Vagneur: Aspen casts its spell upon us all

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The fear in their faces is palpable, sometimes barely hiding the thankful tears that can’t help themselves at the sight of another human being. And so it sometimes is as a U.S. Forest Service volunteer at our cow camp, looking after big-game hunters, or on the open summer range looking after our cattle in the high country. Lost souls who have become terribly turned around and can’t find their way out, lost hunters, hikers and distraught mountain bikers who can’t grasp their sense of place and are glad to see me.

Almost every winter day for the past 15 years, I have walked the same way from my parking spot to the gondola, an amble that in a manner hard to imagine fills me with anticipatory delight at the joy of skiing but also with a million other thoughts about Aspen. It is a walk I will miss terribly when I no longer go that way.

What is this sense of place that intrigues the imagination and beckons us to follow its tantalizing tale? It’s not usually as blatant as losing our bearings in the woods, although that can be part of it, but typically it’s more subtle, a tugging at our subconscious that has to do with our general attitude about where we live or play.

No matter how important Aspen may seem to you, keep in mind that there are longtime locals who leave every year, some of them natives, simply because they feel like Aspen is no longer their town. To them, newcomers (and there are always plenty of those) have changed the concept, have shifted their sense of place to the point where they no longer feel Aspen is home. Others wear their bodies out and grow tired of the pain. Those of us who live here now are at risk of becoming victims of these same, ever-changing paradigms.

It’s the stories, really, that give a place its sense. My friend Tom Detweiler and I talked several years ago of moving to Montana or Wyoming, buying big spreads and becoming down-to-earth cattle barons. It was a good concept and might even have worked except, as Detweiler offered, we wouldn’t have the local stories. Without the stories, we likely wouldn’t be accepted.

Unlike for many people, Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year in Aspen. It was especially so this year with the fresh snow, still piled up in snowbanks along the streets just like it used to be years ago. The crowds, as though through some feint of enchantment, managed to arrive just in time, despite the weather-related cancellations of most airline flights. To me, the fresh snow coupled with frantic Christmas crowds gives Aspen an excitement that can’t exist anywhere else in the world.

Aspen, during the Christmas holidays, is reminiscent of the legendary and imaginary Scottish town of Brigadoon, a town that entices and plays with your heart and then disappears at the end of the day, pulling at your every emotion. For some, it’s getting on the right party list, being seen with whomever and dragging out the same old, tired and overused entourage. For others, it’s a time when skiing trumps pretense, friendship and love are indisputable, work is plentiful and the metaphorical tip jar, like a powder hound’s biggest dream, overflows with excess. Or it’s whatever else you crave and, amazingly similar to Brigadoon, you only get a shot at it two weeks out of the year.

We’ve all known those folks who come for a few years and then move on. They enjoyed the ride, partied hard and made great memories, but their sense of place was somewhere else, and it called them home. Other people use Aspen like a friendly shopping mall, looking at every nook and cranny as part of the overall smorgasbord of activities that need to be pursued, like maybe something they’d expect with a ticket to Disneyland. Only it’s reality.

Others have it in their bones for years, the sense that Aspen is where they need to be, but first there are children to be raised, careers to dim, college degrees to finish, reconciliations and rationalizations of the mind to be quieted, and then one day there comes the personal fulfillment, the coming home to a place you always knew would complete your soul. Or like some of us, you grew up in the shadows of your ancestors and know you will never leave — not willingly.

Like Brigadoon, Aspen is magical, its spell different to each of us every day of the year. We’ll all stay until the magic dies, and then, like a disappearing mirage on a fog-enshrouded mountain top, we’ll be gone.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at