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.
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.
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.
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 21/2 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.
That's not to say this won't involve a little discomfort; indeed, those of us who wish to see Aspen cheap must suffer a bit. But I say it's worth it, if not just for the mountain scenery than for the chance to pretend that you have -- as Dickens might say -- great expectations.
So when you see a pack of children running through Aspen's pedestrian malls and assailing all passersby with a crass "Are you famous?" you should know what to do. Hide your disdain for their obvious ill-breeding. Disguise your contempt for their grubby little hands. And then solemnly answer their question.
"Why yes," you'll tell them. "Why yes I am."
Details, Page P7.
Ben Brazil last wrote for Travel on Charleston, S.C.