MILESTONES Celebrating major life moments during a historic crisis

Written By Andrew Travers | Photos By Kelsey Brunner

Digital Production By Rose Anna Laudicina

The Class of 2020

Maeve McGuire, center, and her family at Aspen High School graduation at Buttermilk Ski Area in may 2020.

Maeve McGuire had imagined what her high school senior spring, prom, graduation and her first semester of college would look like. She had images in her head and a preconceived nostalgia in her heart, shaped by the expectations created from movies and from family and friends’ stories. She’d planned an epic European backpacking trip for the summer and was primed for the bittersweet end of her time at Aspen High School and the beginning of a new chapter at the University of Chicago.

Her life in the past year, like those of all members of the class of 2020 taking the brunt of societal disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic, isn’t anything like what she expected.

She spent the last three months of high school in virtual classes, took part in a one-of-a-kind, drive-in-and-chairlift-assisted graduation ceremony, and stayed home through the pandemic summer working as a cashier at Pitkin County Dry Goods. When she arrived at college in the fall, she realized how lucky she’d been to spend the summer here, where she had a semblance of social life outdoors.

“Socially, I probably had a more normal summer than a lot of other places,” she said recently from campus at the University of Chicago, “because like, if I wanted to hang out with my friends, we would just go hiking or, like, camping. … I feel especially fortunate after hearing everyone else’s stories.”

Looking at the prospect of a pandemic-warped freshman year of college, she debated taking a gap year as many friends from Aspen did. The University of Chicago’s pandemic plan seemed promising though, with mostly online classes and dorms all converted into single rooms to stem outbreaks of the virus.

McGuire started classes in late September.

The biggest challenge for her and her classmates was social. Finding your people and making friends for a college freshman is normally helped along through orientation icebreakers, dorm-room socializing, off-campus keg parties and the like. Instead, McGuire started with a 10-day quarantine. First-year students like McGuire had to figure out how to meet classmates and make friends without any of the time-honored traditions of freshman life.

She first met kids in her dorm and on her hall through Instagram and texting rather than face-to-face.

“Finally meeting them was kind of funny,” she recalled.

Orientation activities were also all online and difficult to engage meaningfully in. But new social rituals emerged among the new students.

“In the first couple weeks it was randomly finding people to go eat lunch with, and there’d be, on the quad, big groups of students in a huge circle eating or just trying to get to know one another,” McGuire explained. “You just had to go up to these random groups, sit down and try and make friends.”

Oddly, among this historical moment of widespread isolation, the pandemic’s disruptions gave the 2020 freshmen — no matter their background or where they had come to Chicago from — instant common ground.

“We could bond quickly,” McGuire explained. “It was an endless conversation of, like, ‘What was your graduation like?’ ‘When was your last day in school?’ ‘What did you do in quarantine?’ None of us got our senior spring and have been deprived of so many things that even just being on campus and eating lunch outside and with a group of people you've never met was really joyful.”

Sitting outside and talking forged deep connections quickly. With emotions raw amid the public health crisis, she said, students simply had to find friends and support one another. They couldn’t have done that if they were doing the usual mix of party-hopping or intramural sports.

“I got to know people a lot better than I would have if we were just, like, going out,” she surmised. “The quantity of people I was able to meet wasn't as high, obviously, as normal years. But the people who I did meet, I feel like I was able to become a lot closer with than I would have been a normal year.”

“It was an endless conversation of, like, ‘What was your graduation like?’ ‘When was your last day in school?’ ‘What did you do in quarantine?’" Maeve McGuire said of making friends at college in fall 2020.
"None of us got our senior spring and have been deprived of so many things that, even just being on campus and eating lunch outside and with a group of people you've never met was really joyful.”

Those experiences, combined with the campus’s extraordinary control of virus outbreaks, helped keep it joyful. While so many college students around the U.S. got sick and spent periods alone in quarantine dorms or back home with family, McGuire didn’t experience any of that.

“It was fun,” she said of her first months on campus. “It’s fun to me and I guess I don’t know any different because I don’t have anything to compare it to.”

McGuire stayed on campus for Thanksgiving, did a “friendsgiving” gathering there (“Everyone made some kind of dish, which was interesting because there’s not home cooking done around here”) and did come home to Aspen for an extended Christmas break. She is looking for a remote internship or job this summer, to be able to spend the season here in Colorado.

She counts herself lucky to have one in-person class this spring. Focused on classics, it’s her first and only non-virtual class of the year.

“It makes it a lot more engaging,” she said. “It’s definitely my favorite class, and not because of the content — just because I’ve found myself actually paying attention.”

