Not so long ago, any young man who was so inclined could ski all winter in the mountains of Colorado or Utah on a pauper’s budget. The earnings from a part-time job cleaning toilets or washing dishes were enough to keep him gliding down the mountain by day and buzzing on cheap booze by night, during that glorious adrenaline come-down that these days often involves an expensive hot-stone massage and is unashamedly referred to as “après-ski.”
He had a pretty good run, the American ski bum, but Jeremy Evans’ “In Search of Powder” suggests that the American West’s cold-weather counterculture is pretty much cashed. From Vail to Sun Valley, corporate-owned ski resorts have driven out family-run facilities, and America’s young college grads have mostly ceded control of the lift lines to students from south of the equator on summer break.
Mr. Evans, a newspaper reporter who himself “ignored the next logical step in adult life” to live in snowy Lake Tahoe, identifies with the graying powder hounds that fill his pages, and for the most part he shares their nostalgia for the way things used to be.
During the 1960s and 1970s, in alpine enclaves like Park City, Utah, and Aspen, Colo., hippies squatted in old miner’s shacks and clashed with rednecks. In Tahoe, Bay Area youths developed the liberated style of skiing known as “hot-dogging,” while in Jackson Hole, Wyo., stylish Europeans such as Jean-Claude Killy and Pepi Stiegler went one step further, inspiring generations of American youth to become daredevils on skis—and, eventually, to get paid for it.
Whether these ski bums intended to or not, they helped popularize the sport and make it profitable. What followed was reminiscent of urban gentrification. As the second-home owners took over, property prices outpaced local wages. Today’s would-be ski bum faces prohibitive commutes, and immigrant workers have taken over the sorts of menial jobs that carefree skier types once happily performed.
Skiing and snowboarding aren’t even a ski resort’s main attraction anymore. Rather, they are marketing tools used to boost real-estate sales and entice tourists who would just as soon go on a cruise or take a trip to Las Vegas. Four corporations—Vail Resorts, Booth Creek, Intrawest and American Skiing Co.—run most of the big mountains. Even Telluride, once considered remote and wild, plays host to Oprah Winfrey, Tom Cruise and a parade of summer festivals.
In 2002, Hal Clifford took the corporate ski industry to task in “Downhill Slide.” Mr. Evans’s book incorporates Mr. Clifford’s most salient findings, but his oral-history method limits his view of the topic. Mr. Evans would have done well, in particular, to mine the obvious connections between ski and surf culture. (Dick Barrymore’s landmark 1969 film, “Last of the Ski Bums,” was more or less an alpine remake of the classic 1966 surfer documentary “The Endless Summer.”)
Like surfing, skiing first went from sport to lifestyle during the 1960s and thus came of age with the baby boomers. They made skiing sexy and rebellious, and then they made it a big business. Two of America’s most exclusive mountain resorts, Beaver Creek (in Colorado) and Deer Valley (in Utah), opened around 1980—right when baby boomers hit a sweet spot in terms of athleticism and net worth. Now, as they age, golf courses and luxury spas have become de rigueur in big ski towns.
Another boomer legacy is the entire notion that the old-fashioned ski bum was a blessed soul who somehow belonged to the natural order. More likely, his was just a brief, Shangri-La moment. For ski towns in the West, the real problem is what will happen as the prosperous, once free-spirited baby-boomer generation begins to wane.
Mr. Hartman contributes to Style.com and VanityFair.com.
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