Vagneur: Giving Albert Schweitzer his due |

Vagneur: Giving Albert Schweitzer his due

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

During his one visit to the U.S., Dr. Albert Schweitzer was credited with saying that the one thing wrong with Aspen was that it “is too close to Heaven.” Pundits have wondered whether he was truly speaking of Aspen’s exceptional aura or was he referring to the lack of oxygen in the thin mountain air. How unique, the old-timers thought, that it took a missionary doctor from Africa to point out to the rest of the world what those living in Aspen already knew.

“When Two Worlds Collide,” title to at least a couple of songs and one documentary film, exemplifies the time of Schweitzer’s visit by the juxtaposition of two conflicting ideas, the struggle between the old and the new, much the same as mixing oil and water, the knocking of heads during what has been inappropriately called the “Renaissance” of Aspen.

The very popular and iconic treatise, “Aspen — the Quiet Years,” through personal histories as told by Aspen natives, laconically paints the backcloth of Aspen’s unique personality prior to its “second” boom as a ski and cultural center. Missing from the title, but excellently portrayed throughout the stories, is the heading that most Aspenites of the time would have put on the cover: “Aspen — the Golden Years.”

Following close on Schweitzer’s heels were those who bought into the idea of “Heaven on Earth” or some other sort of nonsense that became part of the Aspen myth. If nothing else, Aspen represented the idea of wide-open spaces (aren’t we still talking about that today?), the antithesis of a supposed shrinking world as is so commonly found in the city. However, in an inescapable and tragically fallible human way, along with the grand idea of freedom and spontaneity as promised by the mountains and Aspen, we mostly bring our cultural baggage, preconceived notions and bad habits with us. In the end, many of us realize that home followed us right into town. Others never make the connection.

Walter Paepcke had a helluva good idea, borrowed from the Greek philosopher Plato — invigorate the mind, body and spirit. But it has always begged the question in my own mind — how bad could it have been in Chicago, Kansas City, New York or other places the Paepcke supporters came from that they felt a need to escape to what, at the time, was not a particularly engaging place — at least not within the city limits. It was then, I suspect, just as it is today, a vision of somehow participating in the myth of the West.

But think about this: Aspen, even in the 1940s, was no secret and if the Paepckes, with the help of Aspen native and Pitkin County Judge William Shaw, hadn’t bought up a large inventory of Aspen properties, there was a plethora of people from the Lone Star State squealing their tires toward our little mountain town. Even then, the threat of exploding real estate prices was problematic. How different would Aspen have been if Paepcke and his dream had stumbled?

Most everyone who lived here in the pre-renaissance days felt that they were sufficiently nourished in mind, body and spirit and didn’t particularly need a remedial course in the enjoyment of life. It was a rancher’s paradise, Aspen to Glenwood Springs, “heaven on earth,” if you will, with a sparse population, wide-open spaces, plenty of water, deep, rich grass in the high country and a railroad to ship products to market. Aspen may have been in a slump, at least compared to the silver-mining days, but we lived well through the Depression and the tragic swath of the 1918 flu epidemic. Those in agriculture were having some their best years ever.

1930s-1940s Aspen was good for the town folks, as well. The tourist trade was picking up, fishing, horseback riding and hiking were excellent, and the girls, as they’ve always been, were in a class by themselves. Roch Run was skiable and the boat tow made for easy laps on the lower part of the mountain.

And then, just like now, there was a lot of huffing and puffing about who started what and how some people were elitist and how the locals were getting marginalized by the new development and how the town as we knew it was going to hell. An age-old rant still heard at your favorite watering hole or on some Aspen Facebook sites.

As I said, those who lived here in 1949 didn’t need the education, but all of us today should give Albert Schweitzer his due, for he played into the spirit of Aspen more than he likely realized by saying, “I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live.” Keep that in your back pocket wherever you may roam.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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