Homeless duo keeping heads above water

Charles AgarAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN Hard living just got a little harder for Jane Patterson and Michael O’Gara.After more than 10 years living in a van on Aspen’s streets, the pair has been outdoors since July 13, when Jane drove off Maroon Creek Road.No one was hurt in the accident, but Jane will face a drunken driving charge in county court Aug. 21, and the two are now without their rolling house.”We’re in a real hard place right now,” Michael said. “It’s just horrible.”Wet with recent rains Thursday, the two said they sleep wherever they can.And after weeks of worry and lugging their belongings around town, Jane’s legs are swollen and Michael suffers from constant pain in his hips and back, he said.The pair survives on disability checks and the kindness of strangers, and at least one valley help agency is stumped.”Right now we don’t have a solution,” said Vince Savage, director of Valley Information and Assistance, an Aspen Valley Medical Foundation program that helps people who are falling through the cracks in social services.Finding housing for workers in Aspen is hard enough, but finding a place in Aspen for someone in need is especially difficult, Savage said.”We’ve had people talking about finding another van to donate and them going back to the status quo,” Savage said, but he said he is open to any and all options for the couple.”If anybody’s got solutions, I’m happy to help them orchestrate them,” Savage said.

But neither Michael nor Jane is willing to abide by any solution that sends them downvalley.”I’ve been here 30 years,” Michael said.Where they’re fromA native of Minnesota, Michael first came to Aspen in 1968 on a two-week stopover during a tour with his rock band, Stillroven, which released a number of albums in the late 1960s.He played backup for bands such as Steppenwolf and Buffalo Springfield and remembers better days composing songs by the Pacific, but said, “Now my life is a shambles.”And Jane, daughter of a doctor in a prominent Fort Collins family, said, “All my life I’ve been a grace case.”She attended Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado and taught in suburban Denver and later was a legal secretary before coming to Aspen, she said.Educated, well-traveled, an accomplished skier and equestrian, according to family members, Jane worked as a housekeeper, but said, “I just hated to clean house.”And it was love at first sight some 21 years ago when the two first met in Aspen.”He’s asked me, and I said I’ll think about it, but if I marry anyone it’ll be him,” Jane said, adding despite the difficulties they still love each other.”Somehow we wound up in the van,” Michael said of the brown 1979 Chevrolet they called “Bambi.”

Both once had apartments in Aspen and have held odd jobs, but they bought the van with money from a small inheritance and took to the road – though not going much farther than county roads, Highway 82 near Independence Pass or parking spaces near City Market.”It wasn’t a picnic,” O’Gara said of the winters they bundled in sleeping bags.”But now we’re having a picnic!” Jane joked, sweeping a long arm – she stands taller than 6 feet – indicating the patch of grass they called home Thursday.”The Buddhists say, ‘Don’t cry over spilled milk.’ I say don’t cry over a crashed van,” Jane said.The two said they’re grateful to the many restaurant owners who offer meals and to people who donate clothes, but it is her ability to “live in the moment” that keeps her “strangely happy” despite the circumstances, Jane said.And the two are living “one breath at a time,” she said.They’ve had offers of other vans, but both agreed that it has become too hard to live parked on Aspen’s streets.Family ties”She’s a fabulous human being, she’s just on the edge. That’s where she lives. How she’s survived in Aspen all these years, I don’t know,” John Patterson said of his older sister.The second-youngest of the four Patterson children and a salesman in Littleton, John said he’s tried to help his sister but to no avail.While his sister was a standout as a child – a foreign exchange student in Finland who played the French horn and excelled at school – John believes something traumatic happened.

“She has completely forgotten what it’s like to enjoy life,” Michael said. “She wakes up every day, and it’s a terror for her.”Jane calls John regularly on his 800 number.”I’ve tried to help her,” John said. He’s bought the couple sleeping bags and said he used to give Jane money, but added, “I’m quite familiar with the whole enabling thing. Sometimes she calls me just desperate, and I just can’t.”John is worried about his sister and believes she might be getting back into alcohol, he said.”She’s highly resourceful. And she’s a survivor,” John said. “I look at my sister as someone the heavens are smiling on. She’s totally kind of living for the moment.””She’s a very loved person. Just because someone lives in the street doesn’t mean people don’t love them,” said Nissa Patterson, John’s daughter and Jane’s niece.Nissa and Jane exchange letters regularly, and Jane is quick to point out the glitter makeup on her cheeks is a gift from her niece.Nissa remembers a kind and gentle aunt who always had time to play and have fun.”She’s just a really interesting spirit,” Nissa said.Nissa, who works with at-risk teens in Albuquerque, N.M., said that while she is grateful the citizens and the public officials of Aspen are tolerant and helpful, she hopes area social services can get Jane and Michael the kind of assistance they need.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is