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Natural world a lead character in writer Paul Andersen’s Aspen tales

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Local author and Aspen Times columnist Paul Andersen will read from and sign copies of his new book, "Moonlight Over Pearl: Ten Stories from Aspen," Friday at Explore Booksellers.
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ASPEN – My biggest gripe with the TV series “Secrets of Aspen” was not the whining, back-biting bitches or the endless parade of glitzy parties and fake boobs, but the fact that nowhere in the show was an Aspen that I recognized. (Had I been able to stomach more than five minutes at a time, and maybe 20 minutes total, my list of complaints might be different, and certainly longer.)

I’ve been a person of reasonably broad interests in my nearly 20 years in the town: I snowboard, bike, hike and run. I walk the streets and eat in restaurants and occasionally buy things. I work, have a wife and daughter. I have friends on Red Mountain and in employee housing, friends who don’t work, friends who work their butts off. I spend time downvalley. I go to the ballet and art openings, readings, lectures, movies. I go to concerts – Lord knows, how I go to concerts. Somehow, “Secrets of Aspen” managed to skip over most all of that.

Similarly, the Aspen described in “Moonlight Over Pearl,” by midvalley resident and Aspen Times columnist Paul Andersen, is one that doesn’t intersect a whole lot with my life. The book is subtitled “Ten Stories From Aspen,” but these are not, by and large, stories from my Aspen.

Andersen absorbs seminars at the Aspen Institute – not one of the places I frequent. He tells a tale from the time when it was possible for a pair of hunter-fishermen to come upon a band of Ute Indians in the woods – an Aspen I missed out on. Perhaps above all, Andersen is a man of the backcountry, leading readers along ridges far beyond the in-bounds ski terrain, and on paths that are in no danger of being paved over. I am a rare visitor to the backcountry, and have little experience with the sights, thrills, dangers and satisfactions specific to the wilderness.

But while the reality-TV version of Aspen leaves me wondering where the reality is – and even if it did exist, I’d want no part of it – the version in “Moonlight Over Pearl” is one that enriches my appreciation of the place I call home. If I had the time, the fortitude – and the gear; Andersen’s life seems to call for lots of equipment, and the know-how to use it – I’d be tempted to explore this Aspen.

As it is, I probably won’t ever accompany a rescue team into the backcountry to recover dead bodies (as in the story “The Third Body”), or dramatically re-examine the philosophical foundation of my life at the Executive Seminar at the Aspen Institute (“The Woman Across the Table”). I won’t travel back in time to experience the Roaring Fork Valley of the 1800s (“Chalmer’s Paradise”) or have a chance encounter with Dr. Albert Schweitzer during the Goethe Bicentennial of 1949 (“The Living Saint”). But I embrace that they are a part of Aspen, parts that add up to the Aspen I do know and cherish.

Andersen’s Aspen – and his life – are marked by a thorough consideration of things: classical music, one’s spiritual contribution to humankind, and the natural world. Oh yes, the natural world is everywhere in Andersen’s writing, and his adjective-loaded descriptions of it can be too much for the reader. But you never doubt how real and important it is to him.

For me, the gem of “Moonlight Over Pearl” was “First Snow,” the spare story of an Aspenite who has lived in the town through the ages and now, with his small room about to be demolished, must leave. Where he’s going even he doesn’t know. He’s got precious little to bring with him – “If only he had saved some money … ,” he muses – but he’s got memories, happy, sorrowful and full. It is a story of Aspen – old ski passes, classical concerts, a life measured not in material things accumulated but in being free from the pursuit of such. But more so, it is a tale of a man on his last legs.

“He realized that he and this apartment are on parallel tracks: bright and shiny in the sixties, capable in the seventies, serviceable in the eighties, patched together in the nineties, falling apart in the new millennium,” Andersen writes. “Now this building is scheduled for the wrecker, so what does that say about him?”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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