The leaves have fallen. Which means the snow is sure to start falling soon, too. And then after that, on snow-covered mountain peaks from coast to coast, the dollars will begin to drop as well.
In a recent Boston Globe ski preview, Maine’s Saddleback Mountain, with its $50 lift ticket, was heralded as being a cheap, throwback-feel skiing option. That’s $50 for one day. Once upon a time (in this case, 1970), in his Rolling Stone piece “Freak Power in the Rockies,” infamous Aspen resident and noted gonzo journalist (the late) Hunter S. Thompson was aghast that the Aspen Ski Company charged $8 for a lift ticket. And a mere ten years ago, only the Deer Valleys and the Strattons (in addition to the Aspens) of the skiing world had the gal to charge its patrons $50 for a day of skiing. Now this sum is the minimum amount you’ll have to pay to enter the basement level of the gilded world of lift-served, downhill resort skiing (or riding).
It’s difficult to get away from it all when you bring everything with you, enjoying a lifestyle whose core costs get increasingly complicated. But, unfortunately, this is the reality of today’s ski mountain sport lifestyle industry.
And the ski industry knows it. Even while they are trying to deny it, to market themselves and their sport and their lifestyle as economically accessible. This November’s Powder Magazine cover tempts us with such articles as: “The Ski Bum Diaries,” and “Cheap Trips: Beg, Borrow and Steal for Turns.”
On the table of contents, they suggest, “You don’t need to be a dirt bag to be a ski bum.” (But it helps.) “You just need to have your priorities straight.”
While the write-up for their “Sofa Kings” article asks, “Who says skiing is an elitist country club sport?” (Most people, I think. And they’re probably right.) “We gave four writers $500 each, and told them to hit the road and not come back until they logged 100,000 vertical feet on skis.” And of course they did. Successfully.
Bottom line (no pun intended): if skiing is the centerpiece of your life, then, yes, you don’t need to be making six figures or be named Rockefeller to enjoy the trappings of today’s ski industry sports culture. That is, after all, one of the real attractions of the ski bum lifestyle: the alternative culture and lifestyle and priorities. As Hal K. Rothman once noted:
“The original ski bums, who came for the pleasures of the region, claimed the town as their own. Working in service industries, they skied when they could and stayed on to enjoy the prerequisites of a resort town during the season when it was slightly used. The result was a life peculiar to resort towns, where people took jobs below their social, economic, and skill level to live in the community and enjoy its amenities.”
And this peculiarity was a major aspect of what was so special about ski culture and ski towns in the first place.
“The whole point of mountain life is that it was different from life in the rest of America,” reminisces Hal Clifford, in his Downhill Slide: How the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment. “Like so many attractive places – Key West, Greenwich Village, Santa Monica – ski towns … were escapist enclaves, places where Americans skipped out of mainstream culture. They were hard to get to, and once you got there it was hard to earn a living … That was the trade-off to choosing a ski town: Those who did so actively … made significant compromises in terms of income, living situation, intellectual challenge, career choices, health care, schools, and all the things that are supposed to matter.”
Ski towns were once ski towns because the people who lived there, who moved there, made an intentional choice to prioritize one thing (skiing, mountain living) over other things (the convenience of everything, whether good or bad, that modern society has to offer), and in that way, these original ski towns were endowed with an overwhelming sense of place, and the people who populated these tiny enclaves knew exactly where they were, and why they were there.
Or, at least, that’s how it sounds. How I would like to remember it, having never been there. And how I would like the ski industry lifestyle to trend in the years to come: back to the original ski town lifestyle, whose authenticity has been challenged by the overdevelopment of these most special corners of our overly-explored world.
“If enough lifestyle immigrants displace those who actually live the mountain life,” laments Clifford, “a ski town isn’t what it was before, and its gestalt isn’t either. The result is a class divide between those who live the ski life, and the lifestyle immigrants.”
Who doesn’t want to be a ski bum, to drop out of the rat race and re-engage ourselves with what is important and essential, if only for a few days?
For those of us born after the heyday of ski towns, reared on detachable quads and base villages, the allure of living the ski bum lifestyle of the ski town will always be looked upon with the rosiest of rose-colored ski goggles, if not for what they actually were, once upon a time, than for what they could be several winters down the road: small, unique communities, still filled with transient folks, but transient folks who share a sense of camaraderie, celebrating the special place they inhabit, and banding together against all that they have willfully left behind.