The distanced and masked setup in Maeve McGure's first-year literature class at the University of Chicago. Photo By Maeve McGuire

McGuire matriculated with the intent to major in molecular engineering. But her experience with this imagination-firing English class — a discussion-based seminar with students masked and distanced in a COVID-converted classroom outfitted with Plexiglas shields — may have changed her mind. She now thinks she will study English and humanities instead.

“It was a lot harder for me to be engaged in (math and science) classes in these big lectures on Zoom, where you don't even have to have your camera on and like, it's just basically Khan Academy,” she said.

McGuire wondered whether her passion for sciences was more due to how much she loved the science teachers in Aspen High’s International Baccalaureate program.

Campus clubs are also all meeting virtually, which has given McGuire and classmates the chance to check out a lot of different groups, often checking it out while multi-tasking on the computer.

“Oddly, I’m involved in more things on campus than I would be if they weren’t on Zoom,” she said.

A standout soccer player named Aspen High’s co-athlete of the year in 2020, McGuire hasn’t yet been able to play club sports or to potentially try to walk-on with the Division III squad, which had its season canceled. Instead, it’s been pickup soccer games on the quad.

McGuire was named co-Athlete of the Year at Aspen High School in 2020. Due to public health restrictions, intramural or club soccer programs haven't yet been available at college, but she has organized some pick-up games. Photo by Austin Colbert

McGuire won’t have to declare a major until next year, but if the pandemic is shifting her trajectory out of engineering and into social sciences or the humanities and leading her to make a different life choices now, she’s grateful for it.

“I don’t know if I’d have realized I wasn’t as interested in engineering,” she said. “Maybe I realized that it wasn't the right path earlier than I would have.”


Love Story

“I haven’t seen my family in almost a year. It’s a strange time to be building a life in a brand new place," Sarah Willeman said of getting engaged and married during the pandemic. "It does bring you in touch even more with whatever’s inside you and gives you a chance to find ways to do all the things that really nourish you on a day-to-day basis.”

With gatherings banned, couples eyeing marriage have had to rethink their plans since the spring of 2020. Traditions like engagement parties, bachelor and bachelorette parties, wedding ceremonies and receptions and honeymoons were all but impossible to stage safely over the past year.

Some couples delayed engagements and nuptial plans, canceled venues. Collectively they cleared the normally glutted summer and fall wedding season in the Aspen area.

But, of course, love endured.

Many couples, some spurred by the existential urgency of a deadly pandemic, opted for private elopements and small, simple outdoor ceremonies to seal their commitments. They won’t have a first kiss in front of a cheering crowd of loved ones to look back on, but they’ve begun a new chapter together amid a generational crisis and certainly have a story to tell.

Sarah Willeman and Brendan Doran’s is among the most colorful and dramatic of love stories to play out in Aspen during the pandemic.

Sarah Willeman and Brendan Doran were married without guests in the Hunter Creek Valley in September.

Willeman, a champion horse rider and show jumper, and Doran, a two-time Olympian in ski jumping, first met as young athletes in 2001 when both were training in Lake Placid, New York. They had what Willeman dubbed a “summer romance” but then mostly fell out of touch as she headed to college in California at the outset of a horse-breeding career and Doran prepped for the 2002 Winteer Games in Utah and then planned to settle on his family ranch in Steamboat Springs.

“Neither of us realized that our time together had actually left a big impression on both of us,” Willeman recalled.

Doran started spending winters in Aspen, where he became a popular ski instructor at Snowmass and Buttermilk in 2015. Late that season, he was hired from the Buttermilk ski school desk by a couple who, in casual conversation on the chairlift, mentioned their neighbors in New England were a show-jumping family. He mentioned his old flame and, it turned out, her parents were their next-door neighbors.

Off-handedly, he called Sarah “the one that got away.”

When she saw them later, at a birthday party back East, they mentioned they’d skied with Brendan and subtly nudged Sarah to reconnect with him.

The pair finally did in fall 2019, when Willeman came to Colorado for a yoga and meditation retreat.

“Once we reconnected it became really clear that we both just had this feeling about each other all those years,” she said. “That instinct turned out to be correct.”

She’d down-sized her horse business and had freedom to roam, so when Brendan invited her to spend the winter in Aspen, she leapt at it. New to the town, and to skiing, she had a built-in guide and teacher in Brendan.

“Once I got here, we both had a feeling that I was going to stay,” she said of her December 2019 arrival. “Like ‘It’s a great adventure, let’s see what unfolds.’”

They rented a basement apartment on Third Street in Aspen. An in-demand instructor, Brendan rarely got a day off work to spend with Sarah. Of course, that would change when the governor ordered ski areas closed on March 14, 2020.

After all those years apart, suddenly the couple was together in their basement apartment and navigating a once-in-century crisis together. Navigating the panic and restrictions of the pandemic’s early days, they made trips to Steamboat and Massachusetts to get their parents settled for the pandemic, spending several weeks in Sarah’s mother and stepfather’s guesthouse, doing their errands and grocery shopping but only interacting distanced and masked outdoors.

