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Never-Never Land

Features
posted: 12/29/2000

A visit to Vail reveals the surprising realities of leading a grown-up life within a skiing fantasy.

I have a childhood friend named Wendy. She is lean and exceptionally blond, with big, blue eyes, perpetually ruddy cheeks, and a smile that's as quick and disarming as a lightning flash. Her smile has pulled us out of a jam here and there. When we were two impetuous girl-punks skiing together in Vermont, we passed time on the chairlifts by, among other things, hawking big balls of spit at people skiing blithely below. Every so often, we'd actually nail our target, at which point I'd shut my eyes, sink a little deeper into my puffy down jacket, and brace for the worst. But before anyone could shake a fist in our direction or holler for the ski patrol, there was Wendy, all bubbles and sunshine, leaning far out over her skis, mollifying the day's victim with that white whale of a smile.

At night, lounging around the rented slopeside condo our families shared, getting misty to the tune of Wendy's Rex Smith album, we hatched our life plan. We would grow up, have jobs, get rich, marry men who looked like Rex Smith -- who you will recall, was a more handsome and infinitely less talented blond version of Keith Partridge -- and ski. Our fabulous lives would be set in one of those mythical places that we'd only seen in magazines: Aspen or Sun Valley or Vail. I figured maybe I'd be a veterinarian, and Wendy, she was going to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader living, naturally, in a ski town. Together, we'd be ski-town locals. It was going to be wickedly, awesomely perfect.

So, what happened? Twenty years slipped right past. Rex Smith disappeared into the murky depths of teen-idol afterlife, and my veterinary dreams were shattered by a sagging science GPA. Over the years, Wendy and I saw each other a few times, at family get-togethers and the occasional wedding, but we never managed to share a chairlift again. As far as the life plan went, as we rounded the bend into our 30s, Wendy had me trumped. While I'd spent six years marooned in the Midwest and a few more in Maine, eking out a week or two a year on skis, Wendy had racked up a drawer full of season passes: one winter at Sugarbush, two at Stowe, five at Breckenridge, and now she was in her fourth season at Vail, a place I'd never skied. And having come to her senses about a career in cheerleading, she had a respectable ski-town job, teaching third graders in the small town of Eagle. Wendy was a Vail local. She was living our dream.

Then last winter the news came that Wendy was considering leaving Vail, which meant it was time for me to buy a plane ticket, pronto. I wanted to ski Vail while Wendy was still there, to see the place through a local's eyes. And, I confess, I figured I might be able to talk her out of leaving, to deliver some do-it-for-the-sisterhood lecture on how you don't,for God's sake, just pack your car and drive away from paradise! Wasn't it up to her to preserve the last shred of our girl-punk yearnings?

So late in March, I flew into Eagle's wee airport on a Sunday night and drove 20 minutes up the interstate to find Vail, which at first glance looks like little more than a Bavarian-style truck stop, a slim crescent of twinkling condo compounds and parking lots built practically within spitting distance of I-70. I checked into a condo at the Lionshead base area, called Wendy, and spent some time peering out the big picture window in my living room, past the steaming swimming pool, over a sea of pitched rooftops, and up into the inky void where the continent's preeminent ski area was supposed to lie.

Without the mountain, Vail would be just another anonymous slice of valley among the high peaks of central Colorado. One has to look hard for history in Vail. There's no whistle-stop railroad station to visit, no row of rehabbed miners' shacks, no quaint little brothels or swinging-door saloons. The one museum in town is aaean not to the old West but to the very reason for Vail's existence: skiing. Places like Aspen, Telluride, and Steamboat are towns that slowly morphed into resorts, but Vail, whose main street was built by resort investors and wasn't incorporated until 1964, is a ski area that sprouted a town.

This is an admittedly snotty thing to say, but as a native New Englander, I normally view history as a measure of depth and thus came perilously close to writing Vail off as bland and characterless. In her historical account of the area, writer June Simonton lists a few of the insults commonly hurled Vail's way -- "instant Alpine," "transplanted Tyrol," "Swiss schmaltz." Monday morning, wandering down Bridge Street, the avenue of high-gloss, chalet-style boutiques, restaurants, and ski shops that anchors Vail Village, I was prone to agree. Where, I had to wonder, was the soul?

