Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jim Blanning’s Aspen was a far cry from the Aspen most of us know. It was an older, deeply rooted, historically grounded Aspen. Blanning’s Aspen was a strange and distant place he had known from childhood as the old mining town it still is today.
Before dismissing Blanning as a nut case or deviant, it is important to reflect on why he ended his time on earth in a crazed and grandiose criminal enterprise. By shutting down Aspen on New Year’s Eve, Blanning’s Aspen took siege of the new Aspen. His self-styled, outrageous crusade was doomed to end catastrophically.
Jim Blanning came to Aspen as a child in the 1940s. The city he explored as a boy during Aspen’s “Quiet Years” was a community on life support in the faded aftermath of the mining era. Blanning’s Aspen was alive with past glories of silver mining that were tangible in the old buildings, mine workings, tunnels, shafts, drifts, stopes and mills that littered the mountainsides.
Jim Blanning became an expert on the mining era, not just for the sake of history, but for the promise of personal treasure. He, like Ed Smart, Stefan Albouy and Wilk Wilkinson, dug for buried goods, not with picks and shovels, but with careful study of county records.
These men, among whom Blanning was one of the most knowledgeable, rekindled the entrepreneurial pioneer spirit that first put Aspen on the map in 1879. They were latter-day prospectors who unearthed, like ciphers, the trails of hundreds of mining claims, many of them there for the taking.
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When Blanning was young, there were claims on the books that could be bought for modest sums in back taxes. How he manipulated that process to suit his acquisitive, perhaps unscrupulous, nature is what put him in jail and inspired his utter disdain for the county government that stood in his way.
One day he climbed onto the courthouse bell tower and staged a bizarre protest against the county meddling in his affairs. Another time he confronted the county commissioners in the Cantina bar wearing an outrageous dildo. Such were the warped and dramatic means he chose for flaunting his disrespect for local authority.
In a strange way, Jim Blanning personified the “messy vitality” once hailed by city/county planners as a necessary community spark. Blanning’s expression was out of control and ultimately destructive. Still, his brand of messy vitality was never compromised by what Aspen became during Blanning’s lifetime. His was a rebellious, uneasy persona that defied to the end the changing character of Aspen.
Blanning’s Aspen was a far cry from the Aspen created by Walter Paepcke and his cohort. The old Aspen had all but died when Walter gave it rebirth as a Kulturstaat. That was a difficult and painful shift for many old-timers who found the “Aspen Idea” an upstart influence that paled in the faded glow of the city’s rich past.
Paepcke’s Aspen prevailed over Blanning’s Aspen. The new was built on the ashes of the old. Blanning’s Aspen exists today as a shadowy world of flooded mine tunnels sprawled beneath the new Aspen. It lives in mine dumps and adits reflecting something dynamic, prosperous, brash and ultimately ambitious.
The National Historic District designation that preserves the old Aspen as a cherished and yet mostly misunderstood period piece protects a semblance of Blanning’s Aspen. Rather than a walk-through museum, Blanning’s Aspen was the life experience he made it. He strove to own the town’s history and he was, at times, moderately successful.
Aspen architect Graeme Means tells of searching years ago for a mining claim with Jim Blanning in the high mountains of the Elk Range. Blanning used maps and descriptions to locate ancient boundary markers, many of which are still hidden in these mountains.
Blanning was one of those lost markers, a sign of Aspen’s past. Blanning’s Aspen assumed the historic imperative of capitalizing on the value of land inflated, ironically, by the new Aspen, of thwarting anything and everything that got in his way. Realizing the futility of his quixotic quest, Jim Blanning took his own life in a desperate, crazy upheaval that ended where it had begun.
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