Colorado ski town zombification


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

Images courtesy of Marian Lyman Kirst and flickr users ekenzie, elpresidente408, and Damon Green

Nina  Weyl
Nina Weyl
Oct 20, 2011 09:15 AM
Wow, I hope the good folks of HCN reevaluate your internship. This is sad reporting/blogging. The article was printed today referencing "summer" business in these three towns - summer ends after labor day (before which all three of these towns, Aspen and CB in particular, are bustling) and tourist season dies when the leaves fall. It appears you were hoping to write something negative and that your opening paragraph is a farce. As a CB local and regular guest to the other two towns you couldn't be more far off. In 7 years in CB I've worked in various areas of service and the one consistent compliment we get is, "wow, the locals are so friendly!" Best of luck with your internship.
Jennifer McGruther
Jennifer McGruther
Oct 20, 2011 09:29 AM
Lovely. This bit of "journalism" from a chick whose idea of cultural ski town excursions is a pale attempt to recreate Dumb and Dumber in Aspen. Indeed, is a reporter really a reporter if it remains socially and mentally closed half the time?
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Oct 20, 2011 09:30 AM
Hi, Nina,

Thanks for your comments. I just want to point out that Marian's blog was a reflection on a number of summer experiences, not simply something she experienced in the past few weeks between Labor Day and the publishing of the blog, which she wrote as a sort of summing up of her different travels over the summer. Apologies if that was not clear enough.

And while it is certainly true that there are friendly locals in all of the above mentioned ski towns, there is also at times a bit of a hollow ring to the experiences offered by many of them, particularly in summer, and I do think Marian captures this in her essay, which, of course is an opinion piece based on her experiences. We may not all agree with her assessment, but I stand behind the essay as a valid perspective piece and hope it provokes some debate on the nature of tourist towns in Colorado, as is its intent.

-Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor.
James Masur
James Masur
Oct 20, 2011 09:53 AM
I hope she has to get a real job someday.. Does she work for some other ski areas? She has no idea of how tuff it is to make it in a ski town. I would say somewhat spoiled...
matt burt
matt burt
Oct 20, 2011 09:55 AM
This post RAISED the question of do you know what beg the question really means (and also provides the answer: no).
See: begthequestion dot info
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Oct 20, 2011 09:55 AM
Dear commentators, please remember to comment on the substance of the blog and refrain from attacking the character of the writer, per our comment guidelines.

Thanks again,

Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Oct 20, 2011 10:21 AM
As a Colorado native who has lived in a number of mountain and/or ski towns -- Aspen, Gothic (right outside of Crested Butte) and Leadville -- I feel like maybe you local types need to take a moment to reflect. There is a MARKED difference between what you experience in such a community as a local and what you experience in such a community as a tourist, especially a not-so-moneyed one. I remember well visiting Aspen before I lived there. Maybe it was that I didn't sport the right furry boots/skintight jeans combo, or that I looked kind of dopey when I was 19, but as a general rule, I was treated shabbily and received plenty of disdainful stares. It was a relief to leave the town behind and head out hiking and then hightail back downvalley to Glenwood Springs where riffraff like me were apparently more acceptable. When I moved to Aspen later to work as a reporter at one of the local dailies, I discovered (more slowly than I would like, given how hard it can be to break into such a tight little town) that underneath the glitz and pretention and overpriced-ness is a thriving community of local, passionate folks who do fun things and know all the right places to go. Of course, as a local, you probably know that locals jealously guard the best stuff in and out of such towns, for fear that if they don't, their favorite locals' haunts and secret places will also get taken over by "tourons." For those of you folks unfamiliar with the word, it's a the favorite term for tourists among mountain-town locals Colorado-wide. In winter, it gets replaced with "gapers."

So if you're going to take offense when a tourist directs some of that same disdain back at her mountain-town experience, maybe you shouldn't be that surprised?

Food for thought anyway.

