Skip to main content
Original Issue


Not to mention the fearless Slats Cabbage, the Ruggerfesters and just about everybody. Aspen is where sporting folks have found the Mountain of Youth

The solitary jogger padded along the valley road that ends in the ruddy face of the Maroon Bells mountain southwest of Aspen, Colo. It was early; the sun had reached the valley's western cliff, turning it to burnt sienna, but the eastern cliff was still a shadowed mauve. The landscape looked like a wedge of layer cake: a bottom layer of mist, a middle layer of mountain spotted with the fall's first snowfall, the icing formed by wind-whipped clouds and white sky. Puddles from the previous night's storm lay un-rippled on the road, and the jogger, dressed only in track shorts and a T shirt, dodged them like a halfback. Vapor puffed from his lips in measured exhales, taken on every fourth step; he knew that at Aspen's altitude, nearly 8,000 feet, the trick to breathing is in the exhale; concentrate on the exhale and the rhythm of the inhale will come on its own.

A red Monte Carlo with a white vinyl top approached from the opposite direction, the windows shut and steamy. It slowed, then stopped and the driver's window rolled down. "Excuse me," began a woman, "but does this road lead to Maroon Lake?"

"It's about a mile up," panted the runner, without breaking the rhythm of his breathing.

"Aren't you terribly cold dressed like that?" asked the woman.

"No," the runner said, responding to her look of incredulity with a small smile. "I just keep moving."

"What are you getting ready for, the ski season or something?"

The runner was not a skier. "No," he said, "just the day."

The woman was a tourist. An Aspen resident wouldn't have given the runner a second thought. Aspen is perhaps the most sports-conscious town in the country. It has the environment for virtually every athletic activity known to man. About the only thing missing is an ocean.

Aspen was once one of the greatest silver camps in the West, but the economic bottom dropped out in 1893 with the repeal of the Sherman Act. For the next four decades Aspen's population dwindled from a peak of nearly 12,000 to 600. Then, during World War II, the Tenth Mountain Division trained at nearby Camp Hale. After the war, many of its members returned to settle in Aspen and created the new boom: physical fitness. A Chicago industrialist named Walter Paepcke discovered the town and decided it would be the ideal setting for his dream of an institute, which, as he put it, would be devoted to "Man's complete life—to earn a livelihood, to enjoy nature and physical recreation and to have available facilities for education."

Paepcke, who died in 1960, saw Aspen as an American Salzburg and the town remembers him as a patron, not an exploiter. His philosophy and values are the basis of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, a renowned think tank founded in 1949. The Institute studies problems in population, communication, environment, science and technology and holds seminars on the classics and humanities each summer. For every three hours devoted to academics, at least another hour is spent in some form of physical activity.

For every leisure suit in Denver, there must be a warm-up suit in Aspen. Last year there were 7,532 registered voters in the Aspen area and 5,000 participants in organized city sports, plus thousands more in sports that weren't sponsored by the city. In one 45-square-block area of downtown Aspen, there are 21 sports stores and perhaps a half dozen health centers. There are approximately 70 tennis courts in Aspen, a municipal golf course and a country club that has open membership. And outside of town, there are hundreds of miles of trout streams, hiking paths and Jeep trails.

Whether such activity draws beautiful people or creates them is arguable, but no one can suggest that Aspen does not have more than its share. To figure the age of an average Aspen local, look, at his or her body, take a reasonable guess based on what bodies should look like at certain years in life, then add about 10 years. "A lot of people come here and see all the beautiful bodies and get intimidated," says one woman with a body beautiful enough to intimidate anyone. "They go away feeling insecure and depressed. They don't realize that those bodies don't just happen; it's because they belong to athletes."

The peer pressure to reap such corporeal rewards through athletics is strong, and it's not very subtle. A lady who works at the local sailplane school says, "Recently I was writing one of those How-I-Spent-My-Summer letters and I came to realize that you've wasted your summer here unless you've done something athletic. People look at you as if they're thinking, 'What's wrong with you, anyhow?' So I learned to ride a motorcycle this summer. It's just keeping up with the Joneses on a different level."

Aspen is best known as a ski town, of course. Aspen Mountain, called Ajax by the locals (Ajax is its name from silver-mining days), is one of the great ski mountains of the world—and the town is full of people who can ski its runs well. The population of the area triples most winters to more than 30,000. Many skiers stay through the winter, decide to settle in town—and then naturally turn to summer sports.

