Willoughby: Memories rain down on Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Memories rain down on Aspen

A rainbow seen from Hyman Avenuein the 1940s.
Willoughby collection

While skimming through my photo collection, I paused at the picture for today’s column. Captured by my uncle Frank Willoughby during the 1940s, the image evokes strong memories. No particular story comes to mind. But reasons behind the memories form a narrative of sorts.

Sensorial memories runs deep, particularly those associated with smell. For me, the fragrance of sweet peas and hollyhocks triggers memories of numerous Aspen locations, because those plants dominated Aspen’s neighborhoods. Going way back into Aspen’s history, sweet peas played the leading role in flower competitions.

Hollyhocks seem to survive with little help. Once they root their way into a garden, they grace that space for generations. As a small child I marveled at their height, much taller than mine. And I admired the ruffled flowers alongside many of Aspen’s abandoned houses and buildings, where loving hands no longer tended them.

Deeper than the scent of flowers runs the memory of rain, the color of storm light and the colorful finale: a rainbow. A shift in the scent of atmosphere before and after a storm frames the recollection. Afternoon summer storms of my childhood occurred, predictably, every day.

Centered over Aspen, among towering mountains, water bearing clouds release their torrents locally. No one who spent a week in town would leave without noting how Aspen’s showers compare to coastal drizzle or a thunderstorm on the plains.

Aspen’s paved streets, and buildings replete with gutters and drainpipes, contain and direct the flow today. But during my youth, our brief storms formed mud puddles with more mud than puddle. Aspen’s mothers declared war against the elements.

Despite parental pleas, I usually left home unprepared for rain. I spent my summers exploring Aspen Mountain and Hunter Creek. For relief from a downpour, I would duck into an aspen grove. Aspen groves, especially those with an understory of ferns, release unique cologne. Rain intensifies the fragrance to an unforgettable perfume.

There are rainbows, and then there are Rainbows. My native pride declares everything in Aspen to be better, but Aspen’s rainbows really do excel. The valley amplifies the deafening thunder of the storm and announces that the finale approaches. The closed-in valley and mountains frame the colorful arches. High altitude creates more contrast between the curved spectrum and its backdrop. Rainbows — God’s signature movie credits.

Go ahead — prep your phone camera for the next Aspen rainbow. But no digital composition will ever equal your visual memory, embroidered with sweet sound and scent.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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