When you pit the celebrated ski resorts of Colorado against each other, as plenty of winter-sports enthusiasts do, you consider them in terms of things like snowfall, topography, and altitude. You can also compare the qualities of the man-built towns themselves. Aspen, with its fur-coat crowd and five- star hotels, is easily the most glamorous of them all. It’s also hiding many layers underneath that rich and glossy surface.
Unlike Vail and Breckenridge, 20th-century towns erected expressly for ski tourism, Aspen has lived several lives before this one. It sprung up in the 19th century, courtesy of its abundant silver deposits. The boom lasted from 1880 to 1893; railroads and Victorian mansions appeared and the nights glowed with Colorado’s first electric lights. Mining tycoon and Macy’s co-owner Jerome Wheeler built two landmarks that still stand today, the Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House.
When the gold standard devalued silver, the action in Aspen cooled. The town went dormant, like the rest of the “Silver Circuit” that had once served as an exotic touring route for popular entertainers of the day. Aspen revived after World War II, thanks to a Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke and the newly chic sport of skiing and mountain’s first chairlift flicked on in 1946. Europeans started going up and down the slopes as well, building the emerging industry. One of them was Stein Eriksen, the man who started the lodge chain that bears his name. Another was Klaus Obermeyer, inventor of the down parka, who, at 90 years old, is still skiing every day.
Paepcke decided to host a celebration in honor the German poet Goethe’s 200th birthday in an attempt to establish Aspen as an international destination for art and leisure alike. The event was a head-scratcher for locals, but it was successful in that it attracted such notable figures as film stars Kim Novak, Lana Turner, and Gary Cooper, who went on to purchase 15 acres of land on which he built a vacation home.
A-listers aside, the town was still dominated by eccen- trics and pioneers back then, drawing in the counterculture in the sixties; rebels led by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who famously ran for sheriff. Thompson waged war with traditionalists and developers alike, and suggested the town rename itself “Fat City” in order to prevent Aspen’s re-branding as a luxury destination. Even as many of Aspen’s original charms remained, the town moved that way nonetheless.
“It possesses, in addition to great skiing, the things Boswell loved about London, brightly lit rooms, lively talk, women, drink,” the adventurer and novelist James Salter wrote. “Like London, it is no longer cheap.” That was more than thirty years ago and the expensiveness and internationality of the place have only increased since then.
That said, the locals still think of their town as special. The mountain weather manages to disrupt the arrival of private jets and, even though the Jerome Hotel was just recently renovated, the owners left the original features of the J-Bar mostly intact. Parts of the menu, too: you can still order the “Aspen Crud,” a booze-infused milkshake that Tenth Mountain Division soldiers would sneak during training in the forties. Try not to let it go to your head.