Aspen Has Been Overrun by Zillionaires. Has the Town Lost Its Gonzo Soul? ~ OUTSIDE

Jan 5, 2023

Mac Smith wings it with a toboggan over the deck at the old ski patrol shack, now a restaurant, at Aspen Highlands. Smith is one of the many area legends, having served as director of the Highlands ski patrol for 42 years.

The Colorado mountain town has always been famous for its steep skiing, epic powder, and hippies, oddballs, and celebs. But with changes like those of recent years, can a place stay weird?

The death of Bob Braudis, Pitkin County’s six-term elected sheriff from 1985 until 2010, was no shock. He was only 77, but color had drained from his cheeks; he talked more slowly, breathing heavily between words; and he had begun walking with a cane. Bob was a friend, but not a tight friend. We exchanged emails over local columns I wrote, and usually talked at gatherings where we both happened to be. There was no apparent reason for feeling heartbroken, but when I heard the news I sighed deeply and rubbed my eyes to hold back tears. Bob’s memorial service drew hundreds to the Benedict Music Tent on the famous Aspen Institute campus. Nobody has that many close friends. Only those who create widespread connections attract such congregations.

Bob, a long-haired, six-foot-six gentle giant, was the epitome of an Aspen character. Joe DiSalvo, his close friend and successor as sheriff, told me a story that captured Bob’s free, exuberant spirit, from years ago when ESPN was “interviewing Aspen” to see if it was a worthy locale for the X-Games.

“Bob and I went to meet some ESPN suits at Highlands. One of the execs shook Bob’s gigantic hand. The exec asked, ‘Geez, where’d you get those hands?’ Bob replied, ‘They came with my dick.’” Aspen has hosted the ESPN Winter X-Games for two decades running.

Sheriff Bob Braudis and former Aspen mayor, Stacey Standley, horsing around on the gondola plaza, 1990.
Sheriff Bob Braudis and Stacey Standley, Aspen mayor starting in 1973 (when as a 28-year-old bartender he prevailed in a crowded election and then served three terms), horse around on the gondola plaza in 1990. The two were judges for a contest called Maestro for a Minute. (Photo: Aspen Historical Society/Durrance Collection)

The sadness I felt was for Bob’s death, certainly, but it was also over the loss of the wacky individualism he took from this world and, more acutely, the town. Bob was the latest on a long list of original Aspen characters now gone, from the truly famous, like John Denver and the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, to local oddballs like the serial letter-to-the-editor author Pete Luhn, who wrote almost daily, seemingly only to provoke fights with other readers, and lesser-known old-timers today immortalized by eponymous local landmarks. Puppy Smith Street is the namesake of Harold Smith, a career City of Aspen streets-department employee who once remarked to a couple of kids that the puppies they were selling for a dollar each were so ugly they’d have to pay him to take one, at which point they handed over a pup and a buck. No Problem Bridge is named for Joe Candreia, who was known for a front-yard junk collection next to his garden, where he claimed he could grow anything, “no problem.” The ski run called Felip’s Leap on Highland Bowl honors a local waiter, Henry Felip, who drove a 1948 Willy’s Jeep Truck, electing to wear goggles instead of sunglasses, and took all dares to ski any mountain chute or kayak any section of a river, which ultimately resulted in his death on a stretch of whitewater rapids on the Crystal River called Meat Grinder during spring runoff.

Both DiSalvo and his former brother-in-law, Michael Buglione, who were in the midst of a heated sheriff’s election, were at the memorial. While the two rivals appeared to be similar in their commitment to upholding Aspen’s historically progressive and humane approach to illegal drug use—which basically posits that adults can decide for themselves, we have to protect kids, and addicts shouldn’t be put in jail—the election was essentially about convincing voters who was most like Braudis. Also at Bob’s service was Mick Ireland, Aspen’s quixotic one-time-or-another mayor, reporter, county commissioner, attorney, distance runner, city councilperson, cyclist, and columnist. DiSalvo had somehow gotten crosswise with Ireland during the campaign, and the loss of his support was probably what would cost him the close election.

Slumped on my front porch that afternoon waiting out a thunderstorm, I wondered how the Aspen Times journalist Mary Eshbaugh Hayes would have viewed Braudis’s passing. Renowned for her keen observations, Hayes covered Aspen society for 45 years, until her death at 86 in 2015. She wrote about everything without aiming to please anyone. She was an Aspen iconoclast who could distinguish between phonies and free spirits. Hayes could have told me what I really wanted to know: Is anyone coming to replace the characters Aspen is losing?

Roger Marolt

ROGER MAROLT

Roger Marolt is a fourth-generation Aspenite and has been a columnist for the Aspen Times and Aspen Daily News for 20 years, winning 22 Colorado Press Association awards and the 2005 Freddie Fisher Irreverent Wit Prize.

John Denver at Aspen Airport in 1977
John Denver, who adopted Aspen as his home and was one of its most visible celebs, at the Aspen Airport in 1977 (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty)
Cher in Aspen in 1977
Cher, seen here in Aspen in 1977, was happy to stand out with her own take on mountain fashion, but a regular and homeowner. (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty)

Locals often say that the only constant in Aspen is change. I’ll add, mostly big change.

In the late 1800s, Aspen morphed from serene Ute hunting grounds into a booming silver-rush mining town. That era lasted only 14 years, from 1879 until silver was demonetized in 1893, yet it remains an outsize influence on how Aspen sees itself. Beginning with the mining days, Aspenites have earned a reputation for being loose, uninhibited, creative, different, or, less politely, crazy. What other kind of people would move to its harsh mountain environment and spend their days blasting and chipping through rock to, possibly, uncover enough silver to get rich or, even less likely, make a steady living? No one in the mining era expected a steady paycheck. It was strike it rich or bust!

