High sum­mer in Aspen

Colorado’s moun­tain at­trac­tions can also be en­joyed when the sun shines

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - HE­LEN McKEN­ZIE

ON the ski slopes of Colorado in win­ter, Aus­tralian ac­cents are plen­ti­ful and there is an abun­dance of Brazil­ians in their (real) fur-trimmed snow gear.

In sum­mer, it is quite a dif­fer­ent story. In Aspen and nearby Snow­mass, it is the Amer­i­cans who come out to play.

I in­tend to hole up at the Viceroy Snow­mass ho­tel for four nights, then hit the bright lights of Aspen for an­other four to dis­cover what hap­pens when the tem­per­a­ture rises and the snow that cre­ates a win­ter play­ground is just a smat­ter­ing on the high­est peaks. The odd thing about Aspen is that it looks even prettier with­out its win­ter coat

My first ac­tiv­ity is a gen­tle stroll on what is known as the Ditch Trail. I en­counter fam­i­lies on bikes and walk­ers on a track that curves with the moun­tain; I flit in and out of the shade among the aspen and fir trees. The ad­vice is to take it easy for the first few days to ac­cli­ma­tise to the high al­ti­tude (Snow­mass Vil­lage is 2740m). I feel breath­less, but think it has less to do with the al­ti­tude than the scenery — mas­sive moun­tains in a deep shade of green un­fa­mil­iar to Aus­tralians, fast rivers cours­ing through val­leys un­der blue skies. It is this beauty that draws Amer­i­cans and the rea­son why I hear so of­ten that they came for the win­ter but stayed for the sum­mer.

At An­der­son Ranch

Arts Cen­tre, di­rec­tor Bar­bara Bloemink puts me on the trail of the Aspen Idea. As we munch on a healthy salad lunch that in­cludes the ‘‘it’’ su­per­foods, quinoa and kale, Bloemink runs through the cen­tre’s 46-year his­tory, start­ing with pot­ter Paul Sold­ner, who ap­par­ently had a pen­chant for young artists and hot tubs.

The founders of Snow­mass Vil­lage es­tab­lished the cen­tre to meet a per­ceived need for cul­ture. The build­ings are a col­lec­tion of authen­tic tim­ber huts and barns from nearby ranches, mod­i­fied to at­trac­tively house stu­dios for wood­craft, paint­ing, print­mak­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy and ce­ram­ics.

The heady early days of fun in hot tubs would seem to be long gone; Bloemink talks of schol­ar­ships, sum­mer schools and work­shops that at­tract top artists as teach­ers and fee-pay­ing students from across the world.

The cen­tre is also well sup­ported by pri­vate bene­fac­tors. ‘‘This is a unique part of the States,’’ she says. ‘‘Peo­ple live longer here and they are the thinnest in the US.’’ Thinnest? I get her to re­peat the sen­tence for ver­i­fi­ca­tion. She goes on to tell me about Wal­ter Paepcke and the Aspen Idea — ‘‘a phi­los­o­phy of mind, body and spirit’’. Rather than in­ter­rupt again to re­quest an ex­pla­na­tion, I nod; this is an area of as­sumed knowl­edge, of which I will learn more over the next few days.

We go back to talk­ing about hot tubs and Sold­ner, and I hear that at his wake last year two young in­terns paid homage by streak­ing.

That af­ter­noon, with a group of fel­low Aus­tralian trav­ellers, I take off in a four-wheel-drive to the high coun­try: Coney Glade, a Snow­mass ski run. Park­ing be­side the chair­lift to take in the view, we are greeted by baby moun­tain blue­birds and usu­ally shy mar­mots, which also go by the name of yel­low- bel­lied whistling pigs. Half­way down the moun­tain, we stop at Burlingame Cabin. Ribs, beans, coleslaw, a coun­try crooner, a game of horse­shoes and we soon start call­ing each other bud.

Next morn­ing I’m on a bus trav­el­ling through Roar­ing Fork Val­ley to Glenwood Springs, where Doc Hol­l­i­day ended his days. Mick Jag­ger is belt­ing out Gimme Shel­ter on the ra­dio and the youth­ful in­struc­tors are very up­beat. I have put my hand up for white­wa­ter raft­ing, firmly tick­ing the ‘‘gen­tle’’ grade box.

In­struc­tor Mark ex­plains that the river is low and not very rapid due to the pre­vi­ous win­ter of poor snow cov­er­age. So ev­ery­one will do the same level of raft­ing. Some thrillseek­ers look dis­ap­pointed. Swimmers, shorts, hel­mets on heads and pad­dles in hands, and we are off.

It is rapid enough at level three for the first 10 min­utes, and Mark, who is steer­ing the craft, makes sure we all get wet. Then for the next two hours we cruise al­most calmly and my fel­low rafters hap­pily plunge in and out of the cool Colorado River. Cot­ton­woods and lime­stone cliffs with caverns line its banks. Back on the bus we pass the breath­tak­ing stand- alone gran­ite Mt So­pris.

