Stone: They really like us! (But we could be so much better)
November 13, 2013
If I may paraphrase that great philosopher Sally Field, "They like us! They really like us!"
Travel & Leisure magazine recently announced that one of its endless readers' polls has declared Aspen to be America's favorite town.
Hot damn! America's favorite!
But before I set off the fireworks and strike up the band, I have to point out that I generally scorn those surveys. Whether they rank Aspen first or 31st, they're all worthless.
What is America's best ski resort? The world's best hotel? The best island? The best king-size bed with silk sheets and a view of a tropical lagoon?
The surveys reveal more about the voters than about the topic being voted on.
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They're not voting for what's "best." They're voting for the place they visited last year, just to reaffirm that they didn't waste their money. Or they're voting for the place their cousin's hairdresser told her was "cool."
Consider the ski area surveys: Every year, the top finishers are shuffled. Vail passes Aspen. Breckenridge leapfrogs Steamboat. Deer Valley scampers ahead. Dog Butt Hills surges into the top 10 for one shining year and then disappears forever.
But all those resorts stay pretty much the same, year after year. Maybe they add a lift at the bottom of the mountain or a new run at the top or a grilled cheese sandwich at the snack bar — but real change, like the forces that carved the mountains in the first place, is glacial.
Aspen is Aspen — and that's a great thing. But the last really significant change on Aspen Mountain was the gondola — and that was decades ago.
Sure, there have been lots of nice tweaks since then. (Walsh's anyone?) But if you're talking significant, major change, it's been a long time.
And if we consider the entire greater Aspen metro area (just joking, folks), then the last truly major improvement was the opening of Highland(s) Bowl — and that was an extraordinary leap forward.
Of course, some (like me) would say that great leap forward was neatly counterbalanced by the ugly mess at the Highlands base. But never mind that — my point is that major changes in ski areas are rare, and yet the survey standings seesaw, sometimes wildly, from year to year.
It's all nonsense.
Still, when we finish on top, I think it's fun.
I bring this up because a lot of us like to vomit up vast quantities of doom and gloom — endlessly complaining (sometimes, dare I say it, shrieking) that the bad guys are going to ruin everything. Everything!
And, yes, that's me. I'm one of the doom-and-gloomiest, I cheerfully confess.
I do it because it has to be done. Because if we don't keep an eye on the bastards, one morning we'll wake up naked in a bathtub full of ice, with fresh surgical scars on our backs and a note saying that they needed our kidneys more than we did — and we'd better call the hospital for dialysis right away!
But sometimes it's good to take a moment to remember that we, in fact, still have our kidneys — and Aspen is still one of the best places on the planet.
And with that in mind, I feel the need to indulge once again in one of my perennial quests — one that, I think, puts me at odds with many of my usual allies.
Which is this: We need a lift system linking all four of our ski mountains. I'm talking a major system: high-speed aerial tramways.
You should be able to get into a gondola car in Aspen, Snowmass or Highlands or a new transportation center at the base of Buttermilk and ride to the top of any other mountain in the area.
Hey, I may have just said that all those ski-magazine surveys are bunk (and they are), but it really hacks me off to see Aspen finish behind vastly inferior areas simply because the magazine editors have made a semi-arbitrary decision that Aspen, Snowmass and Aspen Highlands must all be rated separately.
We are one big ski resort, and we ought to act like it.
And if we really were one big area, who could possibly match up?
Um — no one, that's who.
Start the day on fresh legs with a lap on the bowl, then take the gondola across to Aspen Mountain for some of those great bumps on the Face, and finally swing over to Snowmass to end the day carving down the Burn.
And when you're done, take the tram into town for a few drinks, and don't worry about driving home. (Because the tramway runs until last call, of course. This is Aspen.)
Come on! How could you beat that?
And just think how many cars and buses we'd be taking off the road. No 4 o'clock traffic jam coming back to town. Definitely a major environmental gain.
Years ago, I interviewed Andy Mill, Aspen's great world-class downhill racer, about the Aspen Mountain course: America's Downhill (as we called it back then, before we stupidly chased the World Cup downhill away).
That course isn't too technically challenging at the top; it's really a wax race. But then, with the turn onto Aztec, things get frighteningly serious. The bottom half of the course is a killer.
And Aspen's great home-grown racer said that if only the top half were as tough as the bottom, this would be one of the greatest downhills in the world.
He sounded a little wistful when he said it.
If only — sigh. If we only could remake the mountain, stack up the bottom half twice. Somehow.
Well, we can't. It would take an act of God, at the least.
But we can link all four ski mountains.
All that would take is an act of the Crowns. (Well, maybe a little more than that, but you get my point.)
And in its own way, that would be almost as big a leap as somehow doubling up the Aspen Mountain downhill.
No one could match it.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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