Roger Marolt: Help wanted: must have a clear new vision for Aspen

Roger Marolt
Roger This

If you live here awhile and listen to those who have lived here longer, you start to see things; not hallucinations, but real things. You see how things were and how they are, rather than what we want them to be or wish they were. You see the phases of this town’s life.

Aspen was a silver mining town. Then it died. It was up and then it was down, two phases of its life over, there wasn’t a third.

Then it got reincarnated. It took dreamers to revive it. What they saw for its future had little to do with it’s past. What the innovators were inspired by was an overwhelmingly beautiful place to work with, there by the grace of God only.

Things were only potentially cool. The visionaries’ plan was to create a place like no other and then see if people would come to experience it. They succeeded on both counts. The new Aspen was incredible, like nothing anybody had seen.

The crafters of modern Aspen recognized that the awe of nature, through beauty and immeasurable power, can inspire, oftentimes by humbling us, not in a subservient sense, but rather in making us see things much larger than ourselves measured in time and place. They saw the potential for natural surroundings creating perspective that would allow visitors and residents to put ambition in its proper place, somewhere behind authentic fulfillment and its accompanying contentment.

Mind, body, and spirit — these were the vision of attainment. “Relax it’s Aspen” may be today’s reduction of that original formula onto a bumper sticker, a half-joke, more plea of desperation than an embodiment of multi-dimensional health and inner peace to strive for living in or visiting this place.

This movement, if it was that, led to desirable sub-incarnations in the town’s make-up. Among them the Aspen Institute, Center for Physics, Music Associates, and Design Conference. It became a thinking person’s town, a health nut’s mecca, a place to reflect on one’s soul leading to a life of deeper meaning. It was a philosophy of place, perhaps the most interesting concept to design a town around ever.

The idea worked. Aspen grew into something unique. It was not easy to get here, but for those who made the effort, the rewards were great, oftentimes life-altering. And, for a while at least, it remained a secret from much of the world.

What followed was inevitable. The goal of getting people to visit to better themselves presented itself as a marketable commodity to be exploited for profit. After years of economic impoverishment since the abandonment of the national Silver Standard, Aspen’s residents were bound to embrace the promise of prosperity to come. We continue to do so on a logarithmic curve.

Aspen was watered down, branded and grew. Philosophy of place faded and was displaced by panic to preserve. The uniqueness we had created, we began to lose. The transition to protection was a reaction that came only after deterioration of quality became obvious. There is no Aspen exceptionalism to this. The idea, or maybe even the possibility, of making Aspen better, was dropped because, for those who knew what Aspen was at its best, the goal of getting back to it was impossible. Aspen was as good as it could get, and then it wasn’t, forevermore.

Aspen is in full preservation mode today. Few could argue convincingly that the town is better today than it was yesterday or is likely to be better tomorrow than it is today. We are hanging onto a life raft in a sea of change.

A problem with embracing preservation after change has begun is that it is a tool of response. It is not a precision instrument used for fine tuning, much less cutting out mutations. We end up maintaining things that ripened in bunches. It is hard to trim out what was born of evolution. Right now, along with the positive things we are preserving, we are also retaining traffic congestion, a lack of affordable housing, worker shortages and an environmental calamity. Severe cynics might argue that we are preserving an air of entitlement, in all of us.

To predict what the next phase for Aspen is, you will have to introduce me to the next visionaries first. Maintaining is only slowing the degradation. We may be falling with a parachute, but we are still falling. We need to figure out what is next. We need to come up with a grand vision.

Roger Marolt knows Aspen can never again be like it was. It may not be worth preserving like it is. We might as well try something different. Eamil at


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