It’s around lunchtime in Aspen’s roaring Fork Valley, and I’d like nothing more than to tell you where I’m spending the afternoon. Only I can’t, because—as I myself have just accepted—I don’t know. I spent the past 40 minutes riding in the back of a Sno-Cat (fine) and then hiking (skis strapped to my back, but also fine) up the spine of a 12,392-foot peak. The so-called plan, known only to me, was to ski down the legendary Highland Bowl and then celebrate my accomplishment in, at minimum, a bar-serviced hot tub. This notion, however, appears to have been predicated on my live arrival at the summit, and as the panoramic Rocky Mountain–top view I had been enjoying disappears into a dark snow cloud, I soberly recall that my expedition began at the suggestion of an Aspen Times sex columnist whose dog, I knew damned well, was on the antidepressant Lexapro.
The wind whooshes and I steady myself with my poles, trying to enjoy the bitter cold. The thin ridge I’m ascending falls off so precipitously on either side that a few minutes ago, I couldn’t bear to look down. Now I have no choice. All I can see is my own lumbering ski-boot tracks. One unfortunate tilt to the left or right and the phrase early retirement takes on a whole new meaning.
Life-threatening was not what I had in mind when I planned my trip to Aspen. Then again, I was, upon my departure, between apartments and living out of a Manhattan Mini Storage unit. Aspen, I thought, promised something safe and familiar, a respite. It was a place I’d been going to since I was a child in Denver in the 1970’s. There were lots of beautiful destinations within striking distance, but Aspen, in the eyes of many Denverites, was not only the most picturesque mountain town around, but also the most authentic. Unlike resorts such as Vail or Breckenridge that were erected for ski tourism, Aspen has real history in the 19th-century American West. In 1893 it was the nation’s silver-mining capital, with six newspapers and a population of 12,000, when it went bust after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (which had briefly switched the country’s monetary standard from gold to silver). Remnants of that era still exist in the limestone buildings that line the downtown streets, and in the splintered Smuggler’s Mine chutes outside town where I used to climb.
As I became, by some measures, an adult, I continued to return to Aspen, and it was always the first place that came to mind whenever I was asked to name my favorite spot in the world. Usually I went in the summers, camping and hiking for several days in the shadow of the purple-hued Maroon Bells mountains, and then returning to town to partake of the wonders of plumbing and the excellent classical music put on by the Aspen Music Festival. Aspen, for me, was always a place of contrasts: rugged and pristine, sophisticated and simple.
But as the years went by, I began to notice that more and more people had their own opinions about Aspen, and invariably they were quite different from mine. While I continued to see Aspen as the eccentric, arts- and civic-minded town where Hunter S. Thompson once ran for sheriff, promising he wouldn’t eat mescaline while on duty, the wealth and celebrity Aspen had attracted since the days I started going—from Jack Nicholson to the Saudi Prince Bandar—created the impression that Aspen was like a Beverly Hills in the hills. The truth was, I thought, as my flight began its vertiginous descent into the snow-covered valley, I hadn’t been back in several years, and I had no idea what I would find.
When I stepped onto the tarmac, the late afternoon sun was bathing the valley in a pink-and-gold light. Behind me, the windows of the multimillion-dollar houses on Red Mountain glinted like diamonds. Along the edges of the airfield, snow was piled easily 10 feet high. This was a disquieting reminder that it had already been a historic ski season. (So much snow had fallen that the town had to hire trucks to cart it away. “I’ve been here 30 years and I’ve never seen a winter in which people actually said, ‘No more,’ ” Lon Winston, the director of the Thunder River Theatre Company, told me.) Disquieting, I say, because in my rush to get out here, I’d neglected to pack anything to ski in.
“Correct,” I said into my cell phone, to a man I’d been referred to. “Pants, gloves, hat, goggles, jacket. I have nothing.”