The Beginner’s Guide to Everything
Finding fresh mountain adventures, trying new things and embracing a season of post-quarantine rebirth
Late last summer I stepped nervously onto the hard court at the Smugger Racquet Club to play tennis for the first time in my life.
My wife had given me a racquet for my birthday and a pair of lessons with Torre, the longtime Aspen tennis pro and the city’s current mayor. After two days of learning the basics about grips and strokes, practicing an overhand serve and fumbling clumsily around the court in attempts to volley without sending the ball into the woods, I was hooked.
Hooked on tennis, well, maybe. But definitely hooked on the feeling of trying something new in the outdoors, hooked on the wash of relief and joy that stuck with me after this respite from the mundane pandemic routines of masks and social distancing, video calls and spending what seemed like every moment at home.
I was hooked on being a beginner.
I wasn’t alone, of course. That same impulse for finding new hobbies, healthy distractions and outdoor habits led to pandemic booms for tennis and distance-friendly sports like golf; led to historic levels of trail use in the Aspen area for hikers, runners and bikers (it caused a bike shortage here and nationwide as cycling and mountain biking interest soared), to newbies on the river fishing and paddleboarding and kayaking and rafting; to campsites full of remote workers and families bouncing from one scenic getaway to another.
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The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.
And here in Aspen and Snowmass, a veritable natural playground where these sports and every stripe of mountain recreation is available in abundance, it drew new residents from cities and wave after wave of first-time visitors coming to try Aspen for the first time.
After my experience with tennis, I kept trying new things outside through winter — downhill skiing, winter trail-running, snowshoeing in places I’d never been — and started asking some mountainfolk about their transformative beginner experiences and how their habits might be different this post-vaccine summer in Aspen and Snowmass.
CYCLING/ MOUNTAIN BIKING
A BEGINNER’S BRAIN
It felt absurd to be playing afternoon tennis with Mayor Torre during the pandemic as he was managing a town under a state of emergency. But it turns out he needed it, too, and was buoyed by the buzz of sharing tennis with beginners.
“It’s not just about getting better or perfecting a skill,” Torre said. “It’s about the enjoyment, to see that appreciation, to see people having fun, to see a smile on their face. That’s the most rewarding part about it.”
During the winter, Torre also sought his own beginner experiences: he picked up cross-country skiing for the first time and tried halfpipe snowboarding for the first time since his youth.
“It really refreshed me and made me remember my younger, more daring days,” he said.
Allison Daily, an Aspen-based grief counselor, started doing early morning hikes with friends — up Smuggler Mountain or Sunnyside Trail or around the Aspen Golf Course. As we emerge into the post-vaccine summer with most public health restrictions dropping, she encourages people to be willing to hang on to any new positive habits they formed during the pandemic.
“Each person can find something, like, ‘Wow, I slowed down!’ or ‘I found an alternative way to do yoga, to do an exercise,’” she explained.
She and other mental health experts noted how much of the pandemic experience has been subtractive — the things we couldn’t do, places we couldn’t go, people we couldn’t see — but the human spirit pushed us to find new joy and fun following a natural impulse to take control and do something new that we might like.
“As human beings we want novel experiences,” said Kathleen Callahan, an Aspen-based therapist and social worker. “Skill acquisition builds your confidence and makes you feel good about you.”
Callahan specializes in treating anxiety and found during the pandemic that learning something new was an effective tool to deal with the near-universal feelings of anxiety, depression and languishing.
“It’s a cool thing that people across our country went outdoors and are learning all these new sports,” she said. “They’re learning that in the midst of things we can’t control, all of a sudden you can control something. It’s absolutely a healthy impulse, we’re unconsciously driven to do it.”
She saw people flourishing by taking lessons — whether for cooking or crafting or kayaking — or by setting new goals, such as cycling to the Maroon Bells for the first time.
“The human brain wants to have mastery,” she said. “It wants to have some control. We can control what you think, what you feel and what do. So people are doing all these new things. It’s exciting to see. I hope it continues.”
THEO’S BIG ADVENTURE
Theo Williams took the beginner’s mentality to the extreme during the pandemic summer of 2020.
An avid soccer player and coach, Williams took new interest in cycling, then long-distance cycling, then he rode some 1,000 miles from the Roaring Fork Valley to Santa Monica, California, on a fundraising adventure that rose $25,000 for the Aspen Hope Center.
“For me, anything physical has always been a really good release,” Williams explained.
Originally from Sheffield, England, he was unable to see his family and found himself struggling and looking for ways to be of service in his community and new ways of breaking a sweat to break out of his funk.
“Everyone felt a little bit down, a bit miserable,” said Williams, who works as a real estate agent with Slifer Smith & Frampton Real Estate. “I definitely went through that myself. I had a loss in my family. I was not able to travel home to do anything for my family. And I just found myself being extremely grumpy and down.”
That led him to the Hope Center, the mental health nonprofit. The more he learned about their mission, the more he wanted to help them. And then, one day last summer, he was talking to a client who had driven here from Los Angeles about the scenic route’s potential for a long-distance bike-packing trip. The idea clicked in Williams’ head: he’d bike it as a Hope Center fundraiser.
“I did very little training,” Williams recalled. “I spoke to a few people, I got a sponsor to build a bike for me and helped build a fundraising website and I did it.”
