It was early 1950s postwar America, and a young writer by the name of Peggy Clifford wanted no part of it. So she moved to Aspen.
Clifford’s Aspen journey began in the summer of 1953. A 23-year-old recent college graduate, she’d been living on the East Coast watching her friends in New York as “one by one” they buttoned up and settled down.
“They were going to have careers and families; I was determined to have a life,” she later wrote in the prologue of her book, “To Aspen and Back.”
Clifford headed west in June of the same year. She took the train, eating vanilla ice cream and flirting “cautiously” with soldiers in the late-night club car. Her stop was Denver, where she got a ride from Aspen people — novelist Fred Glidden was among her traveling companions — and they embarked along the windy two-lane drive from the plains to the Rockies, down the Western Slope of the Continental Divide and into Glenwood Canyon.
Clifford was impressed by her new encounters: “The real West that men had never breached — rugged, vast and original.”
“Anything was possible here,” she wrote. “Men and women, if they were rugged and original too, could live here in another way. Fred Glidden said there were such people in Aspen.”
They drove through Glenwood Springs and continued up the Roaring Fork Valley, passing Carbondale and then Basalt — the two small towns seemingly located back in time, in Clifford’s eyes.
And Aspen — with its long, straight Main Street, low-to-the-ground townscape and surrounding “shaggy” mountains; Aspen, with its blend of bohemians and ski bums dressed in Levi’s drinking early afternoon brews at the Hotel Jerome or Red Onion bar; with its stores and commerce a sideline to the characters who ran them, its economy built on “classical music, scholarly debates and snow.” Aspen “was somehow out of time,” to Clifford.
“I had plainly come to a pause in the world,” she wrote.
Clifford lived in Aspen from 1953 to 1979. She arrived on the cusp of its cultural rebirth and countercultural pushback. She lived through its initial boom as a ski resort destination and its initial modern-day attraction to the wealthy wanting to experience its land.
“She was always the chronicler of reality in town,” said her dear friend and fellow writer, Hunter S. Thompson, whose campaign for Pitkin County sheriff was managed by Clifford.
Beginning in 1954, Clifford worked with Robert Craig to resurrect the Aspen Flyer, one of the first micro-daily newspapers in town until it was acquired by The Aspen Times. She then became a managing editor and columnist for The Aspen Times, where she worked for 12 years and often wrote critically about Aspen’s land development and incoming wealth.
Clifford published her first book protesting the town’s affluence, “Aspen/Dreams & Dilemmas: Love Letter to a Small Town,” in 1970. A decade later, once she’d left Aspen and moved to Philadelphia, the headstrong journalist completed “To Aspen and Back.”
“This book was not an assignment, not some scholarly treatise. It is an act of passion,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in the book’s introduction. “Peggy was in the trenches. She’s the ultimate authority.”
The writing on the wall
Originally published in 1980, “To Aspen and Back: An American Journey” is the telling of Aspen’s story.
Clifford went back to the beginning — from the valley’s original inhabitants, the Native American Utes, to the influx of silver miners, then the Quiet Years, followed by the town’s intellectual rebirth cultivated by Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke. She captured the characters who moved, shaped and fought for Aspen: from the environmentalists and intellectuals to the artists, activists, hippies and ski bum legends.
Clifford wrote candidly and wholeheartedly, weaving Aspen’s in-depth history into her own narrative of being in the place, knowing it, loving it, then one day leaving as suddenly as she came.
However, 30 years after its publication, “To Aspen and Back” was out of print. Most of the next generation of Aspenites never laid eyes on it. Clifford was settled in Santa Monica, California, covering the little community, as she had in Aspen, in her final journalistic venture.
“To Aspen and Back” could’ve been buried alongside the rest of the great books that never reach the touch of the place its pages so profoundly capture. But in 2010, another Aspen-loving storyteller, by the name of Daniel Joseph “DJ” Watkins, got his hands on a copy. And over a decade later, he’s brought the book back to life.
