It’s not as if John Denver’s my favorite singer or anything. In fact, I mostly agree with the critics who called his music bland and saccharine. I’m well aware that Denver was fond of hanging out with Muppets and driving while intoxicated (though never at the same time). The thing is, have you listened to “Rocky Mountain High” lately? I happened to a few months ago in Buena Vista, Colorado, while watching a vivid half-moon rise above the Collegiate range. A tinkling creek near our campsite provided melodic accompaniment while the singer warbled about “cathedral mountains” and “shadow from the starlight,” and I pretty much experienced what FM radio listeners in the ’70s often did: John Denver turning mountains into goose bumps.
For the last decade or so, the sport of skiing has gone overboard celebrating the Sierra, the Chugach, the Cascades, and the Coast Mountains. These ranges have starred in movies and magazine layouts, all but implying that the Rockies are mere hummocks dotting “flyover country.” Then came last season, when drought closed many areas in the Pacific Northwest and a warm and nasty Pineapple Express eviscerated the bases of those resorts that could open.
Last winter confirmed John Denver’s promise that Colorado is the cat’s ass (but larger). Many of the state’s resorts enjoyed historically great snow years. Colorado witnessed 11.82 million skier visits-its third-best year ever and an increase of more than 550,000 over the previous winter. Because season pass sales also set records statewide last year, lots of those skier visits came from hard-charging residents knocking off 25 to 100 days a season. Which tells us that Colorado’s core was getting after it.
And why not? When you go to Colorado, you don’t have to worry about rain or skiing in a garbage bag. It’s important to note that none of the many “inventors” of butt-flaps hails from Colorado. What are butt-flaps? Those nylon aprons you’re supposed to sit on instead of the sopping wet chairlift. The chairs just don’t get that wet in Colorado. Coastal ski areas tend to have base villages between 2,000 and 5,000 feet. In Colorado, they’re often above 8,000 feet-you know, in the mountains.
[“”]Skiers forget Colorado’s virtues when they’re relentlessly sold butt-flap-flavored skiing. Which is why a pilgrimage to Aspen’s John Denver shrine should be on every skiing pilgrim’s to-do list. (As a de facto skiing mufti, I’ll be issuing a fatwa along these lines in the coming months. Keep an eye out for the newsletter.) A ski-in, ski-out shrine, you ask? To which I respond, Yes. One of Colorado’s quirkiest ski experiences is searching out the shrines on Aspen Mountain. Scattered among the mountain’s glades are dedications to bronc-bustin’ buckaroos, New York Yankees, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, and, yes, John Denver.
The trail map won’t tell you where to find the shrines, but locals usually will. Just make sure to ask more than one local, because some of them aren’t quite sure of the locations, and others may try to mislead you. (If you’ve been on a pilgrimage before, you know what I’m talking about. Infidels!) Finding the John Denver shrine took me a lot of poking and prodding and several rides on the Gent’s Ridge lift. But that was OK, since it’s nice to ski inbounds with a goal other than achieving proper unweighting.
Denver’s shrine-the single Aspen temple dedicated to someone who actually skied-decorates a sublime, woodsy clearing. Photos of Denver skiing-pretty fast, by the looks of things-are tacked to fir bark. Laminated newspaper clippings shower him with generous eulogies. Pictures of his blond head and trademark round, wire-frame granny glasses beam down on visitors. Wind chimes clink and bells ring. There’s an old jacket for his 1971 album Poems, Prayers and Promises. Denver’s gold record for “Country Roads” dangles from a branch.
The singer born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. in New Mexico on New Year’s Eve, 1943, moved to Aspen in thee early ’70s, not long after renaming himself after Colorado’s capital. He penned several of his most famous songs while he stayed at a mountain hut on Castle Creek above Aspen, near the Braun backcountry skiing huts. “I can’t stand his music,” writes Aspen-area ski mountaineer Lou Dawson on wildsnow.com, “but from his fur coat and feather-festooned cowboy hat, to how he spread his money around, John Denver was a huge presence. His house was an extravaganza of woodworking that kept some local carpenters employed for years. Even pioneer extreme skier Chris Landry worked for him, and no doubt some of Denver’s money ended up being spent by Chris during his many travels to ski descents around North America.”
[“”]No entertainer has preached the gospel of mountain living better than John Denver. He put the Rockies on gobs of turntables: According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Denver has sold 32.5 million albums in the U.S., just behind Phil Collins and right ahead of James Taylor. Saccharine sells. Before I-70 was even completed, he featured Colorado on national TV with his special, Rocky Mountain Christmas. Environmental groups recognized his advocacy for Colorado wilderness, and he was named the state’s poet laureate in 1974. The John Denver Celebrity Pro-Am Ski Tournaments brought skiing to America’s attention from 1975 through 1984. He was a commentator for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, and he composed and sang its theme song, “The Gold and Beyond.” Residents of Georgetown, Colorado, still celebrate Denver each year with a blowout party based on his film The Christmas Gift. Members of his old band show up at the Red Ram bar to jam.
Yet human nature’s urge to cut down pop stars makes us forget Denver’s triumphs and focus on his failures. Cynics note that “Annie’s Song,” Denver’s best-selling ode to his wife, couldn’t keep them from a divorce so ugly that he fired up a chainsaw and cut his bed in half because he was angry about how things were being split. He made national news in 1993 with a driving-under-the-inflence charge, then got another DUI when he ran his Porsche off the road in Aspen in 1994.
Denver perished in 1997, which is why there’s a shrine on Aspen Mountain and an impressive John Denver Sanctuary in downtown Aspen, an amphitheater where lyrics to “Rocky Mountain High,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” and other songs are engraved on eight-foot-tall rocks.
He died after an experimental aircraft he was piloting rolled to the right and crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Monterey, California. Divers recovered most of his body. In a macabre yet fitting way, Denver might still be feeding the evaporation process that forms the clouds that travel a thousand miles or so over intervening ranges and desert basins, losing moisture all the way, until finally dumping light, dry fluff on his beloved Rocky Mountain highs.