Paul Andersen: Where Aspen is etched in marble and granite
I pounded a spike into the soft ground a few inches in front of a granite grave marker and planted the national colors with a small American flag. The gravesite came alive under the fluttering stars and stripes.
“Over here!” gestured Dan, scanning graves laid out in linear order beneath the tall cottonwoods of Red Butte Cemetery. “Mike Garrish gets one,” he said, pointing out the grave of a former Aspen mayor. By the end of the day, we had distributed almost 200 flags to mark the graves of Aspen veterans.
That was Memorial Day Weekend, and Aspen native and Vietnam War veteran Dan Glidden had enlisted me as his right-hand man. That’s because Dan’s rotator cuff surgery made my role essential in getting the flags out, something Dan has done for years as a community service.
Many of the names carved on headstones were familiar, a majority belonging to Aspen’s pioneering families, the long-standing citizens who formed a social aggregate far different but still linked to the Aspen of today.
Among the notables at Red Butte is Davis Hanson Waite, a former Colorado governor from 1893 to 1895. Waite was an Aspen pioneer whose daughter married Aspen mining promoter B. Clark Wheeler. Waite has been the only populist governor of the Centennial State, so named for Colorado’s founding in 1876, 100 years after the Declaration of Independence.
Waite presided over the Silver Crash of 1893 and witnessed the ensuing turmoil of the economic crisis that spread through Aspen and many of the mining camps of Colorado when silver was demonetized and the nation went to the gold standard.
“Hey, Paul!” called Dan, gesturing with a bundle of flags in his good hand. “Over here.” So broke my trance with Davis Waite and reminiscing on his historic West End home, which I frequented while a girlfriend was house sitting there years ago.
Dan, in cantilevered shoulder sling, arm akimbo, stood before a series of simple, rounded gravestones carved from marble, originating from the Yule Quarry in nearby Marble. There were a dozen stones, each bearing the name, rank, state and company of men who had served in the Civil War.
At Ute Cemetery later that day, we decorated another 25 Civil War graves, each of them worn and smoothed over by decades of exposure, but still legible. Here lies the proof of a theory of mine about the rugged men who forged crude trails over the Continental Divide in the formative years of what was then called Ute City.
These early prospectors strapped on harnesses and hauled 200 pounds of grub and gear over the spring snowpack at night, dragging sledges atop the night-hardened crust over Independence Pass in the spring of 1880.
Some, I believe, were Civil War veterans who had witnessed brutal industrial warfare and brought their post-traumatic stress with them to the wilderness. Manifest Destiny was an invitation to exorcize their warrior demons on the American frontier and to reinvent themselves in Aspen.
“Hey, Paul! Over here!” called out Dan, snapping me from my time-wandering reverie. There were more flags to punch into the ground, more tombstones to decorate, more veterans to honor.
The names on the stones were mostly familiar from my knowledge of local history. Those I knew personally stood out in sharp detail, their particulars etched in granite and marble for passersby to remember, their lives prodding a reflection on the nature of communities as measures of character.
I felt envious of those with ubiquitous family names whose successors are carrying on in Aspen today — Marolt, Stapleton, Vagneur and others.
I contemplated the city fathers — Wheeler, Stollard, Hyman, Kobey, Herron — they who formed Aspen’s genesis as it was carved from the wilderness, enlivened by industry, awakened by culture, invigorated by recreation.
And what of the Utes, the first people, the original nation, for which Aspen was first named? Their souls are here, too, among the cottonwoods tinting the Roaring Fork Valley with the lime green leaves of spring and amid ethereal peaks and verdant valleys they trod in buckskin moccasins …
“Hey, Paul! Over here … HEY, PAUL!”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.