Ski bums wrapped in concrete

  • Jeremy Bernier lived in his van, underground, this ski season

    Ray Ring

(This is a sidebar to an HCN magazine cover story on the New West's servant economy.)

Vail, Colorado

Jeremy Bernier finished his ski season, working his day job and going home each night to sleep like a troll under a bridge. Instead of postcard scenery, when he woke up each morning he saw a grey concrete sky. Still he can muster a grin.

"It's really convenient," he says. "We're here in the center of town, you can't beat it for being free."

He's the essence of the stereotypical ski bum: young, fit and footloose. Just before the ski season began, he and his buddy, Jim Noland, putt-putted into town in a 17-year-old Volkswagen camper van. They were both 23, fresh out of the Marines, intent on hanging out and doing whatever to support a ski habit.

Then they discovered that even ski bums have scarce habitat in ski country. On their starting pay of $8.75 an hour as seasonal bus drivers for the town, they couldn't find an apartment whose price they were willing to pay. For a two-bedroom, they were looking at $3,600 up front for first and last month's rent, plus deposit.

They tried squeezing into an apartment where some people were already living; Noland slept in a closet for a month, until the landlord found out and wanted to charge another $150 a month. "We said, no way," Bernier recalls. "It's not worth it, to work your ass off just to have a place to live."

So they moved into their van, wrapping themselves in mummy bags and cooking on a camper stove, searching each night for a parking spot where they might not get rousted. The Safeway lot wasn't too bad on nights when it wasn't windy. Then, below the bus terminal, in a lower level of the town's parking garage, they discovered a separate room dedicated to maintenance shops and machinery. Voilà.

They can just wedge the van in between the clutter of pipes, ladders, shop vacs and coiled fire hoses, though there isn't quite enough clearance to raise the camper pop-top all the way. The concrete floor features oil spills and tire tracks. Dust from the grinders in the shop overlays everything; the air smells grimy.

After a month and a half of living underground, Bernier and Noland are quitting and moving on, maybe college bound. They've saved up a couple of hundred bucks by being frugal, they've accomplished some skiing, had an adventure. "The worst part," Bernier says, "is about three in the morning, the maintenance workers come in and start up the street sweeper (which is parked a few feet away). It's loud. But you get used to it."

- by Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

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