Periodically the precious whimsy of Aspen ski area shrines makes a new rotation in media pages, often penned by visiting journalists who rhapsodize recycled awesomeness into the topic. This latest perigee orbits by us in a Yale doctoral candidate’s academic paper, “The Right to Shrine,” via a well-crafted story by Snowmass Sun reporter Maddie Vincent (Snowmass Sun, Jan. 1, 2020).
Therein, Ph.D. aspirant Cody Musselman, a former Aspen Skiing Co. employee, coins a new view by looking at “something playful in a serious way.” She premises “territorial entitlement and claims to space,” based upon “continuity of settler-colonial logics.” Another way of saying squatter’s rights.
Since the first shrines appeared on Aspen Mountain in the 1970s, honoring Elvis and Marilyn, we’ve witnessed the sprawl of themes, from Pooper Troopers to unicorns, from soft-core porn to Trump, and assorted deceased celebrities. Though each shrine is a memorialization important to the erector, many have little to do with Aspen history or notable residents who have gone on ahead. Yet for better or for worse, the shrine phenomenon has become a runaway train.
Along with these multiplying installments, two points of view contend: The first is the alleged inalienable right that anyone from anywhere can put up a shrine in any Aspen woods about any topic they choose. This butts heads with the view that we’re littering disappearing wilderness with too much sacred plastic, stuffed monkeys, bowling balls, toy guitars, rubber lizards, ski boots, tchotchkes, Mardi Gras beads and tinsel.
Then we straddle this quarrel with a marketing blind eye that hypes the shrines to enchant more consumers to Aspen, thereby inviting visitors to build one for a departed someone or to showcase an obsession of their choice.
And at some point some blinkered artist spray-painted a mural-size Jimi Hendrix profile on the historical rock foundation of the 1892 mining tram dock at the top of Zaugg Dump ski run on Aspen Mountain, the site of the now-decaying Hendrix shrine.
Unfortunately, one part-time resident has spurred the whole mishmash by promoting the concept with a website, Facebook page and a book titled “Sanctuaries in the Snow.” Furtherance seems the design, based upon the deception that all these shrines simply appear by random inspiration, while he humbly works at documentation.
What is curious, however, is how many of the shrines have the exact same laminated-style pictures secured to the tress by the same galvanized roofing nails in similar stacked layouts, such as the era-sharing Frank Sinatra, Ben Hogan and Stein Erikson shrines.
A few years back the same phantom shrinester tried to inundate Billy Zaugg’s old cabin (the last miner to live on Aspen Mountain) with the same laminated-style photos of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Nearby there, laminates of golf greats, full ball buckets, clubs and old golf bags tried to claim “territorial entitlement” just steps off the summer road at the top of Aztec run. Wood nymphs objected and that shrine dissolved, only to reappear at Snowmass, disappear again, and then reincarnate mall-sized — with chairs — in same design close by.
Could the aforementioned promoter be trying to chum up more shrine builders by affixing his obsessive oeuvres around the ski hills, which then appear overly documented and photographed on his social media? A look at his exhaustive aspensnowmassshrines.com site shows numerous pictures that even a basic Sherlock can see are matching plastic layouts cranked out by the same tools.
Over time we’ve seen shrines come and go, and the heartfelt sentiments that go into many should be respected. However, countless deteriorate in neglect as the non-biodegradable wrapped pictures and bric-a-brac spiked to so many innocent trees begin to shred, spreading microplastic particles to kingdom come. On top of that, ski-by additions heap garnish in the memorials for nature to somehow reclaim later. Aspen uniqueness, I suppose, but perhaps enough is enough. Still, like not tossing stuff out of a car window any longer, we might do better to admit the obvious: cluttering the woods contributes to environmental degradation. We don’t pollute the Roaring Fork River anymore.
Maybe it’s time to raise the level of consciousness, walk our Aspen Canary Initiative talk, and clean up the mess. Or does promotional specialness override common sense responsibility to the planet?
What would Greta Thunberg say?
Tim Cooney is an Aspen-based freelance writer and historian.