Tony Vagneur: Is there still hope in Aspen resisting the ‘easy money’? |

Tony Vagneur: Is there still hope in Aspen resisting the ‘easy money’?

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

People of historical significance seem mostly to be valued by the thickness of their wallets, and by that, I mean folks like Jerome B. Wheeler and Walter Paepcke. Don’t get me wrong, both of those men contributed greatly to the growth and development of Aspen, whether as a mining or cultural and skiing town, but there are others who are less talked about who, just by virtue of the way historical records are kept, get less press.

Two people who we haven’t heard about in a very long time, soothsayers with incredible acuity, are John M. Smith and Peggy Clifford. Both were unique in their own ways, but are included together here as authors of the 1970 book: “Aspen Dreams and Dilemmas, love letter to a small town.” If you think that’s an irrelevant tome from the distant past, you should take a peek inside, just to prove yourself wrong.

If you’ve been around awhile, you might remember John Smith as one of the founders of Grassroots, the local television station, and main writer for the enticingly popular Grassroots soap opera, “The Edge of Ajax.” His first wife, Katy, was one of my high school teachers.

Peggy Clifford, the author of several books, including “To Aspen and Back,” was a longtime managing editor and columnist for The Aspen Times. In fine fashion, she picked apart the local “political elite” of the day.

As they say in the very beginning of their book, “The ease and economy of jet travel can turn any town anywhere — if it is beautiful or interesting or unique — into a colony of megalopolis, a playground for urbanites.” If you disagree, stay away from mirrors.

Both of these characters came into my life in different ways, both memorable in the events that surrounded us. Early on, at 5 or 6, trying to get off the Little Nell T-Bar by doing a backflip, one of my skis got trapped sideways in the T, dragging me up the hill. Peggy Clifford, right there by happenstance, freed my ski when the operators stopped the cause of my entanglement. She and I remained on speaking terms for the rest of her Aspen sojourn by virtue of that one chance meeting.

John Smith came in to my life much later, coming by the ranch as he did one fine autumn day, looking for some part-time work. My dad put him to work immediately, shocking grain that we were in the process of harvesting. There was something intriguing about the man, the stories of his previous life before Aspen, or maybe it was the way he presented himself, a man of town who appreciated the workings of Colorado ranch life. He wore the requisite hiking boots that, of the time, marked most newcomers to the area. Yale, his alma mater, was a far-off land this cowboy would never stroll.

“But a town is also events. Indeed, any town is as much the product of events as of people. Until 1960, Aspen was unique and beautiful and peaceful, then events conspired to alter the character of the place. Suddenly, Aspen residents found themselves on a roller coaster called success.”

When isn’t Aspen consumed by events? Are we so bored and afraid of experiencing the peacefulness of the mountains that we keep our earbuds plugged in at all times, providing the needed, requisite noise in between concerts, festivals and whatever else anyone believes is important at the moment?

“The locals liked the town the way it was, a natural fortress of light and air and green and good smells. The dudes saw that sweet fortress as a bonanza and set about to mine its riches. The locals were multi-minded and leaderless. The dudes were single-minded and, thus, did not need a leader. Some locals felt that they could engage in healthy compromise by letting in and, indeed, encouraging the messengers of growth and progress. But you cannot bargain with a flood. Nor can you turn it off when you’ve had enough.”

The tide of greed satiation cannot be turned, it doesn’t seem, mostly because we don’t have the will. We clamor for a bigger airport, fearful we could miss a big-spender or two whose plane might be restricted from landing here. Take out some dedicated open space on the Owl Creek side, if needed, to accommodate such a fool’s errand.

In their 1970 closing, the authors say, “A determined effort on the part of residents of (Aspen) to resist the temptations of easy money will delay the arrival of ruination. It is too late to hope for more.”

We’ve barely acknowledged it, but Aspen (including the county) appears to have metamorphosized into a train wreck of unruly and insidious growth, a slave to easy money, all while many of our politicians and citizens alike turn their heads the other way. Has hope run out?

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at