Vagneur: Aspen, the metaphorical wilderness |

Vagneur: Aspen, the metaphorical wilderness

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore
Tony Vagneur

She sat directly across from me in the gondola, a self-professed matriarch of “modern” Aspen, giving some newfound friends the rundown on our little town: “Aspen was a ghost town when the Paepckes arrived. There was basically nothing here but rundown buildings, and a few people who, for whatever reason, had refused to leave.”

If someone corrected every erroneous comment about Aspen’s history they hear in the course of a day, they’d not only be out of breath, but also probably in a bad mood, as well. Besides, it’s difficult to argue with such cocksure ignorance. But, there’s an important point to be made here.

In the 1940s, it was necessary for Aspen to be looked at as a ghost town by outsiders, a project-in-waiting to be fulfilled with grandiose dreams of a better future. Aspen was a metaphorical wilderness to be conquered, to be brought within the lines of acceptable civilization.

America, the New World, was looked at as basically an uninhabited expanse of wilderness, a land that begged for conquering, for saving from itself. That was, as we now know, a ridiculous assumption, one that, in the end, might eventually prove our undoing. Never mind that around 1492, the population of North America (north of the Rio Grande River) was estimated to be somewhere between 3.8 and 18 million Natives. 

Imagine the dismay of European settlers, speculating why there was so much unused land in this country. Build some farms, create little towns here and there, and make a civilization out of this brutal, wild land. Europeans couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t understand the hunter-gatherer mentality that allowed so much freedom to roam the countryside, to enjoy life. 

Two worlds colliding: Why don’t the natives work like we do, putting stores away for the winter? “Farming is the only way to survive” went the common theory of the day. Gardening, everyone needs a garden to survive. 

The natives wondered: Why do they give up all their freedom to become attached to their small plots of land, working them every day to survive? We have most everything we need and only “work” a few hours each week to provide for ourselves. 

There is a distinct relationship between the carrying capacity of the land, the population, and the synergistic relationship between the two. The word “fragmentation” hadn’t yet been applied to the natural relationship of wild species, but the day was coming. 

For centuries, Utes lived in general harmony in western Colorado, harvesting elk, deer, and other animals, fishing the rivers, and picking wild berries. They didn’t deplete the roaming herds of wildlife, nor did they divide the land up into small acreages.

When my great-grandfather arrived here in the 1880s, the elk and most of the deer had been extirpated by miners, professional hunters, and others scouring the mountains for meat. That pretty much took care of the bear, lynx, wolves, mountain lions, and other large critters, as well. Most of those miners ate at boarding houses, and they weren’t particular. 

The end of the wild game would have mattered to the Utes, if they had still lived in these parts. But, they had been run out of their ancestral mountain homes, forced to give up their long-standing valley reservation — the final straw being the 1879 Incident at the White River Indian Agency. They had been taunted, lied to, had provisions withheld, and were totally misunderstood by the inept and cowardly agent Nathan Meeker, leaving unfortunately only one choice for some of the Ute leaders. According to legend, he died with a stake through his mouth to prevent lies in the afterworld. There wasn’t much left for the Utes to eat, anyway.

Catch today’s gondola, and look around. It’s hard to imagine that this tightly-built mess of commercialism could have ever been mistaken for a ghost town, but, someday, others may look back with different eyes. Aspen has been continuously occupied by white people since 1879, the year Phil Pratt, William Hopkins, and Smith Steele first set foot in the valley.

Undoubtedly, Ferdinand Hayden’s 1873-74 survey told them they were on or very near the Ute reservation of the time. Progress is progress, going forward, as they say. My friend Skywarz Loma might be the only full-blooded resident and native descendant going back to that time. Just to be safe, Pratt and Steele camped high up on the mountain that winter of 1879-80, the only two white men who stayed. We wiggle through life.

As well-known historian Len Shoemaker says in his book, Roaring Fork Valley, An Illustrated Chronicle: “For it is a land where Nature is at her best, where the Great Creator of the Universe, in various ways, has made it everlastingly attractive — rich in allure, witchery and charm.” 

And history.  

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturday and welcomes your comments at


Mountain Mayhem: Spring flings

Casa Tua hosted a dinner last month in partnership with Wyld Blue, the chic boutique in the Elks Building downtown featuring a collection of housewares, childrens’ clothes and women’s fashion.

See more