--Sarah Gilman
High Country News Associate Editor
Michael D Kusiek
Michael D Kusiek Subscriber
Oct 20, 2011 11:47 AM
Couldn't agree more with the writer. Something about Colorado locals and how truly defensive they are too--those towns have lost their soul. That pic of Vail just sums it all up--since when did going to the mountains begin and end with shopping? The mallification of Colorado is by some small measure a large part of what's wrong with America; lost touch with the important things and replaced them with all that phony, plastic, purchased, and shiny. It's been created for city folk who need that lifestyle and amenities to feel comfortable while their "in the mountains". Once you go down that profit at all costs road, seems like there is no coming back. Well written--stand up to the heat these snarky folk are putting out--it will make you stronger and an ever better writer.
Nina  Weyl
Nina Weyl
Oct 20, 2011 12:08 PM
Thanks for commenting back - however I find it very hard to believe that any store front in Aspen would be "shuttered and dark - closed til November" anytime before Oct 1 - in fact, I was in Aspen Oct 1 this year and I didn't see a single sign stating that; the bars were packed, the music at the Belly Up good (Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes) and the farmers market bustling. Speaking of Farmers' Markets, does the author recognize how difficult it is for a town like Crested Butte, at 9000ft, to have a market? The vendors come from Paonia (where your business is based), Hotchkiss, Crawford and other towns at least 90 minutes away over Kebler Pass. Our local Farmers' Market Association busts it's hump to make that Sunday morning event better every year and to have an out of town guest rip on it and the farmers who drive from far away is really disturbing. Yes, we mountain town folk do get defensive for our communities - because we work really hard for their success, and to be able to live in the towns we've chosen to call home. Negative media attention only hurts our ability to host guests year round - thus hurts our economy. I can't speak for Vail and I am not a local in Aspen so I won't speak for them either, but the resort, the communities (CB and Mt CB) and the Chamber of Commerce here work really hard to build our summer business ( - top left click summer) and to have a Jim Carey fan shred what we work hardest for - keeping our communities alive year round so we can live here - is disappointing. For a newspaper/website that says they are "for people who care about the West" then why are you printing stories tearing up three communities that bring tourist dollars to our state, help preserve national historic districts and draw (generally positive) national attention to the West?
I think more research and a more open mind would have been appreciated in this journalistic opinion essay. I respect that a few stoners may wait tables or work in fly shops in EVERY town, including those in the mountains.. is it really essay worthy news?
Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Oct 20, 2011 12:21 PM
For the record, at least one HCN editor disagrees with this blog post -- me. It's strange to have to say this, because it's true for most people visiting most places: I've had some good experiences and some bad experiences in ski towns. In the mix of my relevant experiences, I wrote a novel -- "Telluride Smile," published by Dodd Mead in 1988 -- making fun of Telluride's dedication to festivals, but I don't condemn the town's people for their business model, just do a little joshing about it. I think this blog post goes too far, with a sweeping critical conclusion about these communities, based on a few brief anecdotes.

Ray Ring
HCN senior editor
Nina  Weyl
Nina Weyl
Oct 20, 2011 12:43 PM
Here here, Ray.
Tim Burke
Tim Burke
Oct 20, 2011 02:04 PM
Come back to one of these "ski towns" in July or August, when fountains are spraying, street performers are active, and the town is bustling with rollerbladers, bicyclists, and so many pedestrians it's inefficient to even drive a car through town. Hopefully you'll have the backbone to write another article taking back the lashing you gave to these seasonal communities.
Fred Mast
Fred Mast
Oct 20, 2011 02:37 PM
 This blogger's career in journalism in Colorado is probably over. But she can leave the state knowing she told the ugly truth about some Colorado ski towns. Be disabused of any romantic notions about Aspen, Vail or Crested Butte. For the "real" Colorado ski towns I recommend Durango (Purgatory), Leadville (Ski Cooper), Pagosa Springs (Wolf Creek Pass), Glenwood Springs (Sunlight Basin), and Silverton (Silverton Mountain). Real value. Real People.
Meghann McCormick
Meghann McCormick
Oct 20, 2011 03:21 PM
I live and own a business, a café, in Telluride and the question of vibrancy often comes up in our Merchant meetings. Our summers are teeming with visitors who come for the hiking, fishing, festivals, climbing, mountain biking, etc. and often display excitement and surprise by how vital our downtown is at night. I have been to Aspen and Crested Butte quite a few times and can also vouch for their vitality as mini-cities in the mountains.
It is upsetting to me, a person who lives, loves and prospers in a beautiful, spirited ski town, to read in High Country News a very singular perspective claiming that our towns are only half towns because we are not bustling year round. What about the idea that we are not just a tourist economy, but also a community of people who have built our lives here? Contrary to the very narrow-minded popular belief that ski towns are full of ski bums and millionaires, a large percentage of us are regular ole folks as well. We work hard when the tourist times are here and we rest and enjoy the peace and company of our community during the times people have decided we aren't worth visiting.
It is easy to come to a place one has never actually lived and make blanket statements based on a few poor customer relation experiences, but anyone who has actually resided in a ski town knows that though our economic, social and political environment are unique, it is very much the same as any other town. Visiting a town for a few days certainly does not develop a comprehensive understanding of a place.
And as a business owner, I appreciate feedback from individuals who are unhappy with what a place has to offer. Critique worth reading should come from a place of objectivity, not a self-assured creative writer who seems to believe her witty tidbits of a few towns imply a greater theory of all towns based at the foot of a ski hill.
In response to some of the comments made – there are some very defensive ski-town dwellers, but the few that use terms like “gapers” and “tourons” are just as narrow-minded as the woman who wrote this perspective piece. I appreciate and agree with Mr. Kusiek in his opinion that the commercialization of our remote lands; not all the ski towns are entirely driven by economic vitality. I feel entirely fortunate to be able to run a business that is NOT solely based on the financial bottom line, but on community, artistic expression, education, celebration and many other considerations other than how to make the most money. I’ve traveled to many cities and towns in this country and Telluride is one of the only places I found this balanced business model to be viable.

