Meredith C. Carroll: Guest opinion
Editor's note: This column first appeared Friday in The Denver Post.
After the body of George Aldrich Jr., 28, was found in December 2010 underneath the Maroon Creek Bridge west of Aspen, the coroner determined that his blood-alcohol level was 31⁄2 times the legal driving limit when he died. Local police believe he had been drinking at a downtown bar with friends before he hopped on a bus home to Snowmass Village, mistakenly got off at the wrong stop and stumbled onto and then off the bridge.
Aldrich’s parents sued the Colorado Department of Transportation for negligence in the construction of the bridge’s barriers, which they claimed were ineffective and thereby responsible for their son’s death. The lawsuit later was dropped without a settlement.
Not pursued by the police or the Aldrich family for wrongful death: the bartender who allegedly served Aldrich until his blood-alcohol level reached 0.294 or the friends with whom he overindulged that evening. Aldrich had moved to Snowmass from Rhode Island about a month before he died, making him one of many out-of-state transplants who may have picked up where he left off in college when settling in one of Colorado’s resort towns — which is to say, in full-on party mode.
While Pitkin County came in first statewide for the overall good health of its residents in a recent survey, it trails only Routt County in the percentage of adults who drink at unhealthy levels (31 percent and 30 percent, respectively), as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In fact, the counties in addition to Routt and Pitkin that house some of Colorado’s most popular resort towns — Eagle, La Plata and Gunnison — all landed in the top 11 out of 59 on the list for good health, and all were between 4 percent and 13 percent above the state’s average for binge or heavy drinking and between 15 percent and 23 percent above the national benchmark.
Excessive drinking is the No. 1 health problem in Pitkin County, says Nan Sundeen, the county’s director of health and human services. The county takes significant steps to deal with the matter through the Healthy Community Fund, which aims for a continuum of care by funding organizations that offer prevention, intervention, treatment, after-care and case management for those who suffer from substance-abuse issues.
But many Colorado residents go to the extreme in all directions, and that’s tricky to manage. Resort-town residents often are extremely healthy, as demonstrated in the County Health Rankings, but often spend extreme amounts of time in the backcountry and on the slopes, running trails, yoga studios and their road and mountain bikes while achieving that good health, and then often justify their extreme achievements with disproportionate amounts of mind-altering substances. When you’re cramming in a year’s worth of work and exercise in a resort town’s two high seasons, it can seem normal to pack in as many celebrations as you can in that short amount of time, too.
In places like Aspen, the Police Department offers training for bartenders and bouncers to learn to recognize the signs of over-intoxication. For about a year after Aldrich’s death, Aspen police — in conjunction with Aspen Valley Hospital — gathered data on where emergency-room patients who were admitted for immoderate alcohol consumption last imbibed. But it was too hard to pinpoint culprits based on that data alone. School resource officers also talk to students about alcohol and drug use.
But Sundeen says that in communities lacking a hard-and-fast intolerance for substance abuse, there can also be a fair amount of pushback as it applies to prevention programs from adults who don’t want to be made to feel as if Big Brother is monitoring or attempting to curb their substance intake — much like college kids experiencing their first taste of freedom.
Whether they move to resort towns because of the exhilarating culture or get wrapped up in it after they arrive, the towns that market themselves to the world based on their unique mountain opportunities and frequent parties are having a tough time reining in the collateral damage: those who make the extreme lifestyle an everyday endeavor instead of an annual one- or two-week vacation. And when extreme behavior is acceptable and conventional, the chance of falling off a bridge would seem extremely more likely.
Aspen resident Meredith C. Carroll’s column appears every Friday in The Denver Post. Read more at http://www.meredithcarroll.com.