“Oh, it’s not nearly as bad as it can be, that’s for sure,” Christy Sax tells me from behind the counter at Paradise Bakery on Galena Street. “But don’t come by in the evening,” she laughs, handing over my morning cappuccino and banana nut muffin. “It might not feel so quiet.”
Aspen, the skiing Mecca in the Rockies of western Colorado, long ago gave up trying to keep its idyllic summers a secret. Statistics will tell you that the hiking and soft breezes draw nearly as many visitors as when its four mountains are covered in fluffy powder.
But not this year.
With international borders open again, Americans are flooding to Europe in record numbers. The result is that playgrounds like Aspen have been left, if not quite deserted, then considerably less crowded than usual.
“We were crazy over the pandemic” James Parker, who manages AspenX outfitters, assures me while he fits me with an e-bike and pampers me with a latte, sunscreen, hat, water bottle, and moist towelette. “Everyone’s gone somewhere, and we’ve really settled down.” James directs me out toward Aspen’s famous Maroon Bells, the twin 14,000-foot mountains in White River National Forest southwest of town and perhaps the most photographed symbol of this Eden.
After what should be a strenuous climb becomes an easy (and only slightly guilty) glide when I switch my e-bike to Turbo power, I find the bike-rack nearly empty and the park peaceful. A pair of fishermen stand thigh deep in Maroon Lake and flick their flies, a lone painter captures the purple and yellow wildflowers, a well-antlered buck strides across the deserted walking trail. Cindy Scholler, a volunteer with the Forest Service confides, “Oh, we’re way down this year, I’d say 40% (then she confesses to “just making that statistic up”).
Back in town, restaurants that might have been booked out weeks in advance, offer an easy welcome. At the local favorite, Meat & Cheese, I grab a seat outside and savor a quesabirria taco. At French Alpine Bistro, a nook of a place down a flight of stairs that transports me to the Alps, I’m plied with a hearty boeuf Bourguignon. And over on Hyman Avenue, part of Aspen’s pedestrian walkway, the recently opened and wildly atmospheric Madame Ushi serves an inventive menu including a perfectly prepared Branzino followed by a melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu beef sushi.
The doors of Aspen have been swung open. I’ve even found a fluffy pillow and elegantly casual welcome waiting at the normally booked-up Little Nell, Aspen’s premier lodging at the base of the gondola.
The only place I hadn’t expected a crowd (and am not disappointed) is hiking up to the top of Castle Peak, one the “14ers” that are readily accessible from town. Scrambling over loose scree along an exposed ridge near the summit, my guide from Aspen Expeditions, Nate Rowland, echoes what I hear all week, “Our numbers have dropped way back, and thank God. We were at an unsustainable level.”
At the summit, clouds shroud us and wind raises goose bumps—it’s a lonely exhilaration and difficult to imagine anyone else at all. When the clouds clear for a moment, the view stretches and a range of mountains recede, each fading to a softer pastel, then we’re swallowed again in mist.
I tell myself I deserve a reward after such exertion and in the gloaming make my way back to Paradise Bakery for some of their locally famous ice cream. A man with a leaf blower chases a single, rogue leaf across the street before blowing it into submission and I turn the corner. A crowd fills the small brick-laid park in front of the shop, the benches are packed, there’s laughter and shouts, everyone indulging in a cone or dipping a small spoon into a cup of pistachio or chocolate. The line to order stretches out the door. When I finally approach the counter, I see Christy, who made my morning coffee, and catch her eye.
She indicates the throng and shouts to be heard, “Welcome to Aspen.”
Andrew McCarty | Robb Report | September 27, 2023