High summer in Aspen
Colorado’s mountain attractions can also be enjoyed when the sun shines
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.
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