In the last two months, I have been to three different "ski towns" in Western Colorado: Crested Butte, Vail, and Aspen.
Each visit was my first and I approached the towns not with delusions of community-rich grandeur but with half-formed preconceptions based on my experiences in Montana’s resort communities, which tend to embrace the summer with the same gusto and energy as they do the winter.
I expected the eager outdoors-types clad head to flip-flop in Patagonia, the myriad organic food boutiques, and the infuriating abundance of home furnishing stores (because no ski trip is complete without an elk-skin chaise or rainbow trout-shaped throw pillow.) What I didn’t expect were the townspeople’s walking-dead demeanor. They didn’t want to eat my brains, exactly, but they sure mumbled and shuffled around a lot.
In Crested Butte, the farmers' market was a half-hearted yawn fest (and nothing is sadder than a listless farmer). And the lady hawking caricatures tried, unenthusiastically, to convince me to have my face drawn onto the cartoon image of an impossibly busty bimbo. Classy.
What really enraged me, though, (particularly as a fisherman) was my experience at a Crested Butte fly-shop. I went in to buy some hoppers and a license and left appalled. The shop’s two flunkies reeked of weed, looked -- for lack of a better word -- sticky, and were too stoned to operate the license machine. They also swore like sailors, which normally wouldn’t bother me, but the workers were slinging their expletives in front of an aghast elderly couple trying to buy a day license.
It was clear to me as I watched the workers curse and pound stupidly on the license machine, that these slackers didn't give a rat's bum about us lowly summer tourists. They are working at the shop, pretending to be fly-fishermen, because it keeps them semi-sober and employed until ski season starts. And there lies the reality of Crested Butte and similar towns: At their core, they exist for and are shaped by a single winter sport, which means they aren't much fun for tourists 75 percent of the year.
Disneyland? Nope, it's Vail.
If Las Vegas had an “Austria town” it would look like Vail, a collection of super-sized, pseudo-European chalets and lodges. Vail would have been charming if the structures weren't sad rip-offs of gorgeous, historical buildings half a world away. What's worse, Vail -- or at least its hotels -- fails to celebrate the region's wealth of off-season activities. When we checked into our room, we weren't given info about the area's hiking, fishing and rafting opportunities. The "map" we received with our room key was a Vail shopping guide. Because if you can't ski, you might as well shop your brains out, right? Ugh.
Aspen was no better, which is strange given the town's proximity to the stunning Maroon Bells and White River National Forest, a fact largely absent from hotel-distributed information.
I drove to Aspen from the North Fork Valley to pick up my husband at the airport and, since we are both huge Dumb and Dumber fans and hadn't been to Aspen, we decided to spend the weekend there. Our hotel was named after an alpine village in Austria … of course.
Summer in Aspen: Even the mannequins look sad...
That night we walked through Aspen's downtown to take in the "sights" and get some Italian food at a restaurant our hotel's concierge recommended. Our waiter was a less sticky-looking version of the fly-shop flunkies: red-eyed, monotone and hugely indifferent. We forced down less than half of the culinary catastrophe he set before us, dishes my husband described as, "diet versions of real food, each with a hint of kitchen water."
Even Aspen's consumerist promise and storied music scene fell flat. I had imagined elaborately window-dressed Gucci stores and some spirited -- if indified -- live music. Instead, we discovered that half the town's stores were shuttered and dark -- closed until November -- and that the band at Belly Up, the town’s most famous music venue, was as anemic as the crowd: a paltry collection of leathery, wind-chapped locals who resembled Moses, mid pilgrimage.
The next day we left town to hike in the Maroon Bells and catch the aspen's in their flaxen, October glory. The Bells' staggering peaks and meadow-fringed lakes were a welcome respite from Aspen's silent streets and sullen ski bums.
Now, I'm not saying every Colorado ski town suffers the same off-season zombification as Aspen or Vail, but I can't imagine they're that different (although I did just discover that Dumb and Dumber was actually filmed in Breckenridge). And I'm not saying that every other Western ski town is a bustling burg during the off-season, either. But many -- like Red Lodge, Montana and Jackson Hole, Wyoming -- are far better at embracing their region's western beauty and recreational heritage year round, not just when the snow flies. Places like Aspen and Vail can make summer tourists feel like hapless intruders attempting to rouse a hibernating ski bum from his dreams of powder days and high-speed quads. "Instead of bothering us, how about you hit the mall?" these places seem to say, begging the question: Is a town really a town if it's economically, socially and mentally closed half the year?
Marian Lyman Kirst is an Intern for High Country News