A person in a pink bunny suit on skis flies through the air, spread-eagled.
(Photo: Matthias Clamer)

To Save the Soul of a Mountain Town

A person in a pink bunny suit on skis flies through the air, spread-eagled.

In Aspen, Colorado, and other alpine communities, the future depends on making sure the weirdos and oddballs are still welcome. That’s what gets concerned locals the most animated: any suggestion that their neighborhoods are becoming exclusive playgrounds for the rich, forcing out the gonzo characters that help make them so special. What’s needed, according to planning experts and many longtime residents, are smarter growth strategies that include affordable housing, increased transportation options, and forward-thinking management of public lands. For this episode, we take a walk around Aspen and ask what it’ll take to get such things done.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

Michael Roberts: Probably the most popular Outside story I've worked on in the last 20 years was a feature titled, "Did AirBnB Kill the Mountain Town?" We published that pieceby Tom Vanderbilt in 2017, and it got a lot of people fired up, as you might guess. 

The story also marked a turning point for Outside, in which our reporting about supposedly idyllic ski destinations increasingly focused on the very big challenges these places faced.

I’m Michael Roberts, and like pretty much anyone who enjoys playing in the mountains, I'm worried about the small towns that I stay in when I'm there. Which is why I was intensely interested in a story we published earlier this year by writer Roger Marolt, asking if Aspen, his hometown, had lost its Gonzo soul.

Readers sure made it clear what they thought, with reactions ranging from "nothing can kill Aspen" to "Aspen has been lost for years." Who's right? Well, that's what we're going to get into today.

Producer Paddy O'Connell, who lives just 30 miles down valley of Aspen, connected with Roger and other residents of mountain towns to see what the future of these places really holds.

Roger Marolt: Hey, Paddy. 

Paddy O’Connell: Hey Roger. How you doing? 

Roger: Good. How are you doing? Come on in. 

Paddy: Good. 

Roger: What's up? Beautiful day. 

Paddy: Yeah. Another one. Yeah. 

Roger: You ready to go? 

Paddy: Yeah, for sure. 

Roger: Do you wanna get a cup of coffee first or just hit it?

Paddy: In early February I met up with 61-year-old CPA and local newspaper columnist Roger Marolt at his office in Aspen, Colorado, for a little jaunt down memory lane.

Roger: We'll just kind of pay attention here. We're crossing Main Street. It's a little dangerous sometimes.

Paddy: Roger's family has lived in Aspen for four generations. And the Aspen of today is very different than the Aspen of his childhood.

Roger: We lived up the, uh, on the other end of Main Street by Shadow Mountain. And, and my friend lived right on Main Street, and he would come over and tell me they're, they're running the sheep through town, so we'd run to, to Main Street right up there by the Hickory House. And we'd just watch 'em.

And, believe it or not, when I was a senior in high school we had this gym class field trip. We rode our bikes from Aspen to Basalt on Highway 82. And back– 

Paddy: on the highway? 

Roger: On the highway.

Paddy: Today the goats and the single speed Schwinn's have been replaced by a constant flow of BMWs and Range Rovers, along with construction workers and big box trucks carting around building materials for mega mansions, which you'll hear in the background.

Roger: Now we're standing across the street from the hotel Jerome. When I was a kid, that's where we did our swimming lessons. It was kind of funny. It wasn't a heated pool, so it wasn't a really fun place to, to do, uh, swimming lessons.

This is in the seventies. Yeah. And there were like, there were topless women sitting around the pool and there were, you know, hippies lived in the hotel, Jerome, it was, uh, it, it was a cheap, probably one of the cheapest places in Aspen to live.

Paddy: Can you describe what the Jerome is like now?

Roger: Well, it's one of the nicest hotels in Aspen and super expensive. They have the Jay Bar that used to be kind of a happening local place, but it's, you know, $27 hamburger and a $8 beer. How much fun can you have? 

Now this is what I wanted to show you. This is the old Aspen Times building, and as you can see, it's, it's still the same front of the Aspen Times, and it says right on at 1881. That's when the paper was established. 

When I started writing for the newspaper 20 years ago. This was one of the most happening spots in town. But now it's a private club. Yeah, it's a, it's a private bar I've never been in here since it wasn't the paper.

Paddy: As we walked around town, Roger pointed at stores like Prada and Gucci and fancy restaurant chains that had pushed out beloved and locally owned joints like Cooper Street Pier, O'Leary's, the Slope, and the Tipler,

Roger: They'd have live music after skiing. They had, you know, dollar beers. And it was just obvious, when you finished the day of skiing, you were gonna go one or the other place.Those places, after about nine o'clock they turned into discos. 

