Why Aspen, Why Winter, Why Christmas?

In a recent post on my Facebook Page (@jenniferwaitteauthor) and in the Acknowledgement that appears at the end of Lifeline to Marionette, I mentioned why I chose Aspen, Colorado, for the setting of this story. I lived in Aspen briefly while in my early 20s, and it left a lifelong, indelible impression on me. It is a truly magical place. It serves as a safe haven for the character, Alaina Michelle Sekovich (Michelle Seko). It is equally an ironic and appropriate setting for this story:

There was something unique about Aspen. This jaded town had the best of everything to offer its guests—the best food, wine, shopping, and, of course, skiing, all incorporated into the most pretentious atmosphere possible. People who were bigger than life came here because they could be themselves, be left alone to enjoy themselves, yet still be treated with the respect and sense of priority they had come to expect from life. Aspen was certainly accommodating to the rich and famous. And, even to them, Aspen was a dearly appreciated luxury.

I have driven across McClain Flats on a winter night under a full moon. I have been to the Woody Creek Tavern: The Woody Creek Tavern came into sight at the end of a narrow, winding road. It was a small, shabby, snow-covered lodge, a shack, as Jason had described it, lit by strings of Christmas lights and headlights. The door was open to the ice- and mud-covered parking lot and the bright light from within streamed out. I have looked out an airplane window as it circled over Aspen Mountain: As the jet coasted over Aspen Mountain in its descent toward Sardy Field, Michelle could see skiers gliding down the runs. They looked like bright flowers on the icing of a wedding cake. I have ridden the Silver Queen Gondola and watched the view change as the car rose and the town fell further away, pulling back my perspective. I have felt what Michelle felt about Aspen, like an outsider looking in: I love this place the way I loved the picture books I looked through when I was young and the way I loved the view of a quaint town from the window of a train as it passed by.  These are all personal experiences I wanted to weave into this story.

In Lifeline to Marionette, Jason Henrey’s home is built high on Smuggler Mountain. This setting is purely fictional. The site of Jason’s home is actually inside the White River National Forest boundary. While adjacent Red Mountain is known as Billionaire Mountain due to the number of uber-high-net-worth people who own homes there, Smuggler Mountain is undeveloped. What is described in the book as the last switchback is in reality where an observation deck is located: As they came around the last switchback, an enormous redstone castle burst majestically out of the snow ahead of them. Michelle caught her breath, not expecting what she saw before her. Three stories of massive red-rock block, spirals, turrets, stone-carved balconies, and stained-glass windows sat perched on the crest of the mountain, clutching it like a great eagle. This setting served to position the home—and Jason Henrey—apart and above the rest, further isolating Michelle from the outside world.

The story takes place in winter because snow serves as a force that controls all the characters’ actions. Snow is its own character. It is beautiful and pristine. It is dangerous and can be deadly. It is silence. It is a sharp blade. Snow also serves as a metaphor for Michelle herself. It is a blanket shrouding something unknown. To look at fresh-fallen snow is to see something beautiful. But one has no idea what lies underneath it.

Aspen in the winter also serves to elicit some of the few, fond childhood memories that Michelle has:

She carried with her a child’s memory of winters in St. Moritz, and those memories, although fragmented, were happy. She remembered walking down the snowy cobble streets, following her father, trying to trace his footsteps in the snow, trying to place her boots in his footprints. She remembered following him down the mountain, keeping her skis in his tracks. He would make large, slow, graceful turns down the slope and then pause, waiting for her. She remembered the thermos of hot chocolate he carried and how they would sip it from the tiny plastic cup while they rode up in the chair lift, just the two of them, to the top of the mountain.

I chose to set this story in late December because it is a time of joy for some but loneliness for others. Michelle comments on this:

“But Christmas music does make me a little sad when I hear it and suddenly realize that the holidays have crept up on me. It happens every year. Then they are over.”
Jason nodded, agreeing with her. “I think it makes everyone a little sad in that same way, especially when you are away from your family.”
Michelle only nodded, not wanting to talk about her family.
“Then you are staying for the holidays?” he asked.
Again, Michelle nodded. She had no place else to go.
She looked up at him. “No,” she replied, thinking of Aaron and his family. “Well, yes.” She was here alone.

Jason, on the other hand, eludes to the absence of his large family for the first time in many years as somewhat of a relief. At this point in the story, neither Jason nor Michelle could anticipate they would both be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a hospital room—Michelle out of necessity and Jason because he does not want her to be alone.

So, why Aspen, why winter and why Christmas? Because it is a place, a time, and a tradition that, when combined, became integral to how this story unfolds. I cannot think of another location, season or holiday that would have had the same impact. And, regardless of each character’s disposition, it is a magical place that no one takes for granted.