Published by Watkins’ Aspen-based Meat Possum Press, the 2022 reprinted and expanded edition of “To Aspen and Back” is 232 pages with Clifford’s original text and Thompson’s original introduction. Watkins authored the new afterword, and the republication features an additional 206 black-and-white historic photographs — images the 1980s version did not have.
“Something I wanted to bring out with this book was to give people the opportunity to learn about Aspen’s history through reading Peggy’s words and looking at these beautiful images,” Watkins said. “I think my love for this place comes from understanding and appreciating its history; I want to give people that same appreciation for the place we call home.”
Watkins said one of his main goals was to make the book available to people and available at an affordable price. Copies of his new “To Aspen and Back” edition will go on sale for $60 — a relatively low price compared to other coffee table-styled books of its nature.
“I want it to be on every coffee table in the valley,” Watkins said. “And I want people to read it and I want people to talk about it.”
“To Aspen and Back” will be released and available to purchase beginning Friday (Aug. 26). That evening from 5 to 7 p.m., Watkins, in conjunction with the Aspen Historical Society, will host a book signing and reception party that’s free and open to the public. The event will take place on the grounds of the Aspen Historical Society at the Wheeler-Stallard Museum. There will be music, free food and an open bar, Watkins said, and a portion of book sales from the release party will go to the historical society.
There will be a second book-signing on Aug. 28 at Explore Booksellers starting at 5 p.m. “To Aspen and Back” will be on the shelves of Explore and Carl’s Pharmacy, as well as available online at meatpossumpress.com.
Though Clifford’s written chronicles of Aspen end in 1980, “She saw the writing on the wall,” Watkins said.
“She saw that there was traffic; she saw that there was a lack of affordable housing; she saw that the locals were being pushed out by millionaires — she saw what was happening, and she wrote about it then,” Watkins said. “For me, it was really incredible that it read like it was written today.”
Over a decade ago, when Watkins first read the original “To Aspen and Back,” he thought it was the best book about Aspen and its history. He said Clifford’s narrative approach to her own Aspen journey made him think about this place in a way he hadn’t previously.
Once he finished the first read, Watkins put down the book and picked up the phone. He cold-called Clifford, and after a few more calls and a trip out to Santa Monica to visit her in person, they came up with a plan to rerelease the book.
The two worked together for years, and Watkins ended up purchasing the publishing rights from Clifford a couple years before her death in 2017 at the age of 87.
“Peggy was a fascinating character … I mean, she definitely didn’t suffer fools,” Watkins said. “I felt a desire having known Peggy and knowing how to produce books, to bring this book back to life and to give it back to the community, put it front and center and get people to read it to understand why Aspen’s special.”
Like Clifford, Watkins also spent his Aspen journey as being a narrator of its stories. He published his first book, “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist” — which won the 2012 Colorado Book Award — around the same time in which he was introduced to Clifford’s “To Aspen and Back.” His second book, “Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff,” was released in 2020, as was his documentary film inspired by the book, “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb.”
Watkins also has told the town’s stories through art, running multiple gallery spaces in Aspen — there was Gonzo Gallery, then Fat City Gallery — and curating shows that highlighted local artists’ work of the time, if not hosting one of his signature “Gonzo” art exhibitions which featured Aspen’s momentous countercultural players, such as Thompson, Benton and artist Ralph Steadman.
So when it comes to Aspen’s history, Watkins is well-versed. While his previous storytelling endeavors have been focused on a niche group of characters and time period, his republication of “To Aspen and Back” takes the reader on a visual journey from Aspen’s beginning to how it came to be the place it is today.
“There are certain cultural touchstones that are necessary for people to appreciate this place, and I feel like there’s kind of this gap of knowledge in newcomers who have moved here,” Watkins said. “I mean, part of my desire for releasing ‘Freak Power’ was to give them an accessible visual tool to engage with Aspen’s past, and now this book does that — if you read this book, you will have an incredible appreciation and love for Aspen.”
