Forging Connection in the Mountains


ACES Staff

January 22, 2024

Forging Connection in the Mountains

Almost one year ago, I had the privilege to welcome a group of Italian exchange students to the top of Aspen Mountain. The students, who were visiting from Abetone, Italy, one of Aspen’s sister cities, had signed up to participate in a snowshoe program with ACES Education. The morning of the program, it was my responsibility to greet the group in the gondola plaza at the base of the mountain. As anticipated, the 13 Italian teens stuck out in the absolute best way. 

The charm of a group of Italians in ordinary conversation is something that, even after countless hours of participation, still puts a smile on my face. It’s performance art; the mode of speaking is equally graceful as it is chaotic. Gestures fly, words dance through the air, and facial expressions compliment this beautiful language like cheese accompanies wine. However, their slew of gestures and poetic chatter came to an abrupt halt when I exclaimed, “Ciao raga, benvenuti ad Aspen!” 

Photo courtesy of Nick Molodow.

I spent two of the most whimsical summers of my life teaching English in a small town in Lombardy, Italy called Cesano Maderno. The town itself is nothing to write home about- it’s effectively an industrial suburb of Milan. Although the scenery didn’t look like the movies, my days consisted of playing soccer, sharing meals in the garden with my host families, and inevitably ending up at the gelateria around the corner. By the end of the two summers, I returned home with a moderate grasp of the Milanese dialect and lots of new people I now call “famiglia.” Unsurprisingly, the Abetone group were shocked when I, the red-bearded American, approached to introduce myself in Italian as their ACES guide for the day. 

As an Educator at ACES, the foundation of my role was connecting youth to nature. More specifically, to “educate for environmental responsibility,” as stated in ACES’ mission. And in my two years, I found that the success of this mission comes through personal connection. The snowshoe program on Aspen Mountain can sometimes be out of students’ comfort zones- the elevation is high, it’s often very cold, and snowshoes are awkward to wear. And for a group of teens who were also traveling far away from home, the success of their day depended on their level of comfort in this entirely new environment. As I knelt down to help the students put on their snowshoes, I had about a minute with each of them- valuable time to connect with one another before setting off on our hike. In those first few moments together, it was clear that, although my Italian was rusty, we all had something in common. And it was this connection we shared that helped set the tone for what was to be a wonderful day hiking through the woods. 

As we tramped through the forest, we listened for birds, kept a keen eye out for tracks in the snow, and identified similarities and differences between Aspen and the mountains they come from back in Tuscany. The students were challenged to think about the addition of the new Hero’s lift on Aspen Mountain. What would they do if their home mountain proposed an expansion of their home ski area? 

“How do you say ‘tracks’ in Italian?” 

Come si dice ‘la neve’ in Inglese?” 

“How do you pronounce ‘skoweerel’?” “What? Oh, Squirrel! You say it like this: SKWIRR + UHL.”

Photo courtesy of Nick Molodow.

The laughs were flying. Drawing connections to what was already familiar to them seemed to help make them feel more comfortable in this entirely new environment. By the time we reached the final viewpoint, we were all having the time of our lives. Looking northwest towards Hayden Peak and the Castle Creek Valley, we did precisely what made me feel a little less homesick when I was in Italy five years ago: we shared a meal. 

While we unpacked our lunches, one student fished out a tupperware from his backpack and gasped: “Ragazzi, dovete provarla!”  (“Guys, you HAVE to try this!”)

Like the Pope holding the eucharist on Easter Sunday, he held a slice of banana bread high above his head and admired it, in all its glory. Careful not to waste any crumb, he broke off a small piece to share with everyone. One by one, the students took their very first bite of this coveted treat. With eyes closed, “mmm’s” whirled through the breeze (a universal way to express satisfaction, perhaps) as they savored every last bite. Given that they hail from a culture that has arguably perfected the art of cuisine, I found it amusing that banana bread entranced them. 

Thousands of students from the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond have the chance to experience the awe of taking the gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain, faces pressed against the window in anticipation of an adventure that few people get to enjoy in their lifetime. The beauty of our valley tends to speak for itself in transcending language, culture, and background alike. My role as a teacher was simply to help students to connect to this beauty; to help make the environment truly mean something to them. The essence of my time working in youth education at ACES is not defined by the curriculum I wrote, nor the songs I sang with students about insects, beavers or owls. Rather, my legacy will hopefully be imprinted in Aspen through the students I’ve gotten to know and love. 

Standing back in the same spot that I met the Italian students at the beginning of the day, we shared our goodbyes saying, “Ci vediamo in Italia!” Now, as I have moved on to pursue a Master’s degree in Environmental Management of Mountain Areas in Bolzano, Italy, I’ll carry with me the most treasured wisdom I’ve acquired while ACES: the value of fostering a connection between people and place. 

 

-Nick Molodow, former ACES Educator