One such is Hank Tomlinson, regarded by many as Aspen's most dedicated ski instructor—and there are 350 of them working at the four ski areas of Ajax, Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. In the summer Tomlinson plays tennis every day. "Aspen has experienced the tennis boom at least as much as the rest of the country," he says. "It's tennis mad. Courts have sprouted up all over. There are probably 20 private courts in the area, and close to 50 courts belonging to clubs and public facilities."

When Tomlinson isn't playing tennis, he sells real estate. The play-before-work order of priorities is endemic. "Hardly anybody is into making money here," says one resident. "They just like to play too much. It's tough to stay here because it's so expensive, but people find a way. The trick is to eke it out."

"Eking it out" requires resourcefulness in a town with one of the highest costs of living in the country. Last year Big Jim Furniss (6'7", 250 pounds, once a Penn State varsity tackle) announced he was going to form a company called Aerial Burial. He got the idea when his brother-in-law opened the door of an airplane to throw the ashes of a gentleman named Old Slim to the wind. One reason the company never got off the ground, so to speak, is that there's not much dying in Aspen. Another is that the test run, so to speak, was less than outstanding—the wind threw Old Slim right back in the pilot's face.

Jim Gibbons, who played tight end for the Detroit Lions from 1958 through 1967 and went to the Pro Bowl three of those years, is now a salesman for an Aspen real estate company owned by another ex-pro, Dick Fitzgerald. Both men, plus another former pro, Charley Podolak, coach junior high school football. "I was just a jock in Detroit, even though it was a big city," says Gibbons. "Here, in a town with a population of only 6,000, no one is a jock because everyone is a jock. In Aspen, I'm just Jim Gibbons. That's why I came here."

One of Gibbons' former associates, Millard Kelley, the Lions' trainer from 1955 to 1967, is the Aspen High School trainer and a physical therapist at the Aspen Alps Health Spa. He will soon become manager of a new health establishment, The Aspen Club. Kelley is 53—an old man in Aspen—and looks 43; silver hair is the only real clue to his age. His eyes are as clear as those of a teen-ager, and his body as fit as that of most men 20 years younger. "I treat a phenomenal number of injuries considering the size of this town, he says. Working on Knees and backs alone could almost keep me in business."

The experience and talents of a professional trainer like Kelley are welcome and appreciated in Aspen. No wonder; there are 48 city-league softball teams and 12 flag football teams, and the leagues include both men's and women's teams. The caliber of flag football—the rules are the same as in touch except a player is considered downed when a plastic strip is pulled from his or her waist—is high; the three ex-pros play in the league, and it is rough. But softball is the town's passion in the summer. For four years Aspen's program was supervised by an energetic man named Tom Burt, who was guided by the theory that softball is supposed to be fun. And he pushed this idea, often in frustration.

"Aspen is so athletically competitive it gets downright depressing sometimes," says Burt. "Daily, for years, I tried to convince the coaches and players to ease off; I cornered them one at a time in bars. Finally, last year, I think we may have got some place."

Whether he did and whether the change will be a lasting one remains to be seen. The new supervisor, Gary Speckman—who originally initiated the program—is an efficient administrator with an outlook on softball described by an acquaintance as, simply, "crazed."

"Aspen is certainly sports-conscious in the sense that the people stay in shape so they can admire their own bodies," says Peter Looram, whose favorite summer sport is kayaking, "but in terms of commitment, I don't think it is so sports-conscious. There are a lot of expensive bicycles on racks and new kayaks on car-tops around here, but a lot of them don't get unstrapped very often; it's for show, like wearing jogging shoes to go barhop-ping. I think Eugene, Oregon has a much purer attitude toward sports."

It is hard to separate the Aspen athlete from the Aspen pseudo-athlete by sight; there is a lot of athletic posturing on the streets. There are men who walk around with hunched shoulders the way high school boys do when they want to exaggerate their muscles. And it is a bit startling to see a man in rugged mountain clothes wearing a unisex hair style. Foster's Lager, a rich Australian brew, is big in Aspen. "I think it's because it comes in 25-ounce cans," says a liquor-store owner. "Those big cans are rugged, man-sized. I once got a shipment of Foster's in 12-ounce bottles and nearly had to give it away."

