The New Mountain Town Migration

COVID-19 is shifting demographics across the country as people rethink their lives and priorities—and Ski towns call to those looking for a new life. Here’s how and why two families made the jump.

Jon and Amanda Bolan remember exactly when they decided to move to the mountains. They were watching a BBC television show called “Win the Wilderness,” in which an elderly couple give away their Alaska homestead after a competition between British hopefuls. At the end of the final episode, the 80-something patriarch looks into the camera. “A lot of people say, ‘We wish that we had,’” he says, summing up his life. “We can say that we did.”  

The Bolans looked at each other as the words sank in. They’d been yearning to head west for years, but never followed through. Now, sitting in their living room in Hartselle, Alabama, the phrase resonated. “It stung,” Jon recalls. “I was like, I’m ready to go right now. I want to be like that when I’m his age.”

It was early July, mid-pandemic, with a heat index of over 100 degrees outside. Jon, a master carpenter, had recently finished building their dream home, a 3,200-square-foot castle on a cul de sac not far from his family’s 400-acre farm. He and Amanda and their three kids had only been in the home for six months, but they knew right then that they’d be leaving, probably for good.

“With COVID and the kids out of school, it was kind of like, if we don’t do it now, I’m going to look up and it’ll be 30 years later and I’ll be too old to get out and enjoy the mountains,” Jon says. “It wasn’t so much like pulling the trigger–it was more like lighting a fuse.”

And so, in late August, after Jon secured a job at Copper Mountain, the Bolans moved 1,300 miles away to Frisco, Colorado, joining a mountain-town migration that has spanned the country since the pandemic began. The influx of newcomers hit every high-country hamlet in Colorado this spring and summer, from Telluride to Steamboat. Nobody knows exactly how many pandemic-movers lit the fuse or where they came from most often. Anecdotally, though, anyone who lives in a mountain town has seen the swell and heard the grapevine stories. 

The surge has been particularly salient in Summit County, home to four world-class ski resorts, five mountain ranges, the Continental Divide Trail, and a reputation for launching ski-bum careers, including mine. I wanted to meet people who’d moved to town during the pandemic, if only to see if everyone really was here to escape reality in some form, as the local chatter made it seem, or if there were deeper draws at hand. I also wanted to hear what it was like to change hometowns and lifestyles during the strangest, hardest time in generations. A friend recommended a couple of families for me to contact, which is how I came to meet the Bolans for coffee one morning in September. 

Amanda, a 34-year-old Huntsville native, married Jon, a network administrator in the Army who was three years her senior, while she was in college. Six months after their wedding, Jon was deployed to Iraq—the first of two lengthy deployments during his eight years of service. They settled in Alabama after he got out, and Jon spent the next four years designing and building that 3,200-square-foot home. But they couldn’t escape a gnawing restlessness. 

A lot of people who grow up in the South never leave. Others struggle to find their place. “If you don’t believe the same, vote the same, it can be brutal,” Amanda says. The Bolans had long considered relocating to a purple state, figuring they’d end up in Denver or Seattle. But with 10- and 7-year-old daughters and a 3-year-old son, uprooting at this stage was easier said than done. When the pandemic exploded, suddenly all three kids were at home trying to learn, hovering over each other, bickering. “It was pretty awful at first,” Amanda says. Unrelated to COVID-19, she was being laid off by her European tech company in March, while Jon wondered what to do next as a builder. 

As spring turned to summer, the oppressive heat returned, along with their happy feet. Jon had skied at Copper Mountain while on vacation in February and had such a good time that he kept his eye out for job listings at the resort. Sure enough, in early July he saw a posting for a carpenter with his precise set of skills. He applied immediately and got the job. A frenzied apartment search led them to Frisco, an artsy mining town surrounded by towering summits and a glistening reservoir. They signed a lease in mid August and started driving a week later—Jon in a 26-foot U-Haul—to start a new life at 9,100 feet. 

 Not surprisingly, most mountain-town pandemic movers are not eking by. Affordable housing is in higher demand since March, according to county officials in major resort communities, but movers typically are able to work remotely (which disqualifies them from workforce housing) and, in some cases, school their children remotely. It won’t be until 2021 that we know how many people actually relocated, either from updated school enrollments or, as Colorado demographer Elizabeth Garner suggested, craftier tools such as measuring water and power usage. But it is also worth noting that not everyone came strictly for fresher air and fewer people. Some came because mountain economies kept humming right along while their metropolitan counterparts fizzled.

That was precisely the case for the second family I contacted. Thirtysomethings Austin and Mike Vasquez moved to Breckenridge in early August from sweltering Austin, Texas, with 4- and 1-year-old daughters. Mike, an Austin native, was the GM of a bar that got shut down and needed work. Austin’s brother had just opened Yo Mommas! cantina in Breckenridge and needed help running it. A temporary gig led to ownership shares, and within a month the entire Vasquez family had moved up from Texas. They paid $400 more per month for 1,000 fewer square feet, but they felt at home and that mattered more to Austin, who’d grown up in New Jersey. “I think I’m becoming a mountain person,” she says.  

She and Mike are wary of the seven-month winter to come, and nervous about what will happen to business if the virus spikes again. “Our livelihood—everything—depends on a restaurant that opened in the middle of a pandemic,” she says. “There’s not a backup plan right now. This is not our second home. We have to make it work, otherwise we’re going back to New Jersey to live with my mom.”

For all the uncertainty that comes with a pandemic move, the Bolans are certain they made the right decision, and their families saw it in their conviction. “I hate that you’ll be that far away, but I know why you’re going,” Jon’s mom told him. Amanda’s mom said: “Go find the place that brings you peace.”

Jon still finds himself awestruck by the peaks around Frisco. “There’s something comforting about how small they make me feel,” he says. “Every time you round a corner, it’s like, man, I wonder what’s back there. I’ve always been outdoorsy, but this is a different level.”

They enrolled their oldest daughter with the local ski club. Thanks to Jon’s job, they’ll pay $10 apiece for a season ski pass. Their kids bike to school and stack rocks by the creek for hours, fully engaged with nature. Amanda, who cofounded the tech company RippleWorx, which helps employees work remotely, got a message recently saying her screen time was down 55 percent since she moved. They appreciate how their new community embraces individualism after watching their 10-year-old struggle to conform in Alabama. “I don’t want to knock that area of the country because it’s still a huge part of us, but we didn’t want the mold to drive who our kids became,” she says. “I love that this shows them there’s more than one path.”

When I met the Bolans, Amanda was preparing for a trip back to Huntsville to meet her sister’s new baby, finalize the sale of their house, and sell a vehicle—all in 48 hours. As the quaking aspen trees glowed golden high on Mount Royal, she admitted to feeling apprehensive about leaving Frisco, even though it’d only been a month since she arrived. “So far, it feels like we fit here, and I don’t know that we’ve felt that, maybe ever,” she says. “It’s the first time everyone in our family is happy.”

She and Jon, like Austin and Mike Vasquez, resist being lumped in with second homeowners who have moved into their mountain retreats to ride out the pandemic. There is nothing temporary about their intentions, Amanda says. “We have wanted this for a long time, and COVID-19 just put things in perspective for us.” 

Cover Photo: The Bolan family poses in their new home state. Photo courtesy Amanda Bolan

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