For a relationship still in a tentative early phase, this intense period was a crucible.

“These kinds of external stressful circumstances can have a way of deepening your relationship,” Willeman said.

The couple shares a moment after saying "I do" and committing their lives to each other without guests a year after reconnecting in the Hunter Creek Valley in Aspen.

The big relationship questions — Can you support one another in tough times? Can you be vulnerable? — which often take years of experience to answer, were on the table immediately. For Sarah and Brendan, the pandemic solidified their commitment.

“We learned we could do it if you have a positive outlook and a growth mindset about what it can become,” Brendan said.

The lockdown that followed in Aspen became an opportunity for these two to make up for lost time.

“We have each other, and we love to spend time together so much, it was such a gift in a way,” Sarah recalled. “And I think that those discoveries and those skills definitely will, will serve us well for years to come.”

They quickly learned that they needed to talk out issues, not to let them fester, and learned they love cooking together.

“We were cooking together constantly, and that was a great foundation for us to move forward,” Brendan said.

Brendan decided that he wanted to propose. But the logistics of it, from the fact that jewelers were still closed by state order to the prospect of a wedding without guests, were daunting.

Ring in hand, he popped the question after a hike up to Cathedral Lake — with two hired photographers discreetly standing by to captured the proposal and the couple’s champagne toast.

In the fall, they went for another hike up the Hunter Creek Valley, in late September, to a meadow near old miners cabins and eloped in a private ceremony without guests.

The couple with Rev. Nicholas Vesey.

If they’d imagined big weddings and parties before the pandemic, they now can’t wish any better way to begin their life together.

“We can’t imagine anything better than getting to elope and have that moment be just for us,” Sarah said. “To have that moment not be a performance in any way and just be in this beautiful, natural place we both love so much, and to have it just be for us, it was the ultimate.”

The pandemic experience solidified that they’ll stay in Aspen as Sarah pursues certification as a mindfulness and meditation teacher and Brendan commutes between ski school here and the family ranch in Steamboat.

“The pandemic certainly added a lot of weight to our anchor,” Brendan said. “We will not be going anywhere, this is where we want to make out life together forever.”

Going through the pandemic together also prepared the couple for any new challenges on the road ahead, they believe.

“In these challenging situations, sometimes you can connect to even more of your own inner resources and strength,” Sarah said. “I haven’t seen my family in almost a year. It’s a strange time to be building a life in a brand new place. … It does bring you in touch even more with whatever’s inside you and gives you a chance to find ways to do all the things that really nourish you on a day-to-day basis.”


What We’ve Gained in What We’ve Lost

Aspen-based psychiatrist and social worker Kathleen Callahan’s appointment book is fuller than ever, as are her colleagues’ in the area. That’s a good thing, she believes, because it means people are reaching out for help and talking about their mental health.

The national crisis has made anxiety and mental health challenges a near universal experience.

“We've all gotten to experience anxiety now,” she said. “So because we've all experienced it, maybe it's more normal. We can connect on it. We don't have to hide behind it anymore. … I think it's much easier for people now to talk about it and to seek help.”

Callahan believes Aspen has weathered the pandemic well in terms of mental health, and she credited that to the community-wide work over the past decade to address the issues of depression and mental health here as locals reckoned with the Pitkin County’s outsized suicide rate.

Those years of work, from a well-attended community town hall at the Wheeler Opera House in 2014 to the creation of organizations like the Aspen Hope Center and Aspen Strong — of which Callahan is co-founder — have put Aspenites in the habit of checking in on at-risk friends and asking for help if they need it.

Callahan, also founder of the local service industry-focused support group Hospitality Matters and co-host of the podcast “A Kinder Mind,” said she’s observed locals step up to support one another during the mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic, its isolation and disruption and economic anxieties.

“They're more willing to talk about their issues because suddenly anxiety is recognized and it's OK to have it,” she said. “It's become almost a cultural norm. We're really anxious now? Do we have to stay in that anxiety? Or are there tools to help?”

Missing major life milestones over the past year, or not getting to experience them in the ways people have expected all their life, has been a common challenge in the pandemic. Everybody from a kindergartener whose first day of school was on Zoom to the grandparent unable to hold a newborn, teens missing after-school sports to couples canceling weddings, have been dealt losses.

Bride Olivia Burns and groom Kyle Lehman take the Silver Queen Gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain to celebrate their wedding on Thursday, March 4, 2021. The two are from Denver and have been together four years. They got engaged in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the entire wedding party planned to ski to the bottom in their wedding attire.

