Thought and Beauty in Aspen

Amid the spectacular scenery, it's hard not to feel hopeful.
Wikimedia Commons

For the third consecutive summer, I'm returning to high-altitude Colorado to cover The Aspen Ideas Festival, an event that is co-sponsored each year by The Atlantic. In coming days, check back for a digest of interesting subject matter I encounter.

Before that coverage begins in earnest, however, I wanted to reflect for a moment on one feature that distinguishes the panels here from any I've ever attended: the setting. I grew up in California, came of age taking road trips up Highway One, and honeymooned a couple years back in New Zealand. In other words, I've been incredibly blessed to have experienced some of the most beautiful places in the world. I'm partial to the coast. There's an ocean park straddling the line between Sonoma and Mendocino Counties that's one of my favorite places on earth.

The Liguria Coast is hard to beat too, as is Aitutaki from the air. But every time I'm in Aspen, a place I've only ever visited in the summertime, a part of me is convinced, at least so long as I'm amid its splendor, that it's the prettiest place. Sometimes I try to capture this with my camera, but I'm never skilled enough to do so. Normally I'd be wary of passing along a video produced by a local chamber of commerce. But the one below actually captures both the likeness of the place and the fact that, if it has any flaw, it's a flawlessness that can seem manicured ... until you catch yourself being absurdly ungrateful and think, "Just enjoy it."

Summer in Aspen: Day to Night from Aspen, CO on Vimeo.

I say all this because, reflecting on bygone weeks that I've spent here (as compared to the rest of my job, which could be described as a never-ending, digital ideas festival), there's something unique about thinking in a visually singular setting. Or perhaps every visually singular setting has its own particular effect. For one thing, I can remember having certain ideas for posts in very specific places. Once I rode up the mountain in a gondola, then spent the whole gorgeous ride back down reflecting on drone strikes and the core of my objection to them. 

That may seem perverse–as if I ruined my own experience of nature by spending scarce moments thinking about something so grisly. But I actually find that, even despite the altitude, it's less draining to think here, which explains how I manage to attend and write about dozens of things over a few days without burning out. 

News in a globalized, digital age is often exhausting and depressing. As in newspapers and magazines, not everything covered in Aspen is bad news, but more often than not, an intractable problem of some sort or other is being addressed, for obvious reasons. Then the panel ends, and instead of reflecting on it while staring at a cubicle wall  or a coffee shop counter or the door of a home office, you wander out into a meadow in a valley with impossible mountains of rock and green all around. The effect is something like what's described in the Jens Lekman song, "Another Sweet Summer Night on Hammer Hill." The lyrics are a series of vignettes about the awful things we see happening to others in the world... and despite them, the narrator, who's walking outside on a summer evening, can't help but muse, "Oh, but it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty/an open window, someone's playing 'Tutti Frutti'/it's a summer's night on Hammer Hill."

In many ways, Aspen, Colorado is a bubble: it's removed from most everyplace else by virtue of its physical isolation and its extreme wealth. But I suspect and hope the academics, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, public intellectuals and journalists who gather here each year accomplish some quality thinking during their stay, if only because they're thrown into a setting where they can't help but feel blessed and hopeful, as if obligated to give something more back to a world so viscerally awesome... and energized by the inkling that betterment just might be possible.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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