Stone: Jet? Hah! I’ll see that jet and raise you a mega-yacht

Andy Stone
A Stone’s Throw

Years ago, I lived with a few friends in a house across from the golf course on Highway 82 — then just a ratty two-lane blacktop.

One of my roommates put up a sign at the edge of the pavement. It looked just like a regulation highway sign, and it said: “Warning! Aspen one mile ahead.”

The highway department doesn’t have a sense of humor, and the sign didn’t last long.

That was back in the early 1970s, not long after Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff, pledging, among other things (such as not taking mescaline while on duty), to change the name of Aspen to Fat City.

At the time, both Hunter’s campaign promise and my roommate’s warning sign seemed reasonable — even appropriate.

Now they seem a little quaint, especially when I drive past the airport and gaze in wonder at the Aspen Air Force arrayed along the edge of the tarmac.

Fat City? More like obese.

I think my old roommate’s warning highway sign might need to be moved a few miles downvalley.

And it might say something more like, “Warning! Conspicuous consumption ahead.”

Between the battles for the biggest jets on the runway and the biggest mansions on Red Mountain, we do indeed consume conspicuously.

But even though I am a deeply patriotic Aspen fan (“We’re No. 1!”), I have to report that a few weeks ago I took a trip to a place that puts Aspen in the shade when it comes to conspicuous consumption.

Side note: The term “conspicuous consumption” was coined more than 100 years ago by Thorstein Veblen (gotta love that name), a cranky economist who argued that the rich make a point of buying and displaying outrageously expensive, outrageously useless items as a way of demonstrating their wealth.

Completely extraneous note: Veblen loathed dogs. He declared the dog “the filthiest of the domestic animals in his person and the nastiest in his habits. For this he makes up in a servile, fawning attitude towards his master, and a readiness to inflict damage and discomfort on all else.” If Mr. V were here right now, I’d order my dog to inflict some serious damage and discomfort on him — and my loyal, fawning dog would, as always, ignore me completely.

Back to our main topic: As I was saying, I spent an undeserved, delightful few days on the island of St. Bart’s, which might be considered the Aspen of the Caribbean. Except even more so.

When it comes to conspicuous consumption, St. Bart’s prime example — the mega-yacht — puts Aspen’s private jets and mega-mansions to shame.

Mega-yachts are behemoths: 100 feet and more (often much more) in length.

They cost at least as much as — in some cases much more than — the jets or the Red Mountain real estate. The prices start at tens of millions and range well up into the hundreds of millions.

And they are, of course, ridiculously expensive to maintain: To begin with, they’re boats. (Definition of a boat: a hole in the water into which you throw money.) Plus they’re staffed year-round with substantial crews. (Including, often, the full-time pilot for the helicopter that any true mega-yacht has to have on deck. Or in the hangar below decks.)

And mega-yachts are spectacularly useless, which is the entire point of conspicuous consumption.

In fact, Aspen’s trinkets fall short on the conspicuous-consumption scale, since they are not totally useless.

You can live in great comfort in a mansion on Red Mountain. Even year-round.

And a private jet can take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. And take you there in comfort and in a big damn hurry.

But a mega-yacht is not really a comfortable place to live — it may be mega for a boat, but it’s mini for a mansion. And it’s a terrible means of transportation: deeply uncomfortable (all that rocking can be a little sick-making) and deadly slow. A jet can take you from Aspen to Paris in the same time it takes a yacht to take you pretty much anywhere at all.

But the strangest thing about those mega-yachts is the apparently unpleasant life they impose on their passengers.

At St. Bart’s, there was a row of those yachts tied stern-to at the docks, crammed cheek by jowl, separated only by great big rubber bumpers.

The window of a stateroom on any given yacht offered a spectacular view — directly into the window of a stateroom on the yacht next door. How chic!

And then, emerging from their staterooms, the owners and their lucky guests spent hours sitting on the aft decks of the boats, from which they could only gaze directly out onto a parking lot. And that parking lot was filled with bands of roving tourists busy gawking right back at them. Like watching animals at the zoo.

That, apparently, is the sweet life you can buy for a mere $100 million or so. A life with very little to recommend it except the conspicuousness of its consumption.

Then I learned about one extra bit of mega-yacht super-consumption that isn’t even conspicuous.

Those enormous yachts have enormous electric generators. The boats are air-conditioned 24/7; their kitchens are filled with freezers and refrigerators; the lighting, the water-purifying systems — you get the idea. It’s all power-hungry.

Of course, the demands on the systems vary depending on how many guests are aboard, but those massive generators are designed to run at full load. They don’t do well at what you might call an idle.

So when the yachts are not filled with owners and their guests — just the crew aboard — and the demand for power drops, they pump seawater through a special system that uses electricity to heat the water and then dumps it back into the ocean.

Just to keep the generators running and burning fuel at full throttle.

Now that puts Red Mountain snowmelt driveways to shame.

Consumption that doesn’t even bother to be conspicuous.

Poor Aspen. We’re just not keeping up.

Hunter Thompson would be embarrassed.

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