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‘Homeland Security’ at work in Aspen

‘I hate Aspen!’ boomed a beleaguered cry from the back of the bus, emitted by a teenage girl far from overjoyed to be visiting the ski resort. Why she hated the place so much I never discovered: she leapt off the bus before elaborating. I’m convinced it was merely teenage angst which provoked such a scathing attack on a place that’s rightfully world-renowned for being a picturesque Rocky Mountain community, enviously flanked to the hilt by fabulous ski-runs.

It had been hard enough a task just getting to Aspen, so I was determined to enjoy my time there. Owing to roadworks near Maroon Creek on the outskirts of town, the thirty-five mile journey had swallowed up two and a half hours when it should have taken only ninety minutes. People trying to get to work amidst such mayhem were understandably furious. But the bus driver was powerless to act; we just had to sit it out.

The scenery between Glenwood and Aspen was amazing, the bus swinging by Carbondale and past the exit for Snowmass Village en-route. Snow was abundant on the top of Aspen’s ski slopes, but the skiing season was far from ready to begin yet: the lower slopes remained snow-free. It would be something of a heart-attacking shock if you were skiing, only to encounter a rough-hewn mixture of bare earth and grass halfway down the run. Instead of skiers, utility vehicles bounced up and down the imposing side of Aspen Mountain, preparing the runs, servicing ski lifts, and cleaning up lift stations along the way.
At the height of winter it must be a rare thing to be able to claim that you’re potentially the only living soul on the mountain. When I was there, that was almost the case, as I hiked up the Aspen Mountain Trail before stumbling into its brother, the Ajax Trail. The only other people getting a natural high were the aforementioned van-bound guys, racing around at work. Oh… and there was a woman, walking on her lonesome, climbing up the trail as I descended. Curious as to how far I’d walked, and how strenuous the hike had been, she fired questions my way as though Information Extraction was speeding out of fashion. Pointing at her small bottle of water, then down at her designer trainers, she wondered if she was suitably equipped to go bounding off into the ether. Smiling politely, I had to be honest, shaking my head.

Even halfway up the mountainside, and far below the snowline, the panoramic view over Aspen proved breathtaking.

Back downtown, construction work raged along a number of residential streets. New lodgings were speedily taking shape. Meanwhile, old ones were in the throes of being extensively, hence expensively, refurbished.

A multitude of peaceful parks offered relief, with the Rio Grande Trail snaking through the John Denver Sanctuary: a specially set-aside area of parkland dedicated to the Country singer, anchored by a collection of seductively arranged monoliths touchingly engraved with a selection of John’s song lyrics, including ‘Rocky Mountain High.’ A serene, open space for reflection, it is a special corner of Aspen parkland to savour.

The first time I ever heard of Aspen was when I saw the movie ‘Dumb & Dumber,’ the comedy in which Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels take a hilarious road trip to the resort in order to deliver a suitcase. The latter part of the movie was shot on location in town. I remember thinking to myself what a beautiful place it looked, with Aspen being to the American Rockies what Chamonix is to the French Alps. Both resorts are notoriously expensive, catering primarily to the rich, with cheap accommodation difficult to find – unless you’re camping, or you own an RV which can be parked up on the cheap. (Indeed, as the ski season kicked in a few months after I’d visited, a fierce price war erupted between Aspen and Vail. Instead of under-cutting each other, both resorts favoured the other extreme and kept on increasing the prices of their ski passes, believing that the higher the price, the more prestigious the place was regarded as being).

