Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
Aspen, CO, Colorado
I have to admit I suffered a pang of nostalgia and sadness when I read last week that they are planning to sell the Windstar land in Old Snowmass and shut down the Windstar Foundation.
Windstar was the beautifully named repository of John Denver’s good old hippie (and I mean that in the best possible way) vision for a better planet, inhabited by a better humanity.
The Windstar Foundation’s mission, according to its website, is “To educate, inspire and empower children and adults to create responsible choices through community and global action for a healthy and sustainable environment.”
Yes, that’s a slightly bureaucratic mouthful, but the same page on the website quotes Denver directly, and more poetically: “For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers, come and stand beside me, we can find a better way.”
My nostalgia is for the beauty of those emotions and expressions.
My sadness is because they are shutting the foundation down – and the reason for that shutdown is not because it has achieved its goals.
Look around. The world – at least our little blessed corner of it – is certainly beautiful. But John Denver cited children as symbols of innocence and purity, while now our would is dominated by the child-like squabbling of the politicians and bankers and super-rich who screech “Gimmee, gimmee, gimme!” like spoiled brats.
“Responsible choices through community and global action for a healthy and sustainable environment” seem far, far away.
One rarely hears John Denver’s music any more. It is perhaps too simple and innocent for our troubled times, although a dose of simplicity and innocence might be exactly what we need.
In my younger, more arrogant and cynical days (What? I was once even more arrogant and cynical than I am now? In a sad word: Yes), I was a bit of a John Denver skeptic.
Even though I had often sung “Rocky Mountain High” while driving up and down the valley and even though some of John Denver’s closest friends were friends of mine, I couldn’t resist taking the occasional jab, poking the superstar.
Who, after all, needs poking more than a superstar?
But now he is gone and his songs have faded, his mission is unfulfilled and what we all assumed would be his permanent lasting monument is about to be sold.
And there is a certain uncomfortable strangeness to this final sad chapter.
The Windstar Foundation was established in 1976 by John Denver and Tom Crum (his longtime associate and a truly great man).
Two years later, the foundation purchased the nearly 1,000 acres of land in Old Snowmass. In 1995, ownership of the land was transferred to the Windstar Land Conservancy, which protected the property with a conservation easement.
For some 20 years, Windstar flourished, presenting lecture series, symposiums and outreach programs of all kinds. It was an impressive, growing organization.
Perhaps its goal was unobtainable, but it was damn sure trying.
But with John Denver’s death in 1997, the energy, perhaps not surprisingly, began to ebb. The programs began to fade.
Until, finally, there was little left.
Perhaps tellingly, the Windstar website’s “History of Windstar” ends in 2009.
And then, just a week ago, the foundation issued a letter to its “Dear Friends and Supporters,” announcing that the foundation itself was going to dissolve.
A clear reason was not given, although a near-fatal lack of energy seemed to permeate the letter.
But the letter also said that Tom Crum and long-time John Denver songwriting partner Joe Henry (another truly great talent) had revealed that “John’s intention as far back as 1996 was to close The Windstar Foundation and merge its purpose” with the Windstar Land Conservancy.
And so, the letter said, “The Windstar name will live on through the Windstar Land Conservancy and through the organizations that it partners with.”
What the letter did not mention was the fact, revealed just a few days later in an Aspen Times story, that the conservancy was planning to sell the property for $13.5 million.
The conservation easement, intended to preserve the 957-acre property in perpetuity, conveniently excluded 30 acres, which, under the new plans, could be used to build a single-family house.
A great big house, one assumes.
When the land is sold, half the money will go to Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute, which, through a complex series of deals back in the mid-1990s, became the foundation’s partner and has its headquarters on the Windstar property. (The institute is currently planning to build a new headquarters in downtown Basalt.)
Then, according to the Times story, “the Windstar board plans to give its half of the money … to local organizations doing work consistent with the Windstar Foundation’s vision and then shut down.”
The conservation easement, we are told, will remain in place, and there will be public access for hiking and horseback riding.
But with the property sold and the foundation dissolved, the only thing that really seems certain is that the sweet name Windstar will fade away.
I have been waiting to hear the cries of outrage from the legions of John Denver fans who are often fierce in defense of his memory, but so far there has been barely a whisper of outrage.
Perhaps they exhausted themselves in the failed effort to have one of the twin peaks of Mt. Sopris renamed John Denver Peak.
Or perhaps it is simply too soon for word to have spread.
But if outrage does erupt, the ensuing fight is unlikely to be a pretty one and the final decision will, as always, revolve around money – which was not supposed to be what it was all about.
And, come what may, that last spark, that last glowing hippie ember from the man who loved to cry “Far out!” will be gone.
When John Denver died, his longtime wife, Annie, said, “John was a complicated man who wrote simple songs.”
And every song, no matter how simple, no matter how beautiful, must end.
And that, my friends, is sad.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Last week, The Aspen Times ran an article about limiting home size in Aspen and Pitkin County. One might think that climate change is finally poking at the Aspen bubble.