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Aspen--as Seen Through the Eyes of a Non-Skiing, Undemanding Admirer

September 14, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

I practically never take issue with my famous downtown associate, Jack Smith, whose column has enriched The Times for so many years. But his recent weeklong series of columns about Aspen, Colo., left me feeling some twinges of pain. Maybe if it weren't September . . . maybe if I weren't so envious . . . maybe if I didn't love Aspen so much.

Smith and his wife spent a week in late August in Aspen, and he wrote four columns there. As always, they were warm and funny and sharp in their observations. But they were also surprisingly detached, rather like talking about one's second cousin, the one who is good-looking but has a lot of personality problems. Aspen needs to be addressed as a lover. Traffic jams and waste barrels on the mall and housing shortages are for Buffalo and Anaheim. Not Aspen. That's like focusing on the frame of the Mona Lisa.

The season made this doubly difficult for me because every September, I think about Aspen a lot. Especially if I'm not going to go there--and I'm not this year. All of this started about 15 years ago when my youngest daughter decided to attend Colorado State University. We discovered Aspen en route, and I've been in love ever since. And I don't even ski.

I'm talking about the Aspen of summer and fall. The Aspen of deep greens and rich golds. Of warm days and crisp nights. Of cascading streams and splendid waterfalls. Of prices within reach and restaurants without waits. Of a transient population devoted to music and hiking rather than skiing and schmoozing. I've never been to Aspen in the winter and probably never will go. But as Lancelot sang to Guinevere in "Camelot": "I've known you in autumn, and I must be there."

Jack Smith didn't see that Aspen, which dismays me because I think he and his wife would have loved it. I understand his physical limitations, but there is so much that can be done by car in and around Aspen. Dozens of hiking trails begin alongside streams or within rocky canyons that can be enjoyed without walking more than a few feet from the car. The 11-mile drive to Maroon Lake is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen, splendid in the summer and ethereal in the fall when the aspens turn golden. Maroon Lake lies like a placid mirror, reflecting the images of the two stony peaks known as the Maroon Bells.

I remember vividly standing once on a tiny footbridge near Maroon Lake, staring at a darting, dancing stream beneath my feet at a difficult time in my life. I stood there for almost an hour watching the water and learning from it. When the coursing water hit impediments, it didn't just batter itself senseless against them; rather it divided, went around them, and joined on the other side.

And while the course of the stream was defined by the path it had cut through the rock, thus providing parameters for its behavior, it was full of a wide variety of eddies and whirlpools and currents within those parameters that made for constant change while it headed for an unknown destination without fear or constraint. Maybe these thoughts weren't profound, but they helped me greatly at the time, and they also consummated my love affair with Aspen.

To me, the spirit of this town was caught a few years ago by two young men with access to a printing press who created out of whole cloth a school called the Aspen State Teachers College. They wrote higher education's most exotic curriculum and even invented a football team whose schedule--only against top-ranked teams--was somberly posted in store windows around town. The Aspen football team always scheduled Nebraska or Miami or Notre Dame for its home opener, and a ragtag team would show up, at the downtown soccer field clad in ancient football gear, wait a decent length of time, then proclaim a victory by forfeit. It was wonderful fun.

So if you ever weigh Aspen in the fall, consider these ephemeral elements along with parking and traffic problems, escalating prices, a growing group of homeless and environmental incursions. It has to be one of the more beautiful retreats in the world.

And while we are talking about fellow columnists, let's tip a glass to another who--I suppose--was technically a competitor, although I never regarded him that way. Bob Emmers has written his last column for the Register and is off to Springfield, Mo., to write the book that all of us in this dodge are forever talking about doing.

Emmers was a strong, thoughtful, gutsy and provocative voice in Orange County, and he is going to be missed. He took on people and issues that needed taking on in ways too seldom heard in these parts. He never backed away from writing about outrages perpetrated by public officials, and I think all of us who live in Orange County benefited.

The step he's taking now is also gutsy. There's nothing more frightening to one accustomed to a regular pay check than being alone with a typewriter, paper, vacillating determination and a book that still exists only within one's head. I hope he writes a best seller, peddles it to the movies and uses part of the proceeds to buy a park in Santa Ana where the homeless can store their bedrolls without fear of confiscation. That'll show 'em. Good luck, Bob Emmers.

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