Guest commentary: Aspen and the 5-pound sack

Andy Stone
Guest commentary

OK everybody, time for a deep breath, as we stumble toward the end of September and Aspen a little bruised, a little battered, but still beautiful — like a prom queen on the morning after — can take a moment to look back at what Shakespeare’s Richard III would have called (if he’d only thought of it) “the Summer of Our Discontent.”

Who is discontented? Well, pretty much everybody who lives, works and/or commutes to Aspen.

Sure, the ringing cash registers cheered some, but the ringing in everyone else’s ears from being constantly buffeted about the head and shoulders by the visiting throngs mostly drowned out the cheerful sound of the cascading cash — especially when that cash on the barrelhead rarely makes it way down to the bottom of the barrel where most of us live.

Personal note: Yes, I’ve moved my personal barrel down to the midvalley, where I can listen to the sounds of traffic on Highway 82 and think, “There but for the grace of god …”

And speaking of traffic, one unavoidable point as we look back at that successful Summer of Our Discontent (and ahead, perhaps, to the coming Winter of Our Discontent) is that just as garbage attracts flies (and money attracts lawyers), Aspen’s success attracts traffic jams.

People driving in or out of Aspen are, in fact, mostly doing neither. They are standing stock still, stuck in traffic, gazing perhaps at the natural beauty of our (supposedly) beloved valley while breathing the excremental fumes of our (deeply) beloved cars and trucks, and our (officially) beloved buses.

Aside from the eternally popular yawp of despair (“We’ve ruined it all! I told you! But you fools wouldn’t listen!”), people have been clamoring for decades for someone to solve “The Entrance to Aspen” —that pretentiously named venomous snake that winds from the Depths of Hell (somewhere around Basalt) to the Heights of Folly (Main and Mill streets).

Solutions abound: Four lanes! Eight lanes! Tear out the roundabout! Pave the open space! Ban the bomb! (Just threw that in to see if you’re paying attention.)

But here’s the truth. (Truth? Oh, sweet Hubris, sing to me.) The Entrance to Aspen is not the problem.

What Aspen has to grapple with is the philosophical dilemma known to the ancient Greeks as The Sack Problem.

The Sack Problem can be simply stated: You can’t put 10 pounds of … um, this being a family newspaper, let’s say “stuff” … OK? You can’t put 10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound sack.

If you try too hard, the sack explodes and, as Pythagoras said, that’s when the stuff hits the fan.

Prying the mouth of the sack open wider doesn’t change the basic equation, except to hasten the explosion and the resulting shower of stuff.

If my reference to exploding “sacks of stuff” seems a little indelicate for the refined tastes of the New Aspen, allow me to suggest a different analogy: Foie Gras, that exalted delicacy beloved by the aristocracy since time immemorial.

Foie Gras, being French, sounds of course oh-so elegant, but what “foie gras” actually means is: “fatty liver.” (Suddenly not so elegant.) And it is produced by force-feeding geese, literally cramming a tube down their throats and stuffing them with food until they almost explode and, in the process, develop serious liver disease.

And that diseased liver is the tasty delicacy known as foie gras.

Aspen has often been referred to as the goose that laid the golden eggs. If you recall your childhood story hour, that tale ends when the greedy owner of the goose cuts the critter open to get all the gold at once — and winds up with a lap full of goose guts and no gold at all.

We in Aspen are not such fools as to kill that Golden Goose (not yet, anyway) — instead, we stuff our goose to the exploding point and gnaw at his diseased liver.


OK. The point of all this is that the Entrance to Aspen is not the problem, any more than the neck of the sack or the throat of the goose.

The problem is the stuffing.

Or to be more exact, the stuff.

The town of Aspen simply cannot accommodate all the cars and trucks that people want to cram in here.

Exploding sacks, diseased livers … choose your metaphor, it can’t be done.

The only real answer is a hard one and Aspen has never yet shown the courage to deal with it. But here it is:

Ban cars from the city. All of the city.


(OK. Ban non-resident cars from the city — and that includes visitors with hotel reservations. And since I live on Missouri Heights, that includes me, too.)

From the Castle Creek Bridge to Difficult Campground, if you don’t actually live in Aspen, you can’t drive your damn car (or truck) into Aspen. Period.

The mechanics are not simple, to be sure: a huge intercept lot out by the airport; fleets of vans running constantly, maybe a train or gondola; physical barriers to stop inappropriate vehicles, banning billionaires’ private helipads … the list goes on. But all those problems can be solved. Yes, they can.

The real problem is finding the political will. Or to be more exact, the courage.

But if you think about Aspen choking to death on its own success — if you face reality, in other words — there is no other choice.

And if you think about the other side of the coin — no hour-long traffic jams between the airport and downtown, no parking problems, cleaner air, no innocent pedestrians sacrificed to the God AutoMoloch … that list goes on too — then, once again, there is no other choice.

Otherwise, it’s the force-feeding tube down your throat.

And stuff all over the walls.

Andy Stone is, like so many, Aspen flotsam and jetsam who floated downhill about 30 years ago and cheerfully lodged there. He is also a former editor of The Aspen Times.