Aspen Princess: Preserving what makes Aspen special
November 20, 2014
I never thought I could have so much in common with an 88-year-old, at least not until yesterday.
For the past week, I've been assisting my office mate and friend Chris McDonald from Fuse Media with interviews for this year's Aspen Hall of Fame (www.aspen halloffame.org) inductees. I've had the chance to sit in their living rooms and talk to them, their kids and their grandkids about growing up and growing old in Aspen.
I got to hear firsthand what Aspen was like in the late '50s and early '60s, back when no one had street addresses because there were so few houses that it wasn't necessary; when Tom Sardy's lumberyard was at the heart of town in terms of not only location but the literal building blocks he provided friends to erect their homes, often on loan; when kids were thrown into the back of a pickup truck or an old Jeep and driven into the mountains for outdoor adventure (what seat belt?); and when skiing was at the very heart of people's lives.
There is no physical hall of fame (hello, Old Powerhouse?), but every year there is a banquet with an awards presentation and a video about the life of each inductee. That's where Chris — who also was raised in Aspen — and his video camera comes in, to document the lives of these "pioneers" who have had a significant and lasting impact on the Aspen and Snowmass communities — economically, physically, spiritually or intellectually.
"What was Aspen like when you first arrived here in 1958?" I asked George Madsen during our interview yesterday. Madsen is 88 years old, and his health has deteriorated recently. I studied his face as the late-afternoon light pierced through the blinds and illuminated his eyes, a deep shade of light blue like the mineral-tinted waters of Cathedral Lake. At times, his expression was dull, like static on an old television. Other times he would become alert and animated, awakened by these memories that were stirred in him.
"It was the same as it is today," he said, a wide smile blossoming across his face.
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At first, I didn't think he understood. Aspen of today is nothing like it was back then.
But as we talked about his life, it all came down to family, community and sharing a love for the outdoors — all values that, throughout the years, would never change.
His daughter Beth, a former Olympian and U.S. Ski Team member, was moved to tears talking about her father's life. "He's just the best guy there ever was," she said, wiping her eyes.
These are themes that came up with everyone we've spoken with so far. All have raised children here, many of whom have remained in the valley, where they're now raising their own children. All have devoted a lot of time to a wide array of volunteerism and are responsible for creating new programs or even building resources we still rely on today. All have shared a love for skiing and adventuring that was passed on to their children and grandchildren. (Joe and Judy Zanin's son Brad showed us a photo of his 11-year-old daughter Hannah with the first deer she shot hunting with her dad and grandpa a few weeks ago.)
But as I've conducted these interviews, I've also felt envy. How lucky these people were to discover Aspen when it was still accessible financially. How fortunate they were to build their homes when they did, where they did. How awesome that their kids got to grow up here, bouncing around in the back of their parents' Willys Jeep, half-cocked from exhaust fumes and the smoke from their father's cigar but as happy as kids could possibly be. How cool that there was such a tight-knit community back then, when it was small enough for there to be holiday dinners paid for by money left in the pot so everyone could celebrate together.
I kept thinking about what their houses must be worth now. I thought a lot about how, if I ever do manage to become a parent, I might expose my kids to the same rich experiences out in the mountains and to teach them the same values.
I even thought about what my legacy might be one day and how I might make a difference in my community even though I'm not sure what my community is exactly. Aspen seems to have everything it needs already (except maybe for a year-round homeless shelter). But at the same time, Aspen is the place I love the most, the place that drew me here, the place that, from the moment I arrived, felt like home.
I asked Madsen about his column, "On the Other Hand," that he wrote for The Aspen Times for over a decade. He told me he loved to write about people in the community who captivated him, about his family and about his own opinion, which he expressed honestly and boldly, even if it meant not always having everyone agree with him.
"Sounds familiar," I said, rolling my eyes.
And that's when I realized George was right. Aspen hasn't changed. Am I not doing the exact same thing he was 50 years ago? Was it not love at first sight with The Aspen Times, a dysfunctional family composed of a bunch of overeducated derelicts and a crosseyed cat, that ultimately brought me here? Do I not live here for the same reasons he did, for the time spent with my friends in the mountains, celebrating powder days with Catherine and bouncing up and over unexplored roads in my husband's Jeep?
No doubt Aspen has changed. But its roots run deep, and the seeds that were planted here by the older generations yielded one hell of a strong, rare and beautiful tree. I just hope that, moving forward, we can preserve that which makes it so special.
The Aspen Princess is stoked for ski season opening this weekend. Email your love to firstname.lastname@example.org.