Mild Dread and Some Aversion in Aspen

by Nate Freeman


When Hunter S. Thompson used to make the quick trip from his home in Woody Creek to downtown Aspen, he would stop at the J-Bar, the ancient watering hole that has soused up the tenants of its adjoining Hotel Jerome since 1883. “Right over there,” the bartender at the 19th-century artifact said, as I ordered a Stella. “Hunter would always sit in that corner.” The bar even has one of the iconic “HUNTER THOMPSON FOR SHERIFF” posters hanging there. And, yeah, it’s a genuinely classy place. It has a classic rust-bruised tin ceiling that would be “trying too hard” if it weren’t, well, real. Yes, Hunter might like this place. But hold on a second, you think to yourself. You’re in Aspen, and the people here blow.

There’s no doubt that Aspen is beautiful and lovely and historic, but it’s hard to think of the town without envisioning the nation’s wealthiest people frolicking around with their piles of paper; in the county, the median home price is now edging back up from the slump to $4.1 million. At midnight, when Time crossed the precipice into Our Lord’s Day of Freedom, I saw this town of Aspen epitomized by two divergent pieces of its lore: the work Thompson did near Aspen cementing his place permanently in the hands of rebellious tenth-grade readers the world over; and, on the other end of the spectrum, the unapologetic excess of the boys and girls who summer there on Daddy’s Dime. It’s impossible to think that the suffocating amount of Money Old and New wouldn’t rub Hunter the wrong way. I mean, wasn’t this no different from the sleazeball America that he encountered in Vegas? The America that the Godfather of Gonzo witnessed through a lens of hallucinogens and then promptly derided in the pages of the then-great Rolling Stone?

With this pre-judgment of the town firmly in place, I went to investigate the authenticity of Aspen’s Rocky Mountain-styled paean to the Amber Waves of Grain. I went looking for some “real” inhabitants of the town. Its current residents are mostly those escaping the smog and humidity of Texas and Miami summers.

A delusional sense of “belonging” can occur for these part-timers. Perhaps the heartfelt memories of consecutive summers spent sneaking cocktails at The Ritz and begging Mommy for another Burberry bag could amount to some sort of emotional citizenship. And on most days of the year, after a drink or twelve, I would acquiesce to these trust fund darlings the tenuous status of being a “local” of Aspen, Colorado-but not on Independence Day.

I wandered from the J-Bar-blown out by its song after song of seventies shit-rock-into the fabled Aspen village promenade. Look, it’s a store selling expensive shit! And, look, it’s people wearing that expensive shit! Entranced by the selling and wearing of expensive shit, I found myself in line for a bar where both these actions were best represented. After quick conversation with a girl whose dress was slipping down with precipitous speed-”It’s the place to be,” she said between drags on a cigarette-I descended the stairwell. There, nary an hour into the anniversary of this country’s independence, I witnessed The Youngs eating up the freedom all those wars purchased for them. Girls giggled almost loud enough to drown out the music, and they wheeled strap-heavy bags strung on their shoulders into the bathroom. (Though, full disclosure, many of these girls were off-the-charts gorgeous-hooray for good breeding!) Unfortunately, a cavalcade of bros rose up and corralled them to a booth where their bottle of Goose pricked up in the center of a silver ice-filled cylinder. All around, awful thirty- and forty-somethings squeezed their longnecks of Whatever Light so hard you’d think they were actually clutching the last vestiges of their long-lost youth.

I awoke the next day awash in the sunbeams of Democracy, but after the events of the previous night, and my general preconception of Aspen, I wasn’t exactly excited for the day’s parade. I expected to be surrounded by hordes of moneyed men in fresh-bought Stetsons donned only for the occasion, their wives with fried blonde hair cracking from botched procedures, their daughters standing by, eyes shielded from the sun’s rays by sunglasses that cost more than some cars. In person, their legs had no such shielding, however, and the sons of industry scions took quick notice of what ran down below those high-end Daisy Dukes. The Maid of Honor-America-seemed to be relegated to the second act.

But then something odd happened. As the parade started to roll down Main Street, directly in front of the Hotel Jerome, the cheering intensified. Girls on floats threw candy to the crowd. Items of clothing, regardless of the brand name, could be found hosting a likeness of our American logos stuffed into any possible location-I saw a flag and/or bald eagle on ball caps, stuffed into shirt collars and tank tops, everywhere. Then trucks rumbled down the street, and inside of them were veterans from Iraq, Vietnam, even Normandy Beach. And they, too, got immense cheers. They were even smiling, They were smiling and waving to the crowd.

It became nothing more or less than a Fourth of July Parade in an smallish town anywhere in America. And you could forget about the context of it all-no history of exorbitant wealth, no kids ordering bottle service with Daddy’s credit card, no bickering between the residents and the vacationers.

And I was one with them. I ran some system checks: I had no fear, I had no loathing. Maybe Hunter had picked the right bar after all.

Nate Freeman is a proprietor of The ## and a former columnist for the Duke Chronicle-and, when he’s done traveling, will be one of The Awl’s summer reporters.