Harriet Garth: Fire and love

Jay Cowan
Special to The Aspen Times
Harriet Garth
Courtesy photo

When Harriet Garth’s family moved to Aspen in 1965, she was 15. It was Aspen’s happy gain and Beaumont, Texas’ loss. When Harriet passed away at 68 from an accident on May 12 in Beaumont, it was a huge loss for that city and Aspen and everyone who knew her. She spent many of the intervening 53 years in this valley, and I was fortunate enough to share 23 of them living with her.

Petite and beautiful, funny and wise, she was a traveler and a photographer, a hugger and a seeker, an astrologer and wannabe matchmaker, who rarely met a person who didn’t like her. In her early days she cruised into town from her family’s Aspen Valley Ranch in her yellow GTO, barely able to see over the wheel but still catching the eye of everyone she passed.

By 1971 she had decamped to Montana with a tribe of other Aspenites, and spent much of the next 15 years there and in Hawaii with her first life-partner John Tange, growing food, running a deep-sea fishing business, keeping horses, and playing in the mountains and on the ocean. The locals called her “Minnie” on the Big Island, “Fireball” in the Northwest, and “friend” nearly everywhere she went.

At 5 feet tall, she was small and passionate and could make you a close confidante for life or, on the flip side, bristle up to about 6 feet of serious trouble and be an implacable foe. She was 105 pounds wringing wet, and 100 pounds of it was heart. And she needed all of that fire and love for the paths she chose.

Harriet spent much of the second half of her life back in Aspen and most of that with me. She managed her various business interests very successfully, contributed generously to a wide variety of causes locally and around the world, reconnected with her mother Mary Jane and got to know Mary Jane’s many friends, and still had time to prod me along to being a better person.

We traveled a lot for my writing and she took photos that accompanied my stories and books. Her enthusiasm and personality helped us make the kinds of true human connections with people along the way that are the essence of great travel, good storytelling and, most importantly, a rich life. But during all of this magic and adventure, her years were also shadowed by tragedy and loss.

She had a young, unplanned pregnancy before moving to Aspen, and at her parents’ insistence gave her daughter up for adoption. It haunted her even when, after 40 years, her daughter got in touch and they reunited. Harriet’s father, who she revered, died very young of cancer, compounding her emotional burdens. Her first life-partner also died young in a motorcycle wreck, many of her other close friends met untimely ends, and there were more family heartaches. After we parted, in just the last six years she lost four of the most important women in her life, including finally her mother. Some good came from it all with her being there for Mary Jane’s last years, and getting to spend more time with her wonderful and supportive family.

But ultimately and most tragically of all, Harriet lost her life far too early. I always assumed she’d outlive me by 20 years, as she should have. Instead she slipped and fell on her home’s patio and hit her head on a flowerpot, dying instantly. The news struck many of our lives with that same terrible, bolt-from-the-blue suddenness. She and I had stayed in close contact, but once again I knew I’d been negligent about letting someone know how much I loved them before it was too late.

We both always had a deep affection for Yellowstone Park and the volcanoes of the Big Island: raw, elemental, molten places where the creation process is ongoing and the energy fields are as palpable as sunlight. She said they made her feel more alive than any other places on Earth. I do not think it’s entirely a coincidence that right around the time of her death, Yellowstone’s biggest geyser became more active than it’s been since they’ve kept track of such things, and Pele started some hard raging in Hawaii. The planet is aware when it loses an irreplaceable human.