The Magic of Aspen According to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper

In the wake of his new memoir, our state leader shares his take on his many times in town, a new statewide trails project, and, of course, beer.

By Katie Shapiro August 12, 2016

It’s not too late to add The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics to your summer reading list. In the memoir, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper reveals frank anecdotes—from the first time he smoked pot at age 16 to taking his mom to see Deep Throat—while also chronicling how his path took him from geologist to Colorado’s first brewpub founder to mayor to governor. It's far from the norm of your standard political biography and, now, thanks to the book and his spot on Hillary Clinton's short list for vice president, the rest of the country is learning that Hickenlooper really is just that cool.

With Hickenlooper in town for the annual Democratic Governors Association Summer Policy Conference, we wanted to go beyond the book's 368 pages and learn more about the gov's longtime love affair with Aspen. Since his first time in town in 1980, Hickenlooper now has 36 years of countless visits under his Rockmount Ranchwear belt. Whether he’s here on official business; speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival; supporting local nonprofits like the Aspen Art Museum, Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, and Aspen Community Foundation; or biking and hiking with his wife, Robin, for Hickenlooper, “it’s never often enough.”

We sat down with Hick to chat about the magic of the mountains, his statewide trails initiative, if he’s still “with her,” and beer. 

On his first visit:
You know, I remember it almost every time I come back to Aspen.It’s not because it was so good or so bad, but because it was such a valuable lesson for me. I came with a girlfriend whose family had built this place up on Conundrum [Road], right after I had moved out to Denver from graduate school, and we went to Paepcke Park. I remember sitting there sort of just underwhelmed. This is supposed to be the place where people who have everything want to be? But I came back again a year or so later with a different girlfriend. She had family here, too, and they introduced me to the Aspen Institute, the Music Festival, and this whole idea of mind, body, and spirit. When you come as a tourist you don’t get an understanding of the values in this community. When we drove by Paepcke Park today, I thought about how when you meet someone for the first time, you never really know if it’s going to be someone you’ll become close to or that could change your life. It can be like that with places you visit, too, and that’s what Aspen has done to me.

On his goal to “be the No. 1 state in America for bikes”:
This whole “16 for 2016” initiative [which aims to complete 16 of the state’s most essential trails] might not get finished this year, but we have laid out a road map of how we’re going to get them done, and we will. We're still working on the Alma-Aspen loop and, as is always the case, we've made progress but not enough. It’s a meaty, challenging project, where the last miles to go are the most important and the most expensive. But this is what I think will make us an even bigger international destination. The idea of having trails like this all over Colorado is one of the very best parts of tourism. When you’re building something for your citizens and getting people outside with the state paying for it—it’s what I love doing.

On where he bikes and hikes when in town:
The Rio Grande Trail from town to Woody Creek—and on some days, to Basalt—is a beautiful, beautiful ride. There are sections where you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, yet you’re on a city-maintained trail. You have this incredible biking culture here. Aspen is the smallest town I’ve ever seen with such a robust bike-sharing program [WE-cycle]—people believe in it, and they use it. We always try to do different hikes, but last summer we did West Maroon Pass from Aspen to Crested Butte, which was just magical.

John hickenlooper gondola ajgsji

The now first couple of Colorado celebrated and announced their 2015 engagement on a ride up Ajax. 

On his engagement announcement from the Silver Queen gondola:
After I proposed, we came up here to celebrate, and it was the first time Robin was wearing the ring [a 1920s heirloom, which son Teddy, 14, helped pick out]. We decided to take a ride and make it our public announcement, but it was surprising how rapidly it spread on social media.

On beer and our local brewery:
You know, I have no ownership in Wynkoop [Brewing Company] anymore, so there’s no bias in this. Aspen Brewing Company does a lot of the darker beers very well, but I gravitate toward a lighter beer in the summer, and Wynkoop is doing what is maybe the best wheat beer I’ve ever tasted. The Rail Yard [amber] ale is really drinkable and lower in alcohol, which I think is going to be one of the next big frontiers. The old craft brewers, we always kind of elbowed each other to add more hops to beer, but I think we're going to see the industry working harder to create really unique, lighter brews that are lower in calories and alcohol, but still taste bold.

Hickenlooper book cover bov4rb

Author Malcolm Gladwell writes on the back cover, “hope to God he runs for president one day.”

On Hillary:
This whole process of being vetted and going through this audition-like experience for VP—I got to spend many hours with her and came away thinking, 'I don’t think I’ve ever met a governor, senator, or congressperson who knows policy  in as much detail and as much depth as she does.' These people who say she is in it for the power, they’re delirious. And not that she hasn’t made a few mistakes—she’s the first to admit it—but, my gosh, I've gone from someone who was just supporting her to someone who is strongly behind her.

On advice for local politicians:
Obviously to be a local politician—and you've had many great ones here—but it's a constant balancing act between the wealth that allows you to address challenges and not biting the hand that feeds you, right? You have to recognize that there's a difference between trying to solve all the ills of the inside world here while not regulating too often against folks who come from the outside.

On old Aspen vs. new Aspen:
I remember the battles over the Aspen Art Museum and whether it was destroying the fabric of downtown. I didn’t think so, but I understood the concern, and I spent enough time listening to enough old Aspen residents to clearly see where they were coming from. Those are the hardest types of decisions and what I think is the real challenge of being a local politician. The fight for the old Aspen vs. the new Aspen will certainly continue.

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