Waiting for a cab at Aspen Airport is a far stretch from standing on Broadway trying to flag a Checker. The night I arrived the air was dry and light, a silver sliver of a moon waning in the deep, black sky. Standing by a snowbank, my bags piled around, the surrounding mountains offered a kind of welcoming embrace amidst the vast space and starry skies so characteristic of Colorado's mountains.
Not one to ignore so powerful a lure, along with the promise of tomorrow's skiing, I gathered my gear and was off down the road toward Highway 82, then left up Brush Creek Road to Snowmass. My last visit to this area was over 10 years ago, and it was obvious, even at night, that things had changed a bit. Along valley foothills once black against the night, were now clusters of private homes glittering like glass birdhouses. Further toward the village (Snowmass is now officially a town), what had once been a few condominiums had mushroomed into what looked like a sparkling city in the darkness.
The plan for Snowmass, as far as I could figure, is fairly straightforward: the majority of the condominiums are clustered along the ski slopes with the village serving as a reference point. This makes door-to-door skiing one of the delights of the resort. But the simplicity of this layout can be deceptive, especially at night. Having talked with a number of visitors who have unintentionally ended up on a grand tour, it seems a good idea to equip yourself with a map with your destination well marked--before you arrive.
A light scattering of snow had begun to fall as we pulled into the drive of Crestwood Condominiums, a series of lodges clustered around a central office just a breath away from the slopes.
After checking in I got to talking with one of the porters and asked the inevitable question of new arrivals: ''How is the skiing?'' His grin spread wide across his sunburned face. ''Incredible . . . 45 degrees . . . sunny and with powder up to your knees on the Burn.'' (The Big Burn is a particularly popular skiing area.) Listening to him, I was in raptures, visualizing great sweeping turns, powder spiraling in sparkling plumes against the sky.
Depositing the bags in the foyer of my apartment, the porter departed with a cheerful ''Good skiing.'' Rather than being disappointed about having missed what had undoubtedly been the greatest skiing of the year, I figured there was probably enough left over for tomorrow. . . .
The next morning I wasn't disappointed when I opened the curtains and looked up at a Colorado blue sky and a scattering of new snow across the hills. Maybe the snow was not up to the knees, but it was fine for a start.
While the kitchen of my condominium was equipped with everything from blender to wire whisks, I hadn't had time to go out and get groceries or avail myself of the Crestwood's grocery-shopping service. So after suiting up with the usual long underwear, assorted turtlenecks, bib overalls, sweaters, socks, gloves, and hat--looking like a child in a plump snowsuit--I trundled up to the lobby and on to a buffet breakfast at the Stonebridge Inn.
Suitably fortified with scrambled eggs, hash browns, orange juice, and fresh melon, I snapped into my boots, stepped into the bindings, and was off to the lift to test ski skills more than a bit rusty since my student days at the University of Colorado. But skiing, as it turned out, is much like riding a bicycle--once you learn, it's not easily forgotten, it just takes a bit of reminding various parts of the body to work in unison. Fortunately too, Snowmass is a forgiving mountain.
From chairlift No. 2, I looked down on rolling, wide trails and groves of aspen with branches still white from the evening's snow. Every once in a while, the wind picked up and shook the limbs, sending cascades of shimmering snow dancing in the sunlight. After warming up a bit on a trail named Velvet, it was up to Sam's Knob, elevation 10,620 feet, via one of Snowmass's 13 chairlifts.
With 1,400 acres (the longest run 3.5 miles), Snowmass is 15 percent ''beginners,'' 60 percent ''more difficult,'' and 25 percent ''most difficult.'' But having been raised on the icy narrows of New England's ski slopes, much of Snowmass's ''most difficult'' seemed a bit relaxed to me. This mixture of slopes makes it a favorite with families of varying skills.
The Sam's Knob lift offers a great vista of Big Burn, an area that offers marvelous, wide-open skiing similar to that above timberline, and I looked a bit longingly at all that open space. But the wind whipped through my sweater and twisted eddies of snow from the treetops--and the lift to the Burn was virtually empty, a sure sign to stick to the lower, more sheltered slopes. It was just about lunchtime anyway, so any such weighty decisions would have to wait.
Skiing works up an appetite, and anyone who skis with any vigor is usually famished by lunch. At High Alpine, located at the top of lift No. 8, I was pleasantly surprised to find some of the best food I had on my trip. There were ''veggie melts''--a light filling of sprouts, cheese, and vegetables in pita bread. And instead of an old ski-line standby, chicken soup, there was cream-of-curry, squash, and mushroom soup. As I remember, I ended up with a pleasantly satisfying lunch for roughly $6.
Sensing something different here, I spent a few minutes talking with coowner Gwen Gordon, a smiling young woman with honey-colored hair and a baby strapped across her back. Along with her husband, George, she has been catering to skiers for years; first at Aspen Highlands, prior to a recent move to Snowmass.