Magda Sokolowski
Magda Sokolowski
Oct 20, 2011 05:23 PM
I appreciate commentary, I really do, but I must say in my ten plus years of reading High Country News, Marian Lyman Kirst's zombification piece comes as one of the first major disappointments in HCN reporting, and falls short of HCN's typical standard of well-researched, conscientious and informative writing. Having spent ten years in Montana and the last couple in Colorado, Mrs. Kirst would do well at taking a deeper look at what marks the difference(s) between Montana's ski destinations versus Colorado's and look heartily at the socio-political and demographic differences before making sweeping generalizations based on a day or two spent in a few places with which she has absolutely no familiarity. Did Mrs. Kirst talk to any of the locals? Did she do as reporters do, and ask questions of the folks she came in contact with in Vail, Aspen or Crested Butte? Or was her research of these places as ski destinations limited to too many viewings of Dumb and Dumber -- a pop-movie that grossly misrepresents and stereotypifies a certain ski village in Colorado? For while Mrs. Kirst surely has a good handle on using colorful descriptives, her reflections on her short jaunt in these three towns in Colorado is no better than a generic snapshot often used as the cover of a .50-cent postcard.

I'm sorry to say that the impression I got after reading this commentary was that the editorial staff at HCN was particularly busy before this issue went to press.
Jeanne Kirkpatrick
Jeanne Kirkpatrick Subscriber
Oct 20, 2011 06:01 PM
Apparently people in Colorado ski towns are a little prickly these days, in addition to the other negative impressions the author noted. I would argue that towns like Vail that were built for no purpose other than high end recreation have succeeded well in their limited vision, but that doesn't make them anywhere worth living.

However, there's a world of difference between Vail and places like Durango, which exist for reasons beyond commerce. To see that side of a community you have to take some responsibility for your own experience and spend time getting to know the people and place. Coloradans, by and large, are still the friendliest humans I've encountered. In places like Vail you're more likely to run into other tourists (like the author) who could care less about you, just as you care less about them; they're after the same short-lived thrill that you are, so the larger concept of community is lost. Like people, you have to pick and choose, and you have to settle in.
Anne O'Brien
Anne O'Brien
Oct 20, 2011 08:29 PM
Whoa, if ever there was a New West problem, this is it. The word "authentic" takes on new meaning when you decide to visit (on or off-season) or live in a mountain town. Sometimes reality disappoints you. The necessity for people who live there and keep it going to earn a living and hire people to assist in that effort, unfortunately, has turned out to have a bad effect on what we treasure as "authenticity".
I regularly went to Aspen on spring break from CU in the 1950s (Vail didn't exist--it was a snowy pass) and then lived there in the 1980s, after the streets were paved and sewers accommodated the population. The East and West Coasts had established a presence that supported Life there. Big change. I visited Telluride over the years, and watched the town try not to become "another Aspen." My conclusion was that being a local today was good but not the definition of "authentic" (miners and their suppliers) and that being a tourist was a lot less gratifying than it used to be.
So you are defining the New West. What makes the mountain towns worth going to? I can't wait to hear, because they still work their magic.

Michael D Kusiek
Michael D Kusiek Subscriber
Oct 20, 2011 09:56 PM
As some of the HCN staff have noted, this is great dialogue on an important issue (if we can step back to a global view). Further, I appreciate--even more--the author's boldness in light of all of this dialogue. Isn't this what "op-eding" is all about? Most Colorado ski towns are so far removed from what being in the mountains is really all about--and in my opinion the folks who live there are jaded to the lifestyle they've become accustomed. It's like the frog in the boiling water analogy (doesn't realize it's boiled until it's too late because the water was gradually heated). It's a great jumping off point. Our national economy and socio-economy is in the tank--for all the reasons implied, stated, and pre-supposed by all of us who argue on her behalf. We've all played a part in "needing too much". The author's experience in these communities doesn't need to be anymore than a snapshot; and they all could have occured at the "wrong time" or not--it's not relevant--the fact is--it was her experience--and when should that be anyone's experience in the mountains when they are looking for traditional mountain experience. I chalk the "dumb and dumber" reference up to being age-specific relevant humor--the larger point I take away is that these ski-towns have become caricatures.