And then I started to ski. Late the night before, I'd finally caught Wendy on the phone and was alarmed to learn she wouldn't be joining me on the slopes, not immediately anyway. I'd arrived in Vail on the last day of her spring break, and she'd just rolled in from a bar in nearby Minturn, having joined up with friends in the morning to ski the Minturn Mile, a backcountry meander that starts on top of Vail mountain and ends 3.5 miles later on a barstool at Minturn's Saloon. And so Monday morning, as I was climbing on the Vista Bahn chair, ready to discover Vail, Wendy was down the road in Eagle, teaching a unit on the Gold Rush to her devoted nine-year-olds, having promised she'd catch up with me later in the week.

I didn't need her to point me in the right direction, though. What had been nothing but a dark presence last night was now, in full light of morning, a glittering behemoth of a mountain that appeared more wide than high. From where Vail Village sits on the floor of the Gore Creek valley, the mountain bows gently upward, its summit obscured by the gradual rise. The quiet, hummocky aspect of the resort's north face is precisely what kept it undiscovered for so many years, even as Aspen, Breckenridge, and Keystone were developed nearby. Indeed, from below, the mountain appeared so uninteresting that nobody had even bothered to name it. Until, that is, a man named Earl Eaton, who'd grown up on a homestead not 15 miles from Vail, went prospecting for uranium in the 1950s and, coming over the ridge at 11,480 feet, hit what amounted to ski-area gold.

Anyone who's been will tell you that the beauty of Vail lies in its exquisite posterior -- a series of seven legendary, open-mouthed bowls draped across 4.7 miles of ridgeline, funneling the fresh snow down some 3,000 feet of vertical drop. I'd heard so much barroom braggadocio about these bowls over the years -- as in, "You shoulda seen us rippin' Siberia Bowl last month," and "WHAT?You haven't skied the Back Bowls at Vail? Well then, honey, you haven't skied!" -- that I confess to having felt a smidgen of trepidation as I crossed the summit from the familiar-looking groomed side of the mountain to the open snowfields of Sun Up Bowl. Gone were the swarms of children, the ladies -- and I use the term consciously -- in fur-trimmed parkas, the picture-snappers and lollygaggers, and the snowplowing Texans who hung on the front side. Here, instead, was a steep, clean headwall of empty snow, a big, fat tabula rasa on which to make my mark.

And so I did. I made mark after mark but never felt any closer to conquering the mountain. I was intimidated, but gloriously so. This is the thing about the Back Bowls of Vail: The vastness of the place almost swallows you right up. You are one clueless guppy swimming in an empty ocean of snow. After a few hairy descents in the early-morning crud, I found a sun-softened shoulder of mountain called Cow's Face, and my intimidation melted. Despite the signs warning that the bowls are primarily for experts -- 87 percent of the named runs are marked "Most Difficult" -- the terrain's openness and relative emptiness allow a skier to dial in his or her own degree of difficulty, choosing whichever line suits the moment. And if I started slowly, riding the bowls' broader flanks, by late morning I was skiing them at full tilt, slicing through snow as light as filament, exploring the narrow gulches that make up Game Creek Bowl before floating across a cloud of light snow beneath the High Noon chair.

If for one second I thought I'd mastered Vail, I needed only to turn to the third page -- yes, thirdpage -- of the trail map, to see an overview the 520 fresh acres of minimally developed terrain called Blue Sky Basin, spread across three peaks adjacent to the Back Bowls, a full two miles and a world away from the glamfest in Vail Village. The feel is distinctly backcountry, with no grooming and mostly naturally cut slopes. The terrain rolls rather than rocks, with fewer verts than in the Bowls, but plenty of fun do-it-yourself routes to explore through rocks and trees. Below Blue Sky's main chair, peeking over a cornice marked "Lover's Leap," I found the steepest pitch I'd seen all day, a short, untracked wall of snow that dropped off into the trees. If I lived here, I thought, I'd be the kind of skier who wouldn't have to look before she leaps. I'd be a full-size, ass-kicking Vail version of the midget who used to spit from the chairlift in Vermont, those misbehaving impulses healthily channeled into mature but fearless skiing. Another cowardly look over the edge and I was swimming in a full-scale existential quagmire: I am a writer living in an essentially hill-less city on the East Coast. What's wrong with me? Why am I not a veterinarian and, more importantly, why don't I live in Vail?

Well, I could have stood there all day waiting for answers, or I could have packed up all the perceived weaknesses and failings, the whiny woulda-coulda-shouldas, and pitched myself right over the cornice, which is what I did. And for 30 seconds, in a feathery free fall staked down by a few jump turns, not only did I belong in Vail, I owned the damn place.

