Natural selection

Aspen may be a magnet for the glamorous ski set but the Colorado city has a wealth of attractions in the summer, too - even for non-musical Asians, Jeff Chu reports.

Jeff Chu

In winter, it's a playground for the rich and the beautiful. In summer, thanks to the Aspen Institute - which regularly convenes gatherings of world leaders, chief executives and other talking heads - it has become an intellectual Valhalla. So when friends suggested a trip to the city, to hike in the Colorado Rockies, it was with fear, trembling and an eye on my credit line that I agreed.

trumped by my fear of falling off a mountain as we drive the harrowing road from Denver, the nearest major airport. Wealthy visitors may land their jets at Aspen's much-smaller airfield, but they miss the legendarily curvaceous route over Independence Pass, 3,650 metres above sea level. In parts, the roadway, impassable during the snowy season, narrows to the width of one car. Nearly as dangerous: the entrancing, eagle's-eye vistas of ice-topped peaks and verdant valleys.

Aspen in Colorado, the United States, is verdant after the snow.

We make it safely to Aspen, which sits tucked in a deep valley. Shortly after our arrival, we attend a concert at the Aspen Music School. We don't have tickets but, years ago, philanthropists endowed the lawn around the open-air symphony hall so that anyone can attend concerts for free. We can hear but not see the musicians and, as I lay on my back, watching the silver-green leaves of the town's namesake trees shimmy in the breeze, as if dancing to the music, it feels as though I have the best seat in the house.

The featured soloist on this occasion is violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, performing Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No1 in G minor. Perhaps there's no better metaphor for this resort town than this romantic masterwork. What is Aspen if not rich, magically melodious and, perhaps, slightly too popular?

Aspen has blue-collar roots. Settled as a mining camp, a silver boom in the 1880s drew thousands of prospectors. As in many mining boomtowns, Chinese labourers came too. In Aspen, they were met with disdain. editor B. Clark Wheeler icily suggested they go instead to America's Deep South: "People down there do not object to cheap labor," he wrote in the 1890s. "The Chinese would take the place of the emigrating darkies."


After the boom, came the bust: the population dwindled. Then, after the second world war, Aspen was reborn as a ski town and cultural centre, thanks largely to industrialist Walter Paepcke. He co-founded the Aspen Skiing Company and orchestrated a 1949 gathering called the Goethe Convocation, which drew luminaries including humanitarian Albert Schweitzer and architect Eero Saarinen.

The ski slopes Aspen built its reputation on.

"One after another, convocation guests gushed over Aspen's scenic majesty, the clearness of its air, the sense of remoteness from all things modern, the casual mood of the gathering places and streets," historian William Philpott writes in his book . "Aspen's example showed that once aura or atmosphere became itself the marketable commodity, virtually everything about a place was set for change."

Aspen is home to about 6,600 permanent residents, but its population nearly quadruples during peak ski season. The city's reputation has pushed house prices to aptly mountainous levels. The neat grid of streets is lined by houses that don't look like they should cost many millions of US dollars, yet do. Lush landscaping offsets the tidy restraint of the residential architecture; in summer, gardens sparkle with the jewel tones of peonies and snapdragons, delphinium and dahlia.

Like many ski towns, Aspen has a bohemian, independent streak. So you'll find shops such as Explore Book-sellers nestled inside a Victorian house on East Main Street. In addition to an excellent selection of novels and cookbooks, the store has an airy restaurant upstairs, with a pleasantly shaded deck where you can sit with a glass of wine and a slice of cake. And the Aspen Institute's annual big-think gatherings continue the convocation's tradition; tickets to panel discussions are available to the public.


Today, the tourists are the mines, ready to be plundered for their silver. A procession of megabrands lines Aspen's shopping streets - Dior, Valentino, Louis Vuitton, Dolce and Gabbana - alluding to the average visitor's fortunes. Even local establishments can be shockingly expensive. A simple plate of pasta can cost US$30. You could cook for yourself, but at the Butcher's Block - a simple meat-and-fish shop - lamb chops and salmon sell for an exorbitant US$40 a pound. Which, frankly, is pennies compared with the cost of the plastic surgery evident on the faces of many women (and a few men) in town.

A section of Independence Pass.

As I wander around, it strikes me that, even outside snow season, this town might be the whitest place I've visited. The prevailing stereotype seems to be that if you're Asian, you must be a student at the music school.

One morning, we hike the Ute Trail. It's breathtaking, and not just in a metaphorical way; it starts in town, at 2,400 metres above sea level, and climbs, over a series of thigh-punishing switchbacks, to 2,800 metres. As we descend back to the valley, an older woman eavesdrops on my chat with three (white) friends. I am recal-ling my distant exchange-student days in Belgium when she interrupts.

"You're a student?" she asks. I laugh and reply that, while I am flattered, I'm actually 36. Looking puzzled, she then says: "But you are a musician?"

The artifice in the town centre only amplifies the natural magnificence of the surroundings. Head for the Maroon Bells Scenic Area and trade the smooth plains of Botoxed foreheads for soaring peaks and crystalline lakes. The Maroon Bells - mountains that tower 4,000 metres above sea level - provide a majestic backdrop for hikes that dip and wend, skirting streams and traversing aspen forests. In spring and summer, the alpine meadows fill with the blossoms of wild columbine, and marmots and pika scamper among the boulder fields. Come autumn, the aspen leaves turn yellow, as if a grandmother had thrown her golden afghan over the hills.

Boutique shops and cafes line one of the city's leafy streets.

Entry to the Maroon Bells area - US$10 per vehicle - is perhaps Aspen's best bargain. It's no hidden gem: on a beautiful day, the trails can be crowded with young scouts, rucksack-carrying campers and elderly ramblers armed with hiking poles. But we share the space happily, because our setting is so spectacular that you wish everyone else could see it, too.

As I emerge from the shade of a stand of aspen into a sunny field dotted with scrubby pines, I spot a small, greyish warbler. It zips from tree to tree just ahead of me, its orange-streaked chest a beacon marking my path. When I stop to regard it, it chirps a few notes, as if to say: "Let's go."

A few steps later, it happens again. And then again.

Were it not for my friends down the path, I would stand here all day, taking in scene and song - the whole wondrous and inexplicable symphony.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Natural selection