And as for the write who says Coloradans are the friendliest--spend some time in the mountain towns of Wyoming--(Lander, Laramie, Cody, Moose, etc...)--you'll see friendly taken to a whole new level.

Bronte Roberts
Bronte Roberts
Oct 20, 2011 11:48 PM
I'm very sorry that Marian's blog post, like so many blog posts containing social commentary, was taken so personally by so many people. But like many things that hit close to home in a human heart, it engendered anger. I have just moved to Crested Butte, and have been in the area for almost 4 months now. I followed my husband who was offered a one of the very few highly rewarding, and high paying year round jobs available in this town. I have to say that Marian's observations about this place have been rather spot on, particularly as it pertains to the off-season. I have met many many wonderful and generous people here, but as a whole this community seems extremely one-dimensional, and very limited in their scope of vision. If you attend a social gathering in Crested Butte make sure you've: gone for a mountain bike ride, climbed a fourteener, ran Frigid Air Pass, skinned up Mt. Crested Butte, skiied on a powder day, etc. etc. before hand, or you will have nothing to talk about. Marian wrote a simple and well-written commentary on her personal experience in this town. If it doesn't apply to you, stop taking it personally.
Tim O'Brien
Tim O'Brien
Oct 21, 2011 01:19 AM
@ NinaWeyl and others making personal attacks on this intern:

Really? Are you that insecure about the place that you live in that you can't take a little criticism without personally attacking someone for posting a blog entry? These places have developed a gross commercial side. Period. I don't think a single blog from an intern at HCN is going to hurt any Colorado ski town's economy to the point of farmers' markets going out of business. "Look sweetie - this blogger says that Crested Butte is full of stoners and consumerists! Guess we better re-book that trip to Branson Missouri!" These ski towns have sold their souls long ago to developers and resort corporations who make atrocities like the "Austria Town" she mentioned in Vail, and as long as there are rich people willing to blow money there, no amount of negative press will stop it. If anything, this blog has proven that I definitely don't need to revisit Crested Butte, Aspen and Vail, solely based on the commentary from the people reading it. Oh, also, this is a BLOG. Not a researched journal article that needs reporting and sources. If you don't know the difference, here are a couple of links:

Both can be electronic, one needs research and reporting, the other does not. Take a guess which is which?
Kyle Cicero
Kyle Cicero
Oct 21, 2011 08:06 AM
Colorado natives, defend CO until you die but the writer is right. Having skied and summered at ski towns all over, including MT and CO, I couldn't agree with the writer more. That's funny that you mentioned the "smaller ski village" of Red Lodge Mountain, MT. I was just there last summer and winter. A perfect town that resembles a ski town in both seasons. The locals are friendly and would be more than happy to help with questions you have about the area. The food is spectacular and the beer, to die for!!! Yes, there is live music too, compliments of The Clintons (a local Montana band). I have actually found that true about all of Montana ski towns, not just Red Lodge. Every ski town in Montana has something else to offer other than skiing in the winter and shopping. The fly shop workers...don't smell of weed and they actually know where the fish are biting. The one thing that I have found true about Colorado ski towns in the summer is.....what the writer said, they all love the herb. Sorry, Colorado, you just don't have the flare I am looking for when trying to find a quiet...but happening summer ski town experience. If I'm going for a summer vacation to remember.....I'm not going to Colorado.....
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Oct 21, 2011 08:51 AM
Please note that this is a blog -- a.k.a. a web log. This piece did not appear in the magazine.

Sarah Gilman
Associate Editor
Magda Sokolowski
Magda Sokolowski
Oct 21, 2011 09:40 AM
Thanks, Sarah, for the clarification. And, Jodi, I appreciate your highlighting the distinctions between HCN blog posts and HCN articles. Kudos to HCN for providing a platform for folks to post their personal thoughts on a topic and for opening up the chance for public discussion. Clearly, as witnessed here, Mrs. Kirst's piece stuck a nerve with lots of people--a good outcome of expression, if you ask me. (For where are we as a thinking society without dissent, right?) Still, for the sake of discussion, many blogs that I routinely follow are in-depth, concrete and thoughtful rather than half-hearted flippant, or over-generalized. In today's constantly evolving multi-media sphere of information, what a blog is or isn't, I suppose, is constantly changing, and we might ask ourselves what makes a blog worthwhile as we continue to redefine ways of communicating and expressing...