“It definitely changed my outlook,” he said. “It got me out of my comfort zone, and that’s been a real blessing for me. … I’m not always confident in my own ability to do things. This showed me that you don’t know what you’re capable of.”
This summer, his ambitions for new experiences are less extravagant. He’s planning to do an overnight backpacking trip to Conundrum Hot Springs for the first time and to do the famed Aspen-to-Crested Butte hike over Maroon Pass.
Before the pandemic, Williams’ outdoor activities revolved around soccer —playing and also coaching at Glenwood Springs High School — and his softball league along with running and hiking.
Williams still doesn’t consider himself an expert cyclist, but it has given him a new outdoor passion. This summer he’ll be spinning on local roads regularly.
“Cycling isn’t really a thing that I knew or enjoyed,” he said. “I’m addicted now.”
The achievement has made Williams a bit of a local celebrity and may even be helping him get noticed in the real estate world. None of that was in his mind when he started pedaling.
“I didn’t do the ride to open up doors for me or anything — I just needed to get out of the house,” he laughed.
Williams was inspired by seeing how city-dwellers and newcomers took to Aspen and mountain living.
“It’s incredible to see people make these choices,” he said. “People who move here and hike Ajax three times a week and lose 50 pounds over the summer during the pandemic.”
MAKING IT NEW
May Selby is Aspen’s ultimate multi-hyphenate. She is marketing manager at the Little Nell Hotel and she’s the social columnist for the Aspen Times Weekly. She spins in nightclubs as DJ Mayfly and competes in races regularly as an avid long-distance runner among other passions (cartoonist, mom).
A common thread among her many callings is community and crowds of people. Her big outdoor plan for 2020 had been to run the Boston Marathon and Big Sur Marathon, along with favorite local races like the Aspen Valley and Aspen Backcountry marathons. Those were scuttled by the pandemic. And when Boston went virtual, she was unenthused about a race without a crowd.
“I was like, ‘No, thank you,’” Selby recalled. “But then they made it really cool.”
With a box of Boston gear — a bib, a personal finish line — and daily updates on the people running it all over the world, it forged some new connections. Some 70,000 runners took part, Selby among them, keeping it fun and social.
“We all felt a part of that community,” she said.
For 2021, Selby is going back to run Boston in person but she has also recruited some friends to do the virtual version this year, running it here. Selby is hanging onto some other pandemic habits, including virtual early-morning workouts with a trainer in London, joined on video chat by her sister in South Carolina and a small group of international friends.
“We’re all different people with different accents, but we’re all there doing 100 burpees and pull-ups,” she said. “It’s so cool.”
For Erik Skarvan, a biking teacher and founder of the adventure sports school Sun Dog Athletics — celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2021 — connecting with people in-person through the pandemic was key. As a guide and teacher, he found that he was providing an essential service for visitors seeking COVID relief in the mountains.
“The gratitude was on a whole new level for people wanting and needing to get out, to exercise and connect with nature,” Skarvan explained. “And to have time with their loved ones that became so rare during COVID.”
Skarvan’s new thing was ice fishing in the wintertime. A northern Wisconsin native, he grew up doing it but hadn’t in the three decades he’s lived in Aspen. This winter, he regularly spent days on the ice at Ruedi Reservoir and discovered that, yes, there are 20- to 40-pound lake trout in that water.
“It was really peaceful, really beautiful,” he said of those quiet and cold days with his dogs on the ice. “It was an incredible escape. If I caught a fish, that was just a bonus.”
Teaching cycling and biking last summer was a soulful experience. He recalled working with visitors who had been sick or had lost people to coronavirus, celebrating their lives by making the most of their time outside in Aspen.
“What I noticed was people really appreciate things more,” Skarvan said. “The people biking here for the first time were just blown away — the escapism, the beauty, the dynamics and exhilaration. It’s just pure kid-like fun. And to be able to share that, especially during COVID, was really magical.”
What’s your new thing?
“I started cross-country skiing this winter and I also got back into halfpipe snowboarding.” — Torre, mayor of Aspen
“Cycling isn’t really a thing that I knew or enjoyed. I’m addicted now.” — Theo Williams, Colorado-to-California cyclist
“I work out on Zoom with a trainer from London two-to-three times week with my sister and like 10 people around the world.” — May Selby, Aspen Times Weekly columnist
“Ice-fishing! Relearning the technique, the timing, the equipment.” — Erik Skarvan, Sun Dog Athletics
What are you most looking forward to doing again this summer?
“I have a 2-year-old daughter and her grandparents live out of state. I’m looking forward to her spending time with her grandparents.” — Becca Schild, Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers
“I’m looking forward to hanging out with my friends again and feeling comfortable about it. And, honestly, I’m looking forward to not wearing a mask.” — Torre
“Belly Up! I cannot wait to start going to concerts.” — May Selby
“Going back to the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool. That was my favorite monthly ritual and I got to go back (in May).” — Erik Skarvan
“My family normally comes over (from England) two or three times a year. I haven’t seen my family in about 20 months. Fingers crossed, they’ll be able to fly here for a visit in July.” — Theo Williams
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The Aspen Filmfest program, which opens Tuesday night with the Jessica Chastain-led drama “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” is a tribute to the founder, Ellen Kohner Hunt. The festival will also recognize the memory of Hunt with “Ellenfest” on Thursday.