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Aspen Times Q&A with Railroad Earth’s John Skehan

The members of Railroad Earth had only played a handful of live shows around their native New Jersey and recorded five demo songs before they improbably landed a gig at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2001.

That show introduced the band to Colorado, and soon to the masses of passionate followers of string music and improvisation. Railroad Earth’s rocking approach to bluegrass and their freewheeling concerts have made them the kind of band that music lovers orient their lives around.

The band returns to Aspen for a two-night run at Belly Up on Jan. 28 and 29. I spoke to Railroad Earth mandolin player John Skehan during one of the band’s previous wintertime multi-night runs in Aspen:

ANDREW TRAVERS: You do a lot of these multi-night runs, and some hardcore fans are sure to hit all the Colorado shows. How do you craft the arc of performances over multiple days?

JOHN SKEHAN: You do end up in a mindset, where rather than a first set and second set you’re looking at Friday, Saturday, Sunday and the overall arc. We change things up night to night, as much to keep ourselves on our toes as to keep the audience interested.

AT: The Railroad Earth connection with fans and audiences is uniquely intimate and personal. Is that something you guys consciously wanted to cultivate? Or did it just kind of happen on the road?

JS: It just kind of happens. We’re very blessed to have that kind of audience that really wants to be with you and see where you’re going to go. It keep us from doing the same thing night after night. They want to take the ride with us. And this scene that we’re in, and that we share with so many of our other brother bands out there, you’re blessed because you have a segment of fans that make live music a big part of their lives. It’s not, “OK, I’m going to go to the Enormodome to see Sting once a year.” They plan their vacations, their lives, their weddings, around going to hear live music. They make it a sacrament of their lives. We’re lucky to share that with them.

AT: Your song “Colorado,” from the first album, where did it come from and what inspired it?

JS: Colorado has been an interesting recurring theme throughout our existence. That came from a banjo riff that Andy [Goessling] had, and it kind of began to come together as we were first trying to figure this thing out. We recorded a short disc of demos that got passed around and we got enough positive feedback on that that we were able to go out and buy a crappy beat up old red van and tour, which led us to go, “Let’s take these five or six songs and add five more so we have something to tour with.”

Part of that initial tour was this big and scary thing that happened: we got a slot at Telluride. So of course one of the lyrics is, “Down the rocks run the cool rushing waters,” thinking about being on that stage in Telluride and looking out to the one end of town where the canyon ends and there’s that beautiful stream running down it. So it was just, well, I guess we’re bound for Colorado.

AT: That first show in Telluride gets talked about like it was really the genesis of Railroad Earth as we know it. Coming out of that show did the band find its identity?

JS: No. I don’t think we had any idea. We were just swept up in something, saying, “What is this thing?” It’s one thing to go in a studio and do some local shows to tune things up and experiment with songs. In that first year and beyond we were just learning what this thing is.

AT: Your progressive bluegrass style fit in with the tradition of Colorado bluegrass — New Grass Revival and Leftover Salmon and company. Do you approach a Colorado show any differently than elsewhere?

JS: I think we’ve always just done what we do. Colorado is receptive to it. Especially in the early days, we didn’t set out to be a bluegrass band or a rock band with bluegrass instruments — we were just working with this body of songs that Todd [Scheaffer] had come up with and that we had contributed to. We were just lucky that Colorado is a place you can come out with bluegrass instruments, put drums behind you, and do some more exploratory improvisation in that context and nobody looks at it as completely bizarre or anything.

atravers@aspentimes.com

New wave of confirmed virus cases tied to Colorado retail locations

DENVER (AP) — As nursing home infections decrease, Colorado health officials say more people are contracting COVID-19 in retail locations, such as stores and restaurants.

Outbreaks in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and group homes contributed to a high death toll in March and April, but the state Department of Public Health and Environment reported that there was only one new outbreak in such a facility in the last week of June, The Denver Post reported.

An outbreak is declared when there are two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases in a facility within a 14-day period, officials said. Multiple retailers have experienced outbreaks, including six King Soopers stores, a number of fast food outlets such as McDonald’s and Chick-Fil-A, and big box stores such as Walmart, Costco and Home Depot.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

State health department spokesman Ian Dickson argued that the number of outbreaks could reflect a combination of workplaces reopening and increased testing.

Colorado is currently experiencing a two-week increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases, officials said. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis ordered bars and nightclubs to close again this week following the increase.

Six people died from complications caused by COVID-19 since June 24, the state’s smallest increase in deaths since reports began in April, health officials said. Colorado has had 956 virus-related deaths.

