Mooney had a story like those of many residents I met. He arrived in Aspen in 1970 during a stopover on a road trip and never left. Since then he’s had many careers: he was a tour manager for Aspenites John Denver and Jimmy Buffett; he was a ski instructor for 23 years (and served for many of them as Jack Nicholson’s private teacher) until he was famously fired in 2001 for chainsawing trees on the mountain to make a new ski trail. In his honor, residents now call the run “the Dark Side of Mooney.” In his latest incarnation, Mooney is a real estate broker with Sotheby’s, which he admits “isn’t the best way to make a living at the moment.” But despite the downturn, the average home price in Aspen is $4.3 million; a $40 million spec house is being built on Red Mountain; and at Aspen’s sister mountain, Snowmass, a colossal $1.3 billion new base development—nearly a million square feet of new condos, houses, commercial spaces, and time-shares—is set to open this year. “The incredible power of this little town,” Mooney said, shaking his balding head and putting back a Merlot. “About fifteen hundred people vote in Aspen. Last year there was $2.5 billion in real estate transactions.”
We talked about how much had changed since the time both of us began coming here more than three decades ago. Back then, about a hundred babies per year were delivered at Aspen Valley Hospital; now the average is more than 300. Growth and development had always dominated local politics, and in that regard, nothing has changed—at least nothing for the better, in Mooney’s view. “We used to have a mom-and-pop ski town with old European-style hotels. Now, we have these new parked cruise ships at the base of Aspen Mountain,” he said, referring to the luxury hotels that have opened in the past several years. Mooney believes a setback in the battle against overdevelopment was the death in 2005 of long-time Aspen resident and activist Hunter S. Thompson. When Thompson was alive, Mooney and a group of regulars met weekly in Hunter’s kitchen at Owl Farm, in what many describe as “the command center of Aspen politics.” There they strategized about how to keep out what Thompson called the Greedheads, and limit development. In 1995, for example, the group successfully campaigned to prevent 737’s from flying into the airfield—today there are more than 150 commercial flights per week but no 737’s—using a now-celebrated campaign poster designed by the late artist Tom Benton, with the slogan There is Some Shit We Won’t Eat.
Now there’s a new fight brewing over the expansion of the airport runway. “Hunter would have been vicious about this,” Mooney said. “We lost the most powerful voice there was standing up for the little guy against big business.”
While we were eating, his phone rang. It was his friend, painter Paul Pascarella, another Thompson pal, who was coming to town for an exhibition of his work at the Magidson Fine Art Gallery, one of the dozens in Aspen that feature artists of national repute. “That’s the funny thing about this town,” Mooney said. “I don’t need to go to New York or Los Angeles to find out what’s going on. They come to me.”
I spent the next several days living so far above my means I almost expected to be arrested, which may not have been entirely unfortunate. I was, after all, homeless, and the Pitkin County Jail, I learned from the riffraff I was carousing with, has beautiful views, great meals, and free painting classes offered by Aspen artists. (One of the town’s most recent soap operas was the re-election of local icon and sheriff Bob Braudis to his sixth term, never mind that he campaigned for a time from an alcohol rehab center.)
I skied the fresh powder on Aspen Mountain, or Ajax, as the locals call it, and had one of the best meals of my life at Montagna, inside the luxurious classic Aspen ski-in, ski-out hotel, the Little Nell. There, 34-year-old wunderkind chef Ryan Hardy, a southwest finalist for the 2008 James Beard Awards, lists his olive oils on the menu like wine, and cooks up his delicacies with produce and meat—I devoured a juicy lamb sausage with rapini and mustard—from his own nearby organic farm. Another night, I went out to the Richard Russo reading at the Given Institute, a state-of-the-art conference center nestled into the oldest residential neighborhood in Aspen, where many of the homes still have the old Sears-catalog frames. Inside, the lecture-hall setting was formal—“Thank you for inviting me to the UN,” Russo joked when he took the podium—but the feel of the event was small-town tea party. Ski instructors, restaurant managers, former mayor Helen Klanderud, and others gabbed in the atrium before the event.
Afterward, a big group flocked through the snowy streets to the Victorian home of Lois Smith Brady, frequent author of the popular New York Times Vows column. A small, quick-witted blonde with a generous wine pour, Brady wove her guests together, and by the end of the night I found myself with her, Russo, and several others in the kitchen, all of us but Russo pledging to do the Bowl together later in the week. I tottered back to my hotel and, entertaining notions of missing my return flight for the next several years, decided to take a ride “down valley” the next day, where the area’s most rapid development has been taking place.