Walking with the Dead

Sometimes you don’t need make-up and fantastical tales to get your fill of freaky Halloween chills.

In Aspen, history can do the job just as well.

Dean Weiler, who runs Aspen Walking Tours, has become the ambassador to the town’s underworld over the last five years — leading tourists and locals alike on haunting walks around town twice a week, year-round.

In his coachman’s cap, Weiler is part actor and part guide, relaying the spookiest parts of our former mining town’s history with relish.

“The darker events from Aspen’s history are glossed over in the story of Aspen the resort,” he says. “This is an alternative history of the town.”

And those events are what have made one of his tours a well-loved Halloween season tradition over the last five years in Aspen.

A lifelong history buff, Weiler’s tours span the life of this mountain town. From the expulsion of the Utes, the Meeker Massacre, and the enduring effects of the “Ute Curse.” The curse, so the story goes, came from the town’s rightful residents against the white man, making it so that no one who lives here after the Utes can ever be happy living anywhere else.

Any 21st century Aspenite who’s watched friends try to move away, only to come back, can’t help but believe in the curse at least a little bit.

He moves from there into the mining era, and tales of tommyknockers living in the local silver mines. The two-foot tall creatures hold dominion over the mines, controlling collapses and accidents, and made the miners live in fear — and respect — of their powers. The legend comes from old Cornish lore, but was part of a way of life here for miners, who paid regular tribute to the tommyknockers.

“Whether you believe in ghosts or not,” Weiler says, “there’s a lesson about respect in that. There are lessons in all ghost stories.”

From there it’s into the quiet years and the modern era. The haunting of the Hotel Jerome is a highlight of the tour — take Weiler’s tour or ask any of the hotel’s staff about all the odd goings-on on its third floor and you’ll never look at the iconic Main Street building the same again.

While summertime is Weiler’s busiest time for walking tours, Halloween — the off-season local’s holiday here — usually brings out groups of residents who are surprised by how much they learn on his ghost walks.

“We have people who have lived here forever, they come on tours and they’re so surprised by what they don’t know about Aspen and its history,” he says. “It’s that classic thing where you grow up somewhere or live somewhere a long time and never do the tourist thing.”

Just for Halloween season, Weiler adds a tour of the Ute Cemetery, Aspen’s first burial ground, to his repertoire.

The cemetery dates to the 1880s, holding the graves of prospectors and early residents, where more than 200 people are buried, more than half of them in unmarked plots. Weiler recounts tales in an entertaining and reflective walk amongst the dead.

He starts that tour at 5:30 and ends it before it gets too dark. Why?

“You have to get out before it gets dark or you might end up staying there forever.”

by Andrew Travers,

Time Out, Friday, October 26, 2012