Guest Blogger: Rob St. Mary

Born and raised in the northeast suburbs of Detroit, Rob St. Mary cultivated a love of media at an early age. He remembers his first movie experience at age two. A writer from an early age, Rob co-created an underground student newspaper in high school. He also took acting classes around that time that led to his involvement in film. In 1997, at the age of 19, Rob produced a low-budget 16mm vampire/comedy called Tainted – currently available from Troma Entertainment, the company best known for The Toxic Avenger. In 1999, Tainted played at the Cannes Film Festival in the market section. In 2002, Rob undertook his first feature length documentary. The Separation on State Street, released in 2007, which followed a church/state separation case in Michigan's thumb. Rob's film work has screened in festivals internationally and garnered awards.

Since 2001, Rob has worked in radio news. He began his career as a newsroom producer at WJR in Detroit. He has also worked at WLEW in Bad Axe, WSGW in Saginaw, WOOD in Grand Rapids and WDET in Detroit. Rob has been honored over two-dozen times for his feature and investigative work by statewide and national journalism organizations.

Currently, Rob is digital content manager for Aspen Public Radio in Aspen, Colorado. He is also working on a book for Wayne State University Press entitled Re-Entry: The Orbit Magazine Anthology. The book will feature reprints and tell the history of White Noise, Fun and Orbit magazines – Detroit based publications from the late 1970s to 1999. Rob is also co-host of a weekly film podcast, "The Projection Booth", available on-line and through iTunes.

You can follow him on twitter : @RobDET

Why Aspen?

"Why Aspen?"?
"Wrong question. Why NOT Aspen?"
"But you don't ski."
"I can learn."
"Have you ever been to Colorado? I have. The altitude made me sick."
"Well, I'll get used to it."
"What do you know about Aspen?"
"Well, I know it's where Hunter S. Thompson used to live. Oh, and it's "where the beer flows like wine."

That was the kind of conversation I was having with my Detroit area friends and family about six weeks ago when I accepted a new job as digital content manager at Aspen Public Radio.

Truth be told, it's not far off from my knowledge of the place before my arrival. I had flown to L.A., but never been west of St. Louis in a car. I accepted the job with the idea of adventure – new vistas and a challenge.  

Truth be told, I never expected to leave Michigan… EVER!

Why would I? The state has been my ancestral home. My French Canadian ancestors moved southwest from Quebec and Ontario to Saginaw just after the Civil War to work in lumber. Around WWI, they arrived in Detroit. They didn't stay in the city long. By 1920 they had set themselves up in the rural area of Roseville (then Erin Township) and Eastpointe. We've been pretty much eastsiders ever since. Looking across my family, there had only been a few people in the past generation that moved out of Macomb County. Some headed to exotic locales like Southfield… while others moved to Las Vegas, Southeast Missouri and Florida.

But getting back to it, what the hell did I know about mountains? I'm from the flat land of lakes. I'm from the Mt. Clemens area. If you can prove to me there's an actual mount there, I'll buy you a beer.

So, the idea of leaving Southeast Michigan was an odd idea. It was something that was exciting and scary at the same time. Emotionally, it was hard. I remember not being able to sleep, thinking about the various things I would be leaving behind. I wouldn't be minutes from my parents. I wouldn't be able to pop down to the Old Miami to catch the Blue Collar Gentleman hip-hop showcases. I wouldn't be able to get great Mexican food in Southwest on pocket change. The pressure I put myself under brought out the tears. That's not unusual. A co-worker of mine said when he left his Midwest hometown for the first time to take a new job out east, as his wife drove, he cried. Places, but more importantly, the people, have meaning to us. It was OK to feel a bit of sadness and excitement at new ideas, places and people.   

Before I arrived in Colorado, I thought about what I was leaving behind in terms of new challenges and opportunities. One of my superiors told me he thought it was a "mistake" that I was leaving Detroit given the reputation I had built for myself and the movement toward community reporting/engagement at WDET. I agreed. When I look at what is possible in Detroit, there are many things I could have done. Many things I wanted to finish, create, explore. But, I can say now – with clear eyes, that I don't feel I left anything undone, unfinished in Detroit. In fact it almost seemed like the universe was, in its own way, sewing up the loose ends when I heard the news of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's federal conviction. When I had arrived home in 2008, the text scandal was just starting.   

