Tourist In my own hometown |

Tourist In my own hometown

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

Many readers know that I reside in Aspen only in spirit. I visit Aspen as a tourist, a tourist in my own hometown. Unlike most of my peers I am able to enter former residences because they continue as places of business. In my early childhood I lived in the Cowenhoven building, in the space now occupied by Bloomingbirds. Later I lived in a Hopkins Street Victorian that in recent years became La Cocina. I enjoyed reminiscing during Mexican dinner in that old house, although it had been altered almost beyond recognition. Imagine my surprise and indignation in 2008 when I approached the old porch only to find myself peering into a construction pit.

Former residents of Aspen fall into three attitude groups. My father defines the first, the “used to be’s.” Forced to move from Aspen when silicosis challenged his survival at high altitude, he managed only a few return trips to Aspen. Riding around town, he never commented on anything new. Once in a while he would say, “_____ used to be there.”

In the 1970s I planned a trip to the old mining town of Tonopah, Nev., where Father worked in 1928. On blank pieces of paper he mapped locations of downtown commercial buildings for me to see. Once there, I was surprised to discover that, with the exception of what had been torn down, his recall was photographic. The experience convinced me that some people continue to see their old hometowns just as they were during their youth, mentally screening out any changes. Perhaps they look on themselves and their friends with the same youth-granting vision.

My sister typified the second group, “they’ve ruined my town” exiles. For her, and for many others who grew up in Aspen in the 1940s and 1950s, Aspen peaked around 1960. Succeeding changes detracted from the small-town charm of their childhood. They wish the town had frozen in time. With five parts envy and five parts revulsion, they resent Aspen’s success. Waves of affluent visitors and new residents from everywhere threaten their pleasurable memories. Watching local landmarks disappear causes pain. Seeing mansions replace their former homes reduces them to seething in anger. Wherever they are, they enjoy claiming they are “from Aspen,” because people have heard of it. Then they add, “but they’ve ruined my town.” Some vowed they would never set foot in Aspen again, and have stuck to that pronouncement.

The rest of us fall into the final group: “I’m a tourist now.” We admire the annual makeover. We note new buildings, enjoy additional amenities and marvel at how tall the trees have grown. Finding a favorite restaurant challenges us, as those that survive change location and some have been doing so since 1960. Shops change location as often as restaurants, while browsing opportunities broaden. Aspen’s ski runs multiply, lifts are replaced and ticket prices increase. Music festivals multiply where before there was only one.

We accept that a trip to Aspen no longer delivers the hit of a visit home. Seeing someone we used to know joyfully jolts the illusion rarely enough that we feel like tourists in our own hometown.

Deep veins of memory lodge in our subconscious as bright and elusive as silver. Undisturbed locations retain a special feeling; they smell uniquely of Aspen. A risk-taking spirit pervades, uniquely Aspen. My sister once added with just a note of acceptance of the unyielding progress, ” they can never change the mountains,” uniquely Aspen.

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