"The real beauty of this town lies a few layers down," says Bruce Gordon, a former collegiate soccer player who has been on mountain-climbing expeditions in Mexico and Nepal, where he climbed Makalu, the world's fourth highest mountain. Gordon helps coach the kids' soccer teams in Aspen. He was raised in Brooklyn and now lives in a cabin in the woods and thinks a lot. His dress runs toward mismatched socks and corduroys with holes in the knees. "The trouble is that the shallow sports scene is the one that is the most visible," he says. "But for every jock who struts around town with a football under his arm, there is another one with a disciplined attitude toward sports."

One of the men Gordon could be talking about is the supervisor of the kids' soccer program, a student of sports named Roger Moyer. Moyer, 36, is 6' and 160 pounds. In high school he lettered in football four years; baseball, basketball and track, two each; wrestling and gymnastics, one each. He is proficient at bicycle racing, rock climbing, kayaking, Alpine and Nordic skiing, water skiing, volleyball, tennis and soccer. He concentrates a lot on yoga and aikido nowadays; someday he plans to try modern dance. As superb an athlete as he is, many of the jocks in town have never heard of him because he avoids bars and is generally low key.

Moyer is a painting contractor and has organized his business so he can take off for a month or two if the mood strikes him. In the summer of 1976 he was in a kayaking mood and he kayaked around Europe with Peter Looram. Kayaking is extremely popular in Aspen; there are two enterprises in town offering kayak expeditions or day trips along the Colorado or Arkansas Rivers, and there are about a dozen excellent runs through nearby gorges, canyons and valleys. One section of Aspen's Roaring Fork is navigable for 40 miles when there is a heavy mountain runoff in early summer—the best season for kayakers because of the rushing streams and warm weather—and it includes one of the most challenging runs in the world, a seven-mile stretch called Slaughterhouse.

The Colorado Whitewater Association holds eight or nine kayak races in the Aspen area during the summer. Says one non-resident, "Aspen has more kayakers than anywhere. We used to pooh-pooh them, but now they're developing into good boaters, especially in the big waters. There's a terrific potential in Aspen because the Roaring Fork is right there for them, and many of them ski, which has tremendous similarities to kayaking—especially the same body control, sort of an extension of the hips. Then there's that Aspen attitude that goes, 'See if you can do this, see if you can do that; anything you can do, I can do better.' Consequently there are a lot of very brave boaters in Aspen, and eventually they may be the very best in the world."

Roger Moyer travels around by bicycle, which is common in Aspen and is another reason the townspeople are so fit. Given the high cost of living, automobiles are an expense many can't justify.

Aspen has its own bicycle racing team, and its own race. The Aspen Alpine Cup reaches the highest elevation of any bicycle race in North America, 12,096 feet, and is generally considered the most difficult in the country. (Until 1976 it was also the biggest, but now the Red Zinger Classic in Boulder, with its $25,000 purse, attracts more competitors.) The Alpine Cup is a three-day, 250-mile race; each of the first two days consists of a long, mountainous leg. The first leg crosses Independence Pass along a narrow, winding road bordered on one side by cliffs and a few guardrails; top riders have been known to cover one downhill four-mile stretch of this leg in four minutes. On the final day there is a 40-mile criterium on a 2.2-mile course. The criterium follows the streets of downtown Aspen and spectators line the curbs to whoop and cheer like kids at a Fourth of July parade.

Almost as popular as the Alpine Cup is the Motherlode Volleyball Tournament, which usually draws about 100 two-member teams. But the most popular and best-known event in Aspen is a rugby tournament, held the last weekend in September, called the Ruggerfest. In 1976 the Aspen City Council discussed restricting the use of Wagner Park, the field in the center of town, to protect the grass, and at the special meeting called to deal with the problem it was suggested that rugby didn't do an awful lot of good for the grass, and maybe the Ruggerfest should be canceled for a year. "We can't cancel the Ruggerfest," cried Councilman Pete DeGregorio, who is the high school football coach and a rugby player. "Canceling the Ruggerfest would be like canceling fall in Aspen." He didn't get any arguments.

"The final game of the Ruggerfest is as good a game of rugby as you'll see played in the United States," says John McDermott, an Englishman who taught rock climbing and kayaking before he moved to the U.S. McDermott, who is 5'8", 160 pounds, and one of the Aspen Gentlemen's best kickers, is also their coach and captain. He first saw Aspen when he played in the 1975 Ruggerfest for the champions, the Flying Pumpkins, a team composed largely of UCLA and Santa Monica players. The following spring he returned to Aspen, found himself a job and went home to Santa Monica just long enough to gather up his wife and baby.

