Willoughby: Big moon over Aspen
Legends & Legacies
On a Jerry Jeff Walker recording, Hondo Crouch reads his poem “Luckenbach Moon.” It describes spectacular moonlight: “We have such a big moon for such a small town.” Crouch may be right about his moon in a tiny Texas town. But Aspen’s moon looms larger — and if it’s not truly bigger, it’s certainly brighter. After all, at 8,000 feet of elevation, we are closer to Earth’s shimmering satellite.
A nighttime walk in the woods can take you back in time. Before Aspen adopted electric street lighting, a nighttime stroll through wide-open streets did not differ much from a nocturnal ramble through the woods. On moonless nights, darkness closed in, no matter where you were.
Aspen’s mines ran ’round the clock. Imagine what it would have been like to fumble around underground throughout the workday. When a miner’s candle extinguished, the tunnel grew as dark as can be. If he emerged into full sunlight, his eyes must have hurt for minutes. Those whose shift ended during a full moon walked homeward in half-light.
Although Aspen is located closer to the moon than most other towns, the real reason our moon shines more brightly is snow. Acres of crystals act as moonlit mirrors that energize our hearts with lunar-powered joy. Were it not for the cold that comes with the night, I think many would gladly trade Daylight Savings for Moonlight Savings Time.
Previous generations manufactured excuses to get outside on moonlit winter nights. During the 1880s and 1890s, skating attracted crowds. According to The Aspen Times, “Moonlight skating parties are now quite popular with the young folks.” The newspaper described the lure in 1885, “Lovers must be hard to please indeed, who can complain of the beautiful moonlight evenings now being enjoyed in Aspen.” In 1890, many attended a Thanksgiving skating party.
Skaters took to three locations — the Stillwater section of the Roaring Fork east of town, Hallam Lake and Williams Lake. John Williams constructed the latter when he pulled water out of Hunter Creek to supply water for his subdivision of houses near Hunter Creek Condominiums.
Victorian Aspenites also enjoyed moonlight sleigh rides. Some rode far from town to dance at a destination called “10-mile house.”
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Dean Billings organized moonlight events for the Aspen Ski Club. At the end of the day some skiers would wait at the top of the mountain. Other participants would buy a $2 ticket to the Sundeck at closing time. As a couple dozen skiers gathered, Billings lead the crowd through ski games until Paul Worth opened the Sundeck for dinner.
After a sunset meal, the group would begin their descent. One year, clouds obscured the moonlight and, according to the Times, “courageous souls — found moguls resembling the Grand Canyon … Twas overpowering urge to get off our beloved mountain all in one piece.”
I remember the climbs up Little Nell and moonlight descents of childhood. Moguls came at me faster at night than they did in daylight, but not as fast as during a blinding snowstorm.
Definitions differ for a “blue moon.” However you describe it, we had a spectacular one at the end of January, and another is scheduled for the same time in 2018. Yet you don’t have to wait that long for the next notable lunar event. If the weather cooperates, a full moon will grace the Aspen sky April 11.
Take a trip back in time, take a step outside and raise a glass to Aspen’s big moon. To protect your nighttime view, replace standard outdoor lights with downward-facing ones. If you love the result, think bigger: What if Aspen blacked on winter moon nights, showing off our beautiful moon?
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 email@example.com.
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