''Snowmass skiers are looking for more than just the normal ski experience,'' Gwen explained as she played with the baby. ''They want to sit back, relax, and have a really nice lunch.'' Referring to the sit-down restaurant, aptly named Gwen's, where the menu features ideas gathered from the Gordons' travels (such as chicken crepes for cold days and avocado stuffed with shrimp for balmy days), Gwen explained their philosophy: ''Here we can give skiers an opportunity to slow down if they want to.''After lunch, I stepped back into my skis and headed across the mountain toward Campground, first checking the map to determine the best route. Even taking this precaution, I missed the turnoff and found myself taking what I thought was a shortcut through my first taste of untracked powder.Gliding through snow-glittering aspens, skis floating, the run felt akin to flying. For the rest of the afternoon, I made runs at Campground, an area protected from the somewhat piercing winds. By the time the late-afternoon shadows had lengthened, I was ready to head back to the lodge.The following day the weather had closed in and it was snowing heavily, so I stopped early to lie in front of the fire--an activity I was determined to devote considerable time to. Another passing thought entertained a possible dip in the jacuzzi or sojourn in the sauna, but the idea of leaving the fireside curtailed any movement until it was time for our group to gather at the Snowmass Club.A new addition to the Snowmass community, this establishment includes a lodge and restaurant. While I didn't have an opportunity to dine at the club, the management has hopes of shooting for a five-star rating over the next few years.After dinner in the village, it was early to bed in preparation for a day of skiing in Aspen. Waiting for the courtesy bus that runs regularly between Snowmass and Aspen, from 8 a.m. until 4:45 p.m., a small group of fellow early risers were reveling in the sun and balmy breezes that promised to provide the kind of day Colorado ski vacations are made of. Fortunately, ski tickets between the two mountains were interchangeable to allow for this kind of impromptu ski agenda.It was obvious from driving along Route 82 that Aspen too had changed considerably over the past 10 years. Suburbia has spread where once-open fields and hills used to meet the expansive sky. But as one 20-year resident assured me, change was obviously inevitable, ''. . .and along with the bad, there's the good.'' Apparently there are some new controls on growth, as well as a lot of renovation of the buildings that now contribute to Aspen's Victorian charm. Another long-term resident, whom I sat next to on the Rocky Mountain Air flight from Denver, discussed the other side of the fast-paced, glitter-gulch image of Aspen as a place where superstars come to frolic.Beneath all these activities, he explained, there are still local people who gather at town meetings to assure a certain quality of life and a comfortable place to raise a family, as well as the uniqueness that was and continues to be Aspen.Slipping the skis from the pockets that lined the bus, we clomped along down the street, past card and book stores, clothing boutiques, and a mall where a rather ramshackle structure had once contained a bicycle shop. But the sun deck and restaurant at the base of Little Nell (the mountain) hadn't changed much. And when a waiter, dressed in a worn flannel shirt, his face lined, sunburned, and adorned with a scruffy handlebar mustache and a certain cavalier air toward life in general took my order, I felt reassured.After an entirely satisfactory breakfast of eggs and home fries, I clunked across the bare wooden floors, swung open the door, and peered up at the mountain toward the top, where the sun was brilliant against new snow.At the top I took off down a trail to the right that was, in the words of an old skiing buddy, ''a piece of cake.'' The day was stupendous, the air bouyant and just cool enough (20 degrees); so the snow was still crisp, edges held and carved on slopes just moguled enough to make things interesting.By noon , skiing felt like dancing. Nonetheless my skiing partners and I decided to eat lunch a bit early and miss the rush. So we skied down midway, where the deck of the cafeteria jutted into the junction of several ski runs. As we chose our way through the moguls, we could hear laughter. It was a party of skiers decked out in fuchsia, topaz, and blue turtlenecks; green, scarlet, and brilliant mauve vests; and parkas. They looked like confetti scattered across the outdoor benches.As is often the case with things that are mulled over for too long before they are done, I had overestimated the vertical decline and the height of the moguls on Ruthie's Run. One of the most popular runs, Ruthie's is to the far right of the mountain (looking up from the base, though it can't be seen from there). It runs right beneath its own lift line - a great arrangement for those anxious to provide a show and for those just as anxious to view good skiing. While mine was not a stellar performance, I managed to negotiate the whole thing with some degree of style.That out of the way, I took the lifts to the top for a glimpse of a sight that had been running through my mind since the last time I'd skied Aspen. I parked my skis against the racks and walked through the building to the rear deck, where I stood breathing in the solitude and watching birds soar. Off to the east was one of the most spectacular mountain valleys I've seen. As I gazed into the depths of these jagged peaks, washed with new snow, I found myself wishing they could stay that way--pristine and massive, yet so close it seemed you could step off the deck and walk among them.A final look that may have to last a good long while and I was on my way back to the slopes for the final run to join the festivities at the base of Little Nell, where fellow skiers sat, milled around, and watched the sunburned faces of their satiated compatriots, grinning their way down the final run of the day.