Part 3: New Friends in Aspen, 10.11.12
Teresa asked me to tell my story to Julie, the resident horticulturist, and then to the site architect. I was a little self-conscious, but heartened by her supportive curiosity. People seemed to be coming and going in the conversation, so I didn’t fully realize until we were posing for photographs that I was chatting with THE main developer, designer and architect, Jeff Woods. The guy who walked the land with Annie (Denver) just days after John died, looking for the proper venue, helping her begin to unveil the best way to honor John Denver’s memory. Wanting also to offer a financial donation, I had asked Teresa what the approximate cost was for engraving (with lyrics from John’s songs) the large boulders, as they had done and were wanting to continue doing. She called Jeff over to answer, and he said it was as much as a thousand dollars. I asked if it was relatively easy, did they use engraving templates, and he said yes, they did, it went surprisingly fast. Then I told him about my purpose in attending and about my journey back from closed head injury, as Teresa had requested.
I was surprised when Jeff said that he, too, had suffered traumatic brain injury, that he was badly beaten at age eighteen. He said he had been athletic at the time of the beating, but that the injury destroyed his ability for quite some time; for one thing, he no longer could golf. I told him exactly the same was true for me, that my injury was profoundly physical—I had to give up all my hobbies, and couldn’t even swing a golf club until I was coming up on my five year mark–then, how exciting it was just recently to have that first day back on the course. He said, “Oh, yours was much worse than mine. I wasn’t out of it for that long.” Then he added, “But my brother still catches me to this day on things I can’t remember from that time.”
As it turned out, Jeff and I had something else in common, too. We had both grown up just miles apart, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. ‘Nothing like driving a thousand miles to discover just how small the world can be sometimes!
Naturally, it was inspiring to meet someone who had overcome the odds of severe head trauma and gone on to accomplish this phenomenal achievement. He was a degreed landscape architect and designer, and he was responsible for creating one of the largest outdoor gardens in our country—maybe the world. He modestly compared it to Kew Gardens in England. I was enthralled by the thought and passion put into it all. Still, I had some ideas I wanted to share with him.
As I worked and walked the grounds, many ideas came. First of all, I noticed how many additional boulders had been added since my initial visit with my daughter in May–quite a good number. The additions changed the landscape so that there was significantly less greenery and grassland, though far more boulders upon which to sit and ponder or converse. I wasn’t sure at first if it was a welcomed change. But as we discussed handicap access, I decided that the sanctuary had become a sort of mock-hike, the feel of the terrain one would experience while hiking in the Rocky Mountains, without the dangers of slipping and falling (due to the lack of incline and elevation). In this way, the mountains were being brought down to the valley, set on safe land, so that even the wheelchair bound could now experience something they might not otherwise be able to enjoy. Fortunately for me, Jeff Woods was affably approachable that day. He talked readily to me individually and to the group at large about the construction of the sanctuary and the newly erected Theatre Aspen tent on site, where some performances had already taken place this summer before it was closed for the season.
He explained the underlying storm water runoff purification system below, the sand and plant filters woven beneath and between the rocks, and about planned future phases—eventually making the park some two to three times its current size. As he readily discussed these ideas, I mentioned to him the significance of also honoring John Denver’s creative spirit, his artistic inspiration. It’s true that the park already does this in its novel way with the rock and tree sculpture that simulates a stage and John performing on it (somewhat reminiscent of a Greek theatre), as well as with the inscriptions from his original work on the boulders that were donated early on, along further still with the sound of rolling water over a rocky riverbed…but there is additionally room for possible enhancements that hearken the creative imagination at large, the focused endeavor of all artists, which is of course the very thing John Denver so consistently mastered. I told Jeff that this sanctuary could appeal not only to musicians but to all artists and craftsmen, poets, writers…drawing to it not only a celebration of music, but of all forms of creativity. He agreed, and seemed inspired, or at the least once again surprised by the breadth of this sanctuary’s purview.
Now, when I told him of my desire to create a course for college students, however–a sort of seminar in John Denver and/or the music of his time, Jeff just sort of backed off and said, well, “Good luck with that.” I didn’t get the impression he was being sarcastic or thought it was a bad idea–just not his area. Leave it to an English teacher to think designing outdoor gardens is her area. He gave me a good laugh at myself, even if he graciously didn’t enjoy a good laugh on me.
Of course, I still think I could design and implement that course, and do my part to bring John Denver’s popularity to the next generation. Maybe that’s something I’ll think about again when I prepare to head back to work next spring or fall.
On Thursday afternoon, we returned to the Aspen Community Church to enjoy a performance by Jeff Pine. Jeff Pine was at least the third Jeff we would meet that day alone, but the only musically gifted and performing one, as far as we knew. He told a story of his father taking him to a John Denver concert when he was just a boy, and how John’s talent motivated him to learn guitar. He was a gently connected soul, the one who actually carved John Denver’s name in a branch and placed it at the coast near the site of the plane crash for John’s first memorial (under “Posthumous recognition” see “on September 24, 2007”). At this concert, we noticed a woman that was staying at our hotel. A woman who we learned had fallen off a horse in nearby Glenwood Springs, just before arriving in Aspen.
After Jeff Pine’s concert, we walked the warm streets of Aspen. A large group of both locals and tourists had gathered in front of a restaurant where a bear on a balcony ate wistfully the berries off an overhanging tree. Everyone was entranced, and probably too close, as we watched the bear eat hundreds of berries. The police observed the scene nearby, in blue jean attire, which is something we have certainly never seen back home in the midwest. We stopped to eat at The Meatball Shack, where we met and conversed with the owner, and enjoyed the best truffle fries imaginable. Then, we walked the rigorous walk back to the Mountain House Lodge, hoping to join the morning hike to Williams Lake, the site purported to be the inspiration for the song “Rocky Mountain High.”
I was already beginning to fatigue, however, and Friday morning was rather slow going for me, along with a less favorable weather forecast. Instead of hiking, we sat at breakfast with a couple we had met the morning before, the woman who had fallen off the horse. I asked how she was feeling, and she told us the story. We became fast friends with Marcia and Jeff (now the fourth for us), and literally sat talking for hours. It seemed we’d been friends for years, with no distance, no pretense, plenty to discuss, some good laughs and the kind of resourcefulness and comfort that good friends offer.
After our leisurely breakfast, we moved on for some Storytelling at the Mountain Chalet. The weather was continuing to gray and mist, and it was already past 11 a.m.
And then I met Leslie.
© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.