Aspen, Without the Trust Fund

By Ben Brazil
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 8, 2004

While I was recently walking the streets of Aspen, Colo., the driver of a white Suburban with Oregon tags stopped beside me, rolled down his window and asked if I lived there.

The answer was a resounding no -- I was sleeping in a tent outside of town, taking $4 showers at a rec center and eating meals on the trunk of my girlfriend's car. But I didn't want to say that. Instead, I wanted to smirk at this poor, lost tourist and blithely say something like, "No. But I do summer here."

I didn't. But for years I had imagined Aspen -- possibly the Rockies' poshest resort town -- as the sort of snotty, image-driven place where people used "summer" as a verb. I also knew that it sat squarely in the middle of a gorgeous swath of mountains and that it teemed with cultural activities in the summer. And so last month, I decided to test my prejudices and see if Aspen offered anything for cheapskates like me.

The answer, to my surprise, was absolutely, unconditionally yes. For five days, my girlfriend, Laura, and I listened to two classical music concerts, rode a gondola, visited art galleries, watched an outdoor movie and grooved to a Louisiana zydeco band jamming under a ski lift.

The grand total for the above activities?

Zero. Zip. Nada.

Although we spent money elsewhere during our stay, we averaged only $32.50 per person per day. For this price -- in local terms, less than one-third the cost of a leather, French-made, rhinestone-studded dog collar -- we sampled Aspen's culture, restaurants and outdoor activities. We did it largely by sleeping in campsites instead of hotels and eschewing the trademark luxury of a town where there are tours past the homes of the rich and famous. Still, we managed to catch a quick glimpse of the alternate universe populated by movie stars, corporate tycoons and the well-heeled in general.

We found them and their world quite entertaining. I'm unsure how they felt about us.

Aspen is best known as a winter ski destination. In the summer, though, the town overflows with theater, film, art and festivals for just about every form of self-expression known to man. It is simply an orgy of refined tastes and good breeding.

Attending, of course, is not always cheap. Sometimes, though, it is completely free.

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.

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