It’s a well worn saying in Aspen that the locals either have three houses or three jobs.
At least, it’s well-worn for the three-job demographic - who are the only ones I mingled with on my July trip to the Colorado ski Mecca. Yet there was no resentment in their voices as they joked about the immense wealth disparity of the town.
A clue to their indifference may be that strolling the wide, stone footpaths, you can’t easily tell who is who. The town makes a superficial effort at being egalitarian, and everyone plays along.
I was thrust into these good-natured class distinctions even before I arrived.
Boarding my flight from the 36C tarmac of Houston’s George Bush International Airport, a fit man in his early 40s with a blue checkered shirt tucked into his blue jeans handed the stewardess his takeaway coffee for takeoff protocol.
“We’re on Aspen time now. There’s no worrying on Aspen time,” he said softly smiling, just loud enough for those seated near him to hear. Not so loud that he was looking for reassurance.
He lived up to his promise. By cruising altitude he had seemingly forgotten about his cup up the front of the small Bombardier jet. The calm, gracious stewardess spent a good 3 minutes trying to find him.
I had missed my initial connecting flight from Houston to Aspen the day before. I can tell you, people certainly worry in the heaving human mass of Houston airport transit time, ushered by security dogs and strong accents.
But all that behind me, I landed in the almost equally hot Aspen air. Due to the 8,000-foot elevation, it’s a dry heat, and much pleasanter than the Auckland humidity I recall the last time we were granted a summer.
Shuttled past the row of Cessna private jets and the $20 million quarter-acre homes in town, I quickly checked into the W Hotel.
I greeted historical guide, Nina Gabianelli, at the base of the chairlift to the Ajax Mountain, which in the ski season enables holidayers to move directly between the slopes and their hotels with barely any intermediary steps.
Its convenience means you could almost ignore the town itself - and it is hinted that some insular skiers essentially do this in peak season. Nina is a testament to the narrowmindedness of such Aspen visits.
Dressed in full 19th century garb, with a thick purple dress down to her ankles, lace gloves and a floral hat, she never let on for a second she was fazed by the heat.
She has lived and worked in the Aspen area for decades and is actively involved in the local theatre company, having studied at the Boston Conservatory.
The 90-minute walking tour, run out of the Aspen Historical Society, does an admirable job covering the silver mining boom, which kicked off the town in the 1880s, through the subsequent “quiet years” up to 1947 before someone had the bright idea to introduce commercial ski lifts, to the hippy influx of the 1960s and 70s that included Hunter S Thompson, The Eagles and John Denver.
Nina is directed by the historical downtown buildings plotted along the well-spaced rectangular street grid. The Wheeler Opera House, Elks Building, and Independence Building all distinguished by their red-brick and sandstone architecture and backstories of the wealthy men who built them.
“They were mining silver here from 1879 to 1893 in abundance. One sixteenth of the world’s silver came from Aspen and we grew from undeveloped pristine beautiful mountains to the third-largest city in the state of Colorado in less than a decade.”
Nina points out the fire station is still run purely by volunteers “protecting billions of dollars of real estate” which sits across the street from a Gucci outlet where the rent is more than their annual clothing sales - such is the status of an Aspen location for these designers.
Yet next door to that is a thrift shop, where you can often pick up worn-once Gucci dresses for $100.
Cowboy shops such as Kemo Sabe service all your “luxury western wear needs” and are truly an experience for the senses - clientele and product alike - even if you’re not in the market for grit brown hippo skin rancher boots or red mammoth tooth knives.
Referencing her role in the three-job side of the community, Nina sounds proud of the harmonious social equilibrium.
“Neither one lives successfully without the other. The only way it works is because we’re both here. That for me is what makes Aspen so incredibly unique. We’re a mishmash of artists and intellectuals gathered together because of these beautiful Rocky Mountains. They are the foundation and resource that has drawn everyone here - from the first people to today.”
The building that best exemplifies the shifting economic fortunes, and eccentric clientele, of the town is the Hotel Jerome at which the tour ends.
Jerome Wheeler, who was at the time co-owner of Macy’s department story, opened his hotel the night before Thanksgiving 1889. Its 300 incandescent light bulbs and hot and cold running water made it the “grandest hotel in the West”.
“But by the depression era, the hotel had come to serve a very important role for the community as a boarding house for families. It was cheaper to live here in the winter in 1920s than buy coal to heat your own home,” Nina said.
By the 60s, “the hippy population moved through here following Hunter S Thompson, controversial writer escaping the Hells Angels, who hides out here in Aspen if you would, holding court at the Jerome Bar”.
