Rogers: A poet’s seed, planted
In another life in another ski town, I served on the board of an organization that aspired to emulate the Aspen Institute, at least so far as raising the intellectual and artistic level of its community. We didn’t come close.
Thank Walter Paepcke, whose inspiration in 1949 to celebrate Johann Wolfgang von Goethe set up Aspen as the ski town among ski towns. I love that one of my favorite classical novels is by Goethe: “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” And that this poet/novelist served as seed.
I thought this while attending an Aspen Words presentation at the Paepcke Auditorium with the author of “The Body Keeps the Score,” Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, amid a packed house.
The Aspen Institute emerged from a gathering to celebrate a late-1700s German writer into one of the great thought-leading organizations on Earth today. It attracts the very best and brightest to this former mining town that just happens to have some ski slopes amid gorgeous mountains — like all the other Colorado ski towns.
Aspen Words, a tiny twig on a sprawling tree of academic and artistic life, attracted me to Aspen before I lived here for their presentations like the other night and for one of the top writers’ conferences in the nation.
But the working end of the institute long ago transplanted to Washington, D.C., and bloomed or at least has gushed oceans of words on myriad topics, and I’m sure contributed to the greater good of the planet. I truck in words, too, and so understand they matter, though I’m more happily provincial and embedded in the everyday din of small-town America. To each our own, right?
A visit to the Aspen Institute website will give you a clue of just how provincial we denizens are in actual Aspen. Something like 1,400 employees, a board of 74, office locations around the world. The organization is an idea leader in just about every major issue you might think of. It’s enough of an international player that I wonder how many of the people connected to the Aspen Institute have set foot in real Aspen.
This isn’t the world according to Goethe anymore. Actual Aspen serves mainly as a handy event venue now, as far as the institute is concerned. A very nice one, to be sure.
For the institute, Aspen is a vestige in a name, a leaf for a logo, an inspiration, the mecca. For Aspen in real life, the institute might the biggest single reason it is Aspen, for better and worse.
Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke showed up in Aspen in the mid-1940s, no doubt among the first to begin ruining everything, from a certain perspective. He and partners founded the Aspen Skiing Co., which along with chairlifts and an airport helped make Aspen an early magnet for something besides the played-out silver mines.
Other ski areas in America followed, of course, but he and wife Elizabeth seeded and nurtured the intellectual and artistic life of the community, too, mainly through the Aspen Institute, in a way that attracted the best, the brightest and, yes, the wealthiest through the decades. Even if the institute itself has largely left, the old campus and the inspiration very much live on.
The other ski towns where I lived and worked for a quarter of a century could never catch up to this gem. Park City can have Sundance and even the Olympics, like then-Squaw Valley, now Palisades Tahoe. They’re still just ski towns, wonderful ski towns, but not Aspen, nowhere near.
Great skiing certainly is a hallmark here, but that isn’t what sets Aspen apart. There are other ski hills, some better. No, it’s the infectious idea that started with honoring Goethe and continued to this day with bold work in open space, affordable housing, progressive policing, psychedelics as medicine, countering climate change, the greenest municipal building codes in the land, and that kind of energy and independent ways of thinking all around. All this began with Paepcke, or maybe Goethe.
Yes, to be sure, that extra allure exacerbates the litany of difficulties for regular working folk common to every ski and beach town. Living poor or middle class among such wealth is hard. Only thing harder might be the unpainted heartland towns with no money at all. The dull suburbs don’t seem much of an answer, either, for different reasons, and the big cities even less so for people who would choose a ski town, much less for the enlightened and extremely well-heeled.
My connection to the Aspen Institute comes entirely from Aspen Words, whose sphere of influence extended to a writing group I joined in Glenwood Springs years ago and drew me out of my less literary valley.
In Aspen Words and their associated writers’ networks, I found community.
Aspen Times Editor Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.