In Other wOrds
In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum by Jeremy Evans, Bison Books, 225 pages
In the waning days of 2010, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell made national headlines when he said on a Philadelphia radio show that the postponement of a Dec. 26 NFL game due to bad weather was a sign that the United States had become a “nation of wusses.” If Rendell ever has the opportunity to meet some of the people profiled in Jeremy Evans’ debut book, he may feel inclined to change his tune.
Evans, an avid snowboarder and journalist who began to explore the uncertain future of the skibum subculture after suffering a stroke in 2003 (at the age of 26), visits popular ski destinations and discovers that “the ski bum is a dying breed, a spirit being systematically destroyed” by a synergistic brew of “rising real estate costs, misguided values, an immigrant work force, and ski resorts operated by publicly traded corporations.”
Ski destinations like Park City, Utah; Lake Tahoe, California and Nevada; and Telluride, Colorado, were built on the backs of men and women who ditched the popular notion of the American dream in favor of a more laid-back — though in many cases hardscrabble — lifestyle. Evans mines their histories and juxtaposes them with the current state of the multibillion-dollar skiing industry, and what emerges is a disturbing portrait of a seasonal American pastime currently in the throes of rampant Disneyfication. Evans writes that, in 2007, Vail Resorts Inc. — a publicly traded company that, according to its website, owns and operates “the five premier year-round resorts of Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Keystone in Colorado and Heavenly in California and Nevada” — reported that just 30 percent of its total revenue derived from lift-ticket sales. The rest came from real-estate deals, lodging, restaurants, and other business opportunities.
Wherever people gather for sport and recreation, there’s money to be made, and while Evans and many of his interview subjects don’t fault ski-related businesses for wanting to stay in the black, many take issue with how a majority of that profit is turned. Second-home ownership (mansions, condos, etc.) has made it nearly impossible for paycheck-topaycheck ski bums to live in resort towns. Similarly, many employees providing essential services, such as policemen, firefighters, teachers, and emergencymedical technicians, are forced to live with their families in outlying communities, where property is cheaper — and where there are no essential services.
An extensive chapter titled “Ski Town Invasion” examines the evolution of employment diversity in areas where the annual snowfall — as well as the abundance of those whose purpose in life is to shred it — would render Gov. Rendell speechless, if not contrite. In decades past, American ski bums “were willing to take jobs below their social and skill level because they wanted to ski as much as possible,” Evans writes. “Now many of those jobs in ski towns ... are taken by Hispanics. Some of them are here illegally, some of them are here legally. … Hispanics are moving to ski towns in large numbers, enrolling their kids in schools, and taking the jobs ski bums used to take, not because they need to support a ski addiction but because they need to support their families.” Evans goes on to describe the impact of H-2B and J-1 visa workers — employees imported from “Southern Hemisphere countries” and students from other regions outside the United States — on the shrinking job market for homegrown ski bums.
Evans seems conflicted about the issue, and he doesn’t present solid statistical data to support his comments regarding immigrant labor. After he states that many ski-town jobs are taken by Hispanics, he backtracks, stating that “Hispanics and international employees aren’t taking jobs from ski bums. They are simply filling a void left by college graduates and other young Americans who are saddled by debt and aren’t willing to make the sacrifices to be a ski bum any longer.” While Evans eventually places the blame on ski resorts seeking cheaper labor, the tone of his earlier statements strongly implies that he believes Hispanic laborers are equally at fault.
In interviews with his subjects, Evans manages to capture the free-spirited nature of ski-bum life as told by those who have actually lived it. Unfortunately, the author seems so preoccupied with describing the surroundings of his person-to-person encounters that his subjects dissolve amid the meaningless window dressing.
To his credit, Evans examines in detail the impact of extreme sports and the ski-film industry on the erosion of authentic ski-bum life. When corporate sponsorships made it easier for die-hard skiers to secure a free lift ticket and the promise of a steady paycheck, the culture of ski bums changed dramatically. Evans writes, “If the current structure of the film industry can influence ski bums to alter their values for money, the very thing that they vowed not to care about in their pursuit of freedom, exactly how much money is being exchanged here?”
A Feb. 19, 2010, New York Times article by Katherine Bindley suggests that, in light of the recession, more out-of-work American professionals are heading to ski resorts in search of employment and an escape from the workaday world. Perhaps this exodus can pull the ski bum off the endangeredspecies list. As skier Travis McDowell says in the closing passages of Evans’ book, “Maybe we should just rename the whole [ski bum] phenomenon and call ourselves enlightened. People work all year to take two weeks off and do what we do.”