Lost in Colorado

Someday in the not-too-distant future (probably the period between the Colorado Condo Revolution and the New Mexico Nursing Home Boom), someone will finally get around to publishing A Dictionary of the New West. The timeless volume promises to be indispensable both to new transplants and crotchety old-timers as they puzzle through the mysterious changes in this landscape we call the West. Within that thick text, stashed somewhere between definitions like Amax and Avon, the following listing is sure to make an appearance.

Aspenize (as’pen iz’) v. 1. The act of making something more like the Colorado community of Aspen. 2. To modify and transfigure a Western community into a playground for the rich. 3. To destroy a town’s innate character and replace it with rampant wealth, overdevelopment and an incredibly high cost of living. Syn – Disneyfy, Californicate.

For most of us, the word Aspenization needs no introduction. The trend has struck sleepy hamlets all over the Rockies, replacing the venerable dishwasher class with part-time residents; turning mining shacks into servants’ quarters; and installing Versace and Prada storefronts atop signs that once read “hardware” and “watering hole.”

Aspenize and Aspenization are also words that have been published in these pages dozens of times, as we mountain town journalists strive to get a handle on the new dynamic. They’ve hit print just as the finishing touches had gone on high-end Main Avenue penthouses. They’ve appeared as $2 million properties became more common in throwaway newspaper inserts. And they’ve taken form behind the rumble of the dozens of Hummers that now regularly patrol Durango’s streets.

I’m happy to report that the Durango Telegraph has been way off base.

Let me start by saying that I had the dubious distinction of taking my first breaths of this crazy world inside the walls of the Aspen Valley Hospital. Late on the afternoon of a mid-May day, my very pregnant mother with a small amount of assistance from her ski bum husband (see the Dictionary of the New West’s listings for Red Onion Bar and happy hour special for further explanation) brought me into being. The happy new family quickly smelled the winds of change, and two months later, we packed up the VW camper and pointed it for Southwest Colorado.

Call it paranoia or cosmic coincidence, but since that fateful day, it’s always seemed that the glamorous resort of Aspen has been reaching out its fingers to me. A sort of Ivana/Hollywood/Rockefeller aura has somehow seeped into and taken over my hometowns. One by one, the sleepy Colorado burgs I’ve inhabited have been steadily Aspenized – Telluride: gone; Crested Butte: on the way.

Call it a coincidence, but three weeks ago my wife, Rachael, daughter, Skyler, and I chanced across the Aspen town limits. In truth, I did want to pay the old birthplace a visit, and though we were bracing ourselves for chic and upscale, we also expected a little funk and gonzo spirit to

be propping up Aspen’s roots. What followed over the next two days was instead a blur of Land Rovers, tapas menus, Omega timepieces and plastic surgery masterpieces.

The first shock hit as we took in a late lunch. Following a meal of dubious quality – a medium pizza, three flat beers and a kid’s lemonade – a bill for $85 hit us in the purse strings. Stacked into the receipt was a 20 percent gratuity along with a less-than-charming 18 percent sales tax. The Sands trio decided to burn off the disgrace with a little time at the playground. Rather than grubby toddlers being casually watched by mountain folk, the park was littered with diamonds, fresh dye-jobs and summer fur (mink fringe on a light spring jacket). Stacked mothers whispered through cell-phones to personal trainers. Kids sported Abercrombie and Fitch.

After another 24 hours of cautious observation, I discovered that the mountain folk and the majority of the immigrant workforce actually arrived each morning at 6:30 a.m. They journeyed to Aspen from points as far off as Paonia and Rifle. At 5:30 p.m. each evening they lined up, boarded the bus and prepared to suffer through two- to three-hour commutes home.

A couple more hefty restaurant tabs, word that an in-town condo was on the market for the “reasonable price” of $11 million, a visit to the now defunct Red Onion (brown paper covering the windows, a “For Rent” sign prominently displayed) and a close encounter with a Porsche Cayenne were the final crushing blows. My 5-year-old daughter clinched it with a simple, “Dad, I think it’s time to go home now.”

Many hours and miles later, the three of us dropped back into downtown Durango. Our first view was of the classic Ford logo proudly adorning the wrinkled hood of a 15-year-old work truck. We parked, and a few bars of Rolling Stones met our ears as they leaked out of an eatery where $15.95 was the highest number of the menu. We then strolled by storefronts selling items like shoes, clothes, books and burritos. Passers-by smiled and nodded. It was good to be home.

Sure, Durango may have rising real estate prices, attempts at upscale dining and a few H3s cruising its backstreets. But our town also has something that places like Aspen have been missing since the era when my folks packed it in and pointed south.

That something is slinging hash browns in our restaurants, pouring pints at the local pubs, taking in the view on the River Trail, working our cash registers and still walking the streets freely. And knowing that we’re all still here making a living and giving it a go in Durango is what makes all the difference.

The truth is, I no longer see Aspenization in our future. We may be facing a strong threat of Junctionification. But Aspenization? Not this town.

– Will Sands

In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
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January 26, 2024
Paper chase

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January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows