Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

I have been cross-country skiing this winter with people who have never before been on snow. They come from Africa, the Middle East…warm parts of the world. They are participants at the Aspen Institute who bring the world into focus at the seminar table.

Each week they take an afternoon off to ski or snowshoe from Ashcroft to the Pine Creek Cookhouse. For some, it’s like the Grand Traverse. They cast wary eyes at the slightest hill. They struggle against gravity and icy tracks as if summiting K2.

I audit their seminar discussions and follow an intellectual journey that’s far more ambitious than a mere ski tour. At the seminar table they discuss the writings of Aristotle, Hobbes, Mencius, Darwin and others. They grapple with ethics, morality, science, nature and society. They summit epiphanies and stand atop ideologies, only to come tumbling down into incontrovertible paradoxes. They sometimes blaze new trails through these ideas, pushing against each other and challenging the conventions of age-old cultures.

Many of these seminarians have never been on snow before, but they meet the challenge with a positive physical and mental effort. They find it refreshing to breathe the cold mountain air, to watch snow drifting through aspen groves, to see the sun glinting on a million crystals across an open meadow.

My job is to coax these visiting leaders to the heights of their physical ability on this new medium ” snow. I don’t demand attention to nuanced philosophies, but ask only for observance of physical laws and awareness of the beauty and purity of nature around us.

It’s only a little over a mile to the Cookhouse, but my snow virgins are celebratory when they reach the warmth of the fireplace. We gather at a table and talk about the mountains, about Aspen, about the faraway places they call home. They want to know about mountain living in Aspen, secluded as it is from war, crowding, noise, pollution, hunger.

Seeing this place from their eyes shifts my perspective. Aspen suddenly appears like a mirage wreathed in clouds, shimmering in snow, lofty and elevated above the plight of the millions who struggle daily for survival. It makes me apologetic and a little embarrassed, sipping wine at 9,000 feet.

When I announce it’s time to return, they need even more coaxing. The piddling hills they climbed on the way up are frightful on the way down. They have no idea how to stop or steer or control anything on the snow. I show them the snowplow, but most of them end up dragging their bent ankles, their boots hopelessly twisted at the toes.

They don’t complain. Rather they laugh when their peers land on their butts, just as they are laughed at when the inevitable occurs to them. They all end up with sitzmarks on their jeans. If it gets too trying, they take off their skis and walk, smiling and talking as they saunter down the trail.

When they leave Aspen, they take the seminar ideas with them, filed messily in their minds, more questions than answers. They also take new friendships, with e-mail entries on their Blackberries. They leave Aspen richer in thoughts and experiences, broadened by the diverse points of view that make the seminar table a special place in time.

They also take with them a taste of something new, a sense of snow. They have skied. They have sipped hot chocolate at a rustic mountain lodge. They have seen a western ghost town. They have felt the complaints of tired hips, sore legs, an occasional bump or bruise. They have watched snow filtering down and felt the bite of cold mountain air.

The beauty of nature is inspiring, but more inspiring still is being witness to the opening of minds and hearts and eyes and ears. I love these snow virgins and appreciate their innocent trust in my guidance through the woods, over snow, to a place they’ve never been before.

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