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Aspen, Without the Trust Fund

Probably the most accessible summer festival is the Aspen Music Festival and School, a 55-year-old classical music institution that grooms musicians with world-class talent for the professional world. As most of the students are not yet pros, it also spawns a version of street music that does not exactly debunk Aspen's elitist image: Where else can you find a woodwind quintet playing for change on a street corner?

Although the annual festival -- which began June 22 and runs through Aug. 22 this year -- sells tickets for many official concerts, quite a few are gratis. Best of all, there's never a charge to lounge on the grass outside Benedict Music Tent, a permanent 2,050-seat facility where the festival holds concerts almost daily throughout the summer.

The gondola costs $17 to ride up Aspen Mountain but is gratis on the way down -- a good thing for hikers on a budget. (Aspen Chamber Resort Association)

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Laura and I found ourselves on that very lawn our first afternoon in town, listening to a 55-piece concert band while we sipped microbrews and ate cherries we'd bought at the grocery store. A few days later, we listened to three smaller ensembles play another free show at the beautiful indoor concert hall next door. Both experiences left me feeling uncharacteristically cultured and urbane.

I felt more myself a few days later at Snowmass Village, a nearby resort town linked to Aspen, where I sat under a ski lift and listened to accordion-infused zydeco. The show was part of the Snowmass Summer of Free Music series, which hosts one or two shows a week from late June to late August.

But music is not the only form of free entertainment in Aspen. There are also free outdoor movies, free nature walks and even free fly-fishing lessons in a local park. Bookish sorts can attend lecture series on topics including politics and theoretical physics; we skipped a presentation on the American presidency and another called "Neutrinos Get Under Your Skin."

Want art? Although the Aspen Art Museum is free on Fridays -- and normally has free wine and cheese on Thursday evenings -- we skipped it in favor of the commercial galleries downtown, where you can browse through a great variety of contemporary artworks.

One day, I stopped by the Baldwin Gallery to take in conceptual drawings by Christo, the artist best known for wrapping fabrics around everything from table chairs to the Reichstag, Germany's parliament building in Berlin. The sketches on display showed plans for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, his wife and partner, to temporarily cover walkways in New York's Central Park with saffron-colored banners hung from 7,500 temporary gates. (The project is slated for February, according to their Web site.)

No, I didn't plan to drop $25,000 or more for a Christo drawing or $70,000 for that marble statue a few blocks away -- but nothing said I couldn't look.

In fact, window-shopping and people-watching are two of Aspen's great pleasures, if only because they provide a glimpse into the ridiculously extravagant world of the ultra-rich. Here, among the fur and jewelry stores, you can buy your dog a silk kimono for $150 or order custom-made linens for that yacht moored off Newport.

And while most people we saw seemed unpretentious and rooted in reality, there were some gems. Laura, for example, spotted a woman ferrying her Yorkie around town inside a $400 (or more) Burberry handbag. I overheard a young wife explain that she did not want a fling with a cabana boy, although that might appeal to some women in her situation.

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