This trip is about roots, and routes, and ruts. Part of our roots is where the family started, and where it ended up. Both ideas are combined here in Snowmass.
Thirty years ago, my father, who worked for 33 years designing jet engines for General Electric, decided to find a place to retire. He'd grown up in Miles City, on the windy, radical high plains of Eastern Montana. He remembers skating on the frozen Yellowstone River in the winters, riding horses through the draws, and watching his father work as a deputy sheriff, banker, and rancher. His career took him and my mother first to Boston, then to Cincinnati, neither of which is much like Montana, or Iowa, for that matter. As a family, we'd take long car trips each summer, many times going to Seattle or California, where their families (parents and siblings) had ended up after WWII. On the way, whenever we drove through the Rockies, my father would light up, and seem more alive.
After a few years of this, my father, who'd always been an accomplished athlete (triple letterman his sophomore year at Annapolis - pitcher, point guard, and quarterback), took up figure skating after his fling with golf proved too dull. He cajoled my sister and me into joining him Sunday mornings, where we struggled with figure eights and dance routines. Maybe he remembered Sonje Henie, but in 1962, he took us to Sun Valley, so we could skate on their outdoor mesh-covered rink, and relax in the shade of Baldy and Dollar mountains, wondering why people would put up with the snow when they could enjoy the summer sun. Weekly ice shows featuring the employees fascinated my sister, and 2 years later, she went off on the UP train to Shoshone, Idaho, jumping off point for Ketchum and Sun Valley. That summer, she grew up, of course, enough to want to come back the next summer. By 1966, she was working at Christmas, too. The next year, she convinced my father, along with my mother and me, to visit her . My father (ever the intrepid investigative athlete) decided, at age 53, to try skiing. I would have none of it. A cynical college sophomore, I thought the clothes, attitude, and wasteful expenditure of money was way too pretentious. So I let him go off to rent skis and sign up for a lesson. (Don't worry, I'll get us to Snowmass soon!)
Well, he comes back that afternoon about as excited as I'd ever seen him in my life. He was an engineer through and through, always analytical and thoughtful, never impulsive, always careful and prudent with both his expressions and his money. He was practically jumping out of his skin, saying "You've just got to try this, this is the greatest thing I've ever done, all you do is put these skis on your feet, make a "V", lean to the right to turn left, left to turn right, and just slide, its so much fun, the wind, the air, the speed ...!" He went on like this for about 35 minutes, and finally convinced me to try it the next day. By lunch, he'd hooked the whole family.
That summer, we drove back to Colorado, to look for that retirement spot. He and Ida, his wife, decided they wanted some place with land, where they could see and be in the mountains, where people would come and visit them, not the other way around. They looked outside of Boulder, in Vail, and along the continental divide near Dillon (no lake there, then). We'd spent several summer vacations in Aspen, hiking the mountains, trying to fish, admiring the scenery. Harry thought he'd go back through there on the way to Glenwood Springs. As we were driving down into town, we heard on the radio a real estate ad pitching Snowmass, a new resort going up at the base of a ski mountain eight miles outside of town. We drove up to the village (set on the side of the hill), which was still very much under construction.
We sort of parked in the middle of the beginner ski slope, amidst the debris and dirt, while Harry walked to the office, saying "Wait here, I'll be right back. I just want to see what this is all about."
Well, he comes back about an hour and a half later, saying "I want to take you to this lot we're going to buy."
Our jaws dropped to the car floor. My father NEVER bought anything without thinking for two months, comparing a thousand prices, and making sure he wasn't swayed by the emotion of the moment. What he'd done during that 90 minutes was take a jeep trip with the salesman (who owned two lots down the "road" from the one Harry wanted) to the last of 14 five acre lots. Now he wanted us to see what he was so excited about.
We got there after 15 bone-cracking minutes in the jeep, and stopped on a ridge looking over a mountain valley 5 miles wide and long. To the south was a full view of all four Aspen ski mountains. Snowmass, the closest, was spread out before us covering half the sky, rising from the valley floor of 8000' to 13,400 at the top. To the east were several Colorado Rockies of the granite sky-scraping variety, still with a little snow in clefts and shaded gullies. To the west, thirty miles away, was the continental divide, with Mts. Massive and Elbert, the highest points in the state, peaking over the ridge line. Red and Smuggler mountains, which rise 3000 feet out of Aspen, made up the middle view. The foreground was a ridge to the north, and horses grazing in the ranch meadow below us. We saw at once what had entranced him.
Green like you imagine an English spring day after a shower; clouds building to thunderheads like fuzzy-bottomed anvils; blue so deep (less air up here to lighten the sun) you think you're looking into a mountain lake; and scrubby little man-sized oaks everywhere, with leaves like hands. Quiet and rustling wind, through the little aspen grove down the gully to the south. A perfect place to spend a life, to rebuild a life. Taking ten years to build their house, my parents then retired here, and spent the next twenty years bringing themselves to the community. Creating a wilderness area the other side of Snowmass ski area, spearheading affordable employee housing in the very maw of the super-rich, super-homes, saving an elk-herd's migration route across the valley below him (that horse ranch is now Horse Ranch, scores of homes, all quite elegant, but none so pretty as new-hayed field we used to see there) - these were the things my father devoted his life to. My mother started the Aspen women's forum, and built up a little of the culture this place is so famous for. Every year, we'd visit, and ski, and hike (and later, mountain bike). We all love this place - a great place to begin, and in some ways, to end.
So here I am today, writing down where my father ended up. Tomorrow, I will take his ashes across the valley to the cemetery plot he and Ida picked out. The one with a view right over to this house, shaded by the aspen grove in Hidden Valley. My mother, son, and I will, six months after his death last winter, thank him for once in his life being so impulsive and giving us this beautiful place to share together.
**Next Day's Journal**