Cap'n Bubba from El Paso might look a bit of a rough diamond, but he's nothing if not respectful. He's piloting our hot air balloon over the valleys and ranges of Snowmass, Colorado - a rare opportunity for a delicious bit of celebrity stickybeaking. Snowmass and its more famous neighbour, Aspen, provide the natural habitat for America's rich and famous - places where the famous come to feel normal and where the normal come to feel famous.
While Cap'n Bubba monitors the direction of various layers of early-morning wind, he points out the lavish ranches below.
"That's Mr Johnson's property over there, and that one belongs to Mr Henley."
Cap'n Bubba doesn't like being too familiar, but, yes, Mr Johnson is Miami Vice's Don Johnson and Mr Henley is Don Henley of The Eagles fame. We also see where Ms (Goldie) Hawn and Mr (Kurt) Russell have their spread, and when we come down to earth it's on the property where the late Mr (John) Denver established an environmental awareness station before his final and less-gentle descent in 1997.
Jack Nicholson, Mariah Carey, Kevin Costner and Lance Armstrong have places here too, along with Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith. And if you're looking for a familiar Australian face among the round-up of regulars gracing Aspen's ski slopes, chances are it'll be Elle Macpherson, Paul Hogan, former Leighton boss Wal King and marketing wizard Melissa Temple.
Yet despite being a town of multimillionaires, Aspen still displays something of a hippie heritage. First-timers might have a sense of being angle-parked in a parallel universe, but the locals seem to have happily come to terms with this apparent contradiction. And why not, when the end result appears to be a cult of extended pleasure?
Having become decidedly cool without quite graduating from being groovy, Aspen is a town that has its cap on back-to-front. When the Aspen Festival Orchestra presents an evening of Bartók and Rachmaninoff, it's not an occasion for suit jackets but T-shirts, and those who don't buy tickets buy picnic hampers and lie on the lawns surrounding the famous canvas concert hall and listen to the performances anyway.
Aspen, of course, is the very summit of US ski chic. But even then it's a more casual version of chic than those French resorts where the female accomplices of new Russian capitalists wear Dior snow suits on the nursery slopes. Aspen is known for its winters and powder snow, its midday grooming and its on-mountain hot apple pie, but at some stage someone noticed that between winters there's something called summer. The infrastructure was there and the branding well established, so Aspen came up with a new summer slogan - "the ultimate destination for arts, adventure and family fun" - and decided to invite a few people along to the party.
And when Aspen decides to party, plenty of big names are happy to be on the invitation list: Joe Cocker, KD Lang, Chris Botti and Boz Scaggs turned up for this year's jazz festival; Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and Jacques Pépin rattled the pans at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic; and former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf and Israel's minister of defence Ehud Barak swapped thoughts at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
This spectrum of pursuits reflects the easygoing tolerance of Aspen life. It's a soft collision of the sub-cultural and the mainstream; an unlikely coalition of the alternative and the ambitious. And maybe it always has been. The creative artistic expression, harmony with nature and human fellowship ideals still palpable in Aspen did not actually arrive in psychedelic Kombi vans driven by people with flowers in their hair. They came virtually containerised.
The roots of Aspen's cultural life are synonymous with the story of Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, who arrived in Aspen from Chicago in 1945. He was chairman of the Container Corporation of America, an industrialist, a serious collector of American art and a strong supporter of Bauhaus architecture. His first priority was restoring Aspen's Victorian charm, which dated back to its lucrative silver-mining days, but his vision was to establish the area as a place where artists, leaders, thinkers and musicians would gather to advance mind, body and spirit as the ingredients of a better lifestyle. Paepcke's vision provided the impetus for a stimulating and fulfilling life, and it is the legacy of this vision that Aspen and Snowmass enjoy today.
These two towns at the south-east end of Roaring Fork Valley, some 2400 metres above the sea (and with lift access to 3813 metres), have attitude as well as altitude. Nothing aggressive - just the gloss of self-satisfaction that comes with knowing you're surrounded by people who can afford to live anywhere they like and who all seem to have chosen Aspen. Here, wealth is not a foreign concept. In a town as moneyed as this, the buzzword is "experiential richness".
Aspen's summer festival season kicks off in June with the Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brew Fest, and is immediately followed by the Food & Wine Classic. The Jazz Aspen Snowmass and Snowmass Culinary & Arts Festival are squeezed into June and July, and cinema fans are well catered for with the Mountain Summit documentary festival in August and Aspen Film Fest in October. In September, the Snowmass Balloon Festival fills the sky and the Snowmass Wine Festival does a good job of convincing visitors that wines produced at altitude should be drunk at altitude.
Despite a resident population of fewer than 10,000 people, the Aspen Music Festival and School is the United States' premier classical-music festival, and when 630 music students and 130 artist-faculty members take over the town for performances at the Benedict Music Tent, the historic Wheeler Opera House and outdoors at the top of Aspen Mountain, it's kind of hard to ignore the fact that there's music in the air.
This year, leading American conductor Robert Spano put his baton hand up to become music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, a position that involves overseeing the artistic programming of more than 300 events. One such popular event is the free Thursday night concert series that runs from late June to mid-August on Snowmass's Fanny Hill. Indiana's Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band rocked the stage with their bluegrass stomp and Ohio's Pure Prairie League got the crowd up and dancing to their classic country rock.
Also in Snowmass is the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, a campus that attracts artists and artisans from around the world with a program of more than 150 workshops across disciplines from ceramics and painting to woodwork, photography and new media. World-class artists, acclaimed tutors, and students of visual creativity at all levels live and work together in a supportive environment that incubates what executive director Barbara Bloemink calls "transformative experiences".