Adriane Panciera
Adriane Panciera
Oct 21, 2011 10:41 AM
I am glad this is a blog. Otherwise i'd be disappointed . I am trying to keep in mind that this is a record of personal experience for Marion. I am genuinely sorry it was not more satisfying for her. With that being said it would appear that Marion is unclear about what would enable an " authentic" or "engaged" experience for her in these places, in the first place. 
All at once her observations seem to stem from disappointment over " disneyfication" and over consumerism  to being " toooo  local" ( and not being focused on tourists like herself) There is no adequate way to truly get to know a place in a few weeks, let alone a few days and as a traveller one must accept not only circumstantial opportunity  ( "wow! This is once in a lifetime- how fortuitous!")  but inevitable miscalculation ( "why did I come on a rainy day ? Or when the lift is closed " , " why does this restaurant suck?" ) Please take for granted that you don't see everything- Maybe a small town is experiencing something you can't know- i.e. the death of a long time local or something equally distressing. Part of the tourist experience, and a writers experience ( I presume)  for that matter- is remaining flexible, malleable, receptive to, and observant of experience itself.  It may be your vacation,  but not for the year round resident that works damned hard ( these are all expensive places to live after all) to live and work there and doesn't  necessarily feel like doing a tap dance for spare change year round. Incompetence  is an inconvenience , sure, but lack of cheerfulness, really? So you want Disneyland, but you don't want Disneyland? Remember ultimately that when you are visiting a new town it's like walking into someone's random living room. Before you walked in you probably had preconceived ideas how a person lives and how you should be received. Once you arrive, letting go of all that helps to have a little more gratifying, intimate understanding of a place- good or bad. Just my advice, take it or leave it. 
Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Oct 21, 2011 10:58 AM
WOW FOLKS! A lot of heat on the locals vs. tourists beat!
From snotty ski towns to super-territorial California beach communities, certain truths emerge:
1) Tourists/vacationers have disposable income, while locals surviving in service jobs do not.
2) Locals have chosen to live in these beautiful, expensive places, at great personal sacrifice.
3) Aforementioned tourists ARE the backbone of the local economy in these places. When they visit, spending their hard-earned money for some much-needed rest and relaxation, they expect to be treated with simple human courtesy, thats all.
Stoner zombies, snarling service people, envy-addled ski bums are all just basically yucky to deal with.
4) Locals: you are living the dream! Don't make it a nightmare!
There are plenty of remote communities in the West where one can live unhindered by the need to interact with people you don't care for. Personally i've done the cubicle-rot thing, daydreaming about escape from the mega-city in which I was imprisoned, like the Chateau D'If, scratching my name in the wall so as not to forget it. When that ski-trip finally rolled around, it was so important to me, like finally gasping a breath after a long period of apnea, my face turning purple....
So to pull a page from the '60's: let's all just take some deep breaths, love each other for our struggles and challenges, and the beauty of the land God has allowed us to enjoy for a very short time.
Thank you!
Marian Lyman Kirst
Marian Lyman Kirst Subscriber
Oct 21, 2011 11:57 AM
Enough people have chimed in on this blog that I feel I should probably add a few follow up thoughts. First, the BellyUp is a really gorgeous venue and I actually had a great time there, despite the terrible band. Second, you can hate on me, but don't hate on Dumb and Dumber, it's genius (and, yes, it's probably a generational thing).

Now, let's get down to business. This blog is a personal essay (so of course it's anecdotal) and not a reported piece, as Mr. O'Brien pointed out. It's based on my experiences as a tourist, not a local, experiences that I admit are quite different. The piece is meant to be a little flippant and over-the-top. That's a good way to get people talking and thinking about a subject, which was the intent: generate discussion about the consumerist, often soulless nature of western tourism in general and in towns focused around a single seasonal activity in particular. I appreciate that others may have had different experiences in these places, which some have shared (thank you), but please recognize that my experiences are just as legitimate. The piece was an op-ed, but the experiences are factual.
In many ways, Aspen and Crested Butte are quite lovely, but there is ugliness there that tarnishes their best qualities. I think Crested Butte struggles with the reality that many (not all or the majority) of its residents are there for the purpose of "hanging around" until the ski season starts. In fact, this is the exact plan of a group of college students I know from Paonia who are moving to Crested Butte. Aspen's tourism struggle is different. The whole place caters to the super-rich who only show up for a few weeks during ski season or summer. So it makes sense that the town might be a bit confusing to the middle-class summer tourist set. And in Vail, I got the sense the town's tourism boards truly believe people come to western Colorado to go shopping and stroll through a fake, manufactured mini-Europe. I certainly didn't, and I'm confident that I'm not alone. And that, I think, is the point. Keep up the discussion everyone, it's an important one to have.
Bronte Roberts
Bronte Roberts
Oct 21, 2011 02:16 PM
At this risk of sounding like a snipe, I'd like to address Bill Gore's statement of "personal sacrifice." Real personal sacrifice is living in a much less desirable place like the front range, and performing a job which contributes to the civil services of this nation. I would say that very little personal sacrifice goes into living in Crested Butte where you can focus a large amount of attention on mountain biking, skiing etc. in one of the most beautiful places in the country. In addition, I would consider any money you spend on clothing and gear from Lowe Alpine, Patagonia, REI, mountain bikes, ski passes ($1000 in Crested Butte) is certainly disposable income locals seem to be able to afford. Lets not pretent locals have it rough. They are living in paradise, and living for themselves.
Magda Sokolowski
Magda Sokolowski
Oct 21, 2011 05:21 PM
Since this discussion has taken some interesting twists and turns, I could not help but return for yet another go-round. In light of Marian's latest post where she defends her "factual experiences" as a self-proclaimed tourist (and not a local) whereby she discloses (via her personal essay/op-ed) some of the ugliness in seemingly picture-perfect towns like Aspen, Vail and CB, I was forced to step back and say, "Why, yes, of course, you're perspective is as legitimate as the next person's" so long as we're clear on what that perspective is i.e., a transient, unrooted onlooker and consumer. And as others here have noted, that kind of person is just as valid as a local might be in towns like Aspen, Vail and CB; afterall, these towns are built around an industry that requires a gigantic influx of folks who stay for a short spell, spent money, get their fill, and leave.

