Only the owl gives a hoot | AspenTimes.com

Only the owl gives a hoot

Paul Andersen

Rain pours off the big shed roof of the Marolt Barn as a rare summer storm sweeps across the Roaring Fork Valley in a sodden cloud the color of steel wool. I’m sitting cross-legged on the old, wooden loading dock reading about the battle for Jerusalem in 1948.

Nobody passes the old barn that morning as I pore over “Exodus” by Leon Uris. The dripping of the rain is the only sound and it soothes my cluttered mind like a hot-oil massage. The subject of the book is gripping; my surroundings could not be more serene.

When Carl Bergman arrives, he shows me an old, refurbished steam engine that gleams under a new coat of paint. Carl works on machinery in the old salt shed where there’s no one to disturb pleasurable puttering on century-old gadgets like horse-drawn ice cutters, iron pulley wheels and a Pelton wheel from the mining days.

We talk about the Silver Crash of 1893 and the shattered dreams and busted hopes of the first Aspenites. Their ghosts inhabit this old wooden building and speak when the wind whistles through a window or a stair creaks.

I’m writing a book about Aspen history and ponder the not-so-distant past of Aspen as I ride my bicycle across town through a light drizzle, feeling the cool, clean mist on my face. I enjoy riding in the rain; it helps humidify my soul during this bone-dry drought.

Over lunch at Little Ollies, my science mentor, Bob Lewis, and I discuss the geology and ecology sections of the book. We talk of mountain building, glaciation, distribution of species and the natural succession that produced the flora and fauna of the Elk Range. The Big Picture comes to light like the image on an OMNIMAX screen.

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After lunch, I have the time to ride Hunter Creek to Four Corners through Lenado, but I opt to ride hard down the Rio Grande Trail instead to Basalt, eager to get home. My wife and son are in Arkansas for the week, visiting Grandma, so I have the house to myself.

The dog greets me in the driveway with a full body squirm and the air smells sweet and clean from the morning rains. I walk into the house and all is quiet. I sit for a moment just listening. I can hear the clock ticking.

Loneliness and freedom are intertwined in this quiet house and I savor the blend the same way I do the silence of a desert canyon. Solitary life has distinct advantages for contemplation, one of man’s great luxuries.

I check e-mails and receive a ponderous message from a friend with whom I carry on a continuous dialogue about the state of the world. Our current question: What will it take to jolt America out of complacency and “get us off our asses”?

“I’m fascinated by this question,” writes my friend. “I mean, if 9/11 didn’t really do it, if the warmest year in 120 years doesn’t do it, if having a war monger Pres. doesn’t do it, if the stiffest drought in a century doesn’t do it, if the stock market collapse doesn’t do it, if forests in flames don’t do it, what will it take?”

I write back: “Some get off their asses to cheer a touchdown or a home run, others to fetch a fresh beer from the ‘fridge. Now with TV remotes, computer shopping and drive-up everything, some people rarely ever get off their asses. That’s been the whole thrust of western civ. and technology; to spare people the effort of getting off their asses. And the more conveniences, the bigger the asses, and the bigger the asses, the harder it is to get up off of them. We’re witnessing a vicious spiral of huge sedentary asses, brother, and it’s not a pretty picture.” Click. Send.

I walk the dog up among the red, rock “castles” behind my house, following deer trails, sniffing the fragrant air. She takes off on a scent and abandons me. I walk back alone in the dusk, eat a couple tortillas for dinner and read “Exodus,” then crack Thomas Friedman’s book “From Beirut to Jerusalem.”

I scratch my head over the plight of the Middle East, then the dog scratches on the door and I let her in. I feed the cats, turn out the lights and go to bed, ruminating on the world – past, present and future. The moon glows from behind a rain cloud and somewhere in the woods an owl hoots twice, three times …