Paul Andersen: Fair Game
June 18, 2012
The man emerged from the river through a tangle of willows. He was dripping wet, and his longish graying hair clung to his face. He looked at me quizzically, and I wondered what manner of homeless person he was. Then I recognized a man I hadn’t seen in years.
He smiled and approached me at Stein Park on the Rio Grand Trail, where I had just changed clothes behind a tree for my bike ride home to Basalt. He mopped his face with a hand towel.
“Go for a swim?” I asked.
It was mid-April, and the river was very cold.
“Naw, just gettin’ cleaned up for dinner after a day in the Bowl. Too much trouble to go to the ARC today,” he said, referring to his usual place to shower at the Aspen Recreation Center.
I asked how the skiing had been for him during this drought season.
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“You know, I had a lot of great days,” he smiled, and I could see him forming mental pictures of memorable runs through the steep and deep.
“I’m a Bowl junkie,” he said of his penchant for Highlands Bowl. “That’s where I go when I’m on the mountain, which is most days.”
We talked easily, like old friends, sharing our exploits. I told him about ski touring up Haystack, a powder day at Snowmass, a weeklong hut trip in our expansive backyard. We talked about mountain biking and old friends we have in common who, over the years, have gone their ways.
When we shook hands and said good-bye, he sauntered off toward the parking lot, and I swung my leg over the saddle and pedaled down the Rio Grande Trail. It wasn’t until I had covered a few miles that the soothing cadence of cycling caused me to reflect on this man.
The mountain experience his life describes is all too rare in America today. Working a summer-only job, skiing any day of the season that suits him, bathing in the river and looking forward to summer in the high mountains where he lives in a remote cabin make this man one of the freer, more self-willed human beings I know.
Call him a ski bum, a mountain man, a wilderness waif or a son of nature, but call him free to design his days by the rhythms of the seasons, the cycles of the storms and the whims of his moods. How many of us could live that kind of life without fear and trepidation of losing ourselves?
“Man is born free,” said Rousseau. “But everywhere I see him in chains.”
This man has cast off those chains. He is a Thoreau-back to an earlier time in Aspen when hundreds of itinerants walked the hills with picks and shovels. This man’s treasure lies not in silver but in the wealth of experiences he’s chalked up over the years. His net worth is immeasurable by today’s material standards.
When people visit Aspen for the first time, they sometimes ask if anyone really lives here full time. They are in awe of those whose lives revolve around mountains and rivers, who see magnificent scenic backdrops at every turn. Abiding in beauty and alive with physical energy and athletic prowess makes life for those who really live it far different from anything else in the broad, sluggish channel of the mainstream.
You won’t see this man in Outside magazine because his life is lived under the radar of popular culture. He’s made certain sacrifices to live according to his free-form existence, and he knows there are tradeoffs to the menu of the life choices he’s selected. Ultimately, however, his life is his own, go where it may, to the heights of the Bowl, the chill of the river, his cabin on the mountainside.
This unusual life isn’t an advertised vacation offer. You can’t get this in a resort package, with flight and hotel included. You can’t find this on a website where you punch in a credit-card number and receive an email confirmation. You can’t buy this – you must live it. Some things in Aspen are simply not for sale – at any price.