With that said, I wanted to turn to a more important point that Marian brings up: how do these towns (and others in our awe-inspiring, naturally rich Western landscape) at once embrace their western beauty and recreational heritage while being a) responsible stewards b) practicing viable/sustainable economic practices and c) serving the people who both live there (the locals) and those who visit (the tourists)? I think this is a really important question: are these towns ultimately practicing a responsible form of eco-tourism, and it is eco-tourism, right? I mean, they encourage people to visit, play and spend because of the ecological richness they offer. While Breckenridge is not at the heart of Marian's essay, I was reminded of Breckenridge while reading this piece. A few weeks ago, while strolling the main drag, I overheard a local woman say to a friend she was with, "Another ski mountain?! We don't need another ski mountain?!" Mind you, I wasn't privy to the remainder of the conversation, though I could certainly fill in the gaps based on similar conversations I've heard i.e., the raging debate in Missoula, Montana and the outlying communities regarding putting in an Aspen-like ski valley at Lolo Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains (where currently NO such development exists). What it boils down to for me is this: does the "zombification" that Marian speaks of extend to the folks making land-use decisions in these towns, because if it does, than the ideals of sustainable stewardship (and sustainable growth and community) are at stake, and we're in for some serious trouble ahead. I suppose some would say that we've already reached this mile-marker in the road, or have driven passed the warning signs -- right off the side of the mountain.

With that said, I wanted to
Mark Harvey
Mark Harvey Subscriber
Oct 21, 2011 05:31 PM
The irony of this column is that the author comes across as being generously imbued with the same qualities she loathes in the ski towns: disdain and self-importance. Her comments on the Crested Butte farmer’s market, in particular, have all the snootiness of the very ski-town characters she describes. Tossing it off as a “yawn-fest” so resembles the attitude of the guys in the fishing store, that one might wonder if Ms. Kirst isn’t satirizing herself.

Certainly all three towns have elements of glitz and pretension and all have a month or two when things slow way down. But I doubt if any deserve the scorn shown here, even at their gray November worst.

I can’t speak for Crested Butte or Vail but Aspen and the Roaring Fork valley are filled with great artists, some of the best athletes in the world, world-class intellectuals, good schools, one of the best nature centers in the country, and very committed citizen volunteers. Its music scene (with Jazz Aspen and the Aspen Music Festival) is, to use her word, “storied.” But not in the heart of the fall, for Pete’s sake.

It’s not that you have to dig to discover any of these qualities, it’s more like you have to be willfully predisposed to avoid them.

Even long-time residents get snubbed in these towns from time to time, but take it with a grain of salt. Besides, I’ve been snubbed in lovely Paonia, where Ms. Kirst is doing her internship, for lacking the earthy dress and organic manners sometimes taken to a silly extreme there by metropolitan transplants.

All three of these towns (teeming with HCN readers and supporters, by the way) are deserved targets of good social commentary and we heap it upon ourselves and our neighboring towns. But the good writers earn it with a look around and at least a nod to the real legacy.

Ms. Kirst’s piece falls short for it’s drive-by quality, lack of curiosity and dismissive tone.

