Vagneur: No simple myth, new reality |

Vagneur: No simple myth, new reality

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore
Tony Vagneur

The other day, as I looked out the window, a murder of crows came into view, but not the usual 10 or 12. This was an onslaught of maybe a hundred, shucking and jiving with what appeared wild abandon, finally landing. Whatever the sweet spot, they’d found it. Briefly.

For a moment, I envied them, the beauty of their existence. The freedom of the sky, no conceivable boundaries such as property lines, roads, fences, forests, or plains. Life experience has taught me that one should always give heed to crows and ravens.

Fly with me back to 1862, the year President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. Vast tracts of land to the West were opened up for settlement, and, somewhat like crows against an azure sky (or a brown plain), people headed out with dreams of, well, dreams of a lot of things, but maybe freedom — freedom from the confines of society was the biggest draw. And, just like that, the modern myth of the West was born.

It’s not a simple myth, for not only was there homesteading (Many people trying to make an independent living off impossibly dry and infertile land), but also gold was found in California, and, before you knew it, a group of prospectors from Leadville found silver in the beautiful valley of the Thunder River. The 1879 Meeker Incident cost the Utes their Colorado home. 

Texas cattlemen drove herds of longhorns north to rail centers, like Dodge City. Native Americans were considered collateral damage as immense tracts of land were settled in Wyoming and Montana, and the cowboy became a representative of what the West was thought to be. Rugged, tough, stoic, attractive, and whatever else we could make up about him.

And, in microcosm, beginning in the 1880s, my family lived in Woody Creek, thousands of acres on which to raise cattle and grow potatoes, and, in many ways, it was our refuge, our salve against the rest of the world. Money was good, and country dances at one-room schoolhouses and the Armory Hall were a mainstay of our social life — other than group activities like community picnics and Ladies Aid Societies. 

The advent of tourism and skiing saw our isolation diminish, although it was not necessarily a welcome thing. The growth of entertainment, such as restaurants and the Isis Theater was fun; improved roads were welcome; school districts were consolidated. At the same time, we were marginalized, part of the old order, not movers and shakers of the new.

However, many new folks envied us; they boarded horses on our ranches, rode our trails, and, at the same time, both feared and coveted our land. They bought wide-brimmed Stetson hats and cowboy boots, dipped chew, drank whiskey with us, and wondered, with irony, why we wouldn’t let them build a house on our north 40. It’s unused land, they thought.

Crows fly the same byways today, and there is an unrest in the city of Aspen similar to what many settlers and old-timers felt decades ago. Today, in what many of us thought was our refuge from the rest of the world, the one place we wouldn’t leave, we suddenly find ourselves marginalized, with real-estate prices so high it’s challenging to pay the taxes, and many young people (some of them professionals) are unable to find suitable and affordable local housing for their families. It’s too expensive to go out for dinner, and is there a local watering hole anymore?

This writer thought it tragic when the elementary school was finally moved to the campus along Maroon Creek Road. No more strings of chaperoned children crossing Main, headed to Paepcke Park or other destinations. They were the last vestiges of visible family reality in a town becoming void of the feel of community.

Houses labeled “historic” — saved from demolition only by a shred of guideline that cannot be loosely misinterpreted and prevents such a thing — are instead moved around on historic lots, piggy-backed with monstrous additions, put back over excavated basements large enough to field a volleyball game, and mostly without yards. Familiar downtown corners are transformed, barely recognizable, with adjacent walls torn down that weren’t deemed historic, by whose definition? Buildings under construction appear to be in limbo.

There’s a new restlessness in town. We complain about the billionaires, but, in essence, it’s not so much about the money as it is about attitude. Sure, the money allows some to run roughshod over the rest of us but, just as the loss of visible schoolchildren contributed to big changes in Aspen, so does the loss of working people living in town diminish levity. A guy commuting to work from Rifle or Parachute can’t really understand your complaints about the fit of your ski boots.

It’s one little piece at a time, and there are no easy answers.  

How much of a town’s history can you discard before you no longer have a town?

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at