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Aspen, Without the Trust Fund

These sorts of high-society antics are funny at first, but eventually they make me want to run screaming into the wilderness. Luckily, in Aspen, it's not far away.

On my third afternoon in the Aspen area, I scrambled up a rocky trail and stood, gasping, atop a 12,600-foot mountain ridge. Craggy peaks ribbed with snow extended in every direction, and a small crystalline lake hugged the edge of the highland meadow below.

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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I had just reached the top of Willow Pass, a desolate crease in the mountain ridges that snake across the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, a 181,000-acre protected area southwest of Aspen. To reach the pass, I'd hiked past alpine lakes, through groves of aspens and pines, and across meadows speckled with wildflowers.

Standing in an icy wind, it was hard to believe that, 12 miles away, someone was likely in the midst of a Swedish massage or an exfoliating body scrub or a Brazilian rainforest body wrap. In fact, the mountains are Aspen's best attraction. The wilderness area is just one part of the White River National Forest, whose 2.3 million acres of mountains and streams surround the town. Tourists flock to the Maroon Bells in particular to see the twin triangles of North Maroon Peak and South Maroon Peak, 14,000-feet behemoths that loom over the valley below.

Although I stuck to hiking in Aspen, I spotted mountain bikers, paragliders and lots of people with kayaks strapped to the roofs of their cars. If you have money or equipment, the options are nearly limitless. Disregarding your body's need for rest also helps. For example, it costs $17 to ride the gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain, where there's also a free Frisbee golf course. But if you hike up, the gondola ride down is free. Even though we were still tired from hiking at Maroon Bells, this seemed like a no-brainer.

That, at least, is what I thought until 2 1/2 hours into a nonstop, uphill slog, when Laura glared at me and announced, "Okay, I'm not having fun now."

When we arrived at the top, looking less like a couple on a pleasant hike than survivors of "The Blair Witch Project," we had only enough energy to inhale $5-a-slice pizza from the mountaintop restaurant and watch a storm crawl across the line of ragged peaks on the far side of a green valley. Then we caught the gondola down -- a ride that was free only if you don't count sweat and suffering as forms of payment.

Of course, we did spend some money in Aspen, mostly on the town's many good and reasonably priced restaurants. We scarfed Mexican food and drained margaritas at La Cocina, a local favorite. We had a breakfast of pastries and coffee at the Main Street Bakery & Cafe, where the sunny patio was packed at 10 in the morning. I even splurged a bit on a steak at Little Annie's Eating House, where we dined under a chandelier made of a wagon wheel. Usually, though, we made tuna sandwiches on our car trunk and picnicked in parks.

We made many such trade-offs during our stay in Aspen. In all probability, sleeping on fine linens at five-star hotels offers a more restful experience than crashing in a two-man tent where you can't snack in bed for fear of attracting bears. The discrepancy recalled the words of that thin, tanned blonde whom Laura overhead asking her friend, "In Aspen, if you're not going to stay in the best place, why bother?"

Well, princess, here's why: Because you get to sleep under the Big Dipper and fall asleep to the soft rustle of the actual aspen trees for which the town is named. And if you are at Difficult Campground, where we stayed all but one night, the salons and galleries are only five miles away.

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