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I’ve been reading a book by Ted Conover called Whiteout, subtitled “Lost in Aspen.” I found it interesting because Aspen was at one time much like our valley — a place where some mining had taken place, but which had become a tiny mountain backwater until Walter Paepcke, who owned the Container Corporation of America, chose to turn it into a ski resort with a high-culture component. In 1949 he held the Goethe Bicentennial Festival in Aspen and managed to attract such luminaries as Thornton Wilder, Mortimer Adler and Albert Schweitzer. Aspen was never the same.
Conover’s book talks about the stars, the money, and the New Age culture, as evidenced by John Denver’s Windstar Foundation, which is very long on talk about a peaceful and prosperous planet and very short on action. But then it’s easy to talk about peace and prosperity in a place where people have few material needs unfulfilled.
Aspen is the home of several New Age cults and it’s apparently easier to find a Swedish or Shiatsu masseuse than a good plumber although there is plenty of money in the construction business when most new houses start at four million dollars.
I was in the San Francisco Bay area when New Age referred only to a kind of music, and it was to be found in just a few tiny stores in South San Francisco. It’s now a movement which doesn’t seem to go anywhere, as John Denver is now a reactionary New Ager and the field has been claimed by people who have given themselves new names like Diamond Ecstacy and Sky Canyon. They give three day seminars in Aspen at $650 a pop and tell people that “we create our own reality.” Profound stuff. They give parties while they wait for an encounter with a UFO and wear gold pendants of dolphins with long quartz crystals clutched in their flippers.
Conover’s book contains a warning for those of us in this little valley. It reminds us that we can see beginnings much more clearly than endings. It reminds us how easily we can be seduced by style and glamour. Mr. Paepcke and others after him made choices that resulted in the Aspen of today, and while we might envy those who play there, the place has become what novelist Thomas McGuane called “one of America’s top petting zoos.” My son and I passed through Aspen on a motorcycle trip a few years back. We felt out of place.
Without world-class skiing, our little hamlet will never be another Aspen. Our valley has a few new and expensive homes, but in the next few years the population will continue to increase and solitude and closeness to the earth will become ever more desirable and valuable. The whole of the foothills of the Front Range and the area around Rocky Mountain National Park in particular will have to make many of the same choices the residents of the old Aspen had to make. Places such as ours offer not simply solitude, but a solitude which also satisfies what Tocqueville called “the American mania for association” with people of similar beliefs, values and attitudes.
We have seen the beginning, but the end is much more difficult to visualize correctly. It is just a question of choices.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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