An austere life in Aspen
Each night in Aspen as the bars start to fill and maids in five-star hotels offer their complimentary turn-down service, Randy Hausinger and Phil Wimmer prepare their sleeping bags for another cold night.
They are Aspen’s homeless. In the shadows they make their home, camping on the outskirts of town and the fringes of society. The hills behind the Aspen Business Center are a popular spot, but they are never in one place for long, lest they be spotted or, worse, reported.
“We are modern-day mountain men,” Randy says. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game with the police now. We don’t even have a campsite. We sleep out every night so we can stay mobile.”
They are equipped for the tough winter – Randy owns seven sleeping bags – and both men say they manage in the cold. Phil boasts of a make-shift fridge – a Ziplock bag in a mountain stream that approximates the temperature of a domestic refrigerator.
They say living in the mountains away from people is healthier – Randy hasn’t been sick in six years. They are not scared of bears, but worry about mountain lions. Phil carries an 8.5-inch blade on his hip, just in case.
“Life is perfect’
Danger is never far away. In 1999, two teenage boys on a spring hike discovered the body of a frozen drifter. He had been dead so long police had difficulty identifying his sex.
A permanent campsite was also discovered, a recluse for a man searching for solitude in the recesses of Shadow Mountain.
The men’s pasts are shrouded in mystery. Randy murmurs of an ex-wife and three kids. Phil talks of a family business gone bankrupt. For both men, the past was mostly the place in which they were trapped. One day, the longing for escape – from women, a job, responsibility – became overwhelming.
“Ten years ago I divorced, sold my place and hit the trail,” Randy says. “I’ve been all over. But I ain’t never going back to cities. The stress level on your own is just so low.”
“I’ve never liked crowds,” Phil adds. “This life is perfect. I just need to be left alone.”
The two men are friends. They met while working for the Mountain Temp agency as laborers. They descend from the hills for work, for cigarettes, for a place to warm up. When they are in town, they are impossible to miss – tattered clothes and rough faces amid the fur coats and facials.
They spend the evenings in a heated Laundromat, watching an old Zenith in a small, bare waiting room.
Their presence has clearly been felt in the Laundromat. “For Customers Only” is emblazoned in tacky gold letters around the walls of the waiting room. Closed circuit video cameras have recently been installed and Randy and Phil rarely stay long.
While it is illegal for the two men to camp around town, says Pitkin County Sheriff Deputy Michael Kendrick, they are essentially left alone.
“We don’t spend a lot of time going and hunting for them,” he says. “We’ve got more important things to worry about,” Kendrick said. “There’s so much open land around here that if they get far enough away, they don’t release smoke from their camps, and there are no complaints from the public, they are not likely to be contacted.”
Wages, fresh air and cops
Randy has lived around Aspen for nearly five years. Phil moved there last summer. Until recently, they have managed to avoid attention. But Randy drinks hard and has had several encounters with the police. Most recently he was arrested at Pitkin County Library, where he was allegedly shouting obscenities.
“My grandmother had just died, and I was real stressed out,” Randy says of the incident. “I had been drinking a lot of beer. I just needed to relax.”
Randy and Phil say they like Aspen – the wages are good, the air is clean and the cops are reasonable. They say they don’t get lonely – “All the women around here are gold diggers anyway,” Phil says – but they do wish the public would be more accepting of their lifestyle.
“People here are terrified of us,” Randy says. “They see Phil’s knife and they think we must be crazy folk. But we’re just trying to live our lives and stay out of people’s way.”
Phil and Randy harbor plans for the future. They want to set up an “Aspen Camp Patrol” for Pitkin County, where they patrol the wilderness in which they live, enforcing trash and fire-safety guidelines. Their hope is to stay out of trouble and establish roots in the area. They are homeless, yet they long to feel at home.
Still, they dismiss any suggestion of buying or renting a house. They plan to stay in Aspen for the foreseeable future, roaming the open spaces on the edge of town.