Tony Vagneur: Aspen can’t stay in a holding pattern

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Most conversations seem to come around to the increased influx of outsiders moving to Aspen, thinking somehow the relative isolation of a mountain town will provide protection from the vagaries of the outside world. And it’s understandable, given the past year of coronavirus pandemic, imposed lockdowns, and general fear among the citizenry.

It is curious, though, if those people ever look behind and see themselves coming right behind themselves. As several distinguished local columnists have said, living here is not like visiting here. Or is it?

We each live our own story, and perhaps moving here is, to many, just another chapter of that tale, an expansion, so to speak, just selfishly getting more of the good parts, whether it be mountain biking, hiking, jogging, skiing, dirt biking, the Music Tent, bar-hopping, restaurant sampling, A-list parties, fresh air, whatever.

We each have our own vision of the West and of Aspen. To quote poet John Milton (1608-1674), “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Years ago, Steve Skadron, Aspen’s illustrious then-mayor, invited the late Roine Rowland and me to participate in some discussions an architectural confab was having in town, us both being paeans to the “old Aspen,” I reckon. That’s the only reason I could summon as to why we were invited. When asked what we thought it was important to keep of “old Aspen” going forward, Roine succinctly said, “Nothing. The town as I knew it has gone to hell.” There was a certain amount of vitriol in her comment, followed by absolute silence from the audience. My thought, “Damn, she beat me to it!”

We all are like that. Social media musings are interesting in that certain commenters say something like, “That is not how we do things in Aspen,” or “Wow, what happened to the town I used to love?” There’s a certain amount of group-think going on there, coupled with the assumption that is, if you’re a true “local” you’re supposed to think a certain way. “That’s not who we are!” Balderdash. We lost the handle on that a long time ago, if we ever had it.

Last year, we were growling about the Ikon Pass folks, clogging up our mountains. This year, we have plenty more to talk about, including increased rudeness, continuing lockdowns, lack of snow … you get the point. To pull a cheap trick out of the hat, allow me to say that such cantankerousness has been going on since the 1950s, even further back. It’s just that I don’t remember too much of the time period before that.

Our hidden powder stashes are getting more and more traffic, earlier; bump runs are getting beat to hell, although not so much this year; golf passes are selling faster than hotcakes; tee times require more forethought, etc. Kobey Park, north of Lenado, off-limits to motorized vehicles in the summer, is beginning to look like a heroin addict’s arm from all the rubber tire tracks trespassing there. Times are changing, faster and faster each year.

My dentist and good friend, Dr. Bill Wesson (RIP), had a saying that should be written over the entrance to town: “There must be understanding before there can be the getting.” Clearly, through a lack of understanding, we are slowly destroying this place. Deer and elk populations are on the decline; bandit bike (mountain and dirt) trails are cropping up everywhere; litter is making a comeback in the high country; people don’t know how to bury their bodily waste. We can’t continue to trash the mountains with human activities.

Two summers ago, walking down the Crater Lake trail after a hike up Willow Pass, the crowd was thick, like being in a parade rather than on a wilderness trail. It was brain-numbing, hearing the clomp of hiking boots and loud conversation on the well-worn trail, both front and back. My great-uncle, Tom Stapleton, and I used to hunt deer around Maroon Lake. The only people within miles.

The point being, we can’t just keep complaining about people overcrowding our vision of who we want to be, however we’re telling it. We need to adjust, as painful as that is to think about. We can’t stay on a holding pattern, waiting for the day we’ll move, or hoping we’ll outlive the destruction, or wishing all these interlopers, including us, would just go home.

If we don’t take a fresh look at our world today, if we keep hanging on to what’s worked before and looking for that one true thing to be, that special niche enabling us to live our vision as intensely as the blue of the sky, we may realize in the end, there’s nothing there to find.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at