Willoughby: Not everyone enjoys a jeep tour
Legends & Legacies
Natalie Gignoux kicked off Aspen’s first for-profit jeep tours during 1950, when she opened the risky Little Percent Taxi. The name reflected Gignoux’s sense of humor as well as it did her operating margin.
Gignoux started touring with one jeep, and then expanded to offer taxi service and rental cars. Gignoux became involved in the Chamber of Commerce and worked unofficially as Aspen’s tourist liaison, charming visitors while she informed them of Aspen’s attractions.
Gignoux’s tour business would take you anywhere you wanted. Her 1957 newspaper ad asked, “Why ruin your car when we’ll ruin ours so cheaply?” At the time, pavement covered only the highway that passed through town. So, most trips qualified as an off-road excursion.
One of Gignoux’s favorite tours took visitors to the top of Taylor Pass. Independence, not paved at that time, ranked second because Taylor, a former stagecoach route, offered more scenery and views of some of the highest peaks. Moreover, the rough, steep road thrilled flatlanders.
Many of us natives cut our driving teeth behind the wheel of a jeep. The perfect vehicle for beginners, a jeep parked easily and promised so little power that speeding, even in town, just didn’t happen. Most of us logged as many off-road hours as urban trips, drove up and down steep grades, splashed through mud holes, and tackled deep snow as well as rough terrain. In the end, our sense of safety approached that of a city dweller driving home to the suburbs.
Like Gignoux, I spent a portion of time impressing acquaintances and their guests with scenic routes. But in my case, profit didn’t enter the picture. One summer a rumor made the rounds at the music festival, where I was working, that I offered jeep trips. Word got out that, as did Gignoux, I preferred Taylor Pass.
Gignoux must have developed a method for initiating flatlanders to jeep travel in the Rockies. It did not occur to me that New Yorkers — who survived the Manhattan wilderness — would turn white once a jeep left pavement. As off-road routes go, I considered Taylor Pass benign. The uninitiated thought otherwise.
One trip that sticks in my memory involved a music critic. He wrote classical record reviews for some magazine — perhaps Stereo — and visited the Festival for its critics’ seminars. He knew a fellow I worked with, maybe a former Julliard student. Four of us headed out on a sunny Aspen day.
The critic keyed off a running commentary about how poorly the creator had designed Castle Creek Valley. He suggested ways he could rearrange the scenery to make it better. I could not tell whether I should laugh. Did he offer sarcasm, a comparative critique, or sincere suggestions for the improvement of Aspen’s scenery?
The critic’s one-sided narration continued all the way to Ashcroft. Annoyed, I tuned him out. After we departed the pavement of Castle Creek Road, I buzzed up the lower section of the pass rather quickly. And partway up the incline, it hit me: The backseat monologue had ceased. I surmised the spectacular view across the valley had rendered him tacet. But a quick glance into the rearview mirror revealed a disoriented, to put it mildly, music critic.
We stopped short of the top of the pass that day, and my short-lived jeep tour operation never traveled the road to success. But Natalie Gignoux ran her business until 1962, when she sold out to a similar outfit in Glenwood Springs. She had impelled her guests to high elevations with tenderness many of us never suspected. And because of her compassion, thousands of visitors relished the experience of their lives.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Kevin Warner started his career with the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger in 2001. Now he’s taking over the key position as Aspen-Sopris District Ranger.