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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

When the early pioneers of the Roaring Fork Valley stood on a mountain pass, were they elated by the beauty surrounding them, or were the mountains seen as obstacles to utilitarian concerns?

Consider Lewis and Clark struggling half-starved through the Bitterroot Mountains. One historian describes them summiting a ridge and looking west over a picket fence of peaks and valleys they had yet to cross. One may assume there was a collective and despairing utterance: “F…k!”

As an author of local history, I’ve wondered about the perspective gap between us and the pioneers. There is evidence that esthetic beauty was part of pioneer living, but there’s more evidence that mountain glory was once mountain gloom.



Aspen miners and homesteaders often hailed from distant countries that had little in common with the great American vistas they encountered here. As newcomers, they were mentally and spiritually unprepared for the places in which they settled, and their learning curve was steep. They either produced food and shelter from the raw land or they died. There was no romanticizing death by privation, even amid the grandeur of Western landscapes.

Consider the McKenzies, who came over Independence Pass from Leadville to Aspen in June 1885 to take possession of a homestead at what is known today as Wildcat. Crossing the Pass in a wagon was difficult enough, but fording the Roaring Fork River at Gerbazdale was nearly fatal. One of their horses drowned and was washed away in the swollen river, leaving the family stranded on rocks awash with spring runoff. Their wagon box began to float and threatened to carry all their possessions downstream.




A farmer, Walter Waltham, happened to be working in his field and heard their cries. He got some of them to shore and, with a long rope, hitched his horse to the horse still harnessed to the wagon and pulled them to safety. Any beauty in that river had morphed into deadly terror for these jaded pioneers.

Once the McKenzies reached their homestead, their labors had just begun. Alex McKenzie worked as a stone mason in Aspen, shaping Peachblow sandstone for the Wheeler Opera House and Presbyterian Church. His wife, Anna, took care of the family and the ranch as best she could. There were no roads to and from Wildcat then, so she made trips to Aspen and back in a day (more than 20 miles), on foot, carrying groceries on her back. She and the children cut wild hay and grass to feed their stock.

When Alex passed away, the widow and her four children lived a subsistence lifestyle, dependent on wild game and whatever food they could produce. They picked and sold wild berries. They trapped foxes, marten, mink, beaver, weasel, and skunks, and wore clothing made from the skins. They fashioned skis and snowshoes to travel the deep snows of winter. To better irrigate their crops, they dug a nine-mile ditch, by hand, from East Snowmass Creek, known as the Wildcat Ditch.

These heroic exploits depict a relationship to the land based on satisfying immediate, utilitarian. Though it happened over a century ago, this style of rugged individualism continues to define today’s Western cultural mores. Rather than acknowledging what we have learned about the complexities of watersheds, air sheds, biodiversity, soils, and ecosystems, however, many Westerners embrace a kind of property rights fundamentalism.

Early pioneers laid a civic and economic foundation with roads, ditches, schools, commerce and communities, but the localized land ethic they cultivated has mostly been lost. Rugged individualism rules in much of the West, but it’s been misconstrued to fit the appetites of corporate resource exploitation with strip mining, clear cutting, oil and gas drilling, etc.

Today’s Western tradition is based less on pioneer frugality and stewardship than on excess consumption and resource exploitation. We use 21st century technologies with 19th century sensibilities. There are few rational limits set until poison gas bubbles up in well water, air quality deteriorates, water is over-allocated, and sprawl erases rural landscapes.

The closing of the Frontier was noted in 1893 by Frederick Jackson Turner, who recognized the formative values of the past: “… that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism.”

Today, esthetic appreciation of Western landscapes touches us with serene beauty even as “dominant individualism” exploits the West with little understanding of the ecological consequences. We view the American West with scenic awe, but fail to grasp its deeper ecological nuances and needs.


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