As outdoor recreation booms, mountain towns are changing drastically. What does that mean to the people who call these playgrounds home, and how can we retain the character and heart of these communities?
I dragged my snowboard bag off the bus, heavy doors clanking closed behind me, before walking to the French-owned lodge where I’d spend two weeks looking for housing. Staring up the canyon at the smoke-seeping volcano, I remembered why I quit my corporate job to chase adventure: I belonged in these mountains. Cue contentment. Over the next few days, I’d spend some time at a local bar, making friends who I hoped would help me find my first home in a mountain town.
I was funemployed after quitting my perfect corporate job in Oregon, and I was on a mission to become a backcountry snowboarder—an enviable status that put me in the same boat as trustafarians and seasonal ski bums. The bubble I’d chosen was perfect: I was following my dream, realizing my destiny. Looking back, I realize the complete and utter oblivion of my privileged bliss.
Reconciling with Reality
Crested Butte, the last great American ski town, is dying even as it booms. Remote Sun Valley, the USA’s first destination ski resort, caters to either hardcore mountain junkies or the wealthy elite, leaving out those of us in the middle.
Towns like “Truckee [are] in the process of redeveloping, trying to answer the question of ‘What does it mean to play in the outdoors?’” says Jen Gurecki of community-focused Coalition Snow and Zawadisha. It’s an important question to consider as traveler expectations evolve.
Adventure in the mainstream and the ski town housing crisis often dominates this conversation, but mountain town identity and its ties to thriving local economics all too often get left behind. Consider this: More than one in three leisure travelers will use a short-term rental that’s commodified the “local experience” (i.e. AirBnb’s “Live There” 2016 campaign) even though many actual locals will have to commute 30+ minutes to get to work.
Like Kelli Jones, founder of gear rescue company Noso Patches, who “landed in Jackson on [her] ten speed in 2002 with $119 dollars in my pocket,” I too, landed in a mountain town, and like Jones, “fell in love with the mountains, and never left.” We came for the vistas and escape from the hustle but stayed for the community (even if it was in Chilean Patagonia) and the adventure—probably the same reasons you’re looking forward to winter vacation at altitude, too.
With years of living in mountain towns now under my belt, I’m questioning the meaning of “authentic” as it relates to mountain culture. How do we look beyond hygge-laden log cabins and chest-deep powder to understand the meaning of a place? Whether we visit or move there, do we let it change us?
Even though rents average $1,440 (Ketchum and Truckee) to $2,000 (Jackson Hole), there will always be locals that can make it work. These people—many of whom are “well-educated, well-traveled people that simply choose to live here year-round,” says Kristi Murrin, co-founder of the Crested Butte Community Yoga Co-op. They’re the lifeblood and character of any destination resort town. Sure, some are salty, but imagine being confronted with the ugly end of privilege every day.
The mountains, and the people that inhabit them have, for centuries, been commodities to outsiders: “Mountains are historically repositories for minerals, timber, water and hydropower, unclaimed land and untapped markets, wilderness, beauty, and peace—all of which are in high demand and short supply among flatlanders,” relates mountain culture scholar Sara Neustadtl in Mountain People: A Searcher’s Guide.
Translation: Each town’s history and heritage manifests in the small-town charm visitors seek to experience. Honoring their past, these gems create community that goes beyond brightly colored main streets and restored frontier facades. Mountain town culture manifests the collective sentiment of each individual community.
Cassie Abel, co-founder of the Sun Valley-based women’s mountain bike brand Wild Rye, says, “You really must want to be here—locals give up so many city conveniences.” We sacrifice those conveniences to create a community that reflects the essence of who we are—and tourists get to experience this because we’ve intentionally created it. Jones agrees. “Living like a local means working hard—it also means giving more than taking, and caring about your community, the environment and the people in it,” she says.
Invest in Community
If authenticity layers individual identities into a collective experience, then “living like a local” is, at its core, about community and conservation, no matter how you experience the outdoors.
Jones, Abel, Murrin, and Gurecki all see community as foundational to the local experience, so much so that they use their businesses to cultivate more of what they want to see: inclusive, accessible spaces for adventurers of all backgrounds, identities, and skill levels to share in their little slices of heaven. “If locally-owned, woman-owned safe spaces matter to you, then this is one couch you should sit on,” Gurecki says.
From the sheep-herding heritage of Sun Valley that fed into the development of a serious mountain-biking community to the mining heritage that left Crested Butte with its Rockwellian Elk Ave, these communities, like all, cannot stop change. The question for locals and tourists alike is what role do you want to play in preserving and evolving local culture?”
That door will always be open in these communities, if you’re willing you walk through it. And if you’re willing to give it a try, you just might leave the next mountain community you visit a better version of yourself.
Dani Reyes-Acosta is brand strategist, entrepreneur, freelance writer and adventure-traveling athlete based in Colorado, California or somewhere in-between (in her van). You can find her on Instagram as @notlostjustdiscovering.
To support local economies in mountain communities, follow @nosopatches, @coalitionsnow, @wild_rye_, and @womenledwednesday on Instagram. Find @crestedbutteyoga on Facebook.