Maple: Paradise must be founded

Wiley Maple
Guest Commentary
World Cup and Olympic skier Wiley Maple was born and raised in Aspen.
Wiley Maple/Courtesy photo

My father occasionally recounts one of the defining moments of his life, a moment that would change the trajectory of our family’s lives: my first day of school. He ushered me into a classroom in Golden, Colorado, full of terrified and exuberant youngsters, some clinging to their parents while others tore around the new room, picking up every novelty that sparked their eye.

By the time he got to his car, he was crying, dying, not because he had deposited his firstborn son at school and nothing would ever be the same again — but because it was not home, not Aspen. It ached, he said; how dare he raise his children away from the mountains that had forged him. Would he not share the mountains and the town that were so dear to him? Like a wild salmon, it was time for him to return to the headwaters of his life.

Even as successful professionals with a dual income, the move to Aspen was daunting, and at times, it seemed impossible. To make the move, my parents had to quit their jobs and hope to find similar employment in the small but competitive market. They bought a small house “out” of town, way down Cemetery Lane for a staggering $700,000 (the price of a studio apartment today). And the rest, as they say, is history — except for us, for the way home remains a near impossible mystery.

There are stories of those itching to get the first Greyhound out of town. And many think it some kind of failure to find themselves returning home to the town of their youth, having failed to make it big in the city … but who wants to live in a city? Our small town has an entirely different problem — no matter how big you go, there is only the smallest of chances that one can manage to get home.

Even as a kid, the gift my parents gave me was not lost on them; I endeavored to harness the mountains and education they had given me, and propelled myself across the sea. — with the help of a ski and a knack for speed. I had seen all I needed to see, enough to know that this place is something special, and I was in for a hell of a wrestle to get back to this threshold. Aspen was a beacon of light and life that had no equal except perhaps in its own prequel. For many, no matter how far we may go, there always seems to be a relentless undertow pulling us back, and in the end, we all may crack trying to reach for a paradise lost in the cost.

Leaning into a global mind, many of us contemplate overpopulation, a problem that will perhaps peak in our lifetime. But just below the surface another danger lurks just as poignant and catastrophic as having too many — that of too few. China, Korea, Japan, and now most of Europe are facing a threat that could crumble their civilization more quickly than overpopulation. The world is aging, the global median age has jumped from 20 to 30 since the 1970s. The consequences of population collapse are vast: labor and skills shortages, a lack of innovation, lower demands for basic services such as restaurants, hotels, and shops. All of which usher in an economic collapse on the brink of becoming a failed state. Even military power will decline with fewer and fewer young adults to take up the call. Indeed, one of the driving forces (besides insanity) that Russia chose to invade Ukraine was because in a few years, its population would be too old to field a functional army.

The average number of children women must have to maintain a stable population is 2.1 — a shockingly high number. In a panic, China has shifted its 1-child policy to 3, hoping to stave off the worst of population collapse. The age of parenthood continues to rise globally, creating greater risks for the child and the mother as the average age starts to breach into the 30’s. The primary culprit in this change is financial and housing availability.

At this point, you may be asking yourself: What does this have to do with Aspen?

The answer, however, should be obvious. The same trends projected on a town as exaggerated and exclusive as Aspen could be catastrophic. Aspen functions on a huge variety of workforces, from managing a mountain to restaurants and beyond, with some of the highest rates of design and construction in the country. Beyond that, the innovation and livelihood youth inject into a community is irreplaceable. Without youth, there is no future, no hope.

With hope, many of my friends have followed “the path.” They have done everything “right”: college, job, mate. Architects, accountants, doctors, lawyers, stock brokers — all have an equal chance to make it home as those who made their own path: artists, business owners, coaches, fishing guides, bartenders, ski tuners, and bike mechanics. But that chance for the latter group is almost none. Like salmon, we have all come home, hoping to copulate and build a life. To give our children what was given to us. But upon our run home, we find only a dam, $5 million+ high. On rare occasions, a lottery will open but only to those of relative poverty.

Our community, if you can call it that, has been forced to dispersed throughout the larger Roaring Fork Valley — no longer do we meet and greet on the streets because we no longer share the same streets. And unless we figure out how to change the system, the standard, the way home, then paradise will be lost — and not just for us, but for all those who come full of lust only to find an empty crust, a shell of a city, a retirement “community” that’s empty of everything that gives it vitality.

To keep our town alive, we must figure out how to invite the young back — only then will it thrive. Currently, our building code is tailored to mega homes. Our culture demands we build our own castles. A shift is needed; multiple homes should be built on these lots. And new homes should be tailored to house multiple generations of families or multiple families. We need to incentivize people to actually live here, to raise a family — not just visit. We can’t call it a town if it’s full of real-estate agents and empty homes. Our workforce needs to have the same opportunity to live here as the eccentric billionaire.

We have explored our planet to its limits, no longer can paradise be found. It must be founded, one must create it, build it, and make it. No longer can we procrastinate; it is time to innovate.

World Cup and Olympic skier Wiley Maple was raised in Aspen.