Today, July 20, in 1969, the first man walked on the moon. An American, as it happened. The experience I recount here struck me back in 1969 and, because of the involvement of Robert Frost, has stuck with me, and percolated in my brain, for all of the intervening 48 years.
Back during my college days, I spent my summers working with the U.S. Forest Service in Leadville, Colorado, a tiny place clinging to a mountainside at 10,400 feet. It was a fine old place, untouched by development. It had a grocery store, a weekly newspaper, the decrepit Tabor Grand Hotel, and a whole lot of bars.
Best of all, Leadville wasn’t far from Aspen— just a spectacular forty-mile trip over 12,000-foot Independence Pass—and I went there often on weekends to hear the classical performances at the Aspen Summer Music Festival. It was a time when Aspen was still a funky little mountain town—before it was discovered by the glitterati—and a summer tribal gathering place for wandering hippies. The hippies would straggle through town during the day, hanging around trying to “liberate” goods from the stores, and then sleep on the town green at night wrapped in a haze of marijuana smoke. It was a magical place to be.
I would spend the night in the Forest Service guard station, hang out in the bar at the old Jerome Hotel, and browse the town’s excellent bookstore. Some weekends I spent hiking and climbing in the Maroon Bells, but mostly I went to the Music Festival under the Big Tent. I remember hearing Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, as well as Jaime Laredo, Garrick Ohlsson, and several excellent student performers.
I happened to be at an afternoon concert under the tent on July 20, 1969, when the conductor suddenly halted the orchestra in mid-flight, turned to the audience, and shouted in a joyful voice, “I’ve just been informed that the Americans have landed on the moon!” Then he turned to the orchestra and whipped it into the Star-Spangled Banner. The audience immediately rose and sang lustily along. In the inspired din of music around me I heard glorious, soaring operatic voices, and I raised my own tenor with everything I had. At the end there was joyous cheering and laughter, and the conductor threw up his hands and said, “Let’s all take a break!”
The concert never did resume, actually, since everyone headed out to find a television. After a time I left, too, and walked over to the Jerome for a beer.
The Jerome was the oldest hotel in Aspen, practically falling down with age, and it had become little more than a flophouse for hippies and ski bums by that time. But it had a pleasant old bar inside and, best of all, no TV. I didn’t want to watch the talking-head gasbags preparing me to watch the televised moon walk planned for later that night. Instead, I leaned on the old Jerome bar and listened to the hippies complain about being harassed by the cops, while I talked to a drunken man who professed to be a silver prospector. No one seemed to be aware of the moon landing, or to care.
.Later, as night moved in, I went walking through town with the vague idea of finding a bar with a TV. I wanted to watch the moon walk, but it was still early, so I just wandered. After a while, I came upon a gathering of hippies standing in a tight group on the sidewalk, staring raptly into the window of a hardware store. The store was closed, but the owner had left a big black-and-white TV playing in the window, and the hippies were riveted. As I approached, I suddenly realized I was late—the moon walk had begun!—so I edged my way into the crowd and watched as an astronaut cavorted across the screen against the pale gray surface of the moon—in the window of a hardware store, on an ordinary summer night, in Aspen, Colorado.
After a while, I stepped back from the crowd and looked up at the clear, almost-full moon passing overhead. A tall, skinny, hippie man standing nearby looked over at me and followed my gaze up into the night. After a moment, he looked back at the TV screen. Then he turned to me, his eyes wide, and whispered, “Far out!”
The Robert Frost poem “Neither Out Far, Nor In Deep” speaks of people turning away from the land they know, and looking longingly out into the sea. The poem ends:
“They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?”
Following my gaze, that’s what the hippie man was doing—trying to “look out far and in deep.” The music patrons were immediately patriotic and joyful, the Jerome patrons were indifferent, and the other hippies were just watching TV. But the innocent hippie man was looking out to sea, like me, off the edge of the earth. And though he could see neither out far nor in deep, he was performing his “watch,” experiencing the unmediated, surreal wonder of the universe and man’s tenuous place in it, feeling how “out far” it truly is, and responding to it in the only language he had—the simple hippie cliché, “far out.”
That’s why the experience touched me so in 1969, and why it has percolated through my mind in the 48 years since.