemetery and respect what’s there. I don’t want to put in that typical trick, that cheesy essence. I think there’s more to be gained coming from an educational journey: Who is that person under the gravestone?”
The Walk with the Dead tours, to be given this weekend on Saturday and Sunday, and on Wednesday, Halloween Day, all at 5:30 p.m. at the Ute Cemetery, will introduce people to such characters as Alexander Adair, a mailman who covered the territory from Aspen to Crested Butte on wooden planks, and could be considered the real grandfather of skiing in the area; Francis “Deacon” Jones, part of the black regiment of U.S. troops known as Buffalo Soldiers; and Tom Simpson, who died in 1971 and whose surviving family somehow persuaded cemetery authorities to allow their beloved to become the first body buried on the grounds since the 1930s.
Through such characters, Weiler opens a door on what Aspen was like as far back as the 1880s, with an emphasis on avalanches, mining, feuds, social classes, barrooms and, of course, death – how people died, where and how they were buried. Weiler includes plenty of information about Ute Cemetery, which contains 210 bodies, 78 of those marked by proper gravestones.
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Raised on a farm in upstate New York, Weiler had a natural curiosity for history and ghost tales. He went to school at SUNY-Potsdam, some 100 miles north of his native Buffalo area. (“People say Buffalo is cold? Well, it’s not Potsdam,” Weiler said.) After studying political science for a while, Weiler took a class in cultural anthropology that abruptly turned his focus. Weiler settled for a spell on Nantucket, whose summer-only tourist season allowed for plenty of traveling. After discovering Aspen, he moved here in 1999 to be a ski bum.
Weiler always had his ear tuned for the strange, old story, and when he heard about the “water boy” – a silent figure, in a towel and dripping wet – who haunts the Hotel Jerome, he began to hunt down more spirits, and more of Aspen’s history. Five years ago, he launched Aspen Walking Tours, through which he presents Aspen’s Part to Present and Aspen’s Dark Side, as well as Walk with the Dead.
“I’d hear some ghost stories and figured there must be more,” Weiler, who also does accounting and manages the eataspen.com website, said. “So I researched. I’m a fan of walking tours; I go on them when I travel. I’m a research nerd.” (When I told him my own experience of the unseen in Aspen, regarding a log house on Gibson Ave. I lived in in the mid-’90s, Weiler took notes.)
Weiler thinks that lowlands near the sea tend to be richest in ghost stories; he chalks that up to the presence of fog. “You just imagine things in the mist better,” he said. But Aspen, with several distinct generations of history, with its preservationist ethic and old buildings, and newspapers and the Aspen Historical Society, isn’t a bad place to search out spooks.
“History is pretty readily available here – the buildings, the names on the buildings, the archival resources,” Weiler said. “It’s there if you want to dig into it.”
Weiler finds himself most attracted to what could be considered the alternate history of Aspen – “the darker stories that don’t make it into the normal interpretation,” he said. So it’s no surprise that the story of Deacon Jones is probably his favorite on the Walk with the Dead tour. Weiler tells that in the mining heyday, Aspen had a decent-sized black population; one of their annual events was the Possum and Sweet Potato Festival.
“That story is so lost, that there was an African-American community in the mining days,” Weiler said. “It represents so many things: moving west, seeking a new life. That’s one of those stories that’s so easily lost.”
To see that history come to life, Weiler says ditch the Katniss Everdeen and Mitt Romney costumes and visit the dead.
“Stand over a gravestone and know the greater story – that’s pretty neat,” he said. “All cemeteries hold great stories.”