Tony Vagneur: Horizons and how Aspen Mountain skis stay the same
It’s been mentioned before in this column, but once people ask how long I’ve lived here, the next statement or question is usually, “You must have seen a lot of changes,” to which I usually answer: ” Not really. The mountain still skis pretty much the same and the horizons don’t seem to change much. But in many ways this is a dishonest answer. There have been many changes.
Until the early 1960s, Pitkin County’s primary revenue generator was agriculture. Many of today’s Aspenites don’t recognize there was farming and farming in the valley (it still is), but after the Silver Crash of 1893, the land and cultures began to take the lead. Most of the farmland between Aspen and Glenwood Springs was owned by immigrants from northern Italy, namely the Aosta Valley. We were still using draft horses at the Woody Creek Ranch in 1975, in conjunction with motorized farm machinery.
Ride the Silver Queen Gondola up Aspen Mountain and, with this great overview of the city, try to spot a postage-sized vacant lot where you could still do a little more development. Then take a look from a similar view, photographed, for example, in the 1950s or even 1970s and see the difference. It takes your breath away.
There was once a line of Victorian cottages lining the north side of Main Street west of the Courthouse to Mill Street, housing little old ladies from the ‘Purgatory’ years (or perhaps the quiet) after the Silver Crash, mostly widows who hung out with very little money, lots of hearts and nowhere to go. Maude Twining, widow of Dr. Warren Twining, the only doctor in town for many years, used to hire me to rake these ladies’ little lawns in the spring, just to spruce them up. They all needed paint, but it was more than Mrs. Twining could handle.
And while we’re in this neighborhood, the sheriff lived in a basement next to the courthouse, next to the jail cells. My classmate and daughter of Sheriff Lorain Herwick, Kathaleen, used to have her birthday parties in that space downstairs. If there were no involuntary occupants of the cells, which was frequent, we would sometimes have the opportunity to have an idea of what the incarceration might really be like.
There used to be stockyards along North Mill, where Rio Grande Park is, where Rio Grande Station used to be. During the summer months we rented pasture from the Jimmy Smith Ranch to Independence Pass, now the North Star Nature Preserve. When we were going in the fall with a hundred pairs, we would take them down the 82, following today’s route, where we took a right at the intersection of the Jerome hotel and descended towards the corrals in waiting.
Soon the huge steam locomotive would arrive, about the time we had finished sorting the cattle we wanted to sell. We loaded them into the cattle cars, closed the huge doors and sat on our horses for a minute, transfixed as we watched the muffled plume of smoke from the train rise as it headed down the valley. Then we would open the gates and head out to Woody Creek with the rest of the herd.
These are all old things for those of you who think your presence saved the town, but there are still a few with enough active brain cells to remember the bridge at the bottom of Little Nell at this period of the year. “Après-ski” you might call it, mixing the sexes, tasting myriad booze and generally a series of exaggerated stories about his exploits on the ski hill. It was where the celebrities, and not so many, congregated, in a way that was at once very relaxing, anticipatory and comedic. Go to the Aspen State Teachers College Facebook Page to see some pictures of the bridge. You might see your favorite squeeze there, in a lip lock with someone you’ve never known.
The community office shared by many businessmen and the headquarters of the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol, the Red Onion, is in a dreamland and sitting in front of an après-ski party before heading out to dinner is a relief. Of the history. Where have all the bands gone? Anyway, check the prices. And the clock is still ticking.
Everything has changed, the vibe seems different, but again: “The mountain still skis pretty much the same and the horizons don’t seem to change much.”
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and awaits your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.