On Parole in Aspen

Apr 21, 2017 | Adventures in Travel

Aspen had been a rough and tumble town once, roiling with grizzled silver miners digging their way to imagined riches. And some had succeeded. Fifteen thousand people lived there by the 1890s. It had culture, too. An opera house and a grand hotel, both built by a founder of Macy’s department store in New York, who had discovered Aspen not long after the miners had. Oscar Wilde had even visited the neighboring town of Leadville teaching the miners aesthetics and galvanizing their spirits with tales of the rambunctious Renaissance artist and silversmith Benvenuto Cellini, stirring them to a barrage of pistol fire in Cellini’s honor. But that Rocky Mountain glory suddenly ended when the country went off silver in 1892, despite William Jennings Bryan’s rousing protest to the Democratic convention of that year about crucifying the country on “a cross of gold.” Aspen pretty much died, like all old west silver towns. Until it came to life again half a century later with the arrival of skiing and an infusion of new money and culture.

Within a few decades, it had become one of the glitziest vacation retreats in the world. Old Victorian houses once teetering toward collapse sold for fortunes, and movers and shakers and movie stars and billionaires erected palaces on the mountain sides and up secluded valleys. In the ski season hotel rooms could practically cost blood, like silver in the old days. And glamorous parties lit the nights. In summer, visitors flooded to outdoor concerts, and the prestigious Aspen Institute drew notables to high-minded seminars and high-powered conferences at its campus on the outskirts of town. This was a place no socialite or celebrity or influence monger could miss out on. A capital of the glitterati and the culturati and the oligarchy and policy makers, all together in a dressed-up old west town surrounded by multi-million dollar mountainside estates.

I had come to be with them. Well, not really. I had never cared for that kind of scene. But I had been invited to participate in a conference on human rights at the Aspen Institute and figured it would be worthwhile. It was. Still, I found the socializing around the conference wearing thin pretty soon. So, one evening I wandered into town past trendy restaurants and fashionable boutiques and eventually ran across a liquor store that looked like it had been there in times past and had a loyal clientele. I went in and asked a rugged guy if there is an old pub or something like that where locals go for relaxation and conviviality. He answered, “Harold’s.” It was owned, he told me, by a crusty family who viewed the modern Aspen renaissance with a jaundiced eye, and whose down-town property, worth millions, they clung to defiantly as a haunt for working people who wanted to escape the glitter and the culture that had engulfed the town. Sounded like my kind of place.

I tracked it down on a narrow street a few blocks away tucked into a line of gentrified old commercial buildings. It seemed to have survived the silver mining days and been brushed up like its neighbors during Aspen’s “restoration” but then allowed to decline again into a more fitting rustic state. “Harold’s” read a florescent sign over the door. Signs for Coors and Budweiser beer blinked in small windows on each side.

I pushed open the creaky door and met a haze of cigarette smoke. It occurred to me that the place could be violating ordinances against smoking in such establishments, but the smoke was a welcome throwback to the past in this ecology-health-culture-celebrity-obsessed town. Inside I paused to take in the scene. No beautiful people here. The bar was lined with the denim- and leather-clad backs of gnarly guys and of a few hearty gals all bellied up to pitchers of beer. Nearby other denizens gathered around pool tables in serious play. I made my way to a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered a pitcher of my own. After scanning my fellow barflies I swiveled to study the room. Many of the faces were lined, the clothes plain, the manners coarsely civil amidst the lively chatter. Workmen with calloused hands, cleaning people carrying the scent of bleach, hotel and restaurant laborers weary after long hours of serving the affluent, rugged ranch hands and other workers from outlying neighborhoods at home in this tavern where they could kick back and drink beer among their fellows who had never been in a movie or made a fortune or read Plato or adored Mozart or worried about global markets or philosophized about human rights. These were earthy people with their own stubborn pride and individuality and attachment to an Aspen of the past. They couldn’t live in the town anymore because real estate, rents, and taxes had climbed too high, but they kept the town and environs running and would come here after work or from their modest homes down the valley or their trailers in a camp on route 28. And here they could share camaraderie and tell tales of the fabled mining town and of their adventures in the mountain life, when they had time to live it.

The sounds of country music emanated from an antique jukebox, alternating between mournful anthems about lonely truck drivers on the road, loyal at heart but hungry for love, and angry songs assailing prissy elites and arrogant authorities. The pool tables lit by bright domed overhead lights changed hands frequently as players took their shots while their luck held then moseyed to a narrow shelf along the wall where their beer awaited. The clicking of pool balls punctuated the rough sociability of the room, and a curse would erupt from time to time when a pool shot went awry.

“Shit! A miscue!” The words burst from a hulking guy with a beard and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words Jiffy Lube as his cue ball made only a light click glancing off his target. How amusing, I thought. The refinement of “miscue,” a tough guy’s curse over a missed shot at the pool table. But that’s exactly what it is isn’t it? A cue that misses. A miscue. And a just cause for a curse.

