Eyes of Aspen
A change of scenery is always good for the soul, and this view should’ve had my spirit singing:
Atop a rocky outcrop on a pristine green mountain, I beheld a kaleidoscopic carpet of wildflowers cascading down a meadow, the town of Aspen, CO twinkling in the early morning sun below. Thanks to the westward time change, my body clock had awoken me before dawn, and instead of drinking an eleventh cup of tea I threw on my hiking shoes and clambered straight up the closest mountain to Ute Rock, a .9-mile, 2,000-foot climb that ought to come with a heart attack warning.
As I clumsily clambered—a middle-aged nanny goat who’s spent too many years at sea level—I passed a few athletic types already on their way down, which meant they’d gotten started in the dark. One tan man in reflective sunglasses stepped aside as I wheezed by, impatiently informing me that I had the right of way. The shimmering leaves of the famous aspen trees seemed to shake with laughter, the eyes of their white-barked trunks judging my poor form.
I arrived at the rock—which was not even close to the top of the mountain, by the way—with noodly legs and a bad attitude. I suppose I should’ve congratulated myself on not dying, but as I gasped the alpine air the dominant feeling was irritation. Irked by lack of sleep, jealous of people with good knees, annoyed with my body for aging.
And then there was something like shame for all of the above, also for not being ecstatic at the glorious vista, which I did try to appreciate for a few minutes but was overcome by the urge to return to my mother’s rented condo and eat pastries from Paradise Bakery.
According to our modern goddess and savior Brené Brown, the only way to resolve shame is talk about it, so I set the voices in my head to work.
Culture shock? Not out of the question. I’d jumped at the chance to visit Mom at her summerly escape to cooler climes, but I’d been unprepared for the chichi crowds of downtown Aspen, though who can be mad at the legions of Sheepadoodles (for real, there only seems to be one kind of dog here.) I immediately noticed a lack of Southern manners—what our own Duchess of State might call “manures”—in the way people carelessly jostled us on the flower-filled streets and conducted loud conversations with their stock brokers on the trails. As gorgeous as the surrounding scenery was, I found myself a little homesick for sweet courtesy between strangers, or at least an “excuse me.”I may have uttered a “bless your heart” to the excessively Juvedermed lady who cut in front of us in the froyo line.
Might it just be *all the things*? Even at 8,000 feet at a recreational playground for well-to-do grown-ups, there’s no escaping the actual world, especially with Mom’s MSNBC on the condo’s big screen tv. Abortion rights demonstrations across the country, the hideous murder of unarmed Jayland Walker by Ohio police, the grinding horror in Ukraine, Brittney Griner, the revelations of outright treason by the July 6 committee we fear could still be outshone by the clown show of repugnant liars—I guess it takes more than pretty flowers to distract from the constant roster of trauma and terror. But who was I helping by renouncing the beauty and wonder right in front of me?
Well, honey, it appears that your problem is in all your head. No shit, sherlock. Except this is where my eyes are, so what are we gonna do?
I remained crabby for several days after that onerous first hike—ok, maybe it was a bit of altitude sickness?—but I did my best the rest of the week to soak up the spectacular landscape and appreciate the company of mom, who in spite of being unable to walk too far these days manages to find fun around every corner, and my daughter, who will be moving into her college dorm in a few weeks.
We explored Aspen’s thrift shops and took an early shuttle to the nearby Maroon Bells mountain range, where we enjoyed the paved paths and a picnic next to an icy blue lake. We took in a free brass quintet concert at the library as part of the Aspen Music Festival and had an extraordinary meal at Jing, where we demolished a Peking duck and an entire fish. As I am wont to do in legal states, I of course paid a visit to one of Aspen’s many cannabis dispensaries, but I have to say the novelty has worn off.
The shame and irritation dissipated as I worked see to forgive myself for all the ways I fall short for myself and others, though I still couldn’t help judging the couple in matching Golden Goose sneakers who blocked the handicapped ramp in front of the grocery store with their Mercedes SUV.
One day we rode the gondola to the top of the mountain I couldn’t climb on my own and took a nature walk with Julia Lee, a guide from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. A native to the area, Julia led us along the ridge pointing out bunches of multi-colored columbine (Colorado’s state flower though the tragedy associated with it is the first thing that pops up on Google) and the tall towers of green gentian, which lives for decades but only flowers at the end of its life.
The charming young naturalist also pointed out the other nearby ranges of the Rockies, putting the land we stood on in context of how it has been valued in history: First by the Ute people who called themselves “The People of the Shining Mountains,” then by the miners who dug down deep for silver in the 1880s, after that by ski enthusiasts who appropriated the old mining cabins and by celebrities seeking respite (John Denver wrote songs about his home here, and Hunter S. Thompson once ran for sheriff).
Now as an upscale resort town with its own Prada store, Aspen has outpriced only but the wealthiest of permanent residents (sound familiar, Savannah?) and I cheered at Julia’s gentle but firm mention of the many people who commute up and down the mountain every day to labor and serve. But it was her tearful closing admonition that finally lifted the veil off my view.
“Conservation of wild places is not about commodity, it is about community,” she said with a catch in her voice as she paraphrased pioneer naturalist Aldo Leopold. “Its greatest value is in appreciating it exactly as it is.”
My last morning in Aspen I woke up early (I never did adjust to the time change) and pulled on my hiking shoes. But instead of following a hardcore trajectory towards a breathtaking panorama, I opted for the shorter, milder Ajax Trail, which clings to the skirt of the mountain and barely rises above the treeline.
Brené says that we “don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness” as long as we’re paying attention, so I just concentrated on the ground in front of me, hoping not to run into Mr. Reflective Sunglasses and trying not to think of the obligations waiting at home. I followed the trail through the woods, past cottonwoods drifted with white fluff and blue spruce trees as wide as a swimming pool until I burst into the sunlight out into a blooming meadow, Ute Rock shining above.
Before I knew it, I was gathering red paintbrush and bush sunflowers and singing like some kind of Sound of Music reject in high-waisted leggings. Here I was, finally able to witness the majesty of this magnificent place, my pettiness and insecurities receding to the back of my mind. Knowing I would soon be returning to the flat marshes and beaches I’m used to, I promised myself that I would try appreciate whatever scenery was in front of me, or at least get out of my head long enough to see it exactly how it is.
Then I sat eye to eye with an aspen tree, feeling no judgment at all.
Stay wild ~ JLL
Savannah Sideways is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.