Author Sam Polcer Photography Sam Polcer
DAY THREE Am half-dozing in the passenger seat of a shuttle, headed to Aspen, a hundred miles southwest. The striated walls of Glenwood Canyon, glowing softly in the predawn light, tower over the highway and the Colorado River below. At the town of Glenwood Springs, we stop at Sweet ColoraDough for a sugar cinnamon crumble doughnut, then turn south to follow the Roaring Fork River. Mountains crowd in, then open up to a valley dotted with well-tended horse ranches and, in the distance, the twinkling lights of civilization.
We pull into Aspen’s smart downtown grid as the sun rises. It’s a walking town, so I polish off the rest of my doughnut, hand my luggage to a cowboy-hatted bellman at the Hotel Jerome and stroll a block to stare up at the rust-colored, cubic Aspen Art Museum, designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Shigeru Ban. Sheathing its 47-foot-tall exterior is a striking wood lattice. In a state crawling with daredevil climbers, I wonder, has anyone given this thing a go?
The museum’s director and chief curator, Heidi Zuckerman, is waiting for me in its airy top-floor café. She’s dressed in an all-black boho-chic getup, having just come from yoga. “You should have the matcha latte,” she tells me. “I’ve already had one today. Please forgive me—I’m kind of known for matcha proselytizing.” I order one, along with a kale Waldorf salad (an attempt to seek redress for my breakfast of fried dough).
“I overheard something this morning,” I say, chewing my superfood, “that in Aspen, the millionaires have been chased away by the billionaires.”
“Well, people are bemoaning that everywhere these days, not just here,” she replies. “That said, one of the reasons I agreed to move here was that we have a Prada store. We have, like, 150 restaurants. So while it is a small town, it’s also profoundly cosmopolitan. I’ll walk through the museum, and I’ll hear four or five languages in 10 minutes.”
Zuckerman continues in this vein as we explore the museum’s six galleries, which host mainly contemporary exhibits, ranging from commentaries on consumerism (think 10-foot-tall enlargements of receipts) to Abstract Expressionist retrospectives. “It’s an anomaly to have this kind of culture in the middle of nowhere,” Zuckerman says, pausing before a statue depicting a demonic-looking Assyrian god, its tongue thrust out between fangs and a scowl on its face.
Culture box ticked, it’s back to the hotel to grab some gear, followed by a short ride to the base of Aspen Mountain, one of the four areas operated by the Aspen Skiing Company. Aspen is relatively small, as far as top-tier Colorado ski hills go, but a dense and diverse network of trails and ridges makes it feel larger. And, from the top, the view of Snowmass, the biggest of the four areas, reminds me that there’s more to this operation than immediately meets the eye.
After a few more rolling groomers and a stop for my third half-meal of the day—an oversize oatmeal pancake at Bonnie’s, a midmountain spot popular among those who are savvy enough to wait until after their first tracks for breakfast—I carve my way down Spar Gulch and descend into town.
Passing Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores, I walk to Hallam Lake, a nature reserve run by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, where marketing director Eliza Greenman leads me on a tour. A bird blind sits beside a lake. Animal tracks—coyote, fox, bear—extend in every direction. Downtown can’t be more than a couple hundred feet away, but clusters of pine trees hide the streets from view. As beautiful as it is here, Greenman insists that I’m seeing only half the story. “There’s a saying in Aspen,” she says. “Come for the winter, stay for the summer. That’s what happened to me.”
It’s feeding time for the curmudgeonly great horned owl, which involves a wriggling mouse being dropped into the bird’s waiting maw. The spectacle reminds me that I’m peckish myself, so I swing by the downtown restaurant and farm shop Meat & Cheese, to snack on a selection of cheeses and cured meats, highlighted by an exquisitely delicate and salty duck prosciutto.
I head back to the Hotel Jerome, where I claim a spot by a crackling fire in the lounge, an inviting and uncanny harmony of disparate design elements—Le Corbusier chairs, Art Deco sconces, a Navajo rug, black-lacquered columns. Hotel GM Tony DiLuca plies me with a Bourbon Banshee, a potent blend of Bulleit, crème de cassis, vanilla, rooibos tea, lemon and bitters. Glowing now, I browse the bookcase, then settle down on a plump sofa for a nice, relaxing read. Zzzzzz.
Next thing I know, it’s dinnertime. My reservation is at the Pine Creek Cookhouse, but getting there isn’t so simple: “Would you prefer to cross-country ski or take a horse-drawn sleigh ride to dinner, sir?” Feeling bold, I opt for the former.
Seated in the cabinlike restaurant beneath—yep—antler chandeliers and exposed beams, I’m rewarded for my strenuous uphill trek with wild-game Nepalese dumplings, known as momos (the restaurant’s owner, expedition filmmaker John Wilcox, has a fondness for the Himalayas, so he hires Nepalese chefs), and a juicy slab of buffalo tenderloin with a decadent gruyere-and-bacon tartiflette.
Following an equally strenuous downhill trip, I’m back in Aspen, where I find Belly Up, a popular local club. A DJ commands a stage swirling with psychedelic projections. Beanie-hatted twenty-somethings bob about chugging cans of PBR. I sit at the bar near two men dressed in goofy orange-and-powder-blue tuxes, recalling the duo in the Aspen-set Dumb and Dumber. I ask a young woman clad in head-to-toe fluorescent yellow about the music we’re listening to. “Dubstep, some tech house, breaks, trap,” she says. “You know, that kind of thing.” Oh-kay.
The party’s raging, but a combination of exertion, overindulgence and mountain air has done me in. After downing a can of Pabst’s finest, I step outside to find that a fresh snowfall has turned the town into a postcard. Streetlamps and holiday lights glaze the streets orange, but the moonlight is more than enough to see me home. I shuffle on toward the hotel, making sure to fall into at least one snowbank on the way.
Sam Polcer, a writer, photographer and former editor at Hemispheres, knows that his Brooklyn apartment won’t accommodate an antler chandelier, but he still wants one.