In downtown Aspen, preparations continue for the building of a new Aspen Art Museum designed by innovative Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. The building will make the most of its dramatic Aspen Mountain backdrop with a spectacular roof-deck sculpture garden.
Culture vultures also swoop on exhibitions at the Red Brick Center for the Arts, drama at Theatre Aspen, literature at Aspen Writers' Foundation, and contemporary dance at Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. And there's further brain food courtesy of the Aspen Center for Physics, the Aspen Science Center, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and the Aspen Historical Society.
Not all culture, however, is of the tuxedo and tutu variety. Over at the Snowmass Village Rodeo Grounds every Wednesday from mid-June to mid-August, the amplified sound of Jimmy Buffett singing "Margaritaville" means the cultural heritage of the American West is about to be celebrated yet again. Just 2856 people call Snowmass home, but it has the oldest continuously running community rodeo in Colorado, and the locals turn out week after week to queue for a Cowboyrita (a handle-with-care Margarita), a rodeo dinner of barbecued ribs, smoked chicken, baked beans (cowboy caviar, if you will), coleslaw and potatoes, and a seat near the action… in that order. There are umpteen hip replacements and Sheryl Crow look-alikes, and it all adds up to a big night of high spirits and dyspepsia.
The body component of Paepcke's "mind, body, spirit" vision is well and truly alive in this region: Aspen and Snowmass are wellness theme parks. The area supports an astonishing spectrum of ways to tone the body - from holistic to hardcore. Locals like to think of themselves as the thinnest people in the States, a boast that recalls a fellow travel writer returning from West Africa's famine belt to report that he saw people as thin as the richest people in America.
Here in Aspen, people don't just go to the gym, they cycle to the gym, and ski shops in winter become bike shops in summer. Slim, fit Americans queue to take their mountain bikes, BMXs and road bikes to the 3451-metre summit of Snowmass's Elk Camp chairlift before descending down 80km of kamikaze, heart-in-throat tracks or easy-cruising bike trails.
One of the most popular trails - from both Aspen and Snowmass - follows the river to Woody Creek Tavern, famous for having been the watering hole of the late great Hunter S Thompson. The tavern bills itself as a temple of anti-establishmentarianism.
I suspect Central Casting may have sent over the ZZ Top characters sitting at the bar in their battered leather hats and stringy grey ponytails, but their topic of conversation appears to be political debate just as it was when Thompson was the, um, moderator. Pilgrims from around the world make their way to this shrine of over-ambience to propose a Wild Turkey toast to the great chieftain of gonzo journalism and to indulge in a bit of culinary anti-establishmentarianism with a New Mexico-style pork tamale with red and green chilli sauces, cheese, carrot, black beans and Spanish rice (made without lard, the menu assures).
There's an affection in Aspen for all things American West, and this affection extends to the food of the valley - not to mention its promotional material, which promises you'll find plenty of places to "chow down". But despite its often-casual approach, the Roaring Fork Valley offers some of the most impressive dining in the US countryside, and the elegant little town of Aspen is a goldmine of good grazing. There's the New York-vibe Steak House No. 316, Nobu's Japanese temple Matsuhisa and the "nutritarian" healthy-eating Pyramid Bistro. Plus, you can't forget Ajax Tavern, the pioneer of Aspen's specialty - truffled fries - or Australian John Beatty's Victoria's Espresso & Wine Bar, a breakfast and brunch institution that responds to the truffled fries the only way it knows how - with Vegemite on toast. Conspicuous even in this company, though, are Will Nolan of Eight K restaurant in Snowmass's Viceroy resort, and Mark Fischer of The Pullman in Glenwood Springs.
Fischer's Pullman has been identified as the template for a new direction in American dining. It is both a neighbourhood eatery and a culinary destination as a result of offering uncomplicated, imaginative food in a casual but totally professional environment. Like his other restaurants - Phat Thai in nearby Carbondale and Denver - The Pullman features local and sustainable ingredient-driven dishes, paddock-to-plate freshness and extraordinary value. Would you believe you can order fabulous duck meatloaf with creamed spinach, shiitake gravy and crisp pickled onion "straws" for $16 or a lunch plate of rich gamy goat tostada with heirloom beans, avocado and cumin crema for $9?
Nolan, who rose to prominence as a finalist in Food & Wine magazine's 2012 People's Best New Chef award, is producing knockout dishes that show where he's from and where he's at. While his food displays a respect for simplicity, his flair and instincts are unerring, and his Louisiana roots are never far from the surface.
"The two most valuable things I've learned," Nolan says, "are not to flit from trend to trend, but to cook what you've got a natural feeling for. And that the difference between a good dish and a great dish is usually seasoning."
In Aspen itself, the dining scene has recently been elevated by a new concept partnering the St Regis Aspen hotel and Food & Wine magazine. The "Chefs Club", as it's dubbed, offers summer and winter seasonal menus created by US culinary luminaries, all of whom have been awarded Best New Chef status by the magazine in the past 24 years. Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio and Susan Zemanick are all included in this elite group, so excitement is running high. And with landmark-hotel Little Nell reopening its popular Montagna restaurant in December as the renovated and rebranded Element 47, Aspen's dining options just look to be getting better and better.
Walter Paepcke might have gone - he died in 1960 - but his Aspen vision is pretty much intact, even perpetuated in ways that would have surprised him. The minds of the Aspen Environment Forum discussing pressures on the planet. The bodies of the competitors in the Master of the Mass mountain bike event competing over an epic super-downhill course. And the serenity of the beautiful St-Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass where members of the public can spend from two and up to 10 nights of spiritual retreat where the Trappist monks live and encourage "an atmosphere of contemplation and prayer". If only Paepcke had sold his vision to the world.