Tony Vagneur: When will it be when our demise in Aspen may become part of the change? |

Tony Vagneur: When will it be when our demise in Aspen may become part of the change?

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

There’s an Aspen Historical Society photo, posted on its Facebook page, taken of the front of Aspen Mountain circa 1955, looking up from Aspen Street. Black and white, of course, and just a bit murky, as though taken through a gossamer mist of incredulity. Of the many photo contained in the Society’s archives, this is one of my favorites.

Even though taken almost 10 years after the first lifts were installed on the mountain, there is something haunting about it, as though it is a forbidden look into a past we forsook in the interest of, well, of what? Eerily, it’s like an abandoned child sadly looking back at us.

In some ways, if we stretch our imaginations a bit, looking at Aspen and her mountain in such a photograph can be akin to Lewis and Clark, struggling up the Missouri River, at the mercy of the Natives along her banks or around Lolo Pass. The Corps of Discovery saw a plethora of wildlife, plants and people, likely never seen before by any “civilized” person. Imagine coming across people entirely at home among the birds and animals, in tune with the natural world and what it provided them. How to describe it, how to impart the vastness, the beauty, the overwhelming unfamiliarity of it all. It was a tall order for Lewis and Clark and they did an admiral job. We look back, but we can’t really grasp the significance of what we’re attempting to see — jaundice and icterus cloud our discernment.

What we’d give to be there for a moment, a week, or a season, to attempt to clothe ourselves in the memories, the peacefulness, the whatever we think we might be able to gain by some sort of time travel. How many times have I imagined what being the first white man travelling up the Roaring Fork Valley would be like, riding my big bay horse Willie and leading a couple of pack horses, lazily keeping pace with the greening of the spring leaves and grass.

Perhaps in some way, both scenarios have a commonality – Lewis and Clark’s massiveness west of the Missouri¸ a seemingly inexhaustible surplus of plenty and beauty – Aspen’s mountain magnificence and wonderful climate – both attractive breeding grounds for excess and unbridled exploration.

In 1879, Ute territory came within a couple miles of Aspen; most of the west past the Missouri was ruled by Natives. Idyllic, you might say, but to be honest, even if no explorers had ever written about the west of Thomas Jefferson’s vision or if silver or gold was never found in the expanses around Aspen, the onslaught of civilization would have been impossible to hold at bay.

Back in the 1940s, there were men and women, philosophically like my great-uncle Tom Stapleton, who decried the arrival of Walter Paepcke and his cultural vision. Uncle Tom, who was born in Aspen in the 1880s, was happy with the way things were and didn’t see the advantages of an influx of outsiders. Likewise, ask the Nez Perce, Arikara, Clatsop or other groups what they thought of the insidious encroachment of blue eyes across their lands. In the reality of evolution, in either instance, it couldn’t have been any other way.

We’ve tried to protect what we have; sanctioned wilderness areas have been designated and legislatively protected, but for how long will they be resilient enough to resist the outliers begging inclusion of their mechanical hobbies into allowable uses in official wilderness?

It’s impossible to absorb the past into our present thinking, but through stories and photographs, we get an inkling of what we once had and how it has all changed. Historians look to the past – developers look to the future. They each see things with a different eye. The Lewis and Clark expedition, forced to spend the winter in Oregon, extirpated the native elk herd. That was a warning, which no one grasped. In 1955, there were many vacant lots in Aspen. In 2020, looking down from the gondola, there doesn’t seem enough room left to put up an outhouse.

There’s a certain sadness in the realization that we can never go back, other than in reflection, to recognize the changes we have made to our valley home and our wild world. Perhaps what we need to realize is that through all the changes, all the inadvertent transmogrifications to the shrinking wilderness, the shrinking openness of Aspen’s ambiance, is that in the end we are diminishing our collective selves until someday, our demise may become part of the change.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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