Stone: Looking around Aspen, I see trouble in dogtown
A Stone’s Throw
I took a stroll through downtown Aspen this week and came away with an inescapable impression: trouble in Dogtown.
Aspen is proud of its long love affair with the canine ilk. The best hotels are aggressively dog-friendly. Bank tellers have stashes of dog biscuits for regular canine customers who march in, rear up and plop their front paws on the counter as if they’re ready to discuss opening a new account via wire transfer from their European bankers. Doormen at the Hotel Jerome pass out doggie treats with something approaching promiscuity.
It has not always been quite so sweet and cute.
Back in the 1960s, Aspen had what could only be termed a dog problem. (This was a few years before I got to town, but it was the relatively recent past back then, and I heard a lot of stories.)
The problem was, to put it simply, packs of semi-wild dogs terrorizing the population. Particularly in the alleys, particularly at night. Small children, the elderly, anyone with a pork chop in his pocket — they were all at serious risk.
The situation was partly the result of Aspen’s character back then — pretty much wide-open.
Those were the early days of Aspen’s modern renaissance, and the town was a haven for all sorts: ski bums, oddballs, entrepreneurs, artists — wildly ambitious or wildly unambitious misfits of every sort. (And, yes, lots of solid citizens — but the kind of solid citizens who were willing to move to a remote, fledgling ski resort that had been damn near a ghost town not too many years before.)
Controlling dogs was not high on the list of serious concerns.
Heck, back then, the town barely had a functioning water-sanitation system. (The famous warning from Freddie Fisher: “The water you drink may be your own.”)
Who had time to worry about keeping dogs under any kind of strict control? In a town dedicated to an unlicensed lifestyle, who was going to worry about licenses for dogs?
The thought of carrying little plastic bags for your dog’s waste would have been ludicrous. (There were, to steal a term from a book written on a totally different subject, no turd nannies.)
The people ran wild, and so did the dogs.
And Aspen’s highly transient nature just added to the problem.
With all those flaky people coming and going, dogs were not infrequently left behind to fend for themselves.
So there were literally packs of dogs running wild — some abandoned and turning feral, others pets who were allowed to roam at will.
It was, as I said, a problem.
In one notorious attempted hit job, a disgruntled out-of-town magazine publisher (who couldn’t get the city to buy an ad) ran a picture of a dazed-looking young hippie (of which there were plenty back in the late ’60s), with a caption that read, “Once a charming town, Aspen is now nothing but dogs, dirt and dope.”
In the 1970s, the town decided it was time to control the canids (crack down on the quadrupeds?) and we moved into the next phase in Aspen’s history as Dogtown.
This era lasted a long time.
Aspen was still filled with dogs, but they were at least slightly more under control.
The classic canine image of that era is a dog with a bandanna around their neck, riding in the back of a pickup truck with a broom (the truck had the broom, not the dog), barking wildly and gleefully (the dog, not the broom).
And Aspen dogs were big dogs: huskies, shepherds, enormous Labs and, of course, mongrels of every sort. Some of the dogs weren’t large. They were huge.
Then, as now — as always — there was a fly in the kibble: It was nearly impossible to find a place to live that allowed dogs. Dogs are an owner’s delight and a landlord’s despair. And it has long been an Aspen paradox that in a town that loves dogs, you can’t find a place to live if you own one.
If Mary and Joseph had been a canine couple, it wouldn’t just have been, “No room at the inn,” it would have been, “No room in the manger, either.”
But still, somehow, people managed to find places to live and places for their dogs, too.
Aspen had come into its own as Dogtown USA.
And so it has remained for many years.
But now we come to my concern after strolling through town this week.
A proliferation of tiny little dogs.
I saw dogs who were more suited to being carried in a fashion model’s handbag than to walking down the street in a mountain town.
I saw dogs who might have been doing all right in the summer but who would most certainly disappear beneath the snows of early November.
I saw dogs who — not to put too fine a point on it — would have scarcely served as a snack, much less a meal, for whom I am intolerantly inclined to call “a real Aspen dog.”
These little dogs would be blown right out of the back of a pickup truck. (Maybe that’s what the brooms were for: to sweep out the little dogs.)
Now look, I understand that tiny dogs are still dogs and, as such, they may or may not have Buddha-nature, but they most definitely have dog-nature — and that counts for a lot.
Even a big dog will recognize that a small dog is part of the tribe — unless, of course, they decide the small dog is more of an “amuse-bouche.”
And I know full well that these tiny dogs’ owners can love them with a love as huge and fierce as the love a big-dog owner feels. If not — what the hell — more so.
But still, I just have to say: They are not real Aspen dogs.
And so the question that I can neither escape nor answer: If Aspen is filled with dogs that are not real Aspen dogs, is it still the real Aspen?
Like I said, “Trouble in Dogtown.”
Can I get an “Arf”?
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.
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Like the trails we hike and ride upon, our forest journeys can be capricious, going down an intriguing path, unintended in the beginning, but bringing a sweet, or bitter, experience before we’re through.