In Other wOrds

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Rob DeWalt

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.”

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