March 28, 2014
Some years ago, when I was living in Denver, I was invited to take part in a summer writers’ conference in Aspen, Colorado. It sounded like fun and indeed it was: I led my first writing workshop ever, at a picnic table under spruce trees in Rio Grande Park, and I attended lectures and readings.
At one of these, on a sunny afternoon, I was distracted by a young woman who also appeared to be distracted by me. As I later wrote in Whiteout,
She wore a long skirt, a white oxford shirt, and a sweater vest—a stylish, grown-up, prep school kind of girl. She looked well heeled, unapologetic, somehow even proprietary over the proceedings. Her skin was olive-colored. The last words were hardly out of the lecturer’s mouth when she came up to stand practically in front of me and ask, “Are you doing anything for the next hour?”
Have we met? I wanted to say.
What Alison, as I called her in the book, had in mind for starters was to introduce me to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. She did that, and other adventures ensued.
These things happened, essentially, because Alison – whose real name was Nancy Pfister – didn’t care if you’d already been introduced. She was impulsive, in touch with her desires, and, in certain ways (such as how she approached men), fearless. Some large part of this, I believe, had to do with the fact she was a true Aspen local. She grew up there; her parents had started the Buttermilk Ski Area. Aspen was full of curious, engaged, experimenting people and felt protected from most bad things in the world.
But last month, Nancy was murdered – at home, in Aspen. Details are fuzzy; three suspects, including a bank employee and an older couple who rented from her, have been arrested (all of them people Nancy knew). When I heard I felt sick to my stomach. A memorial service at the Hotel Jerome was attended by hundreds. She left behind a daughter, two sisters, countless friends, and a rattled community.
When I returned to Aspen to live in the early 90s, my friend Paul Andersen was dating Nancy. I called him up when I heard the news last month, to talk about her. I reminded him how I met her and then he reminded me how he met her – an encounter he also recalled in his recent column in The Aspen Times:
I had just moved here from Crested Butte for a reporting job … it was the off-season. Town was hushed and quiet. There was no one on the [pedestrian] mall except for this strangely appealing woman. She came sauntering toward me, casually eating with chopsticks from a Chinese carry-out carton.
I was drawn to her … Soon we were standing a foot apart, face-to-face, just looking at each other. What I noticed most was her eyes — mesmerizing and mischievous, like cat-eye marbles.
Without a word, Nancy scooped up a clump of rice with her chopsticks and pushed it toward me. I opened my mouth, accepted the morsel and knew I had arrived.
Paul agreed with the idea that a person like Nancy couldn’t have come from anywhere else – that place, that time. When I think of her now I think of native creatures on the Galápagos Islands, sea lions and sea birds so sheltered from predators during their eons of evolution that even today they have no fear of people.