Body of male child recovered in Eagle River east of Dotsero

The body of a male child was recovered from the Eagle River east of Dotsero around 2:30 p.m. Friday.

The body was discovered by a private group of people on the river, according to an Eagle County official.

No further details were forthcoming. The Eagle County Coroner’s Office is handling the investigation.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Castle Creek Trail near Aspen finally reality after 14 years, nearly $4 million

After 14 years, a lengthy lawsuit by area residents and nearly $4 million in construction costs, a half-mile trail to two school campuses in the Castle Creek Valley was finally completed this week.

The Castle Creek Trail now runs from the intersection of Castle Creek Road and the Marolt Trail to the campus of Aspen Country Day School and the Aspen Music Festival and School. Previously, students and parents who wanted to ride or walk to school were forced to take their lives into their own hands when they took the narrow, winding Castle Creek Road to school.

“It is just such a wonderful improvement,” said Carolyn Hines, communications director at Aspen Country Day School. “We just can’t wait for students to be able to walk and ride to school safely.

“It is so long overdue.”

Officials with Aspen Country Day showed a harrowing video to Pitkin County Commissioners in October 2016 depicting large trucks and car traffic having to haphazardly make their way around bicyclists and pedestrians on the road. In the video, students spoke of cars that nearly hit their arms and the general lack of safety for bikes and pedestrians on the road.

Hines said Aspen Country Day embraces the outdoors and always wanted students to see bicycles as transportation and to be able to ride them to school.

“But we never could recommend it in good conscience,” she said.

Planning for the trail began in 2006. The trail, then set to cost $1.9 million, was to be constructed in 2007 until 13 Castle Creek neighbors filed a lawsuit that stopped the process.

The lawsuit settlement took several years, and planning didn’t begin again until 2017. Then the design process took longer than expected when the road base under the shoulder on one side was found to be lacking, and rockfall mitigation and construction of retaining walls on the west side of the road took longer and was more expensive than expected.

That pushed the final cost of the trail to just under $4 million, which was paid for by Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program, Pitkin County, the city of Aspen and the Music School.

Construction finally began in August, and crews were able to work up until mid-December and get a good portion of the work done thanks to cooperative weather, said Gary Tennnenbaum, Open Space and Trails program director. Work began again April 24 and finally concluded June 24, he said.

“I’m very excited that we’re done,” Tennenbaum said. “(The trail’s) gonna be huge this fall. It’s gonna be a big difference.”

For one thing, the road is wider now, he said. Each traffic lane is 10 feet wide, with a four-foot bike lane on the Castle Creek side of the road next to a six-foot shared use trail for bikes and pedestrians. The road also features a two-foot shoulder on each side.

All of that makes it much safer, not only for students but for the exploding number of road bikers who use Castle Creek Road, as well as cars, which are now better protected from rockfall, Tennenbaum said.

“We needed to improve the safety of the road width there,” he said. “It’s a huge safety improvement.”

Commissioners also reduced the speed limit in the area to 25 mph, and Clapper said they want to make sure the new speed limit for cars and bikes is enforced in the area.

Clapper acknowledged Thursday that the trail was costly, but said the final result is an improvement over the original design that was halted by the neighbors’ lawsuit.

“I think the end result is better with the neighbors’ input,” she said. “We realized if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right. It’s now safer and more usable and I think it’s worth it.”

Hines said many parents don’t yet know about the completed trail, which she hopes students get to use if and when classes at the campus resume in the fall.

“I think they’re going to be thrilled,” she said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

AVSC coach Casey Puckett returns to U.S. ski team as women’s Europa Cup coach

Alice McKennis gave Casey Puckett the nickname “Five Time” while training at Copper Mountain in early June. This required an explanation for the younger U.S. national team skiers, as they weren’t all too familiar with Puckett’s past, which includes an impressive World Cup career and five Olympic appearances.

But for the 30-year-old McKennis, having Puckett around brought her back to her roots as a young FIS skier with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, when she worked directly with Puckett.

“I just kept having these moments where it was like a flashback to 15 years ago with Casey Puckett training on the same trail. It was really fun to have him there and have all those memories come back,” McKennis said. “He has such a great eye and a great understanding of what it takes to be an elite athlete because he was one.”

Puckett, who has called the Roaring Fork Valley home since 1999 and has spent a collective nine years coaching AVSC athletes, has returned to the U.S. ski team, but this time as a coach. The 47-year-old was recently named the head technical coach for the women’s Europa Cup team, a role that unofficially began with that Copper Mountain training camp last month.