Yee-ha. Now we are at the Snow­mass Rodeo. OnWed­nes­day evenings in sum­mer, it is a happy mix of tourist at­trac­tion and com­pe­ti­tion for the lo­cals. I eat more ribs, beans and coleslaw and buy the ‘‘purrdi­est’’ cow­boy hat. It is a well- run show, with ex­cel­lent horse work and good com­men- tary. Events cover all ages and abil­i­ties. Six- year- old Ari­ana Eller­broek of Iowa wins the Mut­ton Bustin’ event, hav­ing held on the long­est to a woolly sheep (75 sec­onds).

A dark-horse team of three Aus­tralians en­ters — and, mirac­u­lously, wins — the burro (don­key) rac­ing com­pe­ti­tion. It is a cry­with-laugh­ter event for the spec­ta­tors as one Aussie sits on the burro, one pulls and one pushes.

The alarm bleats be­fore sun-up the next day. The early call is for hot-air bal­loon­ing. It is a vir­gin flight for me and I imag­ine it is a pretty up­lift­ing (sorry) ex­pe­ri­ence wher­ever you do it, but it would be hard to beat Colorado in sum­mer for sheer beauty.

Cap’n Bubba, our pi­lot, is orig­i­nally from Phoenix (they al­ways rise, don’t they?) and he is quite a char­ac­ter. He wel­comes us to his ‘‘of­fice’’ with out­stretched arms that en­com­pass val­leys and moun­tains. We­spy ranches be­long­ing to the likes of Don John­son and Michael Dou­glas, and land in a con­ser­va­tion area saved from de­vel­op­ment by for­mer Aspen resi- dent John Den­ver. A cov­er­ing of snow can make the most or­di­nary places ap­pear fresh and ro­man­tic. The odd thing about Aspen is that it looks even prettier with­out its win­ter coat. There is a sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ment of per­fec­tion in this town — chip-free paint­work, or­dered gar­dens, houses from the sil­ver min­ing boom of the 1880s given sterling treat­ment, and res­i­dences from the bauhaus and in­ter­na­tional style pe­ri­ods prized like pre­cious works of art. I am tempted to pho­to­graph a dis­carded cof­fee cup, such is the nov­elty of see­ing rub­bish on the ground.

And Bloemink is right — ev­ery­one is slim and ap­pears to be in rude good health. The body is in shape, which leaves the state of the mind and spirit still open for in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Look­ing for an­swers, I ar­range to do a walk­ing tour with Dean Weiler from the Aspen His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.

In 1945, Chicago in­dus­tri­al­ist Paepcke vis­ited Aspen, a town that had gone from sil­ver min­ing boom town in the 1880s to all but ghost

town by 1893, when the mar­ket col­lapsed. Weiler says the day af­ter ar­riv­ing, Paepcke bought a large Vic­to­rian house. Other ven­tures quickly fol­lowed, in­clud­ing ski runs, chair­lifts, found­ing of the Aspen Ski­ing Com­pany and restora­tion of the Opera House.

But Paepcke had big­ger fish to fry, di­rect­ing his at­ten­tion to the Whole Man; con­clud­ing that Chicago was too large and dis­tract­ing for a fo­cused ex­change of ideas, his first foray in the mind com­po­nent was a cel­e­bra­tion of Goethe’s bi­cen­ten­nial in iso­lated Aspen. Work on the spirit came in the form of a mu­sic fes­ti­val. The idea was well re­ceived and has flour­ished ever since.

The Aspen Ideas Fes­ti­val and the sum­mer-long Aspen Mu­sic Fes­ti­val are in full swing. We join the throngs of clas­si­cal mu­sic fans drawn to the Bene­dict Mu­sic Tent to hear the Aspen Cham­ber Sym­phony con­ducted by the en­er­getic Ni­cholas McGe­gan. It is a warm sum­mer’s evening — white tent, blond wood seat­ing, rolling green grass, aspen trees — and I won­der if I have stum­bled on to some air­brushed higher plane.

Mean­while, Heidi Zuck­er­man Ja­cob­son, di­rec­tor of the Aspen Art Mu­seum, is the per­son re­spon­si­ble for putting con­tem­po­rary art un­der skiers’ noses by plac­ing it on lift passes. Work has also com­menced on a big­ger gallery de­signed by Ja­panese ar­chi­tect Shigeru Ban.

But it is her al­most throw­away com­ment that at home hers is a no-me­dia fam­ily (sans tele­vi­sion or com­put­ers) that stays with me. That sounds utopic, even freak­ish in 2012. In a round­about way this brings me to the gone but not for­got­ten lo­cal boy, Hunter S. Thomp­son. In an essay about a may­oral cam­paign, ti­tled Freak Power in the Rock­ies, he keeps it sim­ple when ex­plain­ing the al­lure of the area. ‘‘Most of us like liv­ing here be­cause we like the idea of be­ing able to walk out our front doors and smile at what we see.’’ He­len McKen­zie was a guest of Aspen Cham­ber Re­sort As­so­ci­a­tion, Snow­mass Tourism and Vir­gin Aus­tralia.

PIC­TURES: SNOW­MASS TOURISM

Hot air bal­loons are per­fect for tak­ing in Colorado’s beauty, above; a young visi­tor en­joys the Snow­mass Rodeo, left

Snow-capped moun­tains re­flected in a Colorado river

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