“No worries,” the voice on the other end said. “See you in fifteen minutes.”
I hopped the shuttle to my hotel on the outskirts of town, the Aspen Meadows Resort. A sprawling property designed in Bauhaus style, Aspen Meadows is best known as the home of the venerable Aspen Institute. Founded in 1950, the institute has—especially in the almost four years since its president, Walter Isaacson, inaugurated the Ideas Festival—vaulted to the top rung of world conferences, filling the town each summer with more VIP’s and plainclothes security men than an underground bunker during the apocalypse. Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama, and Jordan’s Queen Noor are among the hundreds of luminaries who have passed through for public panels and talks under the same white tent that the Music Festival uses for its performances. When you throw in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, no place in the world remotely as small as Aspen (population 6,000) can boast such high-powered cultural institutions. I was pondering this outside the new and spectacularly designed Doerr-Hauser event and art space when a Jeff Spicoli–style van pulled up in front of me, and out jumped a sunburned, long-maned man wearing ski pants and a black turtleneck. “Sorry I’m late,” said Lorenzo Semple III, 41, shaking my hand. “You caught me right as I was coming off the Bowl. Absolutely epic.” He slid open the van door, revealing two hanging racks of ski apparel. “Suit Yourself,” he said, stating the name of his business. Aha, I thought: I’ve arrived.
As I assembled an outfit, Semple and I covered an array of topics I’d never found so riveting—for example, lawn mowing, which he does all summer. Semple was dramatic in a good way, a true enthusiast, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that he is the son of legendary screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Three Days of the Condor), the man he calls “my hero,” and who first brought him to Aspen more than 30 years ago. Semple still has some Hollywood in him—he ended a cell-phone conversation with a phonetic kiss, “Mwah”—and I couldn’t help but think he perfectly embodied the grit and glamour that make Aspen so unique. “I have two religions,” he said. “Mountain biking and skiing. This year my goal is to get 200 runs on the Bowl. So far I’m at 152.”
Everywhere I went, people were talking about “the bowl”—which, in an outdoor fantasyland like Aspen, is nothing to shrug off. Ice climbing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing to a mountain chalet—it’s all here. Plus, Aspen is one of the only resort towns in North America with four separate ski mountains, 5,285 acres of terrain, all of it world-class. But the Highland Bowl—on Aspen Highlands mountain, a free 10-minute shuttle away from town—is one of the largest bowls in the world that is entirely “in bounds,” meaning that it is maintained by the ski patrol. It had only fully opened in 2002, after I’d last skied Aspen, and I knew this time I would have to take it on.
That night I rode into town. Strung over Main Street was a colorful banner advertising the week’s events: the Junior National ski races, a concert by pianist Stephen Hough, a reading by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo, and the public radio fund-raising drive. I hopped out at Galena Street and walked toward the historic Elks Building in the center of town. Window after storefront window gleamed with shiny jewelry and designer clothing: Zegna, Gucci, and Dior, all staking their sidewalk claims. The old Ute City Pub I used to love was now, to my dismay, a Burberry. Still, it was all but impossible to be depressed. Though it had been snowing on and off and the temperature was in the twenties, the dry air was crisp and invigorating, and the scenery in all directions—the mountains, the valley, the cozy lamplit streets—was simply staggering. “You know, just another day in paradise,” I overheard a man saying on his cell phone as he passed me, and I found myself nodding hello.
I had dinner plans with an Aspen fixture named Tim Mooney, who had chosen the low-key Topper’s Aspen restaurant, a small, warm joint off the beaten path that serves pasta and brick-oven pizzas. When I arrived, he was at a table in back, shaking his head at an item in the Aspen Daily News police blotter. (My favorite during my stay: Stranger Found Sleeping in Aspen Home.)