Paddy: Right. 

Roger: And you'd see people there all night long dancing in their ski boots. They'd still be in their ski clothes at midnight.

Paddy: Yeah.

Roger: And the mall was just teaming with people just going from place to place. 

Paddy: Right. 

Roger: And you'd, you'd meet one group of friends, you'd finish the night with a completely different group of friends. And, that's where ski stories were told. 

Paddy: Right. 

Roger: And that's how plans for tomorrow were made. And that's where you met your friends. There's just no place for young people to hang out anymore. Which is really a shame.

Paddy: Of all the iconic local haunts that served as de facto community centers, none is more sorely missed than the Red Onion, which had been open for nearly 130 years before it closed for renovations in 2020. And maybe nobody misses it as much as Roger.

Roger: My grandpa was a bartender there. And, there's an old story that, uh, when my dad was younger, he and my grandpa had some sort of disagreement and my dad went in there and he had a shot of whiskey and he threw the shot glass through the mirror behind the bar.

Paddy: Did your grandpa 86, your dad? 

Roger: I think he did. 

We'll talk about this at home, son. 

Paddy: Yeah. 

Roger: My oldest daughter was just, you know, sort of coming into her own after college here, she moved back and she hung out here with her friends and, and I think one of her, coming of age moments was when she danced on the bar here, with her friends.

Paddy: That must have been a proud dad moment for you too.

Roger: Yeah. Proud dad. Well, probably–

Paddy: I remember when I did that too, darling. 

Roger: Yeah. Something you'd never admit. But just like the Aspen Times building, it's gonna look better than ever when they get finished. And it's still gonna be called the Red Onion. But, you know, they're just, they gutted it metaphorically. And actually.

Paddy: Aspen has long been famous for its wild nights, its world class skiing, mountain biking, and fishing, as well as its seemingly magnetic pull toward celebrities and the privileged class.

But Aspen has also been an incubator for oddballs and weirdos, and as former local Hunter S. Thompson made famous, the Gonzo character.

Roger: The Gonzo character, if there is a typical one, it would start with someone who pretty much doesn't care what other people think, just having confidence in your craziness.

You know, You'd start with someone like Ralph Jackson, who skied around the mountain in a seal skin coat. He'd put one ski behind his head and he wore a top hat and he had a, a cigarette with a long stem handle on it.

As far as modern characters, there's a guy named Benny the blade. And he wears cutoffs year round. And he rollerblades everywhere he goes. And he's got long stringy surfer hair and nobody knows what he does for a living. But he's everywhere and everybody knows him.

You know, the truth is, anybody who's been here any length of time is a little weird.

Paddy: Roger is quick to point out that for all its wonderful character, Aspen is not without its faults. It has always lived with the boom and bust that comes with courting tourism dollars. 

And even during those famed, wild ski years of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the drug culture killed and imprisoned many of his friends. Mental health issues were rampant in the valley but far too taboo to discuss, and access to treatment was nonexistent.

But, in Roger's view, they had each other.

Roger: There are a lot of pieces of this that are not worthy of being saved, to be honest. But below all that, there, there is some goodness and some wholesomeness and some true love within the community that should be saved. Cuz that's what's really valuable.

The really great thing about Aspen when I was growing up is that we were just a town with a ski area. Everybody who worked there lived there. They've been replaced by people with just basically a lot of money. And I think the main attraction for those people is, maybe the investment quality of the real estate there or the opportunity to show off their wealth there. That's the crazy. Aspen now is just how much money can you spend and not blink.

Aspen and places like it are very desirable and they've always been expensive and they've been places people really want to be. But I think, the last two or three years, everything just accelerated. 

Paddy: What do you mean by that?

Roger: I mean, the development and everything that comes with ostentatious wealth. It's money and a greater demand than ever before, forcing the price of real estate so high that you actually can't afford to live in the town you work in. 

Paddy: Do you feel like you're losing a sense of belonging? A sense of community?

Roger: For sure. Yeah, for sure. You know, you think money can buy everything. But, it can't buy community. And if we don't have that, then all we have to offer people is skiing.

Paddy: This isn't just a feeling Roger is having. In 2021, 205 single family homes were sold in Aspen, a record number of sales in any 12-month period. The median home sale was $9.5 million with the average sale price reaching $11.4 million, roughly an 82% increase in home prices since 2018. It's estimated that 60 to 75 billionaires own commercial or residential properties in Aspen. That's a lot anywhere, but especially for a town of less than 7,000 residents.