I would, however, soon learn that owning Vail, in any literal sense, is easier said than done. Still worried that Wendy was going to walk out on the dream we'd cooked up so many years ago, I set about doing some field anthropology around town, to see if the reality matched the fantasy. Teamed up with photographer Barrie Fisher, I learned several truths about the life of a Vail local. One, Vail locals seldom live in Vail. Eighty percent of homes in Vail proper are vacation homes and, somewhat predictably, a one-bedroom condo goes for just shy of an arm and a leg. (Median price of a home: $545,250.) Which doesn't leave a lot of room for those who arrived after the mid-1980s real-estate boom or for those who aren't independently wealthy -- the folks,as my grandmother would say. And thus Vail, a town of 4,300, has suburbs -- namely the thin-walled-condo megalopolises of Edwards and Eagle, home to an armada of Vail commuters in the form of bartenders, ski patrollers, dentists, you name it.

Which brings me to discovery number two: Vail locals work hard. The aforementioned independently wealthy crew aside, most of the people we met in and around Vail were busy -- busy fixing leaks, filling teeth, waiting tables, drafting contracts, teaching children, serving coffee -- whatever it took to collect a paycheck, to afford a roof over their head and a ski pass. They were, in fact, by and large, too busy to ski.

Much like my friend Wendy, whose skiing is limited to weekends and spring break, many Vailites feel lucky to snag 30 full ski days a season. We managed to talk Brian Hutchinson, a co-owner of a Bridge Street pizza joint named Pazzo's, out for a few runs on the blue cruisers off the Vista Bahn one morning. "I usually go right to the bowls," he said, explaining almost sheepishly that he had to be back at the restaurant within the hour. A one-time She terrain's openness and relative emptiness allow a skier to dial in his or her own degree of difficulty, choosing whichever line suits the moment. And if I started slowly, riding the bowls' broader flanks, by late morning I was skiing them at full tilt, slicing through snow as light as filament, exploring the narrow gulches that make up Game Creek Bowl before floating across a cloud of light snow beneath the High Noon chair.

If for one second I thought I'd mastered Vail, I needed only to turn to the third page -- yes, thirdpage -- of the trail map, to see an overview the 520 fresh acres of minimally developed terrain called Blue Sky Basin, spread across three peaks adjacent to the Back Bowls, a full two miles and a world away from the glamfest in Vail Village. The feel is distinctly backcountry, with no grooming and mostly naturally cut slopes. The terrain rolls rather than rocks, with fewer verts than in the Bowls, but plenty of fun do-it-yourself routes to explore through rocks and trees. Below Blue Sky's main chair, peeking over a cornice marked "Lover's Leap," I found the steepest pitch I'd seen all day, a short, untracked wall of snow that dropped off into the trees. If I lived here, I thought, I'd be the kind of skier who wouldn't have to look before she leaps. I'd be a full-size, ass-kicking Vail version of the midget who used to spit from the chairlift in Vermont, those misbehaving impulses healthily channeled into mature but fearless skiing. Another cowardly look over the edge and I was swimming in a full-scale existential quagmire: I am a writer living in an essentially hill-less city on the East Coast. What's wrong with me? Why am I not a veterinarian and, more importantly, why don't I live in Vail?

Well, I could have stood there all day waiting for answers, or I could have packed up all the perceived weaknesses and failings, the whiny woulda-coulda-shouldas, and pitched myself right over the cornice, which is what I did. And for 30 seconds, in a feathery free fall staked down by a few jump turns, not only did I belong in Vail, I owned the damn place.

I would, however, soon learn that owning Vail, in any literal sense, is easier said than done. Still worried that Wendy was going to walk out on the dream we'd cooked up so many years ago, I set about doing some field anthropology around town, to see if the reality matched the fantasy. Teamed up with photographer Barrie Fisher, I learned several truths about the life of a Vail local. One, Vail locals seldom live in Vail. Eighty percent of homes in Vail proper are vacation homes and, somewhat predictably, a one-bedroom condo goes for just shy of an arm and a leg. (Median price of a home: $545,250.) Which doesn't leave a lot of room for those who arrived after the mid-1980s real-estate boom or for those who aren't independently wealthy -- the folks,as my grandmother would say. And thus Vail, a town of 4,300, has suburbs -- namely the thin-walled-condo megalopolises of Edwards and Eagle, home to an armada of Vail commuters in the form of bartenders, ski patrollers, dentists, you name it.

