Julian Rubinstein

star 2009 Lowell Thomas Travel Writing Award, Bronze Medal, Society of American Travel Writers, for best magazine article about a U.S. or Canadian destination

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From Travel+Leisure Magazine January 2009

Aspen, Colorado

A precipitous return to one of the most intoxicating places on the planet.

By Julian Rubinstein

It’s around lunchtime in Aspen’s roaring Fork Valley, and I’d like nothing more than to tell you where I’m spending the afternoon. Only I can’t, because—as I myself have just accepted—I don’t know. I spent the past 40 minutes riding in the back of a Sno-Cat (fine) and then hiking (skis strapped to my back, but also fine) up the spine of a 12,392-foot peak. The so-called plan, known only to me, was to ski down the legendary Highland Bowl and then celebrate my accomplishment in, at minimum, a bar-serviced hot tub. This notion, however, appears to have been predicated on my live arrival at the summit, and as the panoramic Rocky Mountain–top view I had been enjoying disappears into a dark snow cloud, I soberly recall that my expedition began at the suggestion of an Aspen Times sex columnist whose dog, I knew damned well, was on the antidepressant Lexapro.

The wind whooshes and I steady myself with my poles, trying to enjoy the bitter cold. The thin ridge I’m ascending falls off so precipitously on either side that a few minutes ago, I couldn’t bear to look down. Now I have no choice. All I can see is my own lumbering ski-boot tracks. One unfortunate tilt to the left or right and the phrase early retirement takes on a whole new meaning.

Photo: Martha Camarillo

Photo: Martha Camarillo

Life-threatening was not what I had in mind when I planned my trip to Aspen. Then again, I was, upon my departure, between apartments and living out of a Manhattan Mini Storage unit. Aspen, I thought, promised something safe and familiar, a respite. It was a place I’d been going to since I was a child in Denver in the 1970’s. There were lots of beautiful destinations within striking distance, but Aspen, in the eyes of many Denverites, was not only the most picturesque mountain town around, but also the most authentic. Unlike resorts such as Vail or Breckenridge that were erected for ski tourism, Aspen has real history in the 19th-century American West. In 1893 it was the nation’s silver-mining capital, with six newspapers and a population of 12,000, when it went bust after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (which had briefly switched the country’s monetary standard from gold to silver). Remnants of that era still exist in the limestone buildings that line the downtown streets, and in the splintered Smuggler’s Mine chutes outside town where I used to climb.

As I became, by some measures, an adult, I continued to return to Aspen, and it was always the first place that came to mind whenever I was asked to name my favorite spot in the world. Usually I went in the summers, camping and hiking for several days in the shadow of the purple-hued Maroon Bells mountains, and then returning to town to partake of the wonders of plumbing and the excellent classical music put on by the Aspen Music Festival. Aspen, for me, was always a place of contrasts: rugged and pristine, sophisticated and simple.

But as the years went by, I began to notice that more and more people had their own opinions about Aspen, and invariably they were quite different from mine. While I continued to see Aspen as the eccentric, arts- and civic-minded town where Hunter S. Thompson once ran for sheriff, promising he wouldn’t eat mescaline while on duty, the wealth and celebrity Aspen had attracted since the days I started going—from Jack Nicholson to the Saudi Prince Bandar—created the impression that Aspen was like a Beverly Hills in the hills. The truth was, I thought, as my flight began its vertiginous descent into the snow-covered valley, I hadn’t been back in several years, and I had no idea what I would find.

When I stepped onto the tarmac, the late afternoon sun was bathing the valley in a pink-and-gold light. Behind me, the windows of the multimillion-dollar houses on Red Mountain glinted like diamonds. Along the edges of the airfield, snow was piled easily 10 feet high. This was a disquieting reminder that it had already been a historic ski season. (So much snow had fallen that the town had to hire trucks to cart it away. “I’ve been here 30 years and I’ve never seen a winter in which people actually said, ‘No more,’ ” Lon Winston, the director of the Thunder River Theatre Company, told me.) Disquieting, I say, because in my rush to get out here, I’d neglected to pack anything to ski in.

“Correct,” I said into my cell phone, to a man I’d been referred to. “Pants, gloves, hat, goggles, jacket. I have nothing.”

“No worries,” the voice on the other end said. “See you in fifteen minutes.”

I hopped the shuttle to my hotel on the outskirts of town, the Aspen Meadows Resort. A sprawling property designed in Bauhaus style, Aspen Meadows is best known as the home of the venerable Aspen Institute. Founded in 1950, the institute has—especially in the almost four years since its president, Walter Isaacson, inaugurated the Ideas Festival—vaulted to the top rung of world conferences, filling the town each summer with more VIP’s and plainclothes security men than an underground bunker during the apocalypse. Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama, and Jordan’s Queen Noor are among the hundreds of luminaries who have passed through for public panels and talks under the same white tent that the Music Festival uses for its performances. When you throw in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, no place in the world remotely as small as Aspen (population 6,000) can boast such high-powered cultural institutions. I was pondering this outside the new and spectacularly designed Doerr-Hauser event and art space when a Jeff Spicoli–style van pulled up in front of me, and out jumped a sunburned, long-maned man wearing ski pants and a black turtleneck. “Sorry I’m late,” said Lorenzo Semple III, 41, shaking my hand. “You caught me right as I was coming off the Bowl. Absolutely epic.” He slid open the van door, revealing two hanging racks of ski apparel. “Suit Yourself,” he said, stating the name of his business. Aha, I thought: I’ve arrived.

As I assembled an outfit, Semple and I covered an array of topics I’d never found so riveting—for example, lawn mowing, which he does all summer. Semple was dramatic in a good way, a true enthusiast, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that he is the son of legendary screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Three Days of the Condor), the man he calls “my hero,” and who first brought him to Aspen more than 30 years ago. Semple still has some Hollywood in him—he ended a cell-phone conversation with a phonetic kiss, “Mwah”—and I couldn’t help but think he perfectly embodied the grit and glamour that make Aspen so unique. “I have two religions,” he said. “Mountain biking and skiing. This year my goal is to get 200 runs on the Bowl. So far I’m at 152.”

Everywhere I went, people were talking about “the bowl”—which, in an outdoor fantasyland like Aspen, is nothing to shrug off. Ice climbing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing to a mountain chalet—it’s all here. Plus, Aspen is one of the only resort towns in North America with four separate ski mountains, 5,285 acres of terrain, all of it world-class. But the Highland Bowl—on Aspen Highlands mountain, a free 10-minute shuttle away from town—is one of the largest bowls in the world that is entirely “in bounds,” meaning that it is maintained by the ski patrol. It had only fully opened in 2002, after I’d last skied Aspen, and I knew this time I would have to take it on.

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