‘Hey, you want a song?’ All had been peaceful a second before as I window-shopped for a new fleece, but now I had a grizzled, barbarically bearded guy on my back, begging me to request a song so he could play it on his acoustic guitar and sting me for the dubious privilege. ‘I’ll think about it,’ I said, returning to perusing the latest range of bodywarmers in the bay window of an outdoor specialist’s store. ‘Hey, don’t ignore me, man,’ he barked, desperate for attention. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘but I’m fine. I don’t want a song right now, thanks.’ Undeterred by my rebuff, he stepped closer, crowding the claustrophobic in me. At this advance, I turned and walked briskly away from the guy, suddenly feeling uneasy by the way he’d reacted. ‘Hey, you!’ he angrily hollered. The next thing I knew he was peeling after me down the street, dodging a trio of couples walking hand-in-hand. Within seconds he was on my heels. ‘Why’d you ignore me? And why don’t you want a song?’ His sharply raised voice had by now attracted a fair deal of attention from passers-by. ‘Sorry, but I really don’t want a song. I just want to be left alone,’ I seethed through gritted teeth. ‘Why do you keep badgering me?’ At this outburst his nose wrinkled in consternation. ‘Why, you ask? Why?! I’ll tell you why… I’m “Homeland Security” – that’s why.’ At least he believed he was, even if busking was his game. ‘Yup,’ he went on, ‘Since 9/11, me and a band of brothers have made it our mission to make the United States a safer place. If that means pulling aside out-of-towners like yourself, to have a quiet word and make sure they harbour no evil intentions in terms of potentially committing any acts of terrorism, then so be it. Hell, us guys even have a song we sing to remind us of our unbreakable solidarity.’ Shooting me a glance, he asked if I’d like to hear it. Feeling obliged to acquiesce, I nodded. Anticipating a boldly original, melody-rich anthem to never forget, what he played consisted of just one note which was repeated over and over. As for accompanying lyrics, they were non-existent. ‘So, er… what do you call it?’ I asked. ‘Hey man, wait. I ain’t done tuning up yet,’ he exclaimed, putting me firmly in my place. No wonder his so-called song had sounded so awful. A couple of minutes later he let loose a gargantuan sigh, forcing me to presume he was ready. And he was: to tune his next string. And so the process continued for the proceeding ten minutes until the sixth and final string had been tightened accordingly. Given how long he’d taken, I just hoped the string he’d tuned first hadn’t popped back out of tune. But no, he really was ready. Tapping out a funereal beat with his right foot, the pace was set as he began strumming and singing. Alarmingly, I recognised the words only too well. Yep – I was being treated to a sloppy cover of the Dire Straits classic, ‘Brothers in Arms.’ Blithely nodding in bogus approval, I could have cried.

The talk of the town revolved around Aspen’s annual ‘Film-Fest,’ not least because Harrison Ford was due to make an appearance at an ‘In Conversation’ evening come the weekend. For the most part, however, the movies being shown didn’t feature many big names, the festival keen to showcase lesser-known films from around the world.

Gary, the owner of the Glenwood hostel, was a staunch supporter of World Cinema at large, lapping up obscure, independently produced movies. When I finally got around to speaking to him, following my trip to Aspen, and after deciding to stay in the hostel for yet another night, Gary had already seen two movies in the ‘Film-Fest’ and couldn’t stop talking about them.

Detracting from movie-talk, I asked him why he’d put the hostel up for sale, before admitting that I loved the place. It oozed such an extraordinary and homely atmosphere whilst being coincidentally populated by some of the most interesting and funny people I’d ever met.

‘Well, if you love the place so much, why don’t you buy it off me?’ Gary clucked.

‘I’d love to,’ I said in all honesty. ‘It just might take me a while to save up enough money.’

Gary went on, ‘I’ve been here for almost twenty years, and while I have no problem in getting reliable people to run the place for me when I’m away travelling, it’s time to let go of the place – if I can find a buyer, of course.’

Having visited in the region of seventy countries, Gary seemed as obsessed with the act of travelling, of constantly moving on, of being deliberately rootless, as myself.

Talk of travel consequently flared, scorching our film-related conversation to cinders.

‘It’s often sad when you return to some places after a prolonged period of time,’ he lamented, ‘because you tend to think back to how the place used to be. In doing so, you also consider what kind of person you were when you first visited, and how you have changed – for better or for worse – since.’

I nodded, not saying a word, trying to understand, enthralled by what Gary was saying. A minute later he’d slain yet another conversation which could have raged all night, announcing that after a tiring day of watching movies he was going to bed, leaving the rest of us happy hostellers to generate original conversations of our own. Given our mutual interests, of that we were entirely capable.

Hell, when I’d returned from Aspen I hadn’t even intended to stay the night.

I had been planning to catch a late-night bus west to Grand Junction, but when I entered the hostel’s kitchen to pick up my in-storage backpack, an ice-cold can of Coors Light was thrust into my right hand, a pan of popcorn into my left. I was urged to eat and drink up, at no extra expense; Katie and John, the two members of staff in charge for the night, were simply that generous. Then out came a freshly baked plate of cup cakes. Well… it wasn’t as though I’d secured anywhere to stay if and when I got into Grand Junction, and I did truly adore the Glenwood hostel. So I puckered up, promising to stay on.

They were delighted by my decision. That was settled then, and what materialised was a perfectly integrated evening of talking, reading and listening to quality music. What’s more, I was passed more beer every time John ambled to the fridge for himself. Once the Coors Light stocks had run dry, we eased our stomachs onto ‘Third Eye’ ale, which I soon developed a taste for.