Tough guys who commit miscues. And tough broads, too. While a few of these women were sprinkled along the bar, a whole bowling team of them surrounded a couple of pool tables. They were on their way, so I overheard, to a tournament at Miracle Bowl down the valley. They had matching leather jackets with metal studs spelling DTOM over an image of a coiled snake. And they had their own bowling balls in bags stamped with that moniker on the floor along the wall beneath the shelf holding pitchers of beer and glasses. I watched while one of them, standing tall with wide shoulders, a pony tail, heavy eye-shadow, tight jeans, and cowboy boots, took a gulp from her glass and then racked up the balls. She made a shot that hit the mark with a sharp ‘crack’ as loud as gun fire. The balls scattered like buck shot. One dropped into a corner pocket, and she cruised coolly around the table, lined up the cue, and smacked another ball into a side pocket. Again, with a surgeon’s precision and a pugilist’s punch, she deftly sent yet another ball down a pocket, then one more. But her next shot fell short. No cursed “miscue” though. She shrugged, ambled to the wall and refilled her glass. A heavy-set companion with her jacket off blew out a lungful of smoke, snuffed out her cigarette, flexed an arm tattoo, stepped up and knocked a ball so hard into a corner pocket that it clattered all the way down to the rack below. She sniffed and swaggered to the next shot, which sent the remaining balls careening around the table, but none into a pocket. “Fuck,” she mumbled and sauntered to her pitcher. One after another the members of the team took their shots with the assurance and muscular bravado of their Don’t-Tread-On-Me-style—which I gathered was the name of the team. Crack. Smack. Clunk. Clatter. They cleared the table with each pass through the team. I watched them for probably half an hour. Then they polished off their beer, cased their cues, donned their jackets, grabbed their bowling ball bags, called out “Yo!” to the female bartender, who responded with a robust: “Kick ass, girls!” and, with fists punching the air, they passed through the door to the street.

My gaze followed them and then switched to the bartender. She looked as tough as they did. Not large but solid, with a voice like a bellows, a laugh like the mating call of a moose, a full head of fuzzy hair accentuating a face of imposing but not unattractive features that had weathered a lot of seasons and had intimidated many a mountain man. She could fill and top off a batch of mugs and pitchers with perfectly-timed pulls of the taps without a flicker of hesitation while carrying on conversations and sharing jokes with customers. She seemed to know them all. A good-hearted soul who must’ve been here for years. Maybe one of the owners. She could joke and curse and even flirt in her rugged way. But I suspected she brooked no disrespect or rowdiness. She’d refuse to serve and send packing anyone who couldn’t handle their liquor or who misbehaved according to her rules.

“Don’t walk in if you can’t walk out,” one of the signs read above the bar. And another: “Stay out ‘a my face in my place.” And “You fight, you’re taillights.” This was Aspen civility, old style. That didn’t make this a ladies tea room. It was plenty boisterous. Just within the limits of the house and of the hardy hostess at the bar.

While eyeing her, I saw the door swing open and a guy come in, look around, and swagger to a vacant seat at the bar. He was husky but not very tall, unshaven and wearing a plaid shirt and a cowboy hat like many others in the room. The bartender approached him with a pointed look and a casual, “What’ll it be?” He obviously was not a regular. He ordered a pitcher of beer in a gruff voice that carried down to me. She took her time filling the pitcher and delivering it to him. The guy grumbled something and settled into his beer.

I worked on mine while watching more pool players and absorbing the atmosphere, a world away from the new Aspen. I drifted back in time to what the town might have been like in the early days. Yes, there was an opera house and a fancy hotel. But bars like this and the people in them were the real Aspen. The real West. Places that had true stories of real life to tell. Not like those in the opera house. I’d have liked to see it in those days. But would I have wanted to live in such a place? I doubted it. I knew the idea of the old West had more appeal than the reality. I let myself get lost in that idea.

Suddenly my reverie was broken by a noise near the other end of the bar. I strained to see what it was. A gravely voice erupted above the occasional curses from pool tables and the contained conviviality of the room, “Don’t mess with me!” A fist pounded the bar and glasses shook. It was the guy who had come in not long ago. He was face to face with the guy next to him, who had somehow caused offense. His pitcher was half empty.

The bartender stalked down to where they were sitting and told the loud guy to keep it down. This was her place and she makes the rules. He growled something. She leaned across the bar. “I don’t know who you are fella,” she snarled in a voice everyone could hear. “But watch your manners or you’re outta’ here.” He spat words back at her that I couldn’t grasp. Without hesitation, she swung an open hand that smacked his cheek. The slap resounded through the room The place went quiet.

Stunned, the guy glowered at the bartender. Seconds passed in silence. Then, collecting himself, he straightened up as tall as he could, squared his shoulders, and pushed back his hat. He tossed a few bills on the bar, swung off his stool, stood firm facing the bar, and bellowed, “I don’t have to take this shit! I’M ON PAROLE!” Marching emphatically to the door, he flung it open, and haughtily went out into the night.

The room burst into laughter. I laughed, too. But as I paid my bill and left, his words stayed with me. And as I strolled back to my room at the Institute, they mingled with thoughts of the lofty discussions that would go on there in the next few days among international notables on human rights policies to change the world. Everyone there would be important in some way, many self-important, all proud of themselves and their work for humanity. Me too. But I wondered who among us would feel prouder and have a keener sense of personal dignity and their own humanity than that crusty guy who silenced the smoky saloon of hard-working, hard playing characters and the rugged bartender with his defiant words: “I don’t have to take this shit! I’M ON PAROLE!”?