Tony Vagneur: Horizons and how Aspen Mountain skis remain the same

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It has been mentioned in this column before, but once people keen in on how long I’ve lived here, the next statement or question typically is, “You must have seen a lot of changes,” to which I usually reply, “Not really. The mountain still skis about the same and the horizons don’t seem to change much.” But in many respects, that’s a dishonest answer. There have been a lot of changes.

As late as the early 1960s, the largest income generator in Pitkin County was agriculture. Many of today’s Aspenites don’t recognize that there was farming and agriculture in the valley (still is), but after the Silver Crash of 1893, dirt and crops began to take the lead. Most of the agricultural land between Aspen and Glenwood Springs was owned by immigrants from northern Italy, namely the Aosta Valley. We were still using draft horses on the Woody Creek ranch in 1975, in conjunction with motorized farm machinery.

Take a ride up the Silver Queen gondola on Aspen Mountain and with that great overview of the town¸ try to spot a vacant postage-size piece of ground where you could still squeeze in a little more development. Then take a look from a similar view, photographed, say, in the 1950s or even 1970s and see the difference. It kind of takes your breath away.

There used to be a line of Victorian cottages lining the north side of Main Street west from the courthouse down to Mill Street, housing little old ladies from the “Purgatory” years (or maybe the Quiet Years) after the Silver Crash, predominantly widows who hung on with very little money, a lot of heart, and nowhere else to go. Maude Twining, widow of Dr. Warren Twining, the town’s only doctor for many years, used to hire me to rake the small lawns of those ladies in the spring, just to spruce them up. They all needed paint, but that was more than Mrs. Twining could take on.

And while we’re in that neighborhood, the sheriff used to live in a basement apartment off the courthouse¸ adjacent to the jail cells. My schoolmate and daughter of sheriff Lorain Herwick, Kathaleen, used to have her birthday parties in that downstairs space. If there were no involuntary occupants of the cells, which was frequent, we would sometimes be afforded the opportunity to get the feeling of what being incarcerated might really be like.

There used to be stockyards along North Mill, where the Rio Grande Park is, right where the Rio Grande train station was located. In the summer months, we’d lease pasture from the Jimmy Smith ranch up Independence Pass, now the North Star Nature Preserve. When we’d leave in the fall with around a hundred pairs, we’d herd them down 82, following today’s route, where we’d take a hard right at the Hotel Jerome intersection and down to the waiting corrals.

Shortly, the huge steam locomotive would arrive, about the time we’d finished sorting out the cattle we wanted to sell. We’d load them into the cattle cars, slam the huge doors shut and sit on our horses for a minute, transfixed as we watched the chuffed plume of smoke from the train rise as it headed downvalley. Then, we’d fling open the gates and head toward Woody Creek with the remaining herd.

That’s all old stuff to those of you who think your presence has saved the town, but there are still a few around with enough remaining active brain cells to remember the deck at the bottom of Little Nell, about this time of year. “After-ski” you could call it, mingling of the sexes, sampling of myriad alcoholic beverages and usually a string of over-inflated stories about one’s exploits on the ski hill. It was where the famous, and not-so-much, gathered, in a manner of great relaxation, anticipation and comic relief, all at once. Go to the Aspen State Teachers College Facebook page to see a few photos of the deck. You might see your favorite squeeze there, in a lip lock with someone you never knew.

The shared community office of many businessmen and the Aspen Mountain ski patrol headquarters, the Red Onion, is in never-never-land and sitting in front of a live band apres-ski before going out for dinner is just about history. Where have all the bands gone? Anyway, check the prices. And the clock still ticks.

It’s all changed, the vibe seems different, but then again: “The mountain still skis about the same and the horizons don’t seem to change much.”

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at