We were far away from the glitz, up in the Rocky Mountains on narrow cots in a four-corner tent steaming with campfire smoke and body odor. The bourbon brought me back down to Aspen. The night before I’d been in town nursing a hot toddy at the Ajax Tavern in The Little Nell, reluctant to leave my red-leather banquette and my drink. When I finally did, I slept in stupefying decadence — the Little Nell obtaining a mattress splendor that someone of my tax bracket rarely encounters. It was a last whiff of material comfort before plunging into the wilderness for four days.
Sometimes we wake up surprised to find ourselves in deep pockets of serenity. It’s bewildering — as if we’d just awoken to a parallel life, one which might, at any moment, disappear without a trace. It was just a night! That was all we had together. I was gone in the morning. Didn’t even stay for breakfast. I can see now I was too cavalier about it. But I never expected a homesickness. One night! And now I know she’s moved on, Little Nell, stuffing her beds with stranger after stranger.
Up there in the mountains, I looked back at the enchantment briefly glimpsed. Staying at the Little Nell felt like peeking around a corner to see how the rich really live. Which is, in a word, well. The guest rooms are sprawling, thickly carpeted havens from prying eyes, a mash of Park Avenue extravagance and high-country glamping, with gas fireplaces and downy sofas and leather armchairs. In the bathrooms are heated marble floors and spacious showers. And of course there’s the Ajax, located at the back of the hotel and the foot of Aspen Mountain, where one can idly recharge on truffle fries and Fonseca while the concierge warms your boots.
It was a last whiff of material comfort before plunging into the wilderness for four days.
This is an Aspen that a hero of mine, Hunter S. Thompson, fretted about — even loathed. In 1968, he had moved to Owl Farm in Woody Creek, seven miles down the road, attracted by the counter culture bonafides of the area as much as its beauty and isolation. He soon head-butted with Aspen’s elite, landed class, calling out a local magistrate as a “hate-infected wart on the appendix of humanity” and bemoaning the “fiendishly inflated land market…which is totally out of control.” Three years later, he ran for sheriff of Aspen on a “Freak Power” ticket, promising to legalize drugs, tear up the streets and have them sodded, but chiefly to prevent the “greedheads, land-rapers, and other human jackals” from developing Aspen. He lost by 31 votes.
Thompson knew where things were headed: the average house price in Aspen is now $4.1 million. At least 50 billionaires call the surrounding valley home (or a home). Listings of $50 million aren’t unheard of. Thompson would’ve appreciated the irony of a free real estate magazine I picked up in the airport mentioning him and his Owl Farm, which will soon become a museum run by his former wife, Anita, with weekly tours.
But Thompson made his peace with Aspen. He was known to haunt the J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome (before the Little Nell, Aspen’s luxury heavyweight), not to mention the Wheeler Opera House and Aspen Golf Club. Though he was probably more at home at the Woody Creek Tavern, where he could away with leveling a gun at the bartender, I suspect he would’ve been charmed by the Ajax, particularly its stock of rum and bourbon and the soft, warm benevolence of its red leather.
Up there on the mountain, without a change of clothes or a swipe of deodorant, feeling desperately out of sorts, I longed for Little Nell like a pilgrim for his final station. I’ll always have our night together. And I held on to that.
Where to Eat
The Little Nell’s Element 47 is one of the finest restaurants in a town choking with fine restaurants. Chef Matt Zubrod’s “New American” cuisine is conversant in both Midwestern stockyard-ese and the stuffiest French (think ribeye steak with bordelaise, veal au jus, poached lobster). The food is excellent, but it’s the 20,000-bottle wine cellar that tips Element 47 out of the quotidian. The restaurant has graduated 10 of North America’s 147 master sommeliers (there are only 230 worldwide), including Carlton McCoy, the current wine director, who skews towards classical regions — Burgundy, Napa, the Rhône and Italian Piedmont.
Where to Drink
The J-Bar in the Hotel Jerome was an office annex for Hunter S. Thompson — the place he sorted his mail, read the papers, wrote letters, ate breakfast, lunch and dinner (sometimes all three there in the same day), brooded over Chivas Regal, bummed the phone, doled out blotter acid and out-drank all comers, including Nicholson, Murray, Depp and Senator John Kerry. There’s a story of Thompson nearly killing Bill Murray after duct-taping him to a pool chair and throwing him into the deep-end during a break in the filming of Where the Buffalo Roam. The place has that kind of vibe — sheer cosmic madness spun from a few Scotch and waters. Despite the hotel’s landmark respectability (it retains some original 1880s marble and tin accents), the bar siphons you into another realm. The glass-bottle chandeliers and Chinoiserie Chippendale bar-top (signed by every bartender who’s worked there since the place opened) evoke an Old West excess that Thompson evidently glommed onto.
What to Do
The Roaring Fork River is a name you hear whispered about in fly shops. An outer planet in the fly-fishing cosmos, it’s more or less unanimously considered one of the best trout fisheries in the country. Browns and rainbows between 25 and 30 inches aren’t uncommon, and there is even occasional cutthroat. About half of its 70-odd miles, from Basalt to Glenwood Springs, where the river joins the Colorado, are designated “Gold Medal Trout Waters,” meaning it has some of the highest-quality cold-water habitat for trout in the U.S. On account of its rich biomass — abundant mayflies and mysis shrimp — the river amounts to an endless Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Contest for trout. Spring hatches tend to be bountiful, producing small mayflies, caddis, midges and stoneflies up until early summer, while the fall provides ample opportunity to throw streamers and nymph rigs. The Little Nell arranges float and wading trips with professional guides.