"I had lived in Southern California for three years, just waiting for someplace like Aspen," says McDermott. "The crowd at that Ruggerfest, 4,000 people standing on the sidelines cheering, cemented it for me. I hadn't played rugby for a crowd like that since I was back in England. I moved to Aspen just to play this game."

One of the best-known rugby players is Rick Deane. Deane has lived in Aspen for all of his 33 years; his great-grandfather hiked over Independence Pass in the 1880s, and was one of the town's early settlers. Rick, his brother Buck and his mother Louise own and manage the T-Lazy-7, a guest ranch in the Maroon Creek Valley. (A third Deane son was killed by an avalanche in Utah's Wasatch Mountains.) Louise, known to the townsfolk as Lou, bought the T-Lazy-7 with her late husband in 1938, after a brief acting career in New York City.

The Deane family is something out of The Virginian. But don't call Rick a cowboy. "I am a mountain man," he says succinctly.

Deane heads for the mountains at any excuse; he had to sit out last year's Ruggerfest because he had missed several practices while he was in the mountains for nearly a week, hunting elk with a musket. He got his elk, which he hauled home by pack mule, stayed down long enough to butcher the meat, then went back to the mountains with a flatbed truck, chain saws and axes to cut the winter's supply of firewood for the ranch. "I wish I could stay up in the mountains all the time and only come down to play rugby and go racing," he says.

In his orange Firebird convertible, Deane is the fastest local stock car racer. They don't race stock cars in Aspen quite the way they do anywhere else in the world. In contrast to most of Aspen's sports events, the stock car races are virtually slapstick.

"Just like racing up to the mountains and back with a bunch of buddies," Deane describes it. All it takes to race is a roll bar in the car, any car, a seatbelt, fire extinguisher, crash helmet and $10 entry fee. There are three classes: Slow, in which a $500 claiming rule applies. Fast and Superfast. The cars have things like draft-beer tap handles for gearshift knobs, and the steering wheels have spinner knobs with naked ladies leering through the magnifying plastic. The engines are caked with grime, and there is more oil over the valve covers than inside them. Amidst the smoke, a car may leave behind a trail of blowing leaves, collected on the floor from sitting out in the backyard.

The most infamous entrant is the Dirt Bags of Aspen. Their slogan is, "Show me a bag and I'll show you some dirt." C. B. Ringo is the driver and Fulton Begley III is the crew chief, only he calls himself the pointer. Begley's chief areas of responsibility are radiator caps, lug nuts and air. When Ringo wheels in for one of his frequent pit stops, those are the things Begley mostly points at.

The Dirt Bags were the Cabbage Racing Team until Dr. Slats Cabbage resigned as driver. In its first race, Slats' Dodge Dart featured a cabbage as a hood ornament. But he had to attach it himself. First he went to the hardware store and bought the bolt. "How long do you want it?" asked the clerk. "Oh," said Slats, "just long enough to fit through a cabbage." Then he went to the market. "How big a cabbage do you want?" asked the grocer. Slats whipped the bolt out of his pocket and said, "Oh, big enough to fit over this bolt."

Dirt Bags, né Cabbage, is sponsored by Aspen State Teachers College, a strictly "nolo accreditare" institution. One day Marc Demmon and Al Pendorf (a.k.a. Cabbage and Begley) decided that what Aspen lacked was team spirit, which couldn't very well exist unless there was a team. So they invented the college and a football team for the sake of the homecoming game—the Aspen Brooms now play imaginary opponents every fall, and last year they only lost two games. Demmon and Pendorf soon found themselves in business, printing a campus newspaper and selling college gee-gaws from the ASTC "bookstore," as well as sponsoring all sorts of whimsical activities. They also found themselves on To Tell the Truth. "Those characters are good for Aspen," says one 30-year resident. "Aspen needs more of a sense of humor. This is the way it used to be."

Aspen's reputation as Jock City is self-perpetuating. It not only draws jocks, but also makes jocks, and it will likely continue to do so. Bruce Gordon's theory, which he suggests is "slightly weird," is that Aspen's altitude stimulates people's brain cells and in some way makes them want to keep active. But chances are the explanation is simpler than that. It was the environment and physical potential of the town that drew the athletes, and now, as well as that, it is the opportunities and attitude that keep and will continue to keep them.