The sun awoke me early the next morning.
A Commencement Speech for Climbers
May is almost up, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the month watching high school and college graduations go by: either in-person, or on social media. Caps, gowns and sashes flashed by in a blur— and the requisite binge drinking which soothes the thought of the future from the fresh graduate’s mind sloshed a veneer of fun over the whole thing.
Under the jubilation: the common, slinking, cultural understanding that the degree is going to be more of a burden than a boon, at least for the first half-decade or so. Student loans, a lack of experience and an eminently poor job market all linger on the sides of the millennial consciousness.
“I Just Graduated, Now What?” is the question du jour.
No one I know, except the engineers, is excited about graduation. Even they are subdued, but then again: they are engineers.
Life looks hard from the commencement stage.
Why the ski town is seductive
On the amazing appeal of doing nothing.
A ski town is a place of perpetual adolescence.
This fact becomes clearer to me every second I remain in Vail, Colorado. People do not come to a ski town for any particular reason besides looking for something new. People do not come to these places with goals, and as long as they remain, one must assume that things have not changed.
The ski town is simple. All you really need to know is right there in the name: “ski town.” People come to these places to ski, to adventure, and to make just enough money to string things along. If you’ve got a job, a ski pass, and enough for that next six pack or bud sack, what else matters?
The Ski Town atmosphere reminds me a lot of college.
I moved to Vail with my girlfriend immediately after we graduated university. It sure beat moving back in with our parents, and as a lifelong lover of the outdoors, I couldn’t complain about living in the Rocky Mountains, either. The place would be a stopping point; a brief interlude in which to ski and seek out our passions. We’d had our share of people and parties, penis and pussy; college gives you all that, backgrounded by education.
Vail offers the same things, but backgrounded by skiing.
I can justify the college experience, but not the ski town one. Maybe college seems more justifiable to me because it was the first time I found myself in that sort of young wild and free atmosphere. But in my own head, I tell myself it’s okay because, statistically, a college graduate will earn twice as much money over the course of their lifetime as someone who never attended university. In college, no matter what else you are doing, you are at least working towards something.
In a ski town, you are working towards nothing.
Many of the young people who move through these places have not gone to college, or have graduated college long ago and left their ideals far behind. The people who move through these places are lost and wandering. They make lots of money and they spend lots of money. They are rich in experiences, but poor in futures. They are a new class of American drifter.
These are not bad people.
These are good people who enjoy the fruits of the earth and value their bodies more than any Wall Street accountant in New York. Before all else, it is important to establish that people in Vail are happy.
The pervasive happiness is what makes it so very difficult to do anything of substance in this town.
We work towards long-term life goals in order to feel fulfilled. We do it to impose a sense of progression on an ultimately inconsequential and random life. We do it to create happiness, long-term fulfilling happiness of the sort that your grandparents might talk about.
Gratification in a ski town is quicker, and more primal.
Someone once described snowboarding to me thus: “no matter what’s wrong in your life, no matter how badly you failed that test, no matter how many guys your girlfriend cheated on you with, when you’re on that mountain, none of it matters.”
This ode is surprisingly apt— I hope the similarities to the way a drug addict might lovingly describe his substance do not go unnoticed.
When there is instant gratification a few steps from your door, it seems a shame to waste it. And snowboarding is not a bad drug. I firmly believe in the transformative power of outdoors fitness. It has the power to change lives and improve people. This is part of what makes it hard to do anything else in a ski town.
I have 50,000 words of a book to show for my junior year of college. I can now ride double black diamonds; I have that to show for living in Vail. Both are solid achievements. They both took dedication, time, and hard work. I grew from both experiences.
Here, I was going to explain the difference between the two milestones; yet, even sitting at a keyboard with the explicit intention of separating the two, I can’t do it. I cannot explain why one of those experiences should be more worthy than the other. I know, in my heart, that writing the book is the “better” accomplishment. It might, maybe, make me some money some day. But probably not.
Maybe I feel that way because writing a book is more societally acceptable.
Ski culture lives off to the side of mainstream America. Many people from all walks of life enjoy downhill alpine sports such as skiing and snowboarding, but usually for no more than a weekend or two a year. Even the people who spend every possible weekend in the mountains are looked down upon by the hardcore skiers who make their homes in these resort destinations.
“Ever since Vail Resorts moved their headquarters down to Broomfield, it’s just all wrong,” a middle-aged Vail local told me on a chairlift. “They’re all weekend warriors now. They just don’t understand about this,” he said, gesturing to the expanse of fresh, weekday powder shining below us.
Ski enthusiasts and ski bums are a protective group, but they’ll welcome anyone who genuinely wants to share their passion. Anyone. It doesn’t matter how many drugs you do, how much your family hates you, or how short your resume is: a ski town will take you in. Ski towns will accept you for you. And realistically, you can live in a ski town forever without ever changing one iota, as long as you can stand doing the unskilled work of washing dishes or helping people get on chairlifts or serving people food.
In a ski town, there is no push to improve yourself off the mountain.
But ultimately, isn’t all of a human life in pursuit of arbitrary goals? What makes a house in the suburbs and a $80,000 a year job any more valuable than a mountain apartment and a job you can leave at the base of the gondola?
People here in the mountains are direct, grounded, and in pursuit of animal passions. Put to paper like that, this lifestyle is both seductive and scary.
I can see why some people choose to stay here for decades.
But to me, it just feels a little off.