Willoughby: The downhill ride from Aspen to Toledo on a Honda 125cc

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
John Deak lugs his bass to a rehearsal in Aspen.
Chamberlain; Robert M. | Aspen Historical Society/Chamber

Musical instruments come in all sizes, from a piccolo to a piano. A musician’s daily routine has its challenges, depending on the instrument they bond with. A string bass comes with outsized issues. I fondly remember the logistics of that instrument and of one of its devotees.

When I worked for the Music Associates of Aspen at the tent, the bass instructor Stuart Sankey taught lessons in the tent’s backstage rooms. Bass players stored their instruments and shipping cases there. We constructed a special rack along a wall that would hold the instruments in a vertical position. The bass players practiced at all hours and accompanied my long days’ work with a constant low register hum from that room.

I remember a debate among a group of bass players about the best shipping case. The discussion kicked off when a bass — shipped by Rio Grande Motorway — arrived with a grapefruit sized hole in the front of its fiberglass case. The accident inflicted disastrous damage on the instrument inside. Some players swore that a fiberglass case was best, despite the evidence before their eyes that fiberglass fell short of perfection. The champions of old-school wood cases admitted that they weighed more, maneuvered awkwardly and cost more to ship. But they claimed the material would have resisted whatever had poked the hole.

The conversation held real consequences. Unlike cello players, who may book an extra seat for their instruments when they fly, bass players must trust the baggage handlers to heed the “FRAGILE” stickers plastered on their instruments’ cases.

That same summer Tom Theis worked for the MAA at the campus. The workers roomed together on the second floor of the campus administration building. Theis, a Julliard student, also worked in the recording studio in New York. Tom studied under Sankey during the year at Julliard, and for the summer in Aspen.

I do not remember ever seeing Tom sit down. He worked all day and crashed into bed late at night. In addition to passion for his musical commitments, he loved bicycle riding. He never rode the bus, even at night. Instead, he rode a racing bike. Rather than the long-distance kind of racer, he used the oval track variety with neither gears nor brakes. A direct drive affair on the downhill grade, Theis braked by peddling slower. On the upside of the grade, from town to campus, no lower gears eased his climb.

A problem arises if you are a bass player and commute by bicycle. Leaving his bass at the tent for lessons and practice solved the problem in Aspen. Curious, I asked him about riding the bus with a bass in New York City. Oh, he answered, he did not ride the bus. He strapped his instrument on the back of his motorcycle. The traffic behind him made him nervous, not so much for his own safety as for that of his bass. The instrument extended far beyond the back of his vehicle. And for those rides he did not use a case.

Near summer’s end, Tom decided it would cost too much to ride home on an airplane or bus. Shipping charges for his bass would absorb enough of his summer earnings. He bought a 125cc Honda that ran, just barely. He planned to visit his parents in Toledo, Ohio, and then ask them to finance the balance of his trip.

Tom worked a week of evenings on the Honda. It motored to town as fast as his bicycle did. But the return trip dragged on and on. Considering the distance from Aspen to Toledo, we all worried about Tom’s plan.

Tom, ever an optimist, allayed our fears. The memory of his attitude fortifies me, especially when I face a daunting task. “If I make it to the top of Independence Pass,” he said, “it is all downhill from there.”

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