Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
“You must have seen a lot of changes,” comes the almost-guaranteed remark after people realize I’m an Aspen native, and I guess that’s true to a certain degree. My birth happened to coincide with the opening of “The World’s Longest Chairlift” in 1946, and I suppose I’ve been most fortunate, through luck of the draw, to witness the metamorphosis of Aspen from a quiet mountain town into a world-class powerhouse of skiing and culture.
I don’t know how it goes out at the music tent, but I do know that every winter some young hotshot comes along, thinking his turns are the best anyone’s ever seen on Aspen Mountain. Fantasy is probably good in any venue, for it gives us all the impetus to stay in the game and make something stick.
We are continually given a reliable thread of “boiler plate” history, vignettes of people such as Jerome B. Wheeler, B. Clark Wheeler, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, D.R.C. Brown, Friedl Pfeifer and other looming icons. The “Quiet Years” (to which many of us refer as the “Golden Years”) has become a convenient term for describing a large chunk of Aspen’s history.
Most of this is correct and interesting, but it is a superficial rendition devoid of the passion, tragedy and brilliance that make up our antiquity.
Aspen’s rich history runs far deeper than the icons above, and it’s important to remember occasionally those whose names might not get the marquee, but whose contributions to the town are integrally important to the overall history.
As a seventh-grader completing a school project, I fought drowsy eyelids in a darkening restaurant booth while Guido Meyer, in a monotone Swiss accent, told me over and over again how Americans didn’t recognize opportunity as readily as some foreigners, as exemplified by his internationally famous Swiss Inn.
Point well taken, sir, but there have been other businessmen with as much hubris who didn’t fare as well. Unfairly, Guido (one-time justice of the peace) likely is best-remembered for the sign in his window, “No Beatniks Allowed,” a reference to the influx of “hippies” in the ’60s. Always a sign man, he put up a marker on Highway 82 near his downvalley ranch, trying to encourage motorists to slow down, which read merely “Nudist Crossing.”
In the early ’60s, my dad hired a man named John Smith to help around the ranch. Give me a break: No one is named John Smith, is he? He was a breath of fresh air to my young mind, someone articulate with grand ideas, someone an idealistic kid could talk to at lunch or out in the field while we shocked oat bundles together for harvest. He came back a few years later and married my junior-high school math teacher, Katy (whose maiden name escapes me) Smith, and the two of them founded Grassroots TV. Katy is memorialized in a Pierre Wille sculpture at the high school.
Bike riders take note, for Ivan Abrams and I occasionally dusted up the road between Woody Creek and Aspen – at least during the period in the 1960s when he worked for my father. Ivan, who did odd jobs around the place, piqued my curiosity by riding his bike the 10 or 12 miles to work every day. We both read offbeat books and had an existential view of the world. I was a neophyte smoker, impressed that Ivan could pedal quite well with a pipe stuck between his teeth.
In the 1950s, he dropped out of a doctoral program in comparative literature at Stanford University and followed himself to Aspen, where he eventually owned and operated Quadrant Books, a longtime hangout for many. He was the guest speaker at my high school English class on several occasions, a man with a truly impressive knowledge of books and literature. Some say his world got “weird” in the later years, which might have been the ultimate existentialist absurdity.
Like horses in the starting gate, it’s Aspen’s people who mostly change, thoroughbreds all, with different temperaments and talents, full of desires and dreams.
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