hen we were kids growing up here in Aspen, you used to see these haggard old mountain people around town, always smiling, happier than clams – leathery skin, greying hair, drooping body features as if they were all-chips-in on a losing poker match with gravity and time. Their faces told a story of a life well-lived, seemingly few responsibilities, regrets unspoken, and epitomes of the Aspen way – if there even is any such thing. Maybe they were loaded, literally and figuratively, or just barely eking out a living. Who knew? Either way, they looked happy.
There was a part of us that thought these sun-damaged, high-altitude, overexposed mountain creatures were an oddity, but deep down we knew that one day we’d be one of those people. It was our unwritten destiny if we made a conscious decision to live here. Then one day you see your distorted reflection in a puddle or a storefront and realize you might just be one of those wacky older mountain types, like a piece of toast just a tad overdone. Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the burnt-est of them all?
As sobering as it is, there’s also a profound sense of accomplishment. During my know-it-all 20s, there was a big part of me that used to admire and aspire to be one of the older Aspenites skiing all the time – and skiing well to boot. Then one fateful day years later a nice young millennial with a whole tank full of giddy-up, passed me hiking the bowl and said, “Man, I hope I’m skiing like you when I’m your age...” What a huge compliment, and affirmation.
Conversely an older Aspenite told me “You’re just a baby.” Figuratively perhaps, possibly even emotionally, but literally in no way shape or form. Well maybe in the sense that there seems to be an uptick of dribbling, drooling and making a mess at mealtime usually associated with toddlers. Not to mention dabbling in elastic waistbands and reader glasses. As far as being perceived as young, thanks but that’s one-sided. It’s entirely possible there’s a capital and punctuation-less text on my phone right now: “congrats ur a grandpa,” with various applicable emojis.
There was something about turning 50 where athletically, a part of me died inside. It wasn’t a matter of a chink in the armor; it was more like whole panels of the armor just plumb fell-off. All of a sudden you start to think about crashing on your mountain bike, getting hit skiing, and letting those dull, nagging injuries dominate the daily curriculums in your head, and make excuses like a deceitful substitute teacher.
As we get older in Aspen, all we’re trying to do is stay physically relevant. The bar unfortunately is set at Olympic high-jump proportions. Really what we’re striving for is to keep up with our town’s athletic spirit animal, Klaus Obermeyer. The dude’s been making us all look bad for years. He’s like a Benjamin Button incarnate who gets younger every time he yodels.
Then recently, the goalposts moved. Joint replacements have been responsible for a huge paradigm shift for aging in Aspen. It used to be that after years of fighting against and pushing back on gravity while skiing every day, you finally came to point where you opted out – maybe even moved to the beach. Aging gracefully was the technical term. All that skiing finally took its toll – each turn shoving your poor internal organs down towards the ground like the cargo in an overhead bin shifting during takeoff and landing. Now when the going gets tough, the tough get a joint replacement.
The other day a career-ski patrol told me that he knows of at least a dozen or so ski patrollers who have had joint replacements and continue to work – skiing right into retirement. That’s a flabbergasting shift in the way Aspenites are growing old and staying active. Getting a joint replacement has enabled tons of aging Aspenites to dig the outdoor lifestyle – you know, the reason we live here. Out of curiosity, can you blow-out a knee replacement?
Four knee surgeries, thousands of dollars, and fistfuls of pain pills under the belt, my fears of having to get a joint replacement are distant but real. I may have ducked in just under the rope on this one. The part that freaks me out is the grapefruit-sized post-op Franken-knee you now see frequently around town with long scars, up one side and down the other.
The only thing missing are bolts sticking out of it, and macabre church organ music in a haunting minor key. But hey, if it means you can still ski groomers, eBike and golf until you’re 100 it might just be worth it. Oh well, so much for that lucrative exit-strategy of being a knee model. Darn it.
Lorenzo Semple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org