March 2011


It’s been two weeks since I traded the 7 mile by 7 mile span of urban San Francisco for the solitude of small mountain towns and I must say, the transition from living amongst 815358 people in San Francisco to 6658 in Aspen has been surprisingly easy and delightfully quiet. The transition from 63 feet above sea level to 7890 feet, on the other hand, has been painful, marked with much heavy breathing, burning lungs, flakey dry skin. Fortunately, though, the average body requires at least two weeks to acclimatize to altitude. I’ve reached my first milestone and the hardest of breathing is over, whew!

Returning to small town life after so many months among the nameless faces of San Francisco, though, has been an easy breath of fresh mountain air. Life is just more simple, manageable, in smaller places where you have fewer options, less variety, especially for an indecisive person like me. I’ve noticed a shift in the quality of my interactions with others–people notice me now when I walk down the sidewalk and I notice them. Often times we share a hello, how are you, sometimes even a hey! hows it going? The bus drivers are even friendly and cosiderate. One morning I raced to the bus stop, skis and boots and poles hanging off me from all angles, coffee mug in hand, only to reach the stop as the bus rolled by. I swore, waved, swore some more and the red brake lights flashed. A hundred feet or so down the highway, the bus came to a stop and I dragged myself, ski gear and coffee mug over to it. Man, if I could count the number of buses I chased down in the city and not one ever stopped…

One of my ultimate favorite aspects of small town life is this: less theft. Unlocked bikes line the side walks, unattended skis rest outside of restaurants, parked cars often have keys in them, sometimes even in the ignition. I haven’t locked my front door once since I arrived. Sure, this is primarily a reflection of the fact that most of folks around here are well-off enough that they don’t need to steal from others, but it’s also reassuring to live in a place where people generally aren’t out to scavenge your belongings to buy drugs or otherwise better their lives somehow.

But mountain life has its drawbacks too of course. I do happen to be living in the most expensive town in America, and so eating or drinking out at any locale other than the restaurant where I work and get 50% discount is pretty much out of the question. So I read a lot. I work. I admire the mountains. I ski. I don’t pay for skiing (at $104 a day on any of Aspen’s four mountains, who could?), I prefer to ski up the ski slopes in order to ski down them, therefore procuring a full body and fully rewarding workout that sure beats a thigh master. On any given wander down the sidewalk in Aspen I encounter waify, anoretic mid-40s women wearing the latest by Gucci and Prada, far more concerned about their apres ski outfits than epic tales from the slopes that day. The men are as polished as the women, most of them sporting salt and pepper hair and roving eyeballs ready to snatch the attention of any young ski bunny who happens to stroll by.

If the men aren’t polished, they are the exact opposite–bushy bearded with unkept hair, donning down jackets with duct tape patches where the feathers started to leak out–the ski bums of the town that revel in steep, deep pow runs, pitchers of PBR and probably live in a van or on a variety of couches in the homes of slightly better off ski bums (most likely ski instructors for Aspen Ski Co, or excuse me, not ski instructors, Ski Pros as they distinctly call themselves). Gone is the middle class in this town, people here are either a member of the super rich out touristing for a week, staying in any of the predominantly four-star hotels in town or in their own mutli-million (or perhaps billion) dollar second homes; or they are a member of the die-hards, the mountain lovers who work day jobs and night jobs catering to the affluent just to afford employee housing and a ski pass. Gone from my day to day is the diversity of the city, now replaced by the disparity of wealth among a bunch of white folks, ski bums and a handful of Mexican (of questionable legality) immigrants that make up the great underbelly of the service industry.

Of course I’m making sweeping generalizations. In a place as extreme in wealth, natural beauty and superficiality as Aspen, sweeping generalizations are the rule, the norm. So outstanding is the difference between the upper crust and the lower crust that sometimes it’s tough to spot the thin layer of filling in between.

But boy oh boy, when the flakes are swirling down so thick I can’t see ten feet before me and I’m gliding telemark turns through powder up to my thighs, sharp cold mountain air filling my huffing lungs, legs working to the rhythm of the trees the snow the sky the slope, I am in heaven and all the rest of that stuff–those multimillion dollar homes and all those polished white people, that $12 burger, that $6 pint of beer–it all disappears, melts into the snow flakes, and I couldn’t ask to be anywhere else but here.

Extreme beauty–Aspen at sunset

It was a golden morning the day we left the city. I forced my eyes awake at dawn to walk Mina the two blocks to Alamo where we were greeted by early chill, dewy grass, sun splashed skyscrapers. We watched the light deepen and then soften as the day began. I strolled beneath the Cyprus canopies one last time, paused to admire the funky plant-filled kicks of the shoe garden, then called Mina and we walked down Hayes and up Fillmore back to 525. Two hours of packing, organizing and sweeping later, Brendan, Mina and I departed 525 Fillmore with a truck filled to the brim and two days of driving ahead of us. We crossed the Bay Bridge. The skyline shrank and faded. Fleet Foxes crooned through the speakers. Tears wet my hot cheeks. My chapter of city living in San Francisco ended.

