Meredith Carroll: Aspen’s bubble is leaking

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever been here that getting to Aspen isn’t exactly a cakewalk. Whether it’s driving over Independence Pass in snow, rain, heat or gloom of night, getting through the (gates of hell) roundabout apres-ski, or flying into the Aspen airport, well, pretty much any day, it can cost you gray hairs, the patience of Job and the gross domestic product of some developing nations.

Yet anyone who’s ever been here will also probably confirm that as hard as Aspen appears to be trying to keep you out, once you finally make it in, you’re home. Aspen is gratifying in the same way as a long, strong hug: It oozes warmth, adoration and a safe haven. It’s frequently said that Aspen exists in a bubble, and indeed, it’s as if the Elk Mountains formed a huddle around those within its range to keep them cozy.

Houses are generally left unlocked. Bank tellers are unencumbered by the bulletproof windows that separate their counterparts from patrons in other cities and towns. Irrepressible grins are the rule, not the exception, as anyone who’s ever gotten first tracks, stalked the rising of the late autumn sun over the Maroon Bells or outlasted a summer day on the Roaring Fork River will attest.

Of course, the bubble protecting those hovering between Main Street and 11,212 feet isn’t entirely infallible. A-town is hardly untouched by substance abuse, depression and the struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes, too, Aspen attracts people wrestling with dollars and sense who think a quick buck will be easy to make in a town with so many of them.

Aspen’s had its fair share of burglaries and scams, although with diamonds glittering in every other shop window and bicycles and snow-riding gear worth as much as some of those diamonds displaying “Take Me” signs (otherwise known as left unattended and unlocked) scattered around town, it’s not hard to see how temptation is abundant for those light on self-restraint.

Hardly any crime is excusable, although some may still be a little less so. Lissa Ballinger, a Boston native and Columbia and Georgetown graduate, told Aspen Peak earlier this year, “One of the most empowering things (in) my life was figuring out where home was. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”

If she wasn’t going anywhere before, Ballinger is definitely staying put for at least a little while longer, considering her 1998 Toyota 4Runner, affectionately nicknamed Toad, was stolen from her underground, keypad access garage in Aspen on Dec. 25.

Ballinger’s reaction: “What??? Aspen??”

She effortlessly illustrates the Aspen Idea, working as the Aspen Institute’s art registrar, teaching in excess of 15 fitness classes each week around town and spending much of her free time traveling, hiking, biking, skiing, running and generally cherishing the landscape and people making it all possible. While Aspen has never been excused entirely from dark days, the usually always-sunny Ballinger hasn’t let them put a damper on the bigger picture. Until now.

“It’s tough to not get hardened when something like this happens,” she said. “I was trusting. I assumed that my locked underground garage was a safe place, and I honestly felt, before this, that all these safety measures were absurd in Aspen.”

When the insurance company asked her if she’d had anything of value in the car that she’d had for nearly two decades, Ballinger said, “No, nothing. Just the wooden toad that sits on my dashboard that my cousin Lanya gave me that has a string around its chest to remind me to wear my seat belt. And the Buddhist charm that a monk gave to me at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan that hung from my rearview mirror, and about 20 awesome cloth grocery bags that I had collected from my travels. Nothing valuable to anyone but me.”

Also difficult to quantify is the value of living in a place where you don’t need to think twice about leaving your keys in the car, money on the table or unlocked bicycle on the mall. But while Aspen is impervious to many things, it’s not exempt from change — even if what’s changing is mostly happening elsewhere. When the Aspen school campus and the Yellow Brick implemented permanent and stringent security measures following the massacres in Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago, it was a reminder that while what’s inside Aspen may very well be eminently wholesome, that won’t necessarily stop injurious outside elements from creeping in.

Despite a few leaks, though, Aspen’s bubble persists. That’s thanks to the people who may have toiled on their journey here who have since become unwavering in their contributions to a bewitching tone of invulnerability. Including Ballinger.

“I think about the two guys that stole my car,” she said. “How unbearably sad that on Christmas Day at 1:25 p.m., they trolled my parking lot looking for something to take. I keep thinking they must have been so desperate, and I am lucky that I am not them.”

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