With her flair for writing, her obvious and nearly vivisectional interest in lifestyle (hotels, restaurants, music scene, etc.) and apparent lack of interest in the land and people just outside the periphery, one has to wonder if she wouldn’t make an excellent writer for a travel and leisure magazine rather than the storied magazine that is High Country News.
Michael D Kusiek
Michael D Kusiek Subscriber
Oct 21, 2011 08:17 PM
as a presumed Aspenite--you're the proof in the pudding. Well written--too well written. So Aspeny of you. Ms. Kirst is among the most-deserved writers for HCN as she dares challenge that which (is presumed to be) is all that is sacrosanct in the mountains--your essay--verbose, well composed and yet sly in it's snarkiness. I especially appreciate, "...lacking the earthy dress and organic manners..." for whom do YOU write? I think she belongs exactly where she is. HCN in my world is about the real West. not the amalgameted mess the uber-resorts of colrado have basterdized it to be--truly--if we follow the examples of CB, Vail, and Aspen--the West will shortly become defunct. and I doubt you've actually been "snubbed" on the same level that one might encounter in any of the mentioned "mountain communities"--nice try.

lastly, "drive by" is all that drives most of the communities mentioned. Certainly not the locals nor the not-so-local visitors--we cannot abide the plasticity of all that is eurorado.
I say again--keep typing Ms. Kirst. Kudos and Bravo.
Evan Villarrubia
Evan Villarrubia
Oct 22, 2011 02:00 AM
I've never been to a Colorado ski town, nor have I spent time in Colorado at all since I was 12, but I do know what it feels like to be disappointed by a place's lack of authenticity. When you're expecting the place to be special, it feels like walking in a door marked "free lollipops" and getting punched in the face.

People squabble over what it means for a place to be "authentic," or whether one can place a value on intangibles like character, but if you've ever lived somewhere that's got it and gone somewhere else that doesn't, you know the feeling. It's revolting to my senses the way open-pit outhouses are revolting to toilet-users. And when you've visited a place and your dominant feeling is revulsion, it's only natural that that become the theme of your essay on that place.

When I spent a year bicycle touring and blogging about rural China, I had a similar experience. At first I navigated toward any and every "charming old city" listed on the tourist map for being "unique" or having "culture." After a month I stopped going out of the way to find them, and eventually I avoided them like the plague. I didn't like those places for the most part because they had found some part of themselves that had been of touristic value, and then systematically destroyed the rest of their city and recreated shabby recreations of that single feature -- interspersed between gaudy hotel and storefronts and horrid, overpriced restaurants -- like spreading cancer until it was physically uncomfortable to walk down the main street. I took solace at the time in the thought that at least back home where we've never had a planned economy or myopic single-party economic-growth-crazed wingbats put in charge of urban planning, everything would be better. And truly there are a lot of great places in this country (and even a scant few in the PRC), but it seems that the three towns discussed in this article have caught the China syndrome.

Thank God for Marian's honest appraisal and for all satirical writers who point out ridiculousness when they see it. I bet a lot of industrial suburbanites got their panties twisted over this lampoon ([…]/hlmlibidougly.htm) by H.L. Mencken, but that didn't make it any less poignant.

I say: fight the zombies, speak the truth, and make the world better.
Karl Shaddock
Karl Shaddock
Oct 22, 2011 11:06 AM
Seems to me this is an important discussion for Western communities to have - especially communities whose economies are based on tourism/resorts and have such high correlated housing vacancy rates such as Telluride (43.1% of housing units are classified as vacant), Aspen (33.3%), Vail (59.8%), and Crested Butte (25.6%) and Mount Crested Butte (69.3%).

Satire and opinion are a very effective method of highlighting and addressing these issues. If you enjoy this, check out The Lost People of Mountain Village -
Greg Poschman
Greg Poschman
Oct 25, 2011 02:54 PM
If HCN's objective was to start a dialogue, then this blog was successful! Congratulations. By lowering the quality of the observation and reportage you really stirred things up. Kudos, I guess. But has HCN decided to join the rest of the herd braying for attention in the sensational and shallow media landscape? Please say it ain't so. In my opinion HCN can do better. If anything enlightening was intended by this blog, then I hope to see more insightful follow up on the part of HCN staff. Don't get lazy and leave it up to the readers to conjure substance for what appears to be mediocre observation. What does it mean when the reader comments are more interesting and enlightening than the original article? Again, congratulations.
Gail Digate
Gail Digate
Oct 29, 2011 09:15 AM
As a regular visitor to Crested Butte, I read Marian's recent blog with initial high interest followed by considerable dismay. It is so unfortunate that she experienced Crested Butte in such a negative way. I personally would like to help her rediscover the wonderful things about the community that she clearly missed. In fact, come back, Marian. I will treat you to a day and evening that undoubtedly will engage you in the best of CB and provide an opportunity to rethink and reframe your first impressions. The only return on my investment in your learning is a second blog about this experience.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Oct 29, 2011 02:18 PM
Not sure what it says about me but I just couldn't stop laughing. Paragraph three set the hook and by the sixth I was being reeled on in. More of the same please Ms Kirst.

