Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

“Oh,” she said, “the good ol’ days when we all blended together.”

There’s some truth to that statement, at least if you came here in the 1960s or ’70s, but for some of us, those who arrived in Aspen during those years stuck out like sore thumbs.

Two things happened early on that began this airless posturing of a classless society: The first, of course, was the continual reference to Aspen as a “ghost town” before the Aspen Ski Corp., but more specifically Walter Paepcke, thought it pulled it out of the doldrums in 1945 and ’46. The ghost-town designation merely meant that when the “elites,” such as the Paepckes and other big-city folks, hit town, there weren’t any of their peers to greet them. Never mind the hospital, the schools, the fraternal organizations, the restaurants and the established Aspen Ski Club that existed. It’s more glamorous to define yourself as the “savior” of a ghost town rather than being just another “new resident.”

After World War II ended, there was a tendency on the part of many of the nation’s privileged to “get away” from it all, to escape drab, middle-class conformity and go west, to make one’s mark upon the world, so to speak. What better place than Aspen, located on the “frontier,” a town on the cutting edge of a new way of life as conjured up by those “brave” enough to move here?

For those who had struggled through the Depression and other quiet times in Aspen and had wholeheartedly supported skiing and tourism (but who couldn’t recognize their own demise), their town was quickly changing from being one that supported skiing into one that was now a bona-fide ski town. Money came from outside, businesses were primarily owned by newcomers, the cost of living was going up, and the old-timers – increasingly marginalized – were being forced out.

By the 1960s and ’70s, a quick glance at the footwear along the brass foot rails in the Onion or other watering holes would tell the tale of a quickly changing population: Beefy hiking boots, the rage (and badge) of new arrivals, held the majority, while cowboy boots, at least those with genuine cow shit on them, were in the minority. You might have been sitting next to some celebrity or rich person, not because that person (or you) was so willing to rub elbows with riffraff but because the collective ideas of “manifest destiny, saving ghost towns and settling the frontier” were what got most of those boots under the bar to start with, no matter class distinctions. The majority of the hiking boots felt like they were breaking new ground, while the cowboy boots felt as though the break was a little closer to their own necks.

Many of the people who moved here in the ’70s proclaim that they can’t really remember much of the time period because of the prevalence of drugs and alcohol, but maybe they just weren’t paying attention. William S. Burroughs, cult hero and junkie, might have put it best in the “Yage Letters” when he wrote, “In the U.S. you have to be a deviant or die of boredom.” Plug in “Aspen” for “U.S.,” and the ’70s begin to come alive.

In the early ’70s, the 50 or so ranchers who owned 90 percent of the private property in Pitkin County were steamrolled by a groundswell of public sentiment for downzoning (engineered by memory-challenged newcomers) that fairly well redefined the playing field for anyone who wished to live here. That’s when property values began their whirling, skyward spiral and the middle class limped its downvalley exodus. The stage was now set for the marginalization of Aspen’s history, as there were precious few left who understood it.

Those from the ’60s and ’70s bemoan the changes that have happened to “their” town; those who survived the ’90s and ’00s are getting nervous about the community they thought they knew; those of us who grew up here in the 1940s and ’50s, if we still care, are pondering the same questions.

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