Andersen: Lessons from Aspen’s ‘holidaze’
January 14, 2016
The "holidaze" in Aspen present a bizarre, even grotesque, picture. Traffic jams, air and noise pollution, road rage, musical-chairs parking; this is Aspen during the craziest two weeks of the year.
Aspen has long capitalized on this seasonal phenomenon, a celebratory tradition that amplifies a frenzy of spending and consuming. The allure is skiing, but commercial gain is the primary activity.
As a practicality, the holidaze are a financial blessing — enriching the valley from Parachute to Aspen. As an aesthetic experience, the holidaze are a disaster — congesting the valley and ratcheting up collective stress.
Profits are made by business owners to cover high overhead, with a trickle-down for wage-earners, but the costs of the holidaze are borne by everyone in psychological, emotional and environmental impacts.
On Jan. 3, the last day of the seasonal frenzy, a friend and I skied the Owl Creek Trail. This beautiful backcountry route traverses forests and meadows, all undeveloped, thanks to visionary land-use planning.
The air was calm and springlike, but the atmosphere was filled with an incessant roar. Every 30 seconds, a jet thundered into the sky from the Aspen airport, emitting industrial noise and the stench of jet fuel.
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The closer we skied to Tiehack, the stronger the noise and smell. By the time we crossed the Moore Open Space, the pollution was choking. Imagine if word got out that skiing Buttermilk under these conditions could become a respiratory hazard.
With skis in hand, waiting at a downvalley bus stop, I watched as a one-person-per-vehicle parade crawled down Highway 82. For two weeks before, upvalley traffic was backed up to the Aspen Business Center.
For most visiting urbanites, air pollution and traffic congestion are probably commonplace. It shouldn't be that way here. Aspen pales as a world class resort when it fails to accommodate peak demand, when it fails to deliver guests the ease they desire, when it fails to provide an invaluable break from urban stresses and strains.
The holidaze this year put Aspen very near gridlock, and that's not the experience any guest pays top dollar to endure. Skiing our mountains is still relatively uncrowded, but the infrastructure that supports it was stressed to breaking.
Some rationalize that we need suffer only two weeks of the year to reap our gains; that Aspen is much quieter, most of the time; that we should be grateful for the commercial rush that pays the bills. Instead, the holidaze should be a lens through which to view Aspen's future.
The holidaze in Aspen reveal a quaint mountain city with a tinseled atmosphere that's filled to overflowing. Many locals come to feel like George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character in "It's a Wonderful Life." Bailey witnesses the dark side of Bedford Falls under the thrall of Mr. Potter (Potterville), where predatory commercialization makes a homey place feel decadent, where money is the raison d'etre, where community soul is exploited to death.
Imagine an entire winter season crazed as the holidaze. While some would call that commercial success, it would instead threaten that success. Unmanaged commercialization would kill the golden goose while ratcheting up carbon output far beyond the Canary Initiative's metrics.
When a movie theater is filled, no more tickets are sold. Nobody wants to sit on someone's lap. It's the same with communities that measure capacity through manageable stress, clean environment, efficient transportation, etc. When those limits are strained, it's time to post the "No vacancy" sign.
Aspenites used to joke about pulling up a drawbridge on Castle Creek. Now it's the Grand Avenue bridge in Glenwood Springs. As the valley's economic driver, Aspen needs to think beyond the roundabout and elicit discussion of realistic limits — "buildout" — within a regional context.
Rather than sacrificing community well-being to unfettered economic growth, the equation should be balanced by the culture of the community, by the values of living in a small, sustainable mountain town.
A valleywide vision is necessary before growth and development irrevocably replace community with commodity, before holidaze dysfunction represents the norm and our senses are dulled to noise and smells, before a delicate sense of proportion is traded for short-term commercial expedience.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.