“That caused a lot of conflict because you had ranchers here for three generations working hard on the land trying to survive, and then you’ve got these long-haired hippies sitting around doing nothing but smoking grass.”
The avant-garde tension persists in some ways today.
The Grateful Deli sandwich shop and Explorer Bookstore seem to have clung to their more humble aesthetics amid the chic stores.
I got the faint impression from Nina that the snow and its ever-expanding commercial ski enterprise sometimes smothered the eccentric history of the town.
This year Aspen Mountain is rapidly building a new ski lift for the 2023/34 season - expanding off the summit of Ajax, increasing its skiable terrain by 20 per cent.
In contrast, that clear summer sky and the lethargy of the town was indeed the optimal time of year to acquaint yourself with its diverse arts community and culture. There was nature beyond the slopes.
Dinner that night at the underground French Alpine Bistro proved that cheese fondue, escargot and saffron sea scallops eat just as well in an airconditioned, rustic underground bunker as a heated one.
The next morning provided one of the truly memorable natural vistas of my life - matching archetypal images of American woods and mountain regions from childhood films.
Picking up fat-tyre E-bikes from outside the W Hotel we began a 26-kilometre round-trip from Aspen Highlands to Maroon Lake. We passed through aspen groves beneath the 14,026-foot Pyramid Peak.
A view of Maroon Bells eventually greets you - claimed as “the most photographed peaks in North America”.
The E-bikes make what would be a strenuous ride up the incline of Maroon Creek road almost relaxing.
At our destination, the Elk Mountain range has six scenic hiking trails, camping sites and biking paths for visitors. Wild flowers and deer are a fixture of our brief hike from the picnic tables.
A bracing downhill ride back to town stopped at the renowned Bayer Center, to see an exhibit marking the 70th anniversary of Bayer’s 1953 World Geo-Graphic Atlas. The centre’s austere interior provided a meditative, calming environment after all the morning’s exercise.
A final stop off at the John Denver sanctuary kept up the tranquil mood, set on a lake with a small man-made rock amphitheatre.
Like the country singer’s music, the site was simple and direct. His lyrics were carved into large polished rock faces:
“But the Colorado Rocky Mountain high, I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky, The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullaby.”
The cultural generosity and philanthropy of the area is also noticeable.
Our second night featured a free concert on the rooftop of the Aspen Art Museum by the most advanced students of the town’s music school, conducted by three-time Grammy nominee and world-renowned clarinetist Joaquín Valdepeñas.
The Aspen Art Museum itself is a modern building of note. Constructed in 2007 by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban it has a distinctive outward lattice structure made of paper and resin. Ban is known in New Zealand too for designing Christchurch’s Cardboard Cathedral following the 2011 quakes.
“I made the entrance foyer on the rooftop. It is like the experience of skiing — you go up to the top of a mountain, enjoy the view, and then slide down,” Ban said of the structure at which we listened to Mozart in the dull evening sunshine, glasses of local rosé in hand.
One of the final activities during my Aspen trip was a morning hike through the Hunter Creek Valley with a young guide named Charlie from the non-profit Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES).
Off the back of a heavier-than-usual snowfall during the winter, the Roaring Fork River was flowing loudly.
The most impressive naturalist fact was the Aspen tree, which can regenerate and grow by shoots from connected roots in the earth. These genetically identical trees share a root structure and are called a “clone”.
Running your hand down the Aspens’ trunks a fine white dust comes off which, when smeared on your skin, works as sunscreen.
The easy-paced two-hour hike was occasionally interrupted by the jarring construction noise of a new mountaintop mansion.
But as Charlie pointed out, this human intrusion is the exception just on the edges near town in a much wider expanse of native forest.
“You guys are seeing many different sides of Aspen and there’s a big facade of wealth and opulence that makes this place tick. That’s why ACES has so much money and there’s all these virtuous causes. But there is a lot behind that as well.
“The best thing about this place is the land we’re surrounded by, 80 per cent of it is federally designated wilderness - there’s not going to be any development. When you take a walk like this and you think about some of the native vegetation and the history of the land and the people, it’s very clear that it’s extremely complicated, and all of these organisms have their own role. It’s a balance that humans don’t really understand too well.
“Part of our role has kind of changed as society has industrialised. But having so much land that’s set aside for just being land is my favourite thing. You look at these mountains and say ‘nothing going on there’. But there’s a lot going on.”
During the ski season these hikes would be under 6 feet of snow. You’d barely know.
Fly from Auckland to Aspen, via LA, Houston, Dallas and San Francisco. Talk to your travel agent for the best options.
For more information on Aspen in summer visit aspenchamber.org/plan-trip/how-to/enjoy-aspen/seasons/summer.