With the third annual Wildfest on the agenda this weekend on the infamous grounds of Hunter S. Thompson’s Owl Farm and a slew of new events over the past six months, the Wilderness Workshop has caught a new wave of our attention—along with that of the entire Roaring Fork Valley.
The woman behind the recent flurry of activity? The Wilderness Workshop’s Rebecca Mirsky, who joined the organization in November as development director. Since then she has hit the trails running to get the word out—and loudly—about the non-profit’s conservation work year-round.
“It was a whirlwind, jumping in and immediately getting to know our staff, support base, and rich history,” she says. “One of the first things I identified as needing to get organized around was that we are a grassroots advocacy group—we’re not events or education based, which isn’t always easily translatable to everyone. We’re working with politicians, we’re rallying people at public meetings, we’re getting signatures on petitions, we’re out in the wilderness.”
Communicating what’s not always seen by the public eye to raise awareness and funds is a tall order, but Mirsky has the credentials to take on the challenge.
After 15 years in New York City working in what she describes as the “strange world of contemporary art,” she landed in Aspen in 2010, seeking a new life to fully embrace her passion for the outdoors. She also continued her cultural career path with education and development positions at the Aspen Art Museum and Aspen Film, where she cultivated relationships with high-profile donors, strategic business partners, and everyone in between.
“I’ve been able to translate that experience pretty easily. Our Wilderness (with a capital W) is the reason we’re all here, so there’s this common thread of a connection to the outdoors between all of us who live and visit here,” says Mirsky. “It’s really exciting to have the opportunity to build upon that foundation with the people I know who are supporters of the arts and make them aware of an equally important cause.”
Enter Wildfest, the banner annual “friendraiser,” which, come Saturday, July 2, will be the first-ever public event held at the late Thompson's idyllic spread in Woody Creek. The fundraiser has been held at different ranches in the valley in previous years, including a blowout bash at the base of Aspen Highlands to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014; Mirsky took the reigns on relocating it this year.
“We are truly honored to have been invited by Anita Thompson [HST’s widow, who still lives on the property]. In addition to her work with the Gonzo Foundation, we are lucky to count her as one of our strong supporters,” says Mirsky.
As fate would have it, 1967 was the year that Thompson moved to Woody Creek and the Aspen Wilderness Workshop (as it was then called) was founded by the “Maroon Belles”: Joy Caudill, Dottie Fox, and Connie Harvey.
The “casual, affordable, community celebration” of Wilderness Workshop’s work sounds more like the most epic backyard barbecue you’ll ever attend, with a $25 ticket price that makes it accessible to the entire community. Live music from Jimmy Ibbotson of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Smuggler Mountain Boys will set the stage for headliners the Shook Twins (8 p.m.) of Portland, Oregon, who play Red Rocks Amphitheatre later this summer. The Slow Groovin’ BBQ truck will be parked all night selling food, along with a cash bar, Kids’ Zone, communal mural creation station, and a wind-down fire-dance at the end of the night.
It is only during Mirsky’s off-hours (which have been fairly few these days) that she has the time to explore the mountains, which she calls her “version of church,” saying yes to every camping, backcountry skiing, uphilling, mountain biking, backpacking, or hiking invite that comes her way.
The 37-year-old grew up in New Paltz, New York, raised by two attorneys and environmental activists who worked tirelessly to protect the rural Mid-Hudson Valley. Her mother started mountaineering in her 40s, taking Mirsky and her brother along for many an adventure.
“My parents were so involved pro bono in community coalitions that fought to keep our valley protected from development, so ‘fighting the good fight’ is ingrained in me,” says Mirsky. "I have always taken that along with me, and even though I was in New York City for so long, it turns out I was just meant to be outside.”
It was also through her mother—while helping with research about fracking for a case—that Mirsky discovered Wilderness Workshop. Along with her brother, Dan, who is on the Black Diamond climbing team, they all joined as members in 2013. And when a position finally opened up, she jumped at the chance to make her “happy place” her life’s work.
“My connection to open space and to wilderness is the core reason I was drawn to living here, and it’s become the most important thing in my life. Now that I am able to put that same energy into my work life, too, it’s extremely fulfilling.”
Wilderness Workshop’s 3rd Annual Wildfest
Saturday, July 2, 5 p.m.–10 p.m.
Owl Farm, 1289 Woody Creek Rd., Woody Creek
Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 door, $150 Gonzo Pass, kids 12 and under free
Tips: carpooling is requested, and guests are encouraged to bring sunscreen, cash, a water bottle, and lawn chairs and/or blankets