Thats the way they like things here, in this luscious, attractive, heavenly city, tucked away in the mountains. Nice and clear. Like the sky, a constant cerulean blue, except for the predictable, fast-moving, late afternoon eruptions.
Like the distinctive, black-and-white magpie or the rose-throated hummingbird that dart through the air. Like the well-marked trails, wholly absent of any litter, any debris. Like the sign near the Roaring Fork River in the Aspen Valley Land Trust: Fly fishing: all fish must be returned to water immediately.
Its the land of pretty people. And good calves. Lord, give me strength, I said, my first day on a hiking trail. Not easy for a flatlander from the Lowcountry, where the biggest hill is the five steps leading to my house.
Going up the hill isnt so bad, even if we were at 10,000 feet. Lots of heavy breathing, yes, but not without the proverbial second breath kicking in. Heading down -- or merely trying to walk the second and third day -- is another story.
Lots of little mincing steps work the best. And exaggerated stiff knees. Not the best way to negotiate steps at a concert hall, but when its a $10 rehearsal ticket to see a very casually dressed violinist Joshua Bell play in front of a full orchestra of equally casually dressed musicians (the first chair violist was wearing an Alan Iverson T-shirt) in the Aspen Music Festivals main tent, you suck it up and hustle to your seat.
The food may be pricey in Aspen ($6.95 for a pound of chicken at the supermarket) -- and the lodging (unless you have a generous cousin with a generous home in the generous hills of Snowmass) -- and the real estate ($6 million for a sweet little bungalow at the base of the mountain? Not uncommon).
But there are plenty of free or inexpensive concerts to attend during the annual summer music festival; free intown shuttles to ferry you to and fro; and the occasional free fly-casting lesson offered at the downtown Wagner Park, a lovely open, grassy space surrounded by mountains of many colors and dozens of yawning ski runs, now green, now strangely empty.
Theres buffalo and elk meat for sale at the farmers market. And during the week the downtown postman takes his dog along for company.
Theres plenty of free gossip to pick up, too, like an upcoming tribute to Hunter Thompson (on the next hill over), the house Jack Nicholson supposedly occupies, the recent appearance of Bill and Hill at the Aspen Institutes think-tank gathering. Thats when Hill compared Mr. Bush to comic-book character Alfred E. Newman, and where incoming planes at the small airport had to cool their heels for hours while the Clintons got settled and secured.
And -- once your calf muscles kick in - there are the generous and free bike paths along the circuitous, switchback twists of the well-known Independence Highway, which officials no longer bother trying to keep open in the winter.
Im not there yet; maybe next time.
This is a very impressive and challenging bike town but odd, too. While most bicyclists and kayakers wear helmets, apparently there is no law that says people on motorcycles have to. Weird.
For now, for me, Aspen is all about the hiking trails, the vistas, the surprises -- like the ice caves, a geological phenomenon some 3,000 years old just a few steps off the trail. It took a bit of negotiating to get into the caves, then a little more to cross the ice without slipping too badly, then enough to hoist oneself out again.
For now, for this trip, Aspen is all about the wildflowers -- and thats not counting the sage brush, the fir or the distinctive aspens, the ubiquitous white-barked, twinkling trees with random markings spotting the trunk that resemble individual eyes (and represent broken branches).
There are, the books say, some 600 easily spotted species of wildflowers. You could separate them by color (yellow, lavender, red or blue), family (aster, formerly composite; primrose, figwort, hellebore, mint, lily, rose and many more) or merely the pleasure you take in saying their names. Im opting for the latter.
Some of my favorites are the showy cow parsnip (celery family), the omnipresent penstamon (figwort), the Alpine pussytoes (aster),the little red elephant (figwort), rosy Indian paintbrush (figwort), the brook saxiflage (saxiflage), the poisonous monkshood (hellebore), the smelly sky pilot (phlox) and the popular columbine (hellebore), the state flower, which we saw in white, lavender and white and red.
But just when I was believing everything I was seeing -- the meadows, the babbling brook, the evening breezes -- I sat on my cousins deck and half-heartedly started looking for the black bear he warned me about.
Instead I saw a shovel. A serious shovel.
Thats it, I decided. For me Colorado will be about wildflowers, hikes and maybe some cycling. That and what the local rag can dig up to print.
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