The silver crash was followed by the Quiet Years, marked by poverty and the Great Depression and leaving only those, as my great-uncle said, “too poor to get anywhere else.” Aspen’s population dropped from around 16,000 to only several hundred. Most became ranchers and potato farmers for sustenance. Among them were the earliest relatives I knew, and I never learned what made them stick it out.

Beginning with the mining days, Aspenites have earned a reputation for being loose, uninhibited, creative, different, or, less politely, crazy.

In 1945, Walter Paepcke, a Chicago industrialist, arrived with grand ideas of fostering a mecca for healthy mind, body, and spirit, and then introducing it to America’s privileged class. Aided by the Austrian skiing great Friedl Pfeifer, Paepcke began organizing the installation of a ski lift. Lift 1, then the longest in the world, was built in 1946, not only to carry skiers up Aspen Mountain but to haul the entire town toward its modern destiny. These events also inadvertently opened Aspen up to a wide variety of kooks, fanatics, and characters—people who recognized the new ideas and ways of living that the progressive philosophy promised. These transplants were young, strong, and adventurous, giving up pedigrees, advanced degrees, careers, and any notion of a standard American life in exchange for a license to be different in this nascent mountain community.

By the late 1960s, this version of Aspen had attracted the famous, who mingled among Paepcke’s wealthy and cultivated crowd, all of them living harmoniously alongside quite a few aimless hippies. In the seventies and eighties, marquee celebrities came to town to recreate and, especially, to blend in. During high school summers, I umpired softball games where Jimmy Buffett often pitched for the Downvalley Doughboys, and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey managed the Werewolves. Jack Nicholson was considered to be more of a local than a movie star. Cher regularly teased Aspenites with her playful fashion tastes: full-length furs dragging the sidewalks, leather pants tighter than her own skin, and cowboy hats blossoming with peacock feathers. John Denver played lunchtime concerts for middle-school kids. Stevie Nicks wrote “Landslide” while vacationing here in 1974.

Celebrities still flock to Aspen, but now they seem more focused on standing out than meshing. Some locals, trying to identify the turning point, mention a very public holiday yelling match in 1990 at Bonnie’s Restaurant on Aspen Mountain, between Donald Trump and his first wife, Ivana, over his then-girlfriend Marla Maples. Now the likes of Kendall Jenner, Paris Hilton, and Justin Bieber unashamedly strike Instagram poses in popular places around town. It’s as if Aspen’s magnetism has flipped—the famous now attract regular folks.

Hunter S. Thompson on his ranch near Aspen in 1976
Hunter S. Thompson, who founded gonzo journalism and lived the life, on his ranch in Woody Creek, ten miles from Aspen, in 1976. Brilliant and bizarre, he was visible and audible in those communities for decades. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty)
Fritz Stammberger, 1980
Fritz Stammberger, early ski mountaineer, expedition climber, and another outsize personality, shown here out at the local cliffs. Stammberger, German by birth, lived in Aspen from 1963 until his disappearance in 1975. (Aspen Historical Society/Cassatt Collection)

As Hunter Thompson wrote in the foreword to Peggy Clifford’s 1980 book To Aspen and Back,which reads like a CT-scan of Aspen’s innards: “The first post WWII immigrants to Aspen were skiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. … [They] came back to Aspen to live. There wasn’t much there, but they were freaks. They didn’t care about anything but skiing. Later most of them turned into fascists.” In typical succinct style, Thompson tipped his hat to some of Aspen’s earliest modern free spirits in one sentence, and in the next reviled them for eventually succumbing to the lure of real estate development money and investment opportunities.

What had made Aspenites quirky to begin with? While the town is remote and was once isolated—it’s set at 8,000 feet in a natural clearing at the end of a forested valley, walled in by majestic peaks—geography alone was unlikely to have induced the local peculiarity. The source had to be its culture, forming even before Paepcke arrived and in time spread word of mouth among like-minded people.

As Clifford astutely pointed out: “Nothing began in Aspen.” Historically, though, Aspen has attracted many seeking something different, and it has somehow nurtured them, so much so that the town still has a reputation for being flake-friendly and communally weird.

Many residents who arrived after the advent of Aspen skiing culture came running from something—a nasty breakup or divorce, a war, or the pressures and responsibilities of a “real” job. In 1955, my then 23-year-old mother drove cross-country with a friend, at a time when young women didn’t do that, to escape the long blustery winters and humid, buggy summers of the Midwest. Yes, some came for the incredibleskiing, but, for many, that was just a convenient excuse.

Sheriff DiSalvo, whose office and affability lead him to intersect daily with eccentricity, recently told me, “When I came to Aspen in 1980, I was a misfit. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I found this place where that was accepted.”

Aspen’s culture of character has always influenced the way its citizens see each other. As kids, we were familiar with a local hulk of a man named Fritz Stammberger, an accomplished German mountaineer who was reputed to be an undercover CIA operative and later purportedly disappeared in the Himalayas. He was often seen on his front porch in jockey shorts, jumping up to grab the deck above him with his fingertips and knock out an impossible number of pull-ups. I’ll never forget spotting him charging up the Ridge—terrain that rises under the Bell Mountain chairlift—in the middle of a January blizzard, shirtless, gloveless, with skis flung over his shoulder and steam billowing off his torso. We did not see him as an odd duck. He was just one tough local dude.

~~~ CONTINUE WITH OUTSIDE ~~~

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