“The Right to Shrine”: Yale student publishes academic article about Aspen-Snowmass shrines

On a snowy, mid-December morning at Snowmass Ski Area, part-time resident David Wood made a few turns down the mountain then cut over into the trees.

It was a day of perpetual refills, but Wood wasn’t in the small stand for the powder. He was in it for the shrines.

From a tree decorated with laminated photos of Frank Sinatra, to a few trees with images commemorating dead cats, to nearly a dozen trees dedicated to Hunter S. Thompson and his gonzo journalism, Wood toured a handful of the unique, local- and visitor-made memorials hidden at the ski area.

For more than 20 years, Wood has sought out the dozens of shrines across the Aspen-Snowmass ski areas paying tribute to dead celebrities and locals, with a few exceptions. In 2011, he published “Sanctuaries in the Snow,” a book documenting the shrines but leaving their locations a mystery, and keeps an up-to-date Facebook page for the memorials.

Most locals and Aspen area visitors have visited a shrine, or at least know they exist, and have for over four decades, ever since the Elvis Presley shrine was believed to be the first created in the 1970s.

But last May, a former Aspen Skiing Co. employee took the Aspen-Snowmass shrines to another level; she published an academic paper about them in the Material Religion journal.

“The article was written with local Aspen people in mind but also the academic community,” said Cody Musselman, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Yale University who wrote “The Right to Shrine: Global Celebrity, Colonial Logics and Local Knowledge in Aspen’s Mountainside Memories.”

“I guess I was hoping with the article that scholars of religion would start looking at playful things in a more serious way, and see that something like the Aspen shrines could be deserving of a deeper analysis.”

Musselman’s interest in the Aspen-Snowmass shrines dates back to the 2011-12 winter season when she was working as a Skico employee.

A recent college graduate taking a break from school before pursuing a graduate degree in religious studies, Musselman said she learned of the shrines soon after moving to the Aspen area and was gifted Wood’s “Sanctuaries in the Snow.”

After using the small book as a guide to finding the ski areas’ shrines on her own, Musselman started thinking about them as a unique local secret that helped create a sense of community.

“I was interested in how locals make a space their own because I had this strange fear of not being a local but not really being a tourist. … I sort of floated in for a year and floated out, making me a stranger but a more permanent one in a way,” Musselman explained.

“With the shrines, you have visitors and locals who come to make them, so I just found it to be an interesting interplay between visitors and locals and how that was playing out through these material objects.”

Musselman said she followed Woods’ Facebook page for the Aspen-Snowmass shrines after she left Colorado to pursue religious studies at Yale University. Although she kept up with the shrines, she said she didn’t think about analyzing them academically until she took a material religion course her first semester.

According to Musselman, material religion is a broad term used to describe the ways in which material objects factor into religious practices, and how material environments can determine religious beliefs.

In her May paper, she explores the ways in which the Aspen-Snowmass shrines serve as examples of material religion, and how they may seem innocent but also align with the more complex space-making practices of outdoor alpine culture settler-colonialism.

“By looking at the shrines as spatial products of a neoliberal global economy, we may come to better understand how materiality creates claims to space,” Musselman writes in the article. “In this capacity, the shrines make visible the continuity of settler-colonial logics that facilitate practices of territorial entitlement and accumulation.”

Musselman continues to look at how the Aspen-Snowmass shrines create and assert a local presence and culture, which Aspenites can control access to by “creating and policing the knowledge of the shrines’ locations”; contribute to the idea that colonialism is an ongoing process and doesn’t always operate through explicit intentions, as the shrines project territorial entitlement whether it be known to their creators; parallel the incomplete history of Aspen that is circulated by locals and visitors, which “is based on an imaged past in service of the present,” leaving out much of the historic Native American struggle; and mark alternative rulemaking in the rest of her article.

“The emphasis on locally built shrines guarded by locals distracts us from observing the shrines as spatial making projects of individuals who are not merely homespun locals fighting for their land, but members of a globally mobile elite population that marks the land in particular ways to domesticate it for their use,” the article’s conclusion states.

Wood said he contributed a few photos and pieces of information for Musselman’s article, and found it interesting that she was able look at the shrines through an academic, religious studies lens.

“I think it is a brilliant and profound article that goes far beyond what the average person thinks of the Aspen shrines, and makes statements and asks questions about the shrines in such a way that most people would never think of, and from a point of view that only a doctoral candidate in religious studies and a person who studies American religious history would have,” Wood said via email.

Through her article, Musselman said she aimed to provoke thought, not criticize the Aspen-Snowmass shrines or shrine making practices. She said she hopes the shrine tradition continues in Aspen-Snowmass for decades to come.

But who knows what’s in store for the Aspen-Snowmass shrines in 2020. Most have withstood the test of time, more may be made and all are being recognized in the religious academic sphere with the help of Wood’s “Sanctuaries in the Snow.”

“I think we can all be pressed to be critical and analytical about the world around us,” Musselman said. “The Aspen ski area is unique in its embrace of the shrines and I applaud David Wood for recognizing that and thinking we should have a catalog of it and know who and how these shrines were made over time.”


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