Bayens: You can’t turn back time, not even in Aspen
This Christmas break, my wife, 10-year-old son, and I opted to stay here in the valley. We decided to avoid the stressful and unreliable air travel, as well as the latest flavor of infectious disease. It was the right decision. It was great to be home in the mountains over the holidays.
We had time to get our last-minute shopping done, finish decorating, host a gathering or two, attend a gathering or two, and enjoyed some family time together. But, you can only do so much skiing and socializing. So, with three weeks off from school, we had to get creative.
During lockdown and after reading Vince Lahey’s children’s book, Bridger had asked about the mines on Aspen Mountain. I’d toured the Compromise on Ajax years ago, which has since been closed to visitors, but one call to Jama over at the Smuggler, and our adventure was on.
Upon arrival, we met the legendary Jay Parker. A historical artifact in his own right and one of Aspen’s original characters, Jay got to jawing, handed us our lamps and hardhats, and walked us into the heart of fabled Tunnel No. 2.
The cool air smelled earthy with hints of creosote, the light intermittent via Edison bulbs strewn every couple of yards or so, and the old rails for the ore carts beneath our feet. And suddenly, we found ourselves deep in layer upon layer of inclines, shafts, and stopes that followed the precious ore that put the town on the map.
It was a fascinating experience, and one I would recommend for many reasons, not the least of which is the sensation of going back in time. Once inside these labyrinths, the modern world is imperceptible. One can imagine being transported back to the age when these tunnels were first cut, the great Silver Rush of the late 1800s.
Absolutely astounding: It all took place over just 14 short years. Aspen and other mountain towns like it, sprung up, boomed, and busted in less than two decades. What had been pristine wilderness along a river nestled high in the Rockies was now built up with streets, houses, hotels, an opera house, bridges, mills, and railroads.
Then came the “Quiet Years,” then the ski runs, hippies, movie stars, and millionaires — culminating in a perfect mixture of culture and character.
It’s no secret there’s been an active conversation around the town’s “spirit” and loss of that special mix. It’s a contentious and emotional issue that evokes anger and fingerpointing in some and prods others to defend the status quo. Some say they want it to go back to the way it was. It can’t.
A poignant op-ed in Outside magazine this month provides a more thoughtful perspective that skillfully lays out the lament, chronicles Aspen’s golden “gonzo” years but concludes, sadly, the area’s unique character has indeed changed and likely for good.
The sadness and denial that a special era has ended is creating a larger problem, one I have observed via the words and policy initiatives of our local leaders. We’re now seeing those in positions of power reacting to once-was rather than accepting the world as it is now and acting pro-actively to solve the challenges before us.
Rather than try to turn back time to thwart development through “emergency” moratoriums, why not try to tackle the monumental issue of traffic in and out of town? Yes, it’s a third rail politically, but it’s really the heart of the problem. Hate to say it might be time for a spaghetti bowl or tunnel or two.
I read this week that the City Council is reportedly “disturbed” by commercial projects in the core either stalled or unfinished. I don’t enjoy seeing our former favorite haunts still shuttered either, but what can our electeds really do about it? Reverse inflation and restore the supply chain? We should be incentivizing their completion, not contemplating new penalties.
And, let’s get serious about workforce housing. We can’t get bogged down by NIMBYism, and neither will new rules and regulations help. We need to knock down all the walls to get this done.
And, less carbon and more green energy? You bet, but it’s not going to happen by banning gas stoves. Natural gas and coal are essential bridge fuels critical to the eventual transition to sustainable and eventually net-zero energy.
No matter how tough it is to see the landscape and, perhaps, the experience change, we can’t waste any more of our intellectual, political, and financial capital in an attempt to turn back time.
I would submit, as others have recently, that Aspen’s unique character and culture is what we make of it. After all, we’re all here for a reason.
But, make no doubt, the silver rush is over, the mines are closed, and — although there may be more precious mineral left within — it would be a mistake to descend back into those dark caverns and get lost and trying to revive our bygone history.
Scott Bayens is a Realtor with Aspen Snowmass Sotheby’s International Realty. Visit his website at http://www.scottbayens.com.