AVSC has certainly had other coaches move on — and often back from — the national team, notably its current alpine director, Johno McBride, who helped lead the Americans through many Olympics, including the most recent Winter Games in 2018. Snowboard coach Nichole Mason left the Aspen club two years ago to take over as the slopestyle rookie team coach for the U.S.

“It says something about AVSC when the U.S. team is actively recruiting coaches from the club. It just shows you the level of coaches we have here,” Puckett said. “We have such a good group of kids here and they are a lot of fun to work with. They work hard and they are fast. It’s going to be hard to leave those guys. I’m going to miss them. But I think it will be good to move to this next level and see what’s out there.”

Puckett’s main job with U.S. Ski and Snowboard this season will be to help develop young skiers such as AJ Hurt, Katie Hensien and Alix Wilkinson. McKennis, a two-time Olympian from New Castle, is primarily a World Cup speed skier and won’t directly work with Puckett.

The Europa Cup team is a newer creation made by U.S. alpine director Jesse Hunt, who took over the role in 2018. Hunt was actually one of Puckett’s coaches back when he was an athlete, and it was Hunt who reached out to Puckett to bring him on as a national team coach. While the Europa Cup and North American Cup are deemed to be the same level on paper, in reality the Europa Cup is a step up from Nor-Ams and success there will make it easier for U.S. athletes to make the jump to the World Cup.

“If you are not going to that series and paying attention to that level, then it’s a little bit more difficult to make the step to the World Cup. His motto is to win at every level, so he hired me to come help do that,” Puckett said of Hunt. “You don’t often get a call from the U.S. team to coach. If I would have passed it by, it may not have been there again, so I went for it.”

Puckett was an alpine skier for the U.S. from 1991 through 2002, competing in the 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. Most of his success came as a technical skier in the earlier part of his career — he took seventh in slalom at the ’94 Games in Norway — before he transitioned more into speed racing at the close. He coached for AVSC from 2002 to 2006 before returning to the national team, but this time in skicross, and competed in the 2010 Olympics before ending his career.

“Working with someone who has that understanding is unique and it’s not all that common within the ski racing world,” McKennis said of working with Puckett. “A lot of the younger generation — my teammates — aren’t as familiar with him and his background. So I think they were a little confused at first, like, ‘Why are you calling this guy Five Time?’”

Puckett returned to coach at AVSC in 2015, where he most recently was the club’s head U16 coach. He’s still going to call the Roaring Fork Valley home and believes a return to coaching at AVSC is possible down the road. He has two daughters, both high schoolers at Basalt and Colorado Rocky Mountain School.

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there are a lot of questions about the coming ski season and if it will happen at all. The U.S. alpine team hopes to continue on-snow training later this month at Mount Hood in Oregon, and will likely look to Europe or South America for fall camps, should borders open up to them again.

The next Winter Olympics is tentatively scheduled for 2022 in China, where COVID-19 is believed to have originated from. The Olympics aren’t necessarily a given for Puckett and his Europa Cup squad, but he believes his athletes have a good chance of getting there. Especially considering the U.S. is currently thin in terms of technical skiers, with only Mikaela Shiffrin, Nina O’Brien and Paula Moltzan having established themselves at that level.

“There aren’t a lot of numbers there right now, so my girls, if they ski well, they’ll have a good shot at making the Olympic team,” Puckett said. “Honestly, it’s not a big jump. They are really not that far behind the girls that are racing on the World Cup.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Tony Vagneur: Aspen Fourth of July parade filled with decades of memories

This date is a big deal, every year. Jay, Dana, Dominic, Chris and the rest of the Smuggler boys and girls get accused of rolling you out with an early-morning, ear-splitting blast from over thatta way. After that, the day is set up perfectly. You did hear it, didn’t you?

Other than burning sparklers off the front porch of our Woody Creek house, the first Fourth I really remember happened when I was 14 or 15. My good friend Pam (I neglect to mention her last name out of fear of embarrassing her) and I were beating around town, looking for some action when we got wind of a keg party at Toro Pelletier’s house, just east of the Roaring Fork river.

Toro (Ted) was well-nicknamed — built like a bull and ski patrol legend had it that he drove a snowmobile down Blondie’s with one hand, carrying some ’boo (or bombs) in the other. Years later, he and I had a brief altercation in the patrol room — his understanding toward a rookie saved my ass.

His keg party was an overwhelming success, no one questioned our presence, and I’m not real sure about Pam, but I was getting pretty well lubricated by the time the cops arrived. Being underage, she and I hightailed it across the street to Hildur Anderson’s very dark back yard, next to the river. We squiggled under Hildur’s large, commercial BBQ, just missed by the panning of inquisitive flashlights.