Even though me and all my pals are quick to claim Aspen weirdo-ness and call it our home ski mountain, we have all been priced out of the housing market since the mesozoic period. We all live elsewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley, either mid-valley in Basalt or Willits, or at the mouth of the valley in Carbondale or Glenwood Springs.

My pal Luis Yllanes moved to the valley from Miami with his wife and two children in 2009. Even though he was taking a job that had a great salary with the famed Aspen Art Museum, living in the city limits was not in the cards.

Luis Yllanes: We looked at a couple places in Aspen, but you saw the price difference and sort of what you got for your money, the further down valley you went.

And so the first place we rented was a, a house in Willits, a single family home that at the time you could negotiate rent. They were asking 2,400. And we said we'll give you two. And they're like, great. Okay. 

But, uh, you know, different economy.

Paddy: You talked them down? That's like what? That's possible?

Luis: Yeah. It doesn't happen now. No way.

Paddy: Despite the economics, Luis says that he and his family quickly fell in love with Aspen, and the rest of the valley, for its natural beauty and ease of outdoor access. More importantly, it matched his family's value set: love of the arts, philanthropy, environmentalism, community, connection.

Eventually Luis and his family bought a home in Carbondale. He is now the Executive Director of 5Point Film Festival and serves on Carbondale's board of trustees. 

Luis says that to "make it" in mountain towns, you eventually need to find a way to own a home–something that can feel almost impossible nowadays.

Luis: I would hate to even be in a situation where I, I was having to consider either buying or, or, or renting right now. It would've just, it, like we would, we would've left.

Paddy: The Roaring Fork Valley has a storied history of being a rough place to make ends meet. Originally, the valley was serene Ute hunting grounds, which were stolen in the late 1800s, under the guise of capitalism and American elitism. 

Aspen was transformed into a silver mining town, but that only lasted 14 years. 

Poverty, ranching, and potato farming for sustenance marked what is known as the Quiet Years until the first ski lift was built in 1946. And so began the valley's modern destiny.

But, of course, the boom years didn't offer opportunities to everyone. Skiing is infamous for being an activity primarily accessible to able-bodied rich white men. There are roughly 15 million skiers in the US, 63% are male, nearly 90% are white, and more than half earn an annual income over $100,000. Asian and Latino skiers make up less than 6% of the skiing market respectively. Black skiers make up just 1.5% of the skiing market, and Native Americans only account for 0.6%.

Those numbers make you wonder whether preserving any adorable ski town is even worth the effort. If you're just fending off one type of inequity to maintain another, what's the point?

But Luis and others insist that we can't give up on Aspen and places like it

Luis: I always saw skiing as like, something like, oh, that's what rich people do. You know, growing up a Latino in South Florida, it's like, it was so foreign to me. I mean, winter sports were an oxymoron. 

And so coming out here and embracing it, I was like, okay, yeah, I get it. This is so amazing to be up here and just being, you know, carried up the lift on the top of the mountain. 

But I think that to me is kind of indicative of kind of like wealth, right? Like you don't actually have to work to get up there. Like all of a sudden you're carried off and placed at the very top. That ease of like, here you go, magically lift it off away from all your problems and then enjoy the experience.

Because it's tied to that, it's always gonna have the wealth inequality issue. You can't, you can't separate it unless you can get more out of basically wealth to help support everyone else at the bottom it's not gonna change. 

But we're gonna keep fighting to try and save it because places like Aspen are unique, right? Because of its history, its unique character. That beauty that surrounds it. Everything it has to offer. It's worth saving because you're, you're not gonna find another place like that and I'm gonna fight every day to kind of keep the vibe that's here as close to what it can be.

Paddy: Aspen truly is a unique place, but the issues it faces are not. Go to any mountain town and you'll encounter the same challenges. Which is why I wanted to talk to Danya Rumore, a professor at the University of Utah and certified small town expert.

Paddy: On a scale of one to Titanic, how at risk are these towns currently?

Danya Rumore: They're super overwhelmed. The pressures are only getting worse for a lot of these places. More places are getting discovered. It's kind of go time. Right. Because if we don't get on some of these issues, we are gonna lose the things that make these places special.

Paddy: We'll be right back.


Paddy: To better understand what is choking the life out of mountain towns I love, including Aspen and the rest of the mountain hamlets that make up the valley I live in, I had to chat with an expert.

Danya: I am Danya Rumore. I'm a professor of planning and law at the University of Utah. And I really nerd out on the issues of what we call gateway and natural amenity region communities, communities that are proximate to high quality natural amenities, whether that be ski areas or national parks, and therefore have become very attractive places to live and visit.

