Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
That’s a great idea.
Of course, so is perpetual motion, but just like free lunch, there’s no such thing as perpetual motion, proven by, I believe, the redoubtable Ike Newton.
And I suspect that the reality of affordable Aspen is about as likely as a successful violation of Newton’s laws.
Certainly, Aspen once was, in its own special way, affordable.
As I am no doubt too fond of recounting, I stumbled into town on a hippie school bus in 1972 with virtually no money whatsoever and managed somehow to scrape by.
Places to live were hard to find, but rent could be cheap if your standards were low. And ours were. Floors and couches were fine places to sleep for a night – or a season.
And a full season pass cost less than 200 bucks.
A similar version of what worked for us newbies also seemed to work just fine for the tourists.
There were no deluxe hotels in town in those days. The Hotel Jerome was – sorry, but the truth must be told – pretty much a dump back then. And there was nothing to even remotely compare to today’s Jerome or The Little Nell.
And things were no more super-luxe on the mountain itself. There was no snowmaking. You got what nature provided.
There was no gondola. A ride from the bottom of Little Nell to the Sundeck took three lift rides and about 45 minutes – not including the often endless lift line for each of the slow-moving chairs.
Still, even then (or perhaps especially then), Aspen had a special charm and an international cachet.
Aspen’s fame spread; the crowds surged; more people demanded more services and more luxury.
What was good enough yesterday was no longer good enough today. And even more, even better was absolutely going to be required tomorrow.
The result is what we see today, which – delightful though it may be – is not anything you would necessarily describe as “affordable.”
Now, the City Council is wrestling with the possibility of buying the bankrupt Mountain House Lodge to keep it as affordable lodging. I checked online, and rooms there are going for about $200 a night. Pretty reasonable – although online reviewers, even when complimentary, often complain about somewhat shabby conditions at the inn.
And there are a number of other local lodges with prices in that same $200 range.
But when the City Council mourns the death of affordable lodging, it also mentions the Hotel Lenado, an even more interesting example because the Lenado, when it opened, was Aspen’s highest-priced lodging – at something like $275 a night.
These days, the Lenado – checking online – has rooms for $400 a night. (The price of “Aspen luxe” has risen considerably. I found a room at The Little Nell – “Just one left!” – for about $900 a night.)
The Lenado’s $400 a night might or might not sound affordable to you, but bear in mind that there are price-controlled “affordable” homes in Aspen that have sold for more than $1 million.
Affordable, in short, is in the eye – or the wallet – of the beholder.
Which brings us to the next question: Even if a hotel room is affordable, does the rest of the Aspen experience fall into line?
The cost of a lift ticket is certainly not cheap. I had a visiting friend last week who found herself paying the dreaded one-day ticket price of $122. And the “quantity discount” seven-day ticket brings the price per day all the way down to … $95. I guess that’s cheaper. (But don’t forget the great snow – thanks to grooming and snowmaking – and all those speedy lifts and gondolas. Progress – which starts with a “P,” just like “pricey.”)
Then there’s food.
One of the online reviewers of the Mountain House said that a low room rate was a blessing because it helped them afford the high cost of dining in Aspen.
Still, a cheeseburger with fries will cost you only $11.95 at Little Annie’s, and a slice at New York Pizza is always a bargain.
So, OK. Aspen is clinging to its own version of affordable.
But can it be sustained?
The Mountain House, we are told, is worth too much as condos (after being bulldozed and replaced) to be saved as affordable lodging. A slightly different version of the same thing applies to the Lenado, as well.
So it would seem affordable Aspen lodging is doomed, as the remaining affordable lodges get picked off – bulldozed and condoed – one by one.
And Little Annie’s, that bastion of affordable eats, was saved from the slavering jaws of the development beast only narrowly. Its time, too, will come.
So, as we look down the line, we can see, heading our way, with the inevitability of a far-distant freight train, the time when Aspen will be truly and thoroughly scrubbed clean of anything that bears the stench of affordability.
We will have become a true redoubt of purissimo super-luxe, which we have been heading toward – aspiring to – all these years.
What that will mean, I do not know.
Perhaps Aspen the town, with the help of the oft-reviled but really very valuable affordable housing program, will survive as a true local community. Perhaps.
And perhaps Aspen the resort also will survive very well nicely, thank you, as a destination for the ever-wealthier tiny slice of society that can afford all this luxury.
Still, let’s end with a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, titled “Excelsior” – a Latin word meaning “ever upward.”
The poem tells of a young traveler who “through an Alpine village passed,” heading into the mountains carrying “a banner with the strange device, Excelsior!”
He ignores warnings that the mountains are too cold and dangerous. He heads ever upward. Excelsior!
Eventually, he is found, frozen, “Still grasping in his hand of ice, that banner with the strange device, Excelsior!”
And the poem ends, “Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,/And from the sky, serene and far,/A voice fell, like a falling star, /Excelsior!”
Just like, you know, prices in Aspen.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.