How either one of us got home is unclear, but the next morning my buddy Jack Rowland (my age) showed up unexpectedly at my grandmother’s house, driving an antique Cadillac, giving me the opportunity to blather on about what a great night it was but how the hangover, being my first, was totally worse than I ever imagined. It wasn’t my last.

When I was at the T Lazy 7, we won several parade awards over the years, such as best float or best riders: L.E. Wheeler drove my team one year, Charley and Sally, and got most colorful horses. If you count the years yours truly rode a horse in the Fourth of July parade, it comes out to about 24, finally ending around 1995. Maybe later.

One year, Red Rowland and I won the prize for best mounted riders — we shared a saddle bag of beers, either before or during the parade, which probably helped. That’s the same year Terry Cagnoni wanted me to bring my horse Kiowa into his original Magnifico’s liquor store, across from the Wheeler. The shelves were lined with shiny bottles in the tiny space, and it was tempting, but one wrong move from the horse and Terry and I both would have been out of business.

My last ride in the parade was several years ago, on the hood of a jail truck that Kemo Sabe’s Tom Yoder found somewhere. Buck Deane and I sat on the hood of the truck, playing country music and having a hell of a good time. It was the hottest we’d ever played together, seeing as how the heat of the engine was coming up directly through the hood. Yoder took good care of us, and we had the pleasure of traveling with some of the best-looking women in Aspen.

There was the infamous year in the ’90s, when a couple of gals wanted to have a pig roast. I volunteered to cook the pig, having had plenty of experience out on Owl Creek. (Man, you should have seen the pig roasts Don Stapleton and I did at our place in the country. Devastatingly excellent in all regards!)

All day long, and a hot one at that, I tended the fire, giving curious bystanders the rundown on what the hell I was up to, turning the pig over once or twice, and had a stack of pork ribs slowly sizzling on the top shelf, the drippings coursing down onto the jumbo main entrée. It may have been the best porker I ever tended in such a fashion.

About 3 p.m., just as people start arriving for the ballyhooed event, the temperature starting taking a turn toward cold. Fortunately, by 4 p.m., the grub was ready, and as people sat around the park, eating and kibitzing, a few snowflakes commenced to fall.

It was a tough crowd, but why fight it. People in shorts and summer shirts began drifting away rather quickly, and as we cleaned up the area, the snow began sticking on the ground, and then piling up. What are you gonna do?

The next thing we knew, the fireworks on Aspen Mountain were canceled that night. Too much wet snow and a very low cloud cover.

Happy Fourth of July!

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.

In Bloom: Wildflower fireworks in full display to celebrate Independence Day

Happy July 4th, everyone! Are you missing the fireworks? The parades? The freedom that this quintessential summer holiday is meant to celebrate?

With a small shift in perspective, all those things can be enjoyed, today, on a wildflower walk. And being Independence Day, it seems fitting to write about the flowers of Independence Pass.

First, there are floral fireworks aplenty right now, requiring only that we shift our gaze from sky to Earth. Take Silky Phacelia, Phacelia sericea, whose silvery, fern-like leaves and deep-purple flowers explode with gold-tipped projections (anthers) that light up the tundra: purple mountain’s majesty, indeed! Silky Phacelia is out in abundance just below or above tree line in places like Graham Gulch on the east side of the Pass or on Green Mountain on the west.

Another dazzler is Prairie Smoke, Geum triflorum, whose complex geometry combined with pink, velvety-softness is guaranteed to elicit ooh’s and aah’s. Even better, when it goes to seed it sends up a plume of smoke-like, silvery-pink hairs that look like something out of Dr. Seuss. It can be found in sunny, subalpine meadows like lower Lost Man and North Fork Lake Creek.

If parades are your thing, take a stroll among the grand marshals of the tundra, Old Man of the Mountain, Hymenoxys grandiflora. Old Man’s outsized, bright yellow flowers, always facing to the east, will cheer you as you walk by. It is blooming on dry, alpine slopes everywhere.

According to Dr. David Inouye, who for more than 40 years has studied alpine plants and their pollinators at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, just over the Elk Mountains in Gothic, Old Man is a monocarpic plant. That is, it grows without flowering for 12 to 15 years, storing up nutrients underground, then in the right year — and apparently 2020 is one of those years — Old Man flowers and dies. They deserve a parade.

As for freedom … many of us likely would agree that a walk in the brisk air and boundless beauty of the high mountains, going wherever the wind or wildflowers take us, allowing day-to-day cares to fall away with every step, constitutes the truest feeling of freedom we know.