Swaying on the floor in something close to what resembled the lotus position, I flicked through box after box of Gary’s records, many of which dated from the sixties. One LP from that period immediately caught my good eye: the ‘Easy Rider’ soundtrack. John flung it on; he also happened to be a die-hard fan of the classic road movie. Thus, beer in hand, and with songs by the likes of Steppenwolf and The Byrds blasting out, I settled back to re-read random passages from one of my all-time favourite books: ‘Into The Wild,’ written by Jon Krakauer. It was the only book in the hostel I’d read before, and I couldn’t help compulsively flicking through it again. Its content to some extent chronicled what I was doing, wandering around America.

‘Into The Wild’ is the biography of a twenty-four year old guy called Chris McCandless who leaves home in favour of travelling around the continent, spending quality time pursuing absolute solitude amongst the canyons of Utah along the way. Ultimately drawn to the Alaskan wilderness, Chris spent four months fending for himself in the wild before perishing. Superbly researched and realised, Krakauer’s moving rendering of the true story explores Chris’s character as much as possible, along with the possible motivations behind Chris desiring to do what he did. It’s a book that will forever inspire and haunt me in equal measure. Some days I sense the spirit of Chris in myself – and I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Because he dared to break free from modern society’s crippling restraints, he’ll always be one of my biggest heroes – even though ‘the wild’ did eventually get the better of him. What’s important is the fact that he let nothing stop him from living a life less ordinary; moreover, he died living.

I couldn’t believe that everybody else staying in the hostel was employed in the area; I was the sole traveller present. But that was the case, with the five other guys in residence being anything from a construction worker by trade, to a barman. The only female present was Katie. She was working in the hostel after having said goodbye to her Canadian roots for a new life on US soil.

One of the guys, Tom Garcia, had secured a temporary job as a ski lift mechanic in Aspen. He said he’d allow such a position to see him through the winter season before he moved elsewhere for a while, prior to moving on again. A kindred spirit, he was eternally restless, devoted to the promotion of vagabonding, working his way around America. What he did in his spare-time also interested me, for Tom was a formidable saxophonist who’d recorded a collection of avant-garde instrumentals with a whole host of musical boundary-bashing musicians collectively known as ‘The Sound for the Organisation for Society.’ The music was thrilling, with bizarre time signatures framing incredible melodies.

Tom wasn’t the only ace musician in the hostel either. Katie – at the tender age of nineteen, and a dead ringer for Winona Ryder in ‘Girl, Interrupted’ – was something of a veteran when it came to performing. She’d supported a few big names, despite being reluctant to reveal whom. ‘What, like The Sound for the Organisation for Society?’ I teased. ‘No!’ she giggled, thumping my thigh before saying she’d once performed with a member of Nickelback. When a Jerry Garcia record wound up, she slipped on a live CD recording of some songs she’d played in Glenwood at an ‘open-mic’ type affair. The cover versions of The Cranberries songs she’d sung and strummed along to on acoustic guitar sounded sublime. Her angelic voice was just as spine-chilling as Dolores O’Riordan’s. I told Katie as much. She responded by breaking into song there and then, at which point I believed I’d found the girl of my dreams. But all good things must come to an end: one of the guys burst onto the scene, into the kitchen, inexplicably laughing about one of his favourite Monty Python comedy sketches involving Michael Palin. Silenced by the unexpected intrusion, Katie excused herself and slid out back, discreetly intimating that I should follow her. But escape was impossible: I’d been immediately embroiled in the prevailing discussion about how funny Monty Python sketches remain to this day. As much as I tried to make my excuses to go find Katie, I couldn’t. So, unwittingly immersed in the conversation whether I liked it or not, I told Tom I’d met Michael Palin in 2004, adding that he’d been a huge inspiration in my life.

‘What?’ queried Tom. ‘Are you an aspiring comedian or something?’

‘Mmm. Very funny,’ I replied.

As much as I admired Palin’s comic acting talents, it had been his BBC travel shows which had changed my life and motivated me to indulge in mad travel adventures of my own, but the American guys weren’t familiar with such shows.

‘Come on – be honest,’ Tom persisted. ‘If you genuinely are a wannabe professional comedian, we won’t laugh.’

‘Gee,’ I said. ‘If I was a wannabe professional comedian, and you didn’t laugh, then I’d really be in trouble!’

By this time, the food and drink we’d been enjoying had all been polished off, so at precisely 12:45 a.m. we called it a night. Even though it was morning already. And Katie had completely disappeared.

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