Stevie Ray Vaughan is hidden somewhere on Ajax Mountain, and we’re on a mission to find him.
Following directions scrawled onto a scrap of paper, we finally steer our skis toward a little hollow in a grove of trees. We dip into the hushed alcove and find a single laminated picture of the Texas blues guitarist tacked to the bark of a towering pine.
The Vaughan memorial is one of about 70 shrines that have popped up among the ski runs of Aspen, Colo., in the past 30 years. Some are simple, just a few photos; others are elaborate, with signs and significant objects and, in the case of the Golf Shrine, a bucket of balls, a spare club or two, a “quiet” sign leftover from a tournament and a hidden bottle of whiskey.
The fun comes in finding them. They’re tucked out of sight, off the main ski runs, and some are hard to reach unless you’re an expert skier. There’s a shrine for just about everything, from the Kitty Cat shrine to the Buckaroo shrine, from the Beer shrine to one dedicated to a children’s toy called Pooper Troopers.
Most folks know about the John Denver shrine, and we glide into the popular spot, where wind chimes tinkle and beads dangle from branches. You can practically see the folk singer, wearing a fringed jacket, peering at you through wire-framed glasses.
A fake Stoner Avenue street sign marks the entrance to the Jerry Garcia shrine, where a bouquet of fake red roses, drawings, photos and, sometimes, a few leaves of marijuana are tacked to the trees.
“There are a lot of people who have skied Aspen for years and have never seen one,” says David Wood, a mostly retired attorney who lives in Aspen and has written a book about the shrines. He’s the one who pointed us toward the Vaughan site, which has moved recently from an old miner’s cabin to its new home off Ruthie’s Run. “You can ski down and go right past one and not know it’s there.”
They’re impromptu. They pop up organically. They’re made with love. And they feature an ever-changing array of memorabilia.
“You look on a map and can’t really find anything,” Wood says. “It’s an interesting phenomenon. The people here in Aspen have felt the need to go off and do this, and [the shrines] last.”
Aspen’s known for plenty besides the shrines, too: Challenging skiing, gorgeous scenery and, yes, excess.
Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson brought his brand of counterculture to town in the ‘60s, Denver boosted its popularity after recording a pair of songs about it, and celebrities like Meg Ryan, Jack Nicholson and Mariah Carey have all called it home, at least part time.
Now it supports an upscale shopping district that includes Dior, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci shops, and it’s easy to drop a couple hundred dollars on a meal in the town’s swanky restaurants.
One night, we stopped by the Little Nell, arguably Aspen’s most famous hotel for the rich and famous, and sneaked into the wine cellar, where master sommelier and wine director Carlton McCoy let us peek at the 18,000 bottles of wine stored there. The average customer spends $100 to $300 on a bottle at the hotel’s restaurant, Element 47, though one extravagant couple McCoy told us about recently ordered a $5,000 bottle of Burgundy — and followed it up with a $24,000 bottle.
But the area’s history centers around mining, and that old-timey character lives on.
In the late 1870s, more than 500 miners lived in cabins and lean-tos actually on the mountain, making their commute to work short and sweet. Others lived in the town of Aspen far below.
During Prohibition, because they couldn’t drink and carouse as they chipped away for silver veins, they ordered up “milkshakes” secretly spiked with bourbon at the Hotel Jerome. Happily for us, the hotel and adjacent J Bar are still hopping, and you can still order one of those special shakes, called Aspen Crud.
Even if you skip the drink (but why do that?), it’s worth stepping into the Jerome’s lobby, which once doubled as the town’s post office. It’s a splendid mix of luxury and Old West.
After the silver industry faded, the town struck gold with the launch of Aspen’s fledgling ski industry in the 1940s. Today, eight lifts, including a heated gondola, whisk skiers and boarders up the mountain, where they can choose from 76 routes down.
Aspen is just one of four ski resorts that operate in the area, and you can ride a free shuttle between all of them. Buttermilk, which caters to beginners, opened in the late 1950s, as did the Highlands, with its more challenging terrain. The sprawling resort of Snowmass began operations in 1967.
But Ajax Mountain at Aspen is an original, a stellar, compact 675 acres packed with glades, bumps and steeps where you can work out all the kinks that come with sitting at a desk all day.
About half the mountain’s runs are marked expert only. Skiers of lesser ability can pop over to Buttermilk while you tackle the steeps, and everyone can meet up and swap tales afterward.
Just be sure you tell them about the shrines you uncovered during your explorations.
Pam LeBlanc writes for the Austin American-Statesman.