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Then there was the road. Passage through the endless rolling greens of California, the squat ranch houses, the strip malls along I-80 East. Sacramento’s sprawled shape to the south. Central Valley fields, orchards, signs calling out ‘Fresh Pecans!’ ‘Walnuts picked today!’ Should we stop for one final fresh California nut? We pressed on to the pocketed roads that wind through Tahoe. At the exit arrow for Donner Pass Brendan and I share a glance, a smile, a memory of my birthday last October when we camped with Greta, Ale and Liz on a cliff in that high country. A weekend of mossy-treed hiking, alpine lake dipping, California granite climbing when something began that has gained momentum since. A smile shared between two, a feeling, an understanding.

On into Nevada, Reno, depart the interstate at Fenley, angle south to Rt. 50, the self-proclaimed loneliest road in America, one of my self-proclaimed favorite roads in America. Mindless hours spent gazing at the arid, nearly inhospitable flats and desolate mountain rises of Nevada provide perfect bridge between the past and the future–time and space for the mind to soften of its routine, to process, to daydream, to sit comfortably in that perfect state of being neither here nor there and so accountable to nowhere. Time and space to just be. There.

On and on the road it goes

A pause in Ely. Brendan played a $1 slot at Hotel Nevada–

(and by the way, did you know Nevada is pronounced with a long a, like Nevaada? A Chevron station attendant in Eureka told me so. He was a young kid, maybe 17 years old. He was hoping he could get a job in the mines. ‘The mines are still working?’ we asked. ‘Oh yeah, he replied, and the money’s good. You can make bout $11 an hour working up there. Lot more than this job,’ he motions to the gas pumps around him, the full garbage bag in his hand that he’s about to toss in the dumpster. I’m suddenly ashamed I’m moving to an affluent place like Aspen where illegal immigrant wages start at $11 an hour. Then he tells me, ‘and somebody’s gonna give you crap for this if I don’t say something. It’s pronounced Nevaada ’round here, not Nevada.’ So be sure the next time you cross through Nevada, draw out that ‘a’ like you were born to.)

But, back to Ely. In a weird, no good reason way, I love Ely. I love it for it’s weirdness. The one main drag through town is lined with casinos, cheap hotels, bars and hometown restaurants like the Jailhouse. From either east or west, it takes eons to get there but then you wind down this mountain pass and suddenly your right in the heart of the place. It’s just so novel. So we play a slot at Hotel Nevada, forgo the $.99 margaritas and bemused glances at the proud display of taxidermy gracing the dark smokey corners of the casino. We cross the street for a beer at the Outpost Lounge where the bartender and two gruff older men sit on stools eating takeout, drinking beer, talking town gossip. The place is empty save for them and us and we keep to ourselves, take turns on an electronic game called Gone Fishin’. Ely was cold, 30 degrees or so–and much colder than our softened city bodies were accustomed to. We readied for a brisk night under the stars and found just that at a highway turnout near the Utah border. Just like that–with no permits, sneaking in Mina, or worrying about being caught where we shouldn’t be–we set our tent on a snow patch on National Forest land, marveled at how we couldn’t pull that off in California.

The next morning, a salt flat gave way to Utah. The Wasatch appeared, faded. Sugar dusted red rock canyons lined I70. At the San Rafael Swell overlook we stopped for a look and found a Navajo woman peddling her clay vases, torquise and silver necklaces, dream catchers. She lives 30 miles north. She sells her goods at this interstate overlook nearly every day. That day was quiet, few other cars stopped while we paced the sidewalk, fingered rings, weighted clay pots. ‘This is how we make our living,’ she said. ‘There are no jobs on the reservation so we go other places. The lucky ones go to school.’ She asks what we do in Colorado. I tell her we ski, hike, enjoy nature. She smiles timidly, turns away, says she’d like to go someday. We buy a vase, a ring, too shy to barter, to give her less than a decent living on that slow Wednesday afternoon.

Why is the highway symbol of Utah a honeycomb? We ask each other as the canyon shadows grow longer. I’ve never seen honey from Utah, neither has Brendan. ‘Are there really that many bees here?’ ‘Where?’ We’ve come no closer to solving the puzzle when at last in fading light the sign appears:

We’ve made it!

Hours later, in charcoal cover of night, we arrive in Aspen, former silver mining settlement, now the ritziest, glitziest ski town in North America. If I had it my way, every new beginning would begin with a road trip–a moment to pause, glance around and appreciate these great United States we live in.

And now, it’s time to ski!