Roger Marolt: Roger That
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Now that Hunter Creek has been enshrined as the most popular local summer recreation spot in Aspen for over three decades, I can safely tell my tale about the time it almost became a moonscape. I’m sure the statute of limitations has run out.
This isn’t the only dry summer we’ve ever had. There is a lot of haze in my mind over events that took place 30 years ago, but one memory remains as crystal clear as the skies were that hot Independence Day when several local families headed up Smuggler Road above Aspen to celebrate.
Those were the days when very few people knew about the now-famous deck where the road curves around the back and heads into Hunter Creek or on up to Warren Lakes. You know – everybody knows. It seems like some days you might need to take a ticket for your opportunity to stand on it and gaze down at the city of Aspen in its magnificent entirety.
It wasn’t like this back then. I mean, it was beautiful, of course, but there was never anyone up there. It was when there were only five mountain bikes in the whole valley and housewives hiked to American Lake in flannel shirts and cutoffs. Four, maybe five handfuls of people even knew the deck existed, mostly high school kids.
At any rate, I’d say a couple dozen of us made our ways up there in our Jeeps with everything we needed for a July Fourth party. My dad had never picnicked there and didn’t like the spot right off.
“There’s no water,” he noted.
As we were unloading, he saw one of the younger kids, maybe 11 or 12, pull a packet of bottle rockets out.
“You’d better leave those in the car, huh? It’s dry out here.”
Everyone set up and settled in, and as they always do, the awkward outdoor gathering began to resemble a picnic. Then there was the “pop,” not alarmingly loud but menacing, considering the drought. Everybody noticed it, and one of the adults scolded the obstinate boy and took the fireworks away. He sat by himself, pouting.
Five minutes later, his voice shot through the campground more crisply than the explosion of his firecracker. “Dad!” He shrieked, pointing down at an evergreen a hundred feet below us. I promise you have never seen grown men move so fast. There was a thin plume of smoke rising from the base of the tree!
People grabbed shovels, axes and any other large implements they could find from vehicles. Others just ran toward the smoke with nothing but vague ideas about what to do next. The tree exploded in flame! It was a roaring fire shooting straight up into the sky, 15 feet at least, above the highest branches!
Men were throwing shovels full of dirt high into the flaming boughs as fast as they possibly could. Others dug handfuls of slag from the mine dump with their hands and did the same thing with it. Dust filled the air from the mad human scramble. We went at absolute full speed like this for half an hour. Nobody stopped long enough to even glance at the situation. We were driven by incredible, building fear of utter tragedy – that is the only way to describe it.
Eventually somebody told us to stop, and we did, gradually. The air was thick with dust and smoke, the sun weak above. The lone charred tree stood in the middle of it like a ghoul. Men collapsed in exhaustion, and I worried for my dad’s weak heart. We were covered with a paste of sweat, ash and cinder mud. Clothes were filthy and torn. Hands were blistered and bloody. Muscles ached, and limbs were bruised. We wheezed and coughed trying to catch our breath. It was as close to a battleground scene as I hope to ever see.
We got lucky, and purely by the grace of the almighty, so did you. The Hunter Creek Valley is as beautiful today as it was then. For a few minutes on that scorching-hot July afternoon, this future was seriously in doubt.
The tree that we set on fire stood alone, growing from the slag of an old mine dump. There was little dry grass around it. There was no wind during the fire. The kid who fired the rocket and then spotted the smoke before there were flames wasn’t too embarrassed or scared to yell “fire” at a crowded picnic. A few more seconds, or if that firework had been shot off in a different direction, then the look of this valley could have been drastically different. People could have gotten hurt or killed.
After all this time, I am surprised to feel my legs weak and palms sweaty on telling this story. I might even be holding back an annoying tear. Wow! I’m glad I’m not writing from prison. Don’t risk it! This year it is best to save the fireworks for next year, maybe New Year’s Day.
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