While not the kind of freedom our founders fought to secure, in the years since many of us have come to feel that an essential component of our American freedom lies in the majestic landscapes that we are privileged to call our natural heritage, and that exceptional people before us had the foresight to keep wild, open, and free for us all, like no other country on Earth.

Reason to celebrate, indeed!

Colson’s liberal columns go to the extreme

Colson’s liberal columns go to the extreme

John Colson is a fine writer. It is clear from his opinions that he is a liberal voice, possibly the liberal voice, of The Aspen Times. Is there a conservative voice to provide an opposing narrative? A few days ago he wrote (New Normal) expressing concerns for bare-faced wanderers.

Yet my experieince in business and dining areas masks are commonplace, enforced, hiking not so much with no one around. He said little in the past about protestors and rioters irresponsibility, masks included. He clearly is anti the “pro-Donald Trump” crowd creating so-called controversies.

What about the Democrats ignoring running and protecting a nation? He enjoys invectives, like “right-wing nut base” or the “pathetically ignorant swath “ critical of opposing thoughts as if he is a scientist. Oh well, when reading Colson “I guess it’s just another day” of bile boiling from the caldron of a biased opinionist, facts or truth aside.

Tom Balderston

Snowmass

On the Fly: Aspen-area rivers, lakes fishing well heading into holiday weekend

Plenty of fishing opportunities await anglers in the Roaring Fork Valley this week, whether you like to wade the Fryingpan, float the Roaring Fork, or enjoy hiking up to an alpine lake.

The Fryingpan River has been low and clear so far this summer, and we are seeing golden stoneflies and caddis hatch in the lower sections plus midges and pale morning duns up higher. Guides have seen a few random green drakes this week, but we won’t see real numbers of these giant bugs until late July into early August.

The Roaring Fork River has had excellent hatches after runoff, with green drakes now hatching heavily in the zone between Carbondale and Basalt midday and again at twilight. The upper river near Aspen has plenty of yellow sallies, caddis and golden stoneflies, and as you meander down valley the pale morning duns are hatching well, too.

The Crystal River is in perfect shape now, and you’ll see a few salmonflies around Redstone with good amounts of caddis and pale morning duns as well. The Crystal is your answer to crowded-river blues; the higher you climb in elevation the fewer people you will encounter.

The mighty Colorado River is fishing well too, with heaps of Rusty Spinners and caddis keeping anglers and fish entertained out there.

Most of the high country is now on the menu, so if hiking up to Cathedral, Lost Man, Fryingpan Lakes or Savage Lakes is your thing, the time is now. Taking along a few leech patterns plus damsels and flying ants should suffice to fool these wary high-elevation fish.

No matter where or how you like to fish, this is the time. Be safe, have fun and keep an open mind for those lessons the fish can teach us.

Editor’s note: After a few weeks off because of the pandemic, the “On the Fly” weekly fishing feature returns. It appears every Saturday in The Aspen Times and updated weekly at aspentimes.com. This column is provided by Taylor Creek Fly Shops in Aspen and Basalt. Taylor Creek can be reached at 970-927-4374.

Reach out to a veteran this Fourth of July to say thanks

Reach out to a veteran on Fourth of July to say thanks

This July 4 is the 244th anniversary of our country’s independence. As the celebration begins we should take a moment to salute the men and women who have defended our freedom.

From the beginning, all put their lives on hold, and some gave their lives, to maintain the freedoms we hold dear. They have protected the principles we hold so very important as Americans. Each new test we face as a country can be met because of the rights guaranteed by them.

New challenges face us today that prevent the community from recognizing our veterans in the annual parade down Aspen’s Main Street and around town.

If you see someone you know is a veteran, please give them a shout or a wave of appreciation. Or just pause to offer thoughts of gratitude to all for what they did. We owe them so much.

Happy Fourth of July.

Hugh Roberts

USAF Vietnam

Valley Veterans Parade Committee

Wearing a mask shows humility, kindness, community

Wearing a mask shows humility, kindness, community

This was shared with me by a customer in Chequers yesterday.

I wear my mask while in public for 3 reasons:

1. Humility: I don’t know if I have COVID as it is clear that people can spread the disease before they have symptoms.

2. Kindness: I don’t know if the person I am near has a kid battling cancer, or cares for their elderly mom. While I might be fine, they might not.

3. Community: I want my community to thrive, businesses to stay open, employees to stay healthy.

Keeping a lid on COVID helps us all!

Becky Dumeresque

Aspen