We knew they’d figured out our game when they put locks on the dumpsters and giant lights behind the hippie-gone-industrial organic bakery.
The staff had been throwing their leftovers, still bagged, into the dumpster and the bread had been providing about 80 per cent of the daily calories we needed to climb five or more days a week. This was an extreme mountain town survival strategy, but it worked.
We were mountain town athletes, so we were out of the party scene that once made Banff the STD capital of Canada. While it’s tempting and traditional in mountain towns to blame the seasonal Australians for any sort of distasteful behaviour, the truth is that Australians are somewhat nationally incestuous by choice and market preferences, and therefore less likely to have as many sexual partners. OK, the last sentence was totally made up—which is good practice for what you’re going to have to do if you want to live in a mountain town. You see, there is no easy path to living a little closer to heaven; as such, mountain town life is a creative endeavour that requires imagination, hustle, talent, good choices and a little luck.
I’ve lived seasonally (or longer) in Aspen and Boulder in Colorado, Jasper and Canmore in Alberta, Utah’s Salt Lake City, New Hampshire’s North Conway and Switzerland’s Interlaken, plus a half-dozen other towns from Wanaka in New Zealand to Portillo in Chile. The attraction to mountain life is obvious: instead of driving for hours, you can actually live where you pursue your sports—which, for many mountain sports enthusiasts, are not really sports but lifestyles.
I currently live in Canmore because I can literally walk out my door and go rock- or ice-climbing, skiing, paragliding or just hike in the woods with my kids. I love that freedom, and my girlfriend and I own enough of our house that the bank lets us stay there. The guests I guide and the high-achieving corporate people I speak to often say things like: “I’d love to live in a mountain town, but I could never afford it.” These are people who often earn many multiples of what I do, but spend the same multiples flying around for weekend adventures. And that’s the first critical lesson of mountain town survival: it’s not how much you earn, it’s how much you spend.
There are two primary issues you need to balance for mountain town living: housing and work. Solve these two, and secondary problems, such as having a significant other or eating something other than stale protein bars leftover from the town’s big running event, are possible. Mountain town rental options, even with a decent income, often hover near zero and websites like VRBO have made the traditional, “I’m staying in a friend’s vacant condo,” non-existent. The base housing level is to live in your vehicle. A tricked-out Sprinter van is a tempting choice, but you might as well hang a sign on it for the police that reads, “Someone is living in here, bust me.” If you haven’t been woken up regularly by a polite-but-stern cop banging on your door and shining a flashlight in your eyes, then you’ve never played the mountain town sleeping-mouse-and-prowling-cat game. The best vehicles for covert sleeping are older minivans with blacked-out windows and bumper stickers that say things like, “Support your local police!” A good friend of mine once lived in his hatchback with his dog and nine puppies. He had it good. Another friend built secret camps in the woods with camouflage tarps and solar panels that he lived in for many winters. Parking garages, alleys and secret spots are hoarded and traded in mountain towns like, well, your ex-significant-other. (Because you never lose your girl- or boyfriend, you just lose your turn.)
Van life usually goes along with the base jobs in kitchens, bars, chairlift operators and other “You’re warm-blooded, you’re hired” jobs. There is never a shortage of this work. If you’re not spending any money on housing, then $15 per hour will keep you in artisanal coffee and craft beer while you run, ski, climb, bike or do whatever else you moved to town to do (other than work). The next step-up requires the implementation of a carefully crafted social media campaign: getting a room in a house. This means friending everyone you even remotely know and hitting them with a “Looking for a room, no dogs, partying or loud noises” note, all the while partying enough to get to know people while not being a jerk about it. Mountain town life is small-town life, and if you get a reputation for being a decent person and not a professional partier, then suddenly you’ll know people, and that’s how you find out about that sweet room for only $800 per month (if you show up with cash and a good bottle of wine in 30 minutes). I once had a Russian friend remark that life in a resort town was a lot like what it used to be like in the Soviet Union—your friends told you about scarce commodities such as toilet paper, housing and cars and nothing really important, like good jobs, ever made it into the newspaper classifieds. Sharing rooms is common too, which leads to both problems and opportunities, but it’s cheaper for seasonal workers. Staff housing is an option as well, but in Canada it’s usually filled with Australian seasonal workers. I love adult Australians, but young Australians are a ski-town’s seasonable labour force and they migrate with the geese—having long-term relationships with them is generally a waste of both of your time.
If you’ve made it through a season or two of epic recreation, substance abuse and subsistence living, then you’ve developed a strong network of friends to help with housing, deals on food at the local grocery store and all the other basics. Buying a house or condo in a town with big-city prices but unskilled labour wages is impossible no matter who you know, so the solution for many is to go pro on the recreation or learn a trade. If you’re a skilled climber or skier then guiding is an option. It also takes real time and commitment to become a guide. The other common option is to learn a trade, either by design or accident. Anyone over 30 in a ski town can swing a hammer or drive a truck, and with hard work these trades can earn enough money to almost buy a studio apartment.
Home ownership has become the hallmark of adulthood worldwide, and in resort towns this is even more important than in other places because stable rental housing does not exist. Rental property in resort towns changes hands so often and so randomly that it’s common to have to move at least twice (or more) each year. It sucks. Buying a house in my hometown of Canmore will set you back at least $900,000, and few of us make Toronto wages. In some mountain towns you can move “down valley” and buy, but increasingly there is no “down valley” in the mountains that is also cheap enough to buy in. And if you’re commuting an hour every day, well, there goes that hour a day to run in the mountains…
The trick is to get involved with the “Perpetually Affordable Housing” game. This exists in almost every resort town I’ve ever lived in. It is basically relatively low-cost housing with a resale value indexed to inflation. The key is to get on the PAH list, then work the social network to get first crack at the good units. A decent two-bedroom condo can be had for under $300,000 if you can creatively show you earn enough to get a loan, but not too much to get disqualified. If you have a solid trade or moved into middle-management at a ski area or other tourism operation, then congratulations citizen, you’ve arrived. You’re still recreating a lot, but there are walls to paint in the evenings, dinner parties that end with people actually driving home and not sleeping on the floor and you’re no longer a common factor in the STD diagrams. You may also be contemplating recreational suicide, also known as having kids.
The next level is to make urban money in a mountain setting. This means becoming a successful real estate salesperson (difficult, as in resort towns there are almost as many realtors as STDs), developer, business owner, accountant or other profession, such as a drug dealer, or sometimes all five. Or you can leave town, go to school to become a lawyer and buy a condo in town, which you’ll visit occasionally. Or you can live in town but work outside of it as a sales rep, speaker or something lucrative and ill-defined that brings in real money. This may