I came to Colorado knowing only a few people in the Denver area – old friends from high school, WDET and my time working in Grand Rapids. As for Aspen, the only person I "knew" was just by name – former WDET News Director Roger Adams. Currently the news director at Aspen Public Radio, Adams left Detroit around 1997 for Laramie, Wyoming to work at a public station there before finding his new home in the Roaring Fork Valley just over two years ago.

When chatting with Roger about why he left Detroit in the late 1990s, he said it was about a new adventure. He had returned to WDET after a fly fishing trip out west when he heard the station in Wyoming was hiring.

I have to say it's much the same for me – the idea of new vistas, as I said before. For seven years, I lived around the state of Michigan. I worked in Bad Axe (in the Thumb), Saginaw (covering the tri-cities) and Grand Rapids (West Michigan). I would come home to Detroit on weekends and holidays. Over that time, I could see the changes taking place – a rehabbed Campus Martius, the Compuware building and vacant storefronts along Woodward finding new life.

From 1999-2002, I lived each weekend in the Cass Corridor – attending shows at the Gold Dollar, the Old Miami and the Magic Stick during the glory days of the "garage rock revival". The Dirtbombs, the White Stripes, Electric Six, the Witches, Bantam Rooster, and more became the soundtrack for those days.

When I left Metro Detroit in 2002, I headed to a place I knew very little about and basically no one – the Thumb. Take Van Dyke until it ends and you will find it. It was a great way for me to go learn about something else. The same was true in my other moves around the state through 2008 when I returned home.

When I came back to Detroit in early 2008, to work at WDET, it was achieving a long-time goal. This was the station I loved as a teenager, grew up listening to and always wanted to be a part of. People like Ed Love, Ralph Valdez, Jerome Vaughn, Liz Copeland and others opened my ears to new sounds and ideas. WDET mattered to me. At the time of my return, I had spent almost seven years in commercial radio. I had been everything from a country/polka DJ to news director of one of the most respected news/talk stations in the state. I felt that the range of experiences coupled with my ideas and passion could help connect people in my hometown.

So, my fiancé and I moved east. I got married, bought a house, got a second cat and settled in for the challenges of my life and career.

I thought I had it all figured out. Then things changed.

I got divorced. I helped my mother through a job loss and foreclosure. Then, I started to feel stifled at work.

Five years before I had arrived a young idealist full of wide eyed dreams. Then, I found it hard to sleep.

A good friend of mine often says that the human is the only animal that refuses to listen to its instincts. Slowly, I think my nature, my instinct, was telling me something needed to change. I started to work on bringing my life back into focus. I started a process to sell my house. I started to sell off large amounts of things – collections and accumulations – I had been dragging with me for years. I moved to a small apartment in Hamtramck around Christmas and thought that was that.

But, new vistas demanded my attention. My instinct was telling me a larger change was needed.

And to be honest, it's not all that surprising to find others in Aspen who have felt the same, earlier in the lives.

A few days after my arrival I had tea with Andrew Israel. An Oakland County native, he was a former fund manager/Wall Street guy. He told me for years Aspen was a vacation spot for him – a place to unwind and ski. Then, after 9/11 when the market started to change, his company merged with another and he found the sporting life of stocks and bonds not quite what it used to be. So, he decided to  "live the dream" in Aspen. Andy's days consist of daily skiing and covering the community via his blog, Aspen Spin. He's usually here most of the year – expect for a few months during the summer. But living in Aspen for ten years and covering it for seven, Israel shared some advice based on a personal story. Back in the early 1980s, Andy was a young accountant then who had a business idea.

Talking to a loan officer at the bank, the old man said to him: "If you expect anything besides a beautiful day, forget it."

That seems like sage advice regardless of where you may be – geographically, emotionally or creatively – in your life.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.