David Segal: From Houston, with love
For the first 20 years of my life, Aspen was my family’s annual summer retreat. We escaped the hustle and heat of Houston for a few glorious weeks in small-town, outdoor paradise. Some friends questioned our repeat visits to the same vacation spot year after year — “Don’t you get bored?” — but in Aspen, there was always something for everyone. We could hike, bike, walk to concerts and lectures, catch a juggler on the mall, or simply enjoy the cool, dry air. The summer after my high school graduation, my family invited a dozen of my friends to join us for a week in Aspen. It was a perfect send-off for longtime friends about to go our separate ways to college and beyond.
Despite my personal history in Aspen — or probably because of it — I never imagined living there full-time as an adult. Then the opportunity arose seven years ago for my wife and me to become the cantor and rabbi of the Aspen Jewish Congregation. We had to get past our initial skepticism — “Wait, people actually live in Aspen?” — but the community won us over during our first visit. People were down-to-earth and warm, and we were ready for an adventure.
And adventure we found. Family hikes and ski days became part of our routine. I took up road biking and now count it as a hobby. We learned how to be spiritual leaders and parents. We were welcomed into a loving, supportive community, both within and beyond the Jewish congregation. Our 5-year-old made a best friend at preschool and the two boys became nearly inseparable. Life was good.
As we settled in, a place of childhood memory became a place of adult responsibility. Child care, commute, groceries, mortgage, taxes — naturally, these burdens were not on my mind during my carefree summers. Don’t get me wrong: This new reality was a blessing, as we felt lucky to live in such a special place. For me, it also was jarring, because the unsentimental demands of everyday life in Aspen collided with the mythic magic of my memories. Then, as our family grew to four, we could not get used to the distance from extended family on the East Coast and Gulf Coast. Most Aspenites know this feeling, since moving to the valley means moving away from somewhere and someone.
Life is about trade-offs, and Aspen offers much in the way of lifestyle to offset the loss in family support. But as our priorities crystallized around children, and a job opportunity emerged in Houston, our equation shifted. Aspen didn’t change; we did. And we made the agonizing decision to leave.
The trade-offs continue. We traded alpine air for swamp steam, 24/7 nature for 24/7 Kroger. I think the transition is hardest on our poodle mix, Olive. A visit to our new vet involved a rabies shot and two prescriptions for parasite prevention. Between this medical regimen and the stifling humidity, she must be wondering what hit her. Never has she been on a leash so much in her life as she has in the two weeks since we landed in the suburbs. But dogs are good at living in the present, and she’s surrounded by family, so she will adjust. We all will.
Already we miss aspects of our life in the Roaring Fork Valley, and I have a hunch we’ll miss more as time goes on. Readers who have left Aspen know this feeling, too. Each person and family must make the right decision for themselves, and I’m not here to judge. All parents, all people, do the best we can with limited information. My family left Aspen with love for the place and the people, and I know we will return.
I’ve heard the legend of the Ute curse: As revenge for being forced from their ancestral lands in and around Aspen, the tribe cursed inhabitants of the valley to prevent them from ever leaving permanently. I’m skeptical of this legend’s authenticity, since the so-called curse doesn’t sound like a curse at all. I count myself lucky to have been connected to Aspen for most of my life, as a child and an adult, as a tourist and a local. I am forever linked to it. (Not to mention that I will continue writing this monthly column from afar.)
Our son’s best friend’s mom made a photo memory book of the boys’ friendship as a parting gift. It was a sweet gesture during one of the hardest goodbyes of our move. The book included a quote at the end, in the words of Winnie-the-Pooh: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” It sums up my feelings about leaving Aspen, too.
Rabbi David Segal lives in Houston. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.rabbidavidsegal.com. His column runs the first Sunday of each month.