Paddy: In addition to being her area of expertise, these communities hold a special place in Danya's heart. She grew up in Sand Point, Idaho, a town of less than 9000 that sits on Idaho's largest lake and is surrounded by the Selkirk, Cabinet, and Bitterroot mountain ranges.

In 2017, while working on planning and development challenges near her hometown and separately in towns surrounding Zion National Park, Danya noticed something interesting.

Danya: The standpoint region and the Zion National Park region are so different and yet they have some really similar challenges. 

And that got me really intrigued by this question of, hmm, how pervasive is this throughout the west in these communities that are really defined by their nearby natural amenities? And, are these communities similar in their trajectories and the challenges they face?

And what we found is not a lot of people, not really anybody was studying that.

Paddy: So, Danya decided that she would. Along with colleagues from the University of Utah and Utah State, she coined the term for these communities; Gateway and Natural Amenity Region - or GNAR for short. 

Yes, that was purposeful. And yes, it is the greatest acronym of all time. 

GNAR communities are places with a population of under 25,000, and within approximately 10 miles of things like national and state parks, state and federal lands, scenic rivers, lakes, et cetera. And, that just so happens to be 60 plus percent of all the communities in the Mountain West

That same year, she founded the GNAR Initiative to study these small towns and assist them with their hefty planning, development, and public policy challenges. In their first year, the folks at GNAR found some shocking similarities between these towns.

Danya: We really looked for a diverse sample of places that people have heard of, but the Jacksons and, and Tahoes and Aspens, and also the Sandpoint and like White Fishes.

We designed a survey and we launched that survey out to public officials in the 1200-ish communities that we had identified as being gateway communities.

And what we found is indeed, once these communities get quote unquote discovered, they tend to experience this pressure. And with that comes a suite of what we call big city challenges in these small towns.

Housing is a huge issue. Not all of them, but many of them were having severe issues with what we call transportation failure. Like the transportation system, not really meeting the needs of locals and visitors.

Huge issues with income inequality and kind of the justice concerns and housing concerns and other economic concerns that come with that. 

Also just challenges with revenue and resources. 

And then just things like overwhelmed basic infrastructure.

Paddy: All of this is what these towns were facing prior to 2020. Once the pandemic hit, Danya says gateway towns experienced a triple whammy. First, they had some of the highest covid rates in the country. Second, the lion's share of their economy, the tourist dollar, evaporated overnight. Third, once people started to travel again, a record setting number of visitors descended on these towns and a lot of them stayed, ushering in the Zoom town boom that has yet to bust.

Danya: The rural geographers I work with said that they believe the Covid pandemic and everything that came with it, expedited amenity migration to these communities by about 15 years.

And that means, a lot of the housing, long-term housing in these communities has been sucked up and it's probably not coming back online anytime soon.

We're not talking about affordable housing, we're talking about workforce housing, right? We're talking about keeping people who work in this community, support this community, living in or near this community.

So there is a whole chain of effects here of… it's not just about housing, it's all the impacts on the community that happen when your workforce can't afford to live in or near your community.

And it really can erode the community fabric.

I do think there is reason to believe that without some major shifts, these areas can basically become playgrounds for the rich that nobody else can afford to be in or near there. And even if you could, there's nothing there for you.

Paddy: In two major GNAR surveys that Danya's team has conducted, a very clear takeaway was that public officials believe that maintaining a small town culture and character is crucially important to the future of their communities. It's right up there with a healthy natural environment.

Danya: If you really dig down to what matters to people, you're gonna hear they value the clean lake, the open spaces, the clean air, the sense of having a quaint downtown in that small town character, the rural feel. So you'll hear a lot of these shared values.

And once you've identified those, then every time you have a conversation about what the community's gonna do to deal with housing issues or transportation issues, you can start with, let's remember that we're all here or we're part of this conversation cuz we care deeply about this place and let's make sure that any decisions we make are in service of those values.

Paddy: Danya says that what often derails communities from proactively dealing with their growth and development issues is in-fighting, NIMBYism, demonizing second homeowners and visitors, and not including them in the conversation. And then there's the "growth won't happen to us" head in the sand mentality, which is a guaranteed failure.

Danya: if you don't manage growth, growth will happen to you. You do not have the tool of closing your door and saying no growth. That's not a tool we have. And in places where government is a bad word and planning is a bad word, you're basically throwing out the tools you have. To manage your future and manage that growth.

Maybe the standpoint of 10 years from now is gonna look different than the standpoint from 10 years ago. And if we let go of our nostalgia and we realize there were some real problems 10 years ago, maybe that 10 years ahead looks even better.

