‘It’s just like Aspen was 30 years ago’
“It’s just like Aspen was 10” – or 15 or 20 – “years ago.”You used to hear that comment a lot. People would talk about “the next Aspen.” It was usually a ski town – Telluride or Crested Butte, perhaps – that had dreams of blossoming into the kind of success that Aspen enjoyed.You don’t hear that so much anymore. Maybe it’s because all those ski towns have developed their own particular character. Telluride’s very much Telluride. Crested Butte’s Crested Butte. No one’s going to be “the next Aspen” – and I’m not certain anyone wants to be, anyway.But a couple of weeks ago, I went on a trip to the town of Mendocino, on the California coast, a few hours north of San Francisco. And as I wandered around, I found myself thinking, over and over, “Wow! This is just like Aspen … 30 years ago.”Mendocino does have a lot in common with Aspen. We’re not talking “California Wine Country” here. This is a historic town, founded in the 1850s by men seeking to make their fortune from natural resources – in Aspen, it was silver; in Mendocino, the redwoods. After a period of prosperity that saw the construction of many beautiful Victorian homes, the town fell on hard economic times. The logging industry faded and so did Mendocino.Although Mendocino never became a ghost town, it, like Aspen, had a stretch of “Quiet Years” (though they don’t use that term in Mendocino). After the Second World War, the town came back to life, revived by tourism. Sound familiar?But still, though Mendocino has prospered, it hasn’t quite been “Aspenized.” It’s successful, but not painfully successful. Real estate is pricey, but you can buy a nice, restored (truly restored, not “Aspen restored”) Victorian home for under a million dollars. The town glows, but it doesn’t glitter.When you walk down Main Street in Mendocino, past a series of beautiful old buildings, you get a real feel for the town itself – what it once was, what it still is … despite the swarms of tourists and the string of shops selling antiques and fancy clothes and tourist gewgaws of every description.But don’t let that last snide remark about tourists mislead you – because all of that just added to the feel of “Aspen 30 years ago.” Every one of those tourist stores was strictly local. There wasn’t a Gap or a Banana Republic or (heaven forbid) a Fendi or Gucci in sight.There were empty lots – truly empty, overgrown with weeds. There were run-down houses, some seemingly abandoned, falling into disrepair. There were unpainted picket fences that sagged and, like the houses, threatened to collapse.There were dogs in beat-up pickup trucks parked in front of those run-down houses. There were old vans, painted wild colors and, near them, dazed-looking stoners, with matted dreadlocks, gazing blankly out to sea.There was an organic health-food store in a former church, with beautiful fruits and vegetables, an endless array of herbal cure-alls, and large vats of organic peanut butter.There were parking places on Main Street every time I looked for one – and the parking was all free.And here’s what caught me by surprise in the midst of all that: I suddenly realized how much I miss that old Aspen of 30 years ago, the Aspen where there were overgrown empty lots and falling-down houses, dogs in pickups, dazed stoners with hippie vans, and local stores selling tourist gewgaws of every description.Mostly, I try very hard not to be one of those “everything used to be better in the Good Old Days” kind of guys. When people say, “You’ve lived in Aspen for 30 years? You must have seen a lot of changes,” I don’t go on a rampage about the evils of overdevelopment and the super-rich.Instead, I usually say sure there have been changes, but if you look past the buildings, the mountains are still there – and they’re still as staggeringly awesome as they ever were. And the mountains, I say, are the essence of Aspen.I say that and I mean it. And even though I live 25 miles outside town and I sometimes go weeks without crossing the Castle Creek bridge into the city (just as, 30 years ago, I sometimes went months without crossing the bridge out of town … except, perhaps, to ski at Highlands), I still know that Aspen is my home.But, damn, as I wandered the streets of Mendocino, I realized how much I miss that town – Aspen, Colorado – where I used to live, 30 years ago.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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