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November 09, 1986|BILL ROLLINS | Rollins is a writer for Times Special Sections. and

ASPEN, Colo. — In the 1960s I was vacationing in Morocco when a stranger walked up to me in the bazaar at Marrakech.

"You must be from Aspen," he said. How had he guessed? Was it simply the hiking boots I wore, or by some osmosis had I become the place, perpetually windblown, my cheeks baked brown and my nose burned red like the Pitkin County dirt and rocks, as easy to spot as the Maroon Bells?

"You just looked like it," he said. The Aspen Skiing Corp. will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, and there will be a lot of looking back. I left Aspen in 1982 after living there for 16 years. I did some looking back of my own when I returned recently. It was a process of rediscovery and a chance to assess the changes and prospects.

It was 1953 when I first saw Aspen. I drove with five other Dartmouth students nonstop from Hanover, N.H., in a station wagon for a spring ski trip. We took out the back seats and lay a mattress over our boots and skis. Three stretched out and slept while three sat in front. We drove in two-hour shifts. It took us 48 hours to travel the 2,000 miles.

I had $125 and a box filled with canned food, crackers and peanut butter. My share of the gas was $30.

I had planned to sleep in the car, but spent only one night there, the rest on the floor of a room the others had rented.

With the $95 that was left, I was able to ski for two weeks. We were always among the first on the lift in the morning and the last at the end of the day. We skied top to bottom, except for occasional sprawls in Spar Gulch to gasp for air.

As in all skiers' fairy tales, it snowed at night and the sun shone during the day (I swear).

By the time I got back to Hanover and climbed the four flights to my room in Topliff Hall I was faint with hunger. My sunburned skin was coming off in big flakes, but I was madly in love with Aspen.

Three Dirt Streets

Aspen still had three dirt streets then. The only restaurants were the Golden Horn, the Red Onion and the Hotel Jerome. You could buy beer and see ski movies at the Roaring Fork Dormitory, too.

No stoplights yet.

I thought it was paradise and when, in 1965, I heard about a job there, I jumped at it even though it meant my pay would be cut in half.

I rented a log cabin for $95 a month.

It was a place of such overwhelming physical beauty, the sky so blue, the air so clear, it seemed you could count the needles on a pine tree all the way across the valley.

I watched the sun slant through dancing afternoon dust above the tables in the Jerome Bar, and watched my eyelashes magnified on the inside of my sunglasses as I rode the ski lifts.

Before the lifts opened and after they closed, I climbed Heart Attack Hill and skied the chutes on Independence Pass. One year you could see figure eights that Bob Craig and I made down Fourth of July Bowl through half of the summer.

I climbed Mt. Sopris and rode Jeeps up to the snowfield in Montezuma Basin.

Skied Almost Daily

During the season I skied nearly every day in the early years. After a while it became every sunny day, then every powder day. Finally, it was whenever.

I hiked and camped and caught trout for breakfast, heard the bugling of elk, fed horses, irrigated fields and planted aspen trees and lodgepole pines.

I wrote stories and played music, celebrated and survived the '60s, the full moons and the deep silences of the all-night snows.

In the beginning, the city was small enough that I knew most of the locals. Oh, the free spirits.

Freddie Fisher, who had been a member of the Spike Jones Band, never skied because, he said, "I'm too poor to go up and too smart to come down."

Fred Iselin, head of the ski school at Aspen Highlands, said, "When I started skiing my face was smooth and my pants were baggy. Now my pants are smooth and my face is baggy." Fisher and Iselin are dead now.

More People Came

As the years passed, more and more people came. Like drops of rain falling into a pool, they spread in concentric circles. Some bumped the circle I was in, but there were others I never touched.

Meantime, the streets were paved. Stoplights were put in to control increasing numbers of vehicles. The fumes and the smoke from fireplaces created air pollution. More lodges, bars and restaurants were built.

I resisted every change. How could paradise be improved?

The growth was too much for some. They left.

"All the good people have gone," some of my friends said. They hadn't. Good people were coming all the time.

I saw a horse ridden through the Red Onion, in the old bar and out the new. I bumped into John Wayne at the Mother Lode and Timothy Leary at a Christmas party.

Buckminster Fuller filled a notebook with linked triangles as I interviewed him at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. He wore a watch on both wrists, one for where he was and one for where he was going. "The universe is shaped like a pyramid," he said.

No Big Deal

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