Paddy: It seems like it's safe to say that the path forward is to realize that there's no way to control growth or change. But there is a way to manage it, which falls in line with the community fabric.

Danya: Exactly. Very, very well put.

Paddy: Well, sweet. I did my job today. Awesome.

Danya: And I could repeat that back at you, but you, you can just say that on your own podcast.

Paddy: I don't want the credit to go to you for that one.

Danya: You solved the problem.

Paddy: When I spoke with Roger and Luis, and other members of my community in the Roaring Fork Valley, they talked about the kinds of planning and development issues that Danya works on. 

But what got people most animated was the worry that the Gonzo characters that Aspen is known for have been forced out. That the community fabric is already shredded.

To which I say, meet my friend Joanna Coffey.

Joanna (Jojo) Coffey: Most people know me as jojo. Jojo Ski show, most importantly. I am 30 years old and I was born in Aspen and I still currently reside in Aspen.

We're always gonna be this ski town, this little oasis. It's a special town. We love it. It's freaky, funky, fresh.

Paddy: What would you show somebody if you were the tour guide?

Jojo: Of course we're getting to the gondola at 8:45, enjoying the best coffee in town. Not only because it's free, but it's at the base of the mountain. We're gonna rip some top to bottoms. We're gonna take the very convenient, easy bus to Rafta and hike Highland Bowl. And then we're gonna, you know, grab a slice of za at the Alehouse. Hopefully we're going to the Wheeler Opera House and watching Aspen Extreme too. That'd be like icing on the cake. Then we're gonna finish it up with a wholesome ice cream at Paradise Bakery. And a little stroll, a little jaunt. Then we're gonna, take our ski boots off and we're maybe gonna be in our ski pants still, and we're gonna boogie it down at Belly Up. That would be like a perfect day.

Paddy: JoJo's parents met on a chairlift in the early 80s. Her father Big Joe worked for nearly four decades as the housing director for the town of Snowmass. Her mother Kathy started Mountain Sprouts child care 42 years ago. Her brother Sam is one of the greatest Aspen skiers ever. JoJo, no slouch herself on a pair of planks, works for the county's public health department. Suffice to say, she is invested. And she figured out how to stay in Aspen forever.

Paddy: You just bought a place.

Jojo: Yeah, I bought this in August. So I'm in a little one bedroom, one bath in Aspen. So I'm locked in now.

I think I always felt like this was where I was gonna end up and stay, but now just knowing that I have this like permanent location that's mine and not having to worry about the future and. You know, rent and if I'm gonna have to move in with my mom. Sorry mom, but I can't be doing that.

So, yeah, it just, it feels, uh, it's very at ease. It's just like, ah, I can just relax. I'm grown up.

Paddy: Grown up with a goggle tan. Nice.

Jojo: Yeah.

Paddy: In JoJo's estimation, resting on our laurels is a non-option. If we are bemoaning the loss of something it means we have to fight to save it, by being as weird as possible.

Jojo: It's okay to be a little weird and it's okay to be a little freaky. I'm doing my part as Jojo Ski show. 

 I'm just skiing and laughing and showing my love for Aspen and for, and for myself.

Yeah, maybe breaking a couple tables in my ski boots, dancing on 'em. 

Hopefully, I'll be one of those characters that people will write about me in the newspaper. Like, oh geez, that Jojo. What a gal. 

Paddy: Do you feel like you are trying to continue that freaky, funky, fresh mantle into the future.

Jojo: yeah. I mean, cuz if we don't keep it alive now, then it'll be dead. So, you know, all of us here have a responsibility and, we can't just sit back and complain about things and just rat on this beautiful town that we're so lucky to live in. We have to go out there and still put in the effort and remember why we wanna live here and why all of our friends do too.

This is home and all the people that I want in my life are here. And I want to keep them here, and I wanna keep skiing here. It's just in your soul. It's in your heart,

I'm born here, raised here. I'm, I'm gonna die here.

Jojo: I fuckin' love Aspen. I do. I do now, and I always will.

Paddy: If you love these wonderful mountain towns and want to join the effort to help them, the GNAR Initiative is looking for partners. Find out more at usu.edu/gnar. Gnar is spelled G-N-A-R.

You can read Roger Marolt's feature story about Aspen on Outside Online. And Roger, thanks for talking to me. It was great meeting you.

I'm Paddy O and I produced this story. It was edited by Michael Roberts, who usually handles the credits but... he's literally skiing right now. Like as I record this. Which I support. Our music is by Robbie Carver.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.