When I moved to the Mad River Valley in 1994 I had just spent a year working for British Telecom in London. BT was the largest corporation in the UK at the time. I took the job fresh out of college as a way to travel, see the world, and learn a bit about the “Corporate Life” I assumed I was destined for eventually. A year later I had traveled plenty but already knew that corporate life was not for me. I found myself doing everything I could to get out-of-doors, take time off from work, to travel up to the Lake District, to get out of the suffocating city. I needed the fresh air. I needed Vermont.
I moved back to the states and soon found myself in Waitsfield, Vermont at the invitation of a friend who had stopped here on our way home from a summer journey a year earlier. I didn’t have plan. I didn’t really have a place to stay, living alternately in a loft, on the floor, in a tent and eventually an apartment in town. As winter grew closer I started hunting for a year-round job but eventually settled on a seasonal one as a liftie at Sugarbush. The classic ski-bum job. Initially I was a little embarrassed, a University graduate working for $5.00/hour, standing in the freezing cold, day after day after day, months removed from a year of jet-setting around Europe. It was a challenging transition, but soon I embraced it. Not for the job so much as for the opportunity.
It turned out to be the perfect job for a winter. Low-stress, low pressure, low responsibility. In many ways it is the job that every college graduate needs to hold at some point early in their professional life. An opportunity to live life for real, while having fun and learning how to prioritize – food or beer; beer or rent; rent or a week off (to ski with friends somewhere else). For me, it was the opportunity to ski every day and actually try to eek out a living on $180/week, to make my rent and feed myself without any safety net. I lived without a bank account – cashing my checks at the Mad Mountain Tavern in exchange for paying off my weekly tab, placing another $50 into my glove box so that I could pay my portion of the rent every four weeks. The remaining $60-80 covered my weekly lunch tab at the Little Grocery (now the Paradise Deli) and leaving just about enough for gas and a 12-pack of beer. So really, who needed a bank account. It was reality TV without the TV. Or the Audience. Or cable TV for that matter, since it didn’t exactly fit into my budget. For some of the “bums” I worked with it was a semester off from college, a paycheck following a layoff, a ski pass, a second job, a break from reality. For me, it was pure joy because I was skiing every day and I knew it was a one-er; a one-stop opportunity to goof around before I got serious about life.
However, a year slid into two, which slid into three and suddenly I was a “ski area guy”. Everyone in town knew me as the guy in guest services at the mountain. The guy at the front door. The greeter. The bouncer. The “hey, how’s it going today” guy. The go-to guy. Then I got a call from a buddy who was eeking out a similar living not too far away, writing for the local newspaper. He wanted to write a story about ski-bum life. I was shocked. I was not, after all, a ski bum. I was by this time a manager at Sugarbush. I was looking at real estate to purchase. I had a car that would start on cold mornings. And even a bank account.
Regardless, he came and interviewed many of the people who worked for me; a few lifties, mostly the supervisors who worked for me, and he interviewed me. By the time the ink dried on his story I had been converted from a slick, hard-working, up-an-coming ski industry professional, to a ski bum. I even had a college buddy from down-country read about me on the internet. I didn’t even have a computer, much less “the internet”. One of my best friends came to visit from Boston one weekend and I had promised to get together and take a few turns with him. The weekend was busy, time got away from us and suddenly we were having lunch together at 3 in the afternoon on Sunday, when a radio call came for me. I needed to ride up a lift and download an employee who had broken his ski and could not ski down at the end of the day. I commented that this was “just what I needed at 3:30 in the afternoon” when he turned to me and said “you’re complaining that you get the last run of the day”? He had me. I was a ski bum. Even if I had not intended for it to be this way, even if i viewed myself as a professional, I realized that I had something special. I was living a difficult, yet charmed life. Whether or not I would remain in the ski industry for a month or forever was immaterial; it was a special kind of lifestyle that made many successful people envious. Imagine that, envious of a ski bum.
And nearly 20 years later I’m still a ski bum. I have a family, I have a real job, and people depend on the advice and counsel I provide to make important decisions about their future, but I still find that bums rush every winter. And it dawned on me that this is not such a bad thing. I have children that adore the outdoors and in particular skiing. They have cousins who visit every so often and marvel at the opportunity provided to them, to have world class skiing at their doorstep. The opportunity to live, work, go to school and still manage 50, 75, 100 days of skiing at two of the finest ski mountains in the world. This is why people live here, its why people relocate here, buy second homes here, or retire here. When you wake up one morning and realize that you have what everyone else wants, you have a commodity worth celebrating.
So when people walk into my office and ask what I have for sale, I no longer reach for the book of listings. That can wait. Instead, I reach for a trail map; I reach for the Mad River Valley Guide, the Valley Reporter, a menu; because I understand that I am not selling homes but a lifestyle. And that lifestyle is one that many dream of. So am I a ski bum? Proudly, I answer yes, but aren’t we all?