Secret Season

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But this all takes place in a setting of overwhelming natural beauty. My visit came in late September, when the aspen trees that climb the mountains turn from green to gold in “a great unrestrained yelp of piercing yellow,” as the historian Patricia Limerick puts it. An avid nonskier, I can’t imagine a better time of year to visit. The days stretch mild and sunny, and with the summer crowds gone and the winter hordes yet to descend, locals claim this as their secret season.

Aspen Gold at a bend in the Crystal River near Redstone.
 
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The quaking aspen, so named for the shimmer of its leaves, is a signature of the West, sprouting from an unusual root system. A swath of aspen gold may sweep across a mountain range as far as the eye can see. Yet the trees all share a common root, making them one of the largest organisms on earth. This botanical feature may (or may not) explain the cryptic note Lewis “Scooter” Libby sent to the imprisoned journalist Judith Miller last year: “Out west, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters because their roots connect them. Come back to work—and life.” A coded message or a poetic flight? Perhaps by the time the aspens of 2006 put on their show, we’ll have an answer.

The two million acres of public lands that surround Gunnison and Crested Butte are easily accessible for hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting. Despite a century-long struggle between competing interests that bubbles up from time time, a certain amity prevails between the ranchers and environmental activists who have worked over the past two decades to create what one writer calls “some of the most effective land conservation partnerships in the country.”

I enjoyed a sense of the peaceable kingdom that can exist in this corner of Colorado while driving a stretch of dirt road quaintly designated Jack’s Cabin Cut-off, named for Jack Howe, who homesteaded there in 1875. The narrow rutted road led eventually to Harmel’s Ranch Resort, a dude ranch bordering the Gunnison National Forest, owned and run by one family since 1959. While others spent the morning horseback riding and fly-fishing along a beautiful stretch of the Taylor River, I was content with a stroll along its banks and then settled on the sunswept terrace to listen to the music of water rippling over the rocks below.

Wherever I went, whatever town I stopped in, I would hear, “We don’t want to become another Aspen,” where, as the joke has it, “the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires,” not to mention longtime residents of more modest means. I could see the truth of this on my first walk along streets crammed with shops bearing the names of Bulgari, Christian Dior, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton. But it didn’t take long to peer beyond this shiny surface into the layers of Aspen’s past.

Silver strikes in the 1880s brought the raffish mining camp a brief flare of prosperity. For two years, starting in 1891, it produced one-sixth of the nation’s silver, drawing such investors as Jerome B. Wheeler, president of Macy’s in New York City. He built the Jerome Hotel, still the jewel of Aspen, but he looked after the town in other ways too. As a pamphlet celebrating the Jerome’s 100th anniversary points out, “he was determined that [Aspen] not become another boom and bust silver camp, drained of its riches and left dead in the dust.” He saw to the planting of trees and flower beds and financed a handsome three-story opera house that still stands.

Aspens Jerome Hotel maintains its 1890s elegance.
 
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It was hard to believe, after my very agreeable, if brief, stay at the Jerome, that by the Second World War it had endured decades of neglect. These days, after several changes of ownership and a late-nineties refurbishing, it shines with all its Victorian confidence. What I found most extraordinary during a tour of the hotel was how much of the original fabric of the place—fixtures, paneling, even wallpaper—had survived the bad days. The lobby’s floor, for instance, is a checkerboard of brown and cobalt blue tiles, the latter infused with streaks of gold. The brown are reproductions, but the blue, if damaged, can be replenished from a precious stockpile recently discovered in the basement. The hotel’s accommodations are spacious and bright, offering magnificent mountain views, and much of the furniture is the original Eastlake, an American version of William Morris.

Aspen’s modern savior was the Chicagoan Walter Paepcke, along with his wife, Elizabeth. The founder in 1926 of the Container Corporation of America, he made it pre-eminent in its field. Although Paepcke liked to refer to himself as “only a prosaic box maker,” he was truly a visionary who gained inspiration from the University of Chicago’s Great Books program and the teachings of Mortimer Adler.