Skiing is not what you do; it’s who you are. Your bibs are ornamented with tickets on wickets commemorating the years you’ve spent skiing the local rope-tow that accesses 800 vertical feet of manmade snow. The ink on your diploma is hardly dry and the back of your Subaru is packed with your stuff, including the planks and boots that have contributed to the growth of your passion—now bordering on obsession. You kiss your mom goodbye, hug your dad and tell your siblings you’ll see them at Christmas. The assurance is unconvincing. Everyone knows you’ll be skiing in December, because you’re moving west to become a ski bum, and not a damn thing in the world will stop you now. Except, maybe, everything.
Destination and livelihood unknown, you point your Subi toward the Rockies. Telluride, Colorado, home to the precipitous giants known as the San Juan Mountains (more about that, here), is quite literally bulging at the seams. The town has run out of land on which to build housing, especially of the affordable sort. You call longtime local and family friend Angela Mallord, a substitute teacher who moved to town in the late ‘80s and brilliantly navigated the ebb and flow of mountain town living. “In ’89, ’90 I paid rent but that’s the last time,” she tells you. “In October of ’90, the house I was renting sold, so I moved into a teepee on Forest Service land. There was a housing crisis then, too. I moved the teepee around, lived in a shed for three years… but I went from dirtbag-homeless woodsie to land Baroness.”
You discover that in 2006, Angela inherited a little money and received a subprime loan—she used the cash to buy a cabin on Fall Creek Road. Then, the economy tanked and she could no longer afford her mortgage. Ever since, she’s split time between her teepee, house sitting and van camping. “Sometimes I hate it when it’s cold,” she explains to you over the phone. “But it’s an incredible opportunity to live that close to nature. The dream is alive. It’s just different now.”
After stopping for gas and to scrub clean the yellow-green ectoplasm of bugs turned inside out by your windshield, your thoughts are suddenly with Aspen and the lure of its four-mountain wonderland. Mallord explained to you there’s a housing crisis there, too, and homes have price tags with more digits than an international phone number. But you just need to find a room to rent and a job. So, you bust out the smartphone to do some research. You discover that a 2013 Bureau of Economic Analysis report ranks Pitkin County sixteenth out of 20 counties in the United States with a per capita personal income of over $80,000. The unemployment rate is a mere four-and-a-half percent and job growth has been hovering around six percent since 2013. That’s promising. But the cost of living, you notice, is 51-percent higher than the Colorado average and 60-percent higher than the national.
Numbers make your head hurt so you call another acquaintance by the name of Chason Russell. Born and raised in Telluride, Chason moved to Aspen a few years ago with the promise of a freeski coaching gig and the position of property manager and “adventure coordinator” for a family that splits time between Aspen and Miami. “I took the job, in part, because it included housing. I saved up a nut, ‘tricked’ a bank into giving me a loan and bought a place in Woody Creek,” he tells you. “Ski coaching helped me integrate here. The parents really looked out for me. You’ve got to bring something to the community that’ll encourage people to want to help you make it happen. You need time, patience and connections. Stay around longer than one season.”
Cornfields now whizzing past your periphery, it hits you: You’ll have to lower your housing standards in the interim while holding onto a bigger, long-term vision. “I could go back to dorm-style living for a while and figure it out,” you think. So, you tap Russell’s friend JF Bruegger, manager of The Skier’s Chalet.
One of Aspen’s first hotels, the Chalet is now home to 11 passionate skiers who pay month-to-month rent that is “very affordable to the ski lifestyle. Old-timers and locals love this place,” Bruegger explains. “We’re here for now, but who knows for how long. When this place goes, I don’t know what I’ll do.” Mountain towns have opportunity but you understand now that you’ll have to wait out the storm.
The blizzard that rolled through Jackson Hole amid one of your previous family ski vacations retreats into the back of your mind after a semi truck nearly clips your side view mirror. Alert now, you call The Hostel, the most affordable hotel in Jackson. Manager Greg Esdale answers and you waste no time before inquiring about a job. He tells you that because in-town rent can exceed $1,800 a month, the biggest perk of working there is the buck-a-day fee for an on-site employee room. “We pretty much provide the best opportunity for 20-something ski bums or people wanting to become ski bums,” he says. Greg hands the phone to Rick Lawler, who has been earning $8.25 an hour as a Hostel housekeeper since moving from Copper Mountain this past January. Rick tells you he hopes to become the night manager, the most revered of 12 positions on the payroll. “The only reason I’m living in Jackson is because of The Hostel. It’s the best gig around for someone who is trying to get a start in a ski town.”
Maggie Edmunds, your distant cousin, has been living in Jackson for the past few years. She left her hometown on a whim and drove west, just like you are now. During the cross-country drive she found a room to rent and a job at the Mangy Moose that allowed her to sling cocktails and nachos while still wearing her long johns. Recently, though, she’s been getting priced out of rentals by “three-month wonders” and she’s feeling the burden of living in the epicenter of America’s growing income gap. She told you about an Economic Policy Institute report that found Jackson’s rich are getting richer while the have-nots are fighting for table scraps; the top one percent is making 68.3 percent of the town’s income. Edmunds, now an account manager for Backbone Media—a popular public relations group—has stayed in Jackson despite the difficulty. “There’s an extreme gap here but this place is awesome,” she writes to you via Facebook Messenger (you try desperately to divide your attention between your smartphone and the road). “Find housing before you find a job, even if that means living in the back of your car. Have some ability to live without a plan and don’t care that your parents think you’re f#cking up on life. Have a commitment to the community if you want to stay for a long time. Volunteer, get involved and stay invested.”
Nothing worth a damn was ever easy. You realize now you’ll need a healthy dash of luck, time and patience and you’ll have to develop community connections in order to achieve the goal of making it in a ski town. The mountains are only a day’s drive away now. You roll down the windows and crank the tunes. The wind bursts into your Subaru and through your hair. Determined, you press down on the accelerator and grip the steering wheel until your knuckles are stretched white. You still don’t know where you’ll end up but you know exactly where you’re headed. Because your dream is alive—it is still very much alive.