Love letter to Aspen
For the book’s redevelopment process, Watkins brought on a team of passionate Aspenites who, like Clifford and Thompson before them, have been narrators of Aspen’s story since arriving to the town.
Photographer David Hiser selected and curated the book’s photos with the help of the Aspen Historical Society and archivist Anna Scott in particular. Catherine Lutz, a longtime valley journalist, edited the book for correct style and punctuation purposes, without altering Clifford’s content. She also wrote the captions to go along with each photo.
“The captions for the photos were purposed to encapsulate the text of the book, so if someone were to just flip through without reading the text, they could get its essence from the photos and their captions,” Lutz said. “It was challenging because I didn’t want to substitute Peggy’s words, I meant for them to evoke the spirit of the book and hopefully get the reader drawn in enough from the captions to read the actual text.”
Lutz moved to the valley when she was in her late 20s in the year 2000 for a job opportunity at a weekly newspaper in Basalt, called the Roaring Fork Sunday. She has since taken on reporter and editor roles at the Snowmass Sun, The Aspen Times, Aspen Daily News and Aspen Business Journal. Within her first year living in Aspen, Lutz was one of the few newcomers at the time who happened to come across and read Clifford’s original “To Aspen and Back.”
“I vividly remember reading it my first year in Aspen and trying to picture all the times and places and characters she was describing,” Lutz said. “So when DJ told me his vision for the book was to include a bunch of photos, it was the icing on the cake for an editing project — and it’s one of the most incredible projects I’ve ever worked on.”
Almost 40 years before Lutz arrived, Hiser came to Aspen. It was 1964, and he started working for the former Aspen Illustrated News as his first photographer job. Hiser himself took a handful of the photos seen throughout the book. He knew Clifford and he knew Thompson; he was a documentarian of their Aspen imprint, capturing many renowned moments from Thompson’s campaign for sheriff in the late 1960s.
Hiser said the other pictures he chose to incorporate into the republication are, for the most part, by photographers he either knew or still knows over 50 years later, mentioning his fellow Aspen documentarians of those times, Bob Krueger and Margaret Durrance.
“All of those pictures you see on each page relate to the printed content on that page,” Hiser said. “When you’re reading the text, the picture on the spread relates to that content — and that took quite a bit of work and thought to make happen.”
Hiser and Lutz worked closely with the book’s designer Curt Carpenter to intently lay out this visual storytelling component, undergoing around 50 structural revisions to ensure the most compelling narrative would take shape in its final form.
Erica Simon designed the jacket cover, a redesign of one of Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer’s original ski posters that he made in the 1950s to draw people to Aspen for its skiing and cultural opportunities.
In addition to the team of people who actually created the reprinted edition of “To Aspen and Back,” Watkins said there’s a list of about 20 locals who “all care about Aspen’s history” and contributed financially to the production, making it possible to offer it at an affordable price.
“I made an incredible team of people who spent years creating this beautiful love letter to Aspen,” Watkins said. “And putting it in a format for people to enjoy and take a visual journey through Aspen’s past with Peggy as the pilot.”
In 1953, Clifford left America for Aspen; she left reality for “hubris” — a word she often used throughout the book to describe the remote little town in the Rockies. By 1980, she said America had come to Aspen, “and there seemed no point in not going back to America, the real thing,” she wrote in the epilogue.
Clifford did not return to Aspen, but spent a quarter-century of her life as a narrator of its story.
Now, another wave of narrators is bringing Aspen’s story back to life, hopeful that both newcomers and people who’ve lived here for decades will read it and remind themselves of why they began their own Aspen journeys.
“To Aspen and Back: An American Journey” resonates. Clifford’s story and her perspective of Aspen evokes a feeling of familiarity in many of us who also find ourselves in a place that is seemingly out of time.