Thoughts from a Visit to the Playground of the Rich & Famous

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Over Christmas, my family was fortunate to cross something off our “bucket list” by spending part of winter break in Aspen and Snowmass, Colorado. My husband and son are downhill skiers, so for years we have been dreaming of the winter when J would be old enough and experienced enough to enjoy a couple days on a real mountain. At 14, and with 5 years’ experience on the modest ski hills of Minnesota, we decided he was ready, so we packed up the SUV and hit the road! (That sounds so spur of the moment. We actually planned and prepared for MONTHS researching housing options, routes, ski packages, etc.)

Aspen is whole different world. I didn’t recognize any celebrities, but there are paparazzi shots online that prove quite a few celebs were in town when we were. Pretty much every store in Aspen is designer. Pretty much every restaurant is fine dining. I saw more furs on the streets than you see in the cages at a zoo. Set all that against the glorious backdrop of snow draped mountains, and it was simply unreal to this small town girl who grew up on the plains of North Dakota.

The cost of living in Aspen is much higher than it is here in the Minneapolis suburbs. We tried to save money by doing some of our meals in the villa we stayed in. It helped, but their grocery prices were so high that it didn’t make as big of a difference as I expected. I saw a sign at one real estate office that said the lowest priced single family home on the market in Aspen was over $2 million! And very few of the owners of those multi-million dollar homes actually live in them. They are vacation properties owned by high rollers who can afford to keep a place just for winter ski vacations. Ooh la la. And I felt really spoiled just to drive out and spend a couple days there. The idea of owning there – especially just for vacations – blew my mind!

Of course, this made me wonder how regular people make it. We encountered a number of bus drivers, waiters, resort staff, etc. during our trip. While they make good money in tips and overtime during Christmas, the crowds thin at the end of the ski season, and the other three-quarters of the year are much slimmer pickings. In conversations I discovered that most of them don’t live in Aspen, but commute in from surrounding towns like Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.  As we passed through those communities on the highway, I saw neighborhoods full of old trailer homes and some grubby looking apartments. For the young who love to ski and want to spend a season or a couple years in the beauty of the mountains, that works out. But for families, living off service jobs in seasonal resort community with a high cost of living is very difficult. According to the local paper (the slogan on the masthead gave me a chuckle: “If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen”), 77% of kids in the Aspen school district receive free or reduced-price lunches.  This indicates a significant poverty level among the permanent residents.

I don’t really have some big conclusion from all this, just a new eyewitness awareness of the poverty that it takes to support the posh life. As much as we enjoyed the stunning scenery, the guys enjoyed the skiing, and we all enjoyed the hospitality, I was happy to go home. I like my simple home, my comfy bed, and the self-reliance of my everyday life. I’m even excited to eat our FSF meal of Tuna Helper and canned corn tonight. Perhaps that’s the real takeaway. Just like it takes a certain level of poverty to support the fancy life of wealth and fame, so it also takes a certain level of restraint, simplicity, and self-denial in our comfortable lives to support everyone. As Mother Theresa said, “Live simply so others can simply live.”

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Spectacular mountain view from one of the ski hills.

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