Andersen: Musing on the mythos of Aspen
Prosperity comes easily here, especially during the holidays. It arrives in bumper-to-bumper traffic and wing-to-wing on private jets. Over 50 billionaires either live here or own property here. Signs of affluence flash everywhere, like the many facets of a snowflake in the January sun.
Wealth has become a big part of the Aspen mythos. When people talk about Aspen, wealth is often more defining than culture. Aspen is the biggest economic engine in the Roaring Fork Valley, where worker bees buzz up Highway 82 to draw nectar from its budding succulence.
Tourists are often seen as a bothersome sideshow, enthralled as they are by one of the toniest resort brands in the world. But without them, most locals would feel it with thinning pocketbooks and lack of purpose. This is a place to graciously share for a profit.
Seasonal peaks of winter commerce depend on full hotels, and full hotels are dependent on snow. The Aspen climate is amazingly reliable for that lifesaving snowfall in December.
Still, there’s no guarantee. Remembering tremors from the no-snow winter of 1976-77 cautions us that a mere blip in weather patterns can prove disastrous not just for Aspen but for the entire economic watershed.
We don’t like to think about how climate change could alter that magic weather formula or that Aspen’s per-capita carbon footprint is Sasquatch-sized. A culture of exemption rules here with easy authority.
Still, our economic equilibrium is subject to circumstances, just like it was in the mining era on the eve of the silver crash of 1893, when Aspen suffered a slow, strangulating decline. Aspen was not invulnerable then, and it’s not now.
There are cracks in the picture. Noise, congestion, air pollution, class warfare, substance abuse, poverty and cynicism compromise the idealized vision of this “Salzburg of the West.” Still, there is something special here.
Equally important to ski areas, grand hotels, the opera house, clubs and restaurants is spirit, the feeling you get in town and on the mountains. That undefinable something does more for Aspen than any chamber of commerce.
Spirit is nothing you can engineer. You can’t draw it on plans or legislate it into being. The spark is either there or it’s not, and it’s been in Aspen for decades despite what the cynics decry.
Peggy Clifford wrote of Aspen’s soul death 40 years ago, the results, she said, of cancerous growth and rampant materialism. Since then, Aspen has morphed from wool knickers to Gucci, from hippies to Forbes 500, from homespun to haughty, from funky to frou-frou, from egalitarian to elite.
Occasionally, I hear longtime locals mourn the loss of Aspen’s cherished sense of scale. Most recently, they blame the art museum, the white behemoth that replaced Gap, the Rubey Park bus cluster, the roar of jets, the parking parade of Range Rovers, the development du jour.
That loss is always calculated after one’s arrival here. Anything that changes that moment of discovery is a threat to one’s sense of ownership and belonging.
Nick DeWolf told it like this: How many Aspenites does it take to change a lightbulb? Two, he said, one to screw in the lightbulb and one to mourn the change. Then he would flash a lascivious smile, “But Aspenites don’t screw in lightbulbs; they screw in hot tubs.”
Change comes hard in Aspen, and developers who make change pay for the privilege. Some are now looking for greener pastures, like Lowe Enterprises, a longtime Aspen and Snowmass developer that recently announced plans for a boutique hotel in Basalt.
Lowe feels that Basalt is eager for smart development, preferring Basalt to Aspen because of cost and attitude. It believes that Basalt is welcoming, that many visitors are looking for a quiet, small-town atmosphere rather than the thrumming, overpriced urbanity of Aspen. Basalt offers an alternative, a complement.
Scale, affordability, peace of mind, sense of community and a small-town vibe comprise a rising mythos that may one day overshadow urbane Aspen, where community has been sacrificed to commerce for too long at too great a cost.
For now, however, Aspen remains the bright light we circle around like moths.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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