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The Upscale Ski Life

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WHAT does it mean to live in a town where a small, wood-frame home on a fraction of an acre can cost a million dollars and where the person sitting across from you at lunch might be an Arab sheik, Don Johnson, Barbara Walters, or John Denver?

In his first two books, "Rolling Nowhere" and "Coyotes," Ted Conover explored the lives of railroad hoboes and illegal aliens by living with them. In "Whiteout: Lost in Aspen," the author once again joins a community, this time one of the world's most upper-crust societies, first as a cab driver and later as a reporter for the Aspen Times newspaper.

Peering up from the lower end of the economic food chain provides Conover with a useful vantage point from which to reconnoiter and report on the warped motivations and strange emptiness that lie beneath the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

"From the beginning, I had some ill intent," he writes in a short mea culpa early in the book. "To be skeptical about Aspen, it seemed to me, was to take a position against hype and elitism. It was to endorse traditional values...."

Approaching his subject rather like a slightly jaded anthropologist has yielded Conover some useful insights. One is the subtly seductive quality of Aspen - and its tendency to promote a sort of easy liberalism with no acid test of a person's convictions. He describes a place with few of the rough edges associated with everyday life - where a person is only as hot as his ski outfit and "New Age" groups prosper by urging wealthy patrons to "feel good" about themselves.

"Aspen, with its low-density living, pristine surroundings, and high standard of living, was an easy place to feel one's better self emerge. You didn't get cut off in traffic too often in Aspen. Street people didn't approach you for change at outdoor cafes."

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