Which brings me to discovery number two: Vail locals work hard. The aforementioned independently wealthy crew aside, most of the people we met in and around Vail were busy -- busy fixing leaks, filling teeth, waiting tables, drafting contracts, teaching children, serving coffee -- whatever it took to collect a paycheck, to afford a roof over their head and a ski pass. They were, in fact, by and large, too busy to ski.

Much like my friend Wendy, whose skiing is limited to weekends and spring break, many Vailites feel lucky to snag 30 full ski days a season. We managed to talk Brian Hutchinson, a co-owner of a Bridge Street pizza joint named Pazzo's, out for a few runs on the blue cruisers off the Vista Bahn one morning. "I usually go right to the bowls," he said, explaining almost sheepishly that he had to be back at the restaurant within the hour. A one-time SoCal surf bum, Hutch has, along with his partners, opened three restaurants and mutated into a ski-town workaholic, routinely logging 70-hour weeks. Even Chris Anthony, Vail's amiable resident pro freeskier, was flying off to Valdez for work -- or "work" as my grandmother would say.

"It used to be all ski bums here, but then the ski bums grew up and had kids," Margie Plath, the Vail native who runs the ski museum told us. "You've got a lot of families here now, and those families need supporting."

A few other things you might not know about Vail: It's got three elementary schools, a championship youth hockey league, and a Brownie troop so chock full of Brownies they've had to turn girls away. The weekly town council meetings are often standing-room only. And on a powder day, attendance at all of the above goes way down.

Late in the week, I did find a local to play hooky with me, a cheery former Delawarean named Kelly Davis who has spent the past 17 years in Vail and works for Pete Seibert, the kingpin who founded the resort back in 1962 and now serves as a consultant for Vail Resorts. Before taking a desk job, Kelly had been a longtime ski instructor, confined to making perfect, measured turns and pointless chitchat -- all of which she's happily abandoned. "I don't like to ski pretty," she told me as we shoved off the top of China Bowl. Evidently, she doesn't like to stop either, for in three hours we covered more of the mountain than I had all week, whisking from bowl to bowl, finding powder-cloaked glades in Blue Sky Basin, a long leg-burner beneath the Tea Cup Express chair.

When I happened to make a disparaging remark about the boring front side of the mountain, Kelly swallowed a smirk. "You like bumps?" she asked. Next thing I knew I was back on the boring front side, lost in a field of gnarly, thigh-high moguls. This was Prima, and after Prima, Kelly informed me, we would be skiing Pronto and Logchute -- the three linked, double-diamond mogul runs on the east side of the mountain that, together, equal one humbling, lung-scouring workout, what locals call the "PPL." Later, Kelly said, after we'd done three or four of these PPLs, I could drag my mogul-drubbed body down to Los Amigos, a locals hangout at the bottom of the Vista Bahn, order myself a margarita, and declare myself an initiate of a real ski day, Vail-style. "Golly day, Sara," said Kelly, flashing a teasing smile before she jackhammered her way down the rest of Pronto, "for a second there, you sounded like a real snob."

Finally, it was Saturday. I'd done my PPLs, slung back my margaritas, and, braced by ibuprofen, was headed out for my final ski day -- with Wendy, no less. It was a moment 20 years in the making, two former girl-punks climbing back on a chairlift together. To me, Wendy looked as she did back in the Rex Smith days -- her face lit with enthusiasm, her hair a blond tangle, her skis battle worn. On the lift, she let out a laugh I remembered all too well, the bubbles-and-sunshine chuckle that followed the old lightning-flash smile.

She'd grown into a flawless skier, too, her turns supple and quick, combining the exuberance of a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader with the mad-dash efficiency I'd seen in both Kelly Davis and the pizza-making Hutch -- the hallmark of top-notch skiers with too little time to ski. Starting on the westernmost side of Game Creek Bowl, we began working our way east, settling in finally for a few runs on a heavenly, untrammeled ridgeline between China and Siberia Bowls called, appropriately, Shangri-La. Ahead of me, Wendy skimmed in and out of the trees, hooting loudly as I worked to keep up. Giddy, girlish, and barely in control, we were 14 all over again.

"What's this I hear about you leaving?" I said finally as we sat, breathless, on the lift.

"I don't know," Wendy said. "It just seems like maybe it's time." She went on to explain how drained she was feeling from teaching, despite her love for the kids in Eagle, and

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