Stone: Does Aspen have problems? Or just ‘problems’? |

Stone: Does Aspen have problems? Or just ‘problems’?

Sometimes as I sit at my computer, awash in news from around the country and around the world, it gets very hard to focus on writing about Aspen.

Dozens or hundreds are killed by terrorists. Thousands die in senseless wars. Famine and disease take the lives of millions more. Police shoot motorists. Snipers shoot police.

And here in Aspen we squabble over traffic jams and hotel rooms, over who has the right of way on hiking trails and where we’re going to house a collection of prehistoric bones.

Yes, I know our problems are real — but, damn, sometimes it’s hard not to feel ridiculous when we complain.

As long as I’ve been living here, people have talked about Aspen as a place that is separate from “the real world.” That has always annoyed me because our world here in Aspen is certainly real. The people who die here may not die from starvation or terrorist attacks, but they are still dead.

And yet …

And yet our problems are so very different from most of the world’s serious woes.

Most cities would dearly love to have Aspen’s problems — which essentially amount to choking on our own success.

Much of the world suffers from PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder. They are haunted by their experiences of unbearable horrors.

Here in Aspen, we suffer from our own version of PTSD: pre-traumatic stress disorder. We are haunted, but we have never faced any actual horrors.

Yes, the traffic jam is horrendous. Yes, the fate of the Snowmass fossilized ice age bones is important. Yes, a new hotel at the base of Lift 1A may force skiers to make a sharp right turn to get back to the lift.

I care. I really do care. Probably too much.

And yet …

I can find it very difficult to tear my mind away from the horrors of the world outside our valley.

As a local columnist for a local paper, this can be a problem. My thoughts on racism, violence or the campaign for president may seem brilliant to me, but there are hundreds — if not thousands — of other columnists writing about those very same issues.

I need to stick to what I know best. I’m not an expert on international or national affairs. I am, in my own way, an expert on Aspen.

And so, even as I recognize that our problems here — to quote a famous philosopher (Rick Blaine, owner of Rick’s Cafe) — “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” I realize I need to keep my attention on the Roaring Fork Valley.

And so, perhaps bizarrely, I am going to wind up with something that might seem wildly at odds with everything I’ve been considering to this point.

I’m going to shift, abruptly, from Aspen’s problems — and whether they are really problems — to a time when Aspen was facing limitless blue-sky opportunities.

While I was doing some research for the column I was intending to write this week — which I will get around to sometime soon — I came across traces of an earlier time in Aspen’s modern history.

I found and was enchanted (yes, I said I was enchanted) by tales from Aspen’s prelapsarian innocence more than 60 years ago, back at the beginning of what might have been called “the Aspen experiment.”

I found, among other artifacts, a New York Times story from June 1951, about what was then known as the Aspen Summer Festival, which featured events staged by what are now the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School.

The article described Aspen as “a serene little Western town” and it noted that “Last August many visitors at the 1950 Aspen Festival complained that they were too bogged down in culture to enjoy the trout fishing.”

That’s what counted as “problems” back then.

Near the end of the story there was this note: “An esoteric novelty event will be Sweet Pea Week in August, culminating in a Sweet Pea Concert. … Nobody will be allowed at the Sweet Pea Concert without a corsage of sweet peas which will be tossed at the musicians later, in approval or scorn depending on the performance.”

(Just try throwing something at the stage at an event these days. You’ll likely be wrestled to the ground by the Secret Service.)

Finally, since the New York Times likes to give its readers useful information, the article closed with the following: “Aspen is a drive of less than four hours from Denver or Colorado Springs” — some bizarre optimism or navigational shortcomings in that statement, for sure — “Trains from the East land visitors at Glenwood Springs, where buses or taxis make frequent trips forty miles to Aspen. Several national airlines stop at Grand Junction, 140 miles west of Aspen, connected to it by bus or train.”

And then this: “Accommodations at the (Jerome) hotel or guest cottages, including meals, concerts and lectures, start at $10.50 per day (rooms alone with concerts and lectures, $6 a day).”

Now I must note that a mere four years later, in 1954, the Music Festival almost dissolved completely in a squabble between Aspen’s industrialist “angel,” Walter Paepcke, and the rambunctious musicians who resented his heavy-handed management. And very recently, in 2010, the festival was again hit by major upheaval in a battle between (some said) heavy-handed management and rambunctious musicians.

And just a week or so ago, Aspen was “bogged down” in a celebrity-politician overload and a vice-presidential motorcade.

And $10.50 might not get you a glass of orange juice for breakfast.

So, oh yes, we have our problems.

Indeed we do.

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is

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