Windmill of My Mind
July 27, 2005
When Ted Conover moved to Aspen in the late 1980s to take the town’s verbal portrait, many Aspenites were skeptical: He would train his light on Aspen’s dark side, expose its expensive underbelly, exploit local scandals for profit. Familiar with Ted’s adventure sociology, I was eager for his version of Aspen. His first book, “Rolling Nowhere,” for which he suspended college to ride the rails, was a vivid look at railroad hobos. It was his next, “Coyotes,” about undocumented Mexican workers, that truly drew me in, for it brought to life the kind of uprooted campesino I often spent time with over the border. As fieldwork for the book on Aspen, Ted drove a taxi for Mellow Yellow, and was now working as a reporter for The Aspen Times. Beyond literary considerations, Ted was that rare writer one could value as a friend as highly as on the page.Ted had often visited Aspen on family ski jaunts from Denver, where he had grown up, and he had known the town in an earlier, more modest incarnation. Still, I was aware that Ted had plans to cover the spenders and tabloid celebrities so usefully reduced to the monosyllable “glitz,” and I hoped to balance his vision with a sense of the post-Paepcke bohemia that had turned into a counter-establishment. In decades past, the young and the restless had converged on Aspen for the raffish life; in lighthearted moods they had come for sports, pub crawls and the arts, and had stayed to combat growth: To me it was they, not the cavorting rich, who were the sociological adventure. As one of their battle monuments, I drew Ted’s attention to a building outside Basalt that appears to be a four-story inverted shuttlecock. Standing at 7,500 feet instead of below sea level in some polder, it is an ersatz Dutch windmill, erected to promote a development called Holland Hills. The sails of a proper Dutch windmill never arrived, increasing the structure’s value as an object of mockery. An emblem of commercial excess, of surreal estate, it became the folly everyone loved to hate. In June 1970, in the night, an unknown person dynamited it, blowing out the first floor. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation moved in to interrogate. Declared the developer to an Aspen Times reporter, “This is an attack on a way of life.”Muttered locals over their beverages, “You better believe it.”A letter appeared soon afterward in the paper, exclaiming, “I am outraged that someone tried to blow up the Holland Hills windmill with 30 sticks of dynamite. The building is a basic hexagon and if you placed the dynamite at the base of the supports, you could bring it down with only six.”
The building had been duly restored, a real estate office opened on the first floor, and near the top, where a Dutch windmill’s huge sails should creak in the wind, someone had nailed an “X” of boards that resembled crossed kayak paddles. I recounted all this to an amused Ted, showing him a picture of the tower rising over a splintered first floor. Soon afterward, to my disbelief, I came upon a real estate ad showing snapshots of several modest downvalley homes and, among them, the windmill. The copy said, “Four-room home, good location, fine views.” There was no mention that the rooms were on top of each other. The next time we met for lunch, I silently pushed the ad across the table. Ted looked back solemnly. “We have to go.”I made an appointment with the real estate office and the next morning Ted picked me up. “Remember,” he said as we sped downvalley, “if we like the house, we should consider buying it.” I was struck by the neo-absurdity that the windmill had become endearing kitsch one might acquire.Ted and I were making rounds of the exterior, appraising curb appeal, when a coffee and cream sedan drew up. Out of it stepped a woman in tan slacks, beige suit jacket, tall caramelized hair and heels that looked perilous in the strewn gravel. “Have I kept you waiting?””We just got here,” assured Ted. She unlocked the door. The downstairs room was bare of furniture except for a small kitchen to one side. “As you see, it has wall-to-wall carpeting. There is a full bath downstairs and a half bath on the second floor. The electric range is new and has a self-cleaning feature.” As she opened the refrigerator door, Ted and I exchanged significant looks. “The fridge is self-defrosting and there is an ice-maker.” Her hand made a sweep toward the windows. “There are excellent views in all directions. It is conveniently located near the highway.”
“What is the history of this house?” I asked.”I’m not sure,” she said. “The couple who lived here before really liked it, but they had to move.”Ted kept a straight face. “May we see the rest?” he asked.One by one, the woman steadying herself by gripping a rail, we ascended a tight spiral stair to the second floor, which was a tapering duplicate of the first. It too was empty of furniture. We gaped at it wordlessly. A steep stair led onward like the ladder out of a kiva. “I’ll leave you two to see the rest,” said the woman. Ted and I climbed up, grinned at each other and climbed again. If we were Hopis, we might have emerged in the Fourth Creation. As it was, we gained extended views of bulldozed roads, lot lines, Highway 82 and a raw-looking board church in back. The floor plan had little to detain us, for each room was a slightly smaller version of the one below it. When we climbed back down, our guide was waiting outside. “There’s easy financing,” she said.”We need to think about it,” said Ted.
“Give me a call,” she replied, and glided off in her sedan.Ted and I proceeded to a decision-making lunch in Basalt. “What do you think?” I asked after we had ordered.”It has possibilities,” said Ted. “We could put your piano on the second floor. On the top floor I could stash some illegal Mexicans and the toolshed in back would be just right for some railroad hobos. And as you say, there’s all that history.””But the location,” I said. “It’s in a development and there’s a Fundamentalist chapel right in back. When they four-lane this stretch, it will be even closer to the highway.””Maybe we could move it,” suggested Ted.
“Well, it is a windmill. We could replace those dinky blades with real ones. We could put wheels on it, wait for the right wind, and sail it down the highway.””To some property by the river.””It would be great to look out at the tops of cottonwoods.”Ted turned serious. “Would you be willing to leave the Fritz-Carlton to live in a windmill?”I paused. “Not really. Would you be willing to give up your wandering and settle down in greater Basalt?”
“For now that’s not my plan.”As we passed the windmill on our way back to Aspen, it was curious to look through the car windows at the four modest rooms where we had imagined, in all its verticality, a life.Bruce Berger’s books include “The Telling Distance,” winner of the Western States Book Award, and “Music in the Mountains,” a history of the Aspen Music Festival. This essay is from the forthcoming “The Complete Half-Aspenite,” to be released at the end of the summer.