Aspen High School senior Kat Goralka, 18, left, receives a rose from her lacrosse head coach Amanda Trendell during a surprise senior day rose ceremony at her home in Snowmass Village on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. “I think they’ve put in so much hard work even in the offseason and I don’t want three months to be the center point of their career,” Trendell said. “So ending on a more personal note to recognize their hard work … I think is a really great way to celebrate it.”

Nikki Ward, 7, center left, and her mom August Ward stand outside of their home in Aspen Village as friends sing happy birthday during an organized birthday drive by in Aspen on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. During the day, Nikki was zooming her friends from school and her family had planned a treasure hunt and piñata to surprise her for the evening. Her mother got emotional, because she didn’t know that so many people were going to show up for the surprise. She said that many friends and neighbors had left birthday gifts for Nikki outside of their home all day. “This is a birthday we’ll never forget,” said August.

Pixie Witt, left, reacts with excitement as the list of scholarships that her daughter Morgan Witt was awarded are announced at the scholarship drive-thru event on the Aspen School District campus on Thursday, May 28, 2020. “It’s amazing,” said Pixie about her daughter’s scholarships. “It’s been a long four years and it’s a great success.”

Callahan’s daughter, Kelli, was a member of the class of 2020 at the University of Puget Sound. She’d been hoping to podium in national swimming competitions last spring, capping a record-breaking collegiate career, but saw those events canceled, though the NCAA gave her nominal All-American status.

“She came home kind of devastated,” Callahan recalled. “I said, ‘Well, what's your dream? What do you want to do?’ She said, ‘I've always wanted to make ice cream.’”

So she’s now started an ice cream company.

“I’m seeing how resilient people are,” she said. “Once they get over the shock, they're being really resilient. … People are learning and more resilient than they thought they were. And the irony to me is that one of the biggest things that happened with COVID is it became very apparent that we're living in a world where we don't know what to expect.”

Chad Bones gives Larry Mills a haircut at the Basalt Barber Shop a week after they reopened on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Garfield County began relieving COVID-19 restrictions on the first of May, but Lonnie Bones said they waited a little longer to reopen the shop.

A feeling of losing control has spun out many people during the pandemic, Callahan said.

“One of the tools I give people is that every single day of your life, you can control three things, that's it: You get to control what you think, what you feel, how you behave,” she said.

This spring she has been working with a lot of young people who are returning to in-person school, for whom the experience can feel traumatic.

“Kids that are going back to school are afraid to get on the school bus,” she said. “They’re asking, ‘Who am I going to eat with at lunch?’”

Single working moms, she noted, have had the toughest time weathering the pandemic at home and work. Teens, in particular, she said, have been impacted by the milestones and time together they’ve missed during the pandemic.

“In my practice, the teenagers have suffered worse than the others,” she said. “They're already prone to anxiety, developmentally they want to fit in, and they don't have a peer culture to fit in with anymore.”

The disruption in their social and emotional development is more pronounced, Callahan said.

“You're going along and seeing where you fit, and then we took a year out,” she said. “It's terrifying for a lot of kids. … I think a lot of kids didn't know what to do. And a lot of us adults, we didn't know what to tell them.”

What that might mean for society and for those young people as they grow up, Callahan says, nobody can reasonably predict.

“I do not think we know the effect yet,” she said. “I don't think we have the data to tell.”

And while the novelty has long worn off for Zoom happy hours and birthday parties and family holidays on video chat, Callahan believes people will reap long-term benefits from the connections and relationships they kept going while they had to be physically apart.

After skinning up Aspen Mountain, Sian Jones, left, Anne Goldberg, center, and Susan Saghatoleslami have a glass of champagne while abiding the social distancing requirements on Saturday, March 21, 2020.

“You can't be with somebody and there's a human need to touch and to heal,” she said. “And when you're not getting that met, isn't it fascinating how humans will find another way to connect?”

She noted the ways extended families have seen more of each other, with the help of technology, and how people have connected long-distance in new ways from Zoom cooking clubs to video games. And she’s seen how families who do live together, after a year in close quarters, have been forced to get closer and to accept one another.

“We've just learned to love each other and support each other in ways that we probably didn't before,” she said. “I think families are learning how to recognize each other's needs and let people be who they need to be. … I’ve seen people getting closer. I’ve seen a lot of families come together.”

Registered Nurse Trudi Olson-Feast, left, draws blood from Chloe Lazard, center, as she holds the hand of her boyfriend Tristan Andlinger to be tested for COVID-19 antibodies in Aspen on Friday, April 10, 2020.

Callahan is hopeful that, when people look back on this period a generation from now, it might be a positive thing and that society learned something from the bitter division, as well as the sickness and death, of this time.

“What I hope is, after the last few years of in the United States of political unrest, of division, that this disease brought us together as human beings,” she said. “And that we recognize the humanity in each other, that life is valuable. And that, us humans, we are resilient.”