An Aspen Phantasmagoria

What brought all this on was a man who passed me on the sidewalk of Main Street in Aspen, Colorado, one fine July morning. He’d be called a “big guy” by the polite; that is, he was well over six feet tall and appeared to be pregnant. His expression was mildly concussed, though most likely, that was just pot. Stretched across his beer belly was a drab gray, hip-length tee shirt sporting in firework colors the legend, BAZINGA!

Not an unusual sight in Aspen. But there are few unusual sights here. Anything and everything shows up, and nobody pays any attention. Incongruities rub shoulders without noticing one another. The motto seems to be “Never connect.”

This fact only started bothering me when I started to write. Writers invent connections, of course. That’s the job. But in most places, in most situations, there’s a pre-existing network of workaday relationships growing through time, a warp and woof. On that, we stitch a story. If you write about Aspen, you write without a net.

Chronology won’t help you. Aspen’s history is a series of jerks and starts. A mining boom created the town in 1879, but by the 1930s, population had dropped again to 700 or so. After WWII, the craze for skiing brought in small numbers of permanent residents and many more seasonal ones. In came the full-time ski bums and the part-time resort patrons. And money. And more money.

Finally, one Walter Paepcke, corporate executive, philanthropist, skier, music lover, founded the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Ski Corp. and the Aspen Music Festival and School on top of everything else. That was the Big Bang, and Aspen has been hurtling away from itself ever since. The ski bums, the potheads, the fat cats, the intellectuals all orbit their own kind and pass through the rest like neutrinos.

So here are a couple of weeks’ observations from the streets, restaurants and concert venues of Aspen. Make of them what you will.


The program announces Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major. The soloist will be Augustin Handelin, unknown to me. The concertmaster appears, wearing black tie. The conductor appears, wearing black tie. Pause. The soloist appears. He is dressed in a Nehru jacket of grubby white with matching trousers whose hems drag behind his heels. He stops, bows, smiles. Can it be? He seems to be wearing lipstick on a mouth (and none of us can help how we’re made) that has side extensions like the Joker in the Batman movies. Surely that powdery white is not his natural complexion? The Concerto has an extended opening before the soloist begins. He stands and waits, grimacing with overwhelming emotion. Or with something. I can’t watch. And then, note by perfect note, he takes the entire audience to Heaven with him.


Aspen is full of terrifying crones with long, jet-black hair (perfectly coiffed), gold jewelry of ball-and-chain weight, blood-red lips and eyebrows disciplined into the perfect accent circonflexe. They do not look like people who listen. Some of them, however, do take mountain hikes. Their presence lingers on the trail in the scent of Diorissimo.


Not all female denizens are slaves of the salon. The New England Puritan is well represented. From my seat at a window table of The Bakery, I watch a woman of a certain age with streaky gray hair, sitting at the bus stop. Her ironed blouse, shorts and vest are as neutral as her hair, spotless and rigorously ordinary. One knows that she bought the turquoise running shoes only because they didn’t come in beige. Beneath the crags of Ajax Mountain she sits, the New York Times folded beside her, atop a copy of The Atlantic.


A new(er)comer to the Aspen Institute complex is the Aspen Center for Physics. Here, people whose brains are of another order than yours or mine come to think about the nature of the universe in peace and quiet. But the Institute does its best to reach out to all sorts and conditions of men. Hence you may, if you like, attend a lecture tonight on “Engineered Magnetism in an Atomic Bose-Einstein Condensate.”


Just down valley in Basalt, Colorado’s newly legal marijuana industry is powering up. The selectboard will wrestle tonight with its own problems of physics: the mountain wind currents and the greenhouse exhaust fans are choking retail and residential districts with the skunky smell of cannabis bloom.


Way, way back in the seventh row of violins (Aspen orchestras run heavy to strings), sits a very small Japanese girl, perhaps 16 years old. She has followed the orchestra dress code: her blouse is white, her skirt and shoes black; she wears no jewelry. But her hair has been cut and dressed to fall in asymmetric wedges and some of it is caught up in a plastic clip shaped like Hello Kitty. She is clearly human, but a human modeled on an anime character crossed with a furry marketing behemoth. One assumes this was voluntary.


Is this just me? Are all these disconnects making me see grotesques where there are none? A scarier question: am I one of them, at least when I’m here?

About Heidi Wilson

I'm currently writing a mystery that takes place in New Hampshire and a novel about an artist who's working in Ireland and Hell. Former incarnations: stock market economist and professor of Greek. Go figure.

Posted on July 17, 2015, in Heidi Wilson, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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