On a more serious note I await the day that ski lifts are dug up and carted away to be melted down into something useful and the entire economy built on the burning of aircraft fuel and SUV exhaust is allowed to slide into history books. Ski resorts are a poor use of what should be wilderness.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Oct 31, 2011 08:10 PM
I thought this was a great article. Contrast Aspen to Glenwood Springs, not that far away. At Glenwood, you can raft the Colorado, do assisted hang gliding, and other warm-weather activities. Steamboat also works to embrace the year-round things.

Maybe, to be blunt, and put this in a national background, it's because Vail and Aspen in ski season cater more heavily to 1 percenters? And, so, the employees don't care pre-ski season.
Mary  Zimmerman
Mary Zimmerman
Nov 02, 2011 02:01 PM

First of all, Ms.Kirst, reading your blog felt like getting a blindside punch. While we all have had some not-so-wonderful experiences or dashed expectations when on a vacation (could be anywhere), your critique is mean spirited and mis-directed. You say in an above comment, "The piece is meant to be a little flippant and over-the-top", however I think you went too far with your temperament.

For example the comment, "They are working at the shop, pretending to be fly-fishermen, because it keeps them semi-sober and employed until ski season starts." Who really knows why they are working there, maybe they enjoy flyfishing and are really good at it and like to show people where the fish are? I don't believe poor service to be validated, but your comment is in poor form, like the swearing store clerks. It is unfortunate that you chose this single experience to be the "badge" for Crested Butte, for I know many people here who strive very hard every day to provide excellent customer service in their shops and restaurants.

Second of all, it seems you took one single snapshot of all these towns and it seems from the posted photos that you were here in the middle of September and maybe October. Here's some perspective on ski town business "seasons", and this is not meant in any way to prop up poor service when it is a slower business time. Small ski towns maybe have 8 months of middling to very busy tourist times. Thanksgiving to April, mid-June to mid-September. That is at best. So, those closed signs in Aspen? That means the business owner doesn't find it viable to keep their business up and running with no foot traffic to pay the base expenses. If you were here during the peak summer season, aforementioned, and you found shuttered businesses your argument would hold water.

Next, to this comment: "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." While this may have been true in the 70's, 80's and into the 90's, Crested Butte has been actively promoting summer tourism and activities for many years. In fact, summer sales tax revenues in Crested Butte have been outpacing winter since 1999. (FACT, I called the Town Finance Director)

The Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association has been very active in promoting the many things to do here, which include: The Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, The Crested Butte Music Festival, Fat Tire Bike Week, the Live from Mt. Crested Butte Music Series,The Mondays at 7 Music Series in the Town Park, The Crested Butte Festival of the Arts, The Beer Fest and Chili Cookoff and the Mountain States Bike race. CB is an awesome wedding destination. Oh, and of course, there is more than a lifetime of hiking, horseback riding, biking, fishing, ATV-ing, dirt biking and jeeping in and around the surrounding area. We have many repeat visitors to Crested Butte because they didn't have time to do all they wanted in the summer. And, there is so much more to winter activities than skiing, too! Nordic skiing, snowmobiling, winter horseback riding, ice skating, ice fishing and hockey are on the list. Oh, yes and shopping in some awesome small stores, too.

While the access to the high country in the spring/fall limits activities and tourism, during a solid 4 months a year, at least in Crested Butte and Gunnison there is a push for 100% mountain tourism fun during the 8 months of milder weather shines in the high country. I am sorry you feel there is nothing to do 75% of the time in a mountain town or similar, but at least in our valley, we are striving and succeeding at turning that around. Perhaps these towns aren't fun for tourists like you, 75% of the time? I am unclear actually, at what kind of travel experience would actually make you a satisfied customer. Perhaps hopping on over the hill in the summer when things are in full swing may shape your opinion of Crested Butte differently.

CC Fletcher
CC Fletcher
Nov 09, 2011 01:23 PM
And you even make the comparison to Jackson and Red Lodge at the end, didn't read that the first time. What a complete joke.

How do you compare those to Aspen and Vail? Vail isn't even a town and neither of those CO towns have a huge summer draw. Despite access to one of the most famous, lusted after ski resorts in the country, Jackson's high season is the summer. Because of a little thing called Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, two of the most popular parks in the entire system. Red Lodge isn't even a major skiing destination and I'd bet that it too has a summer high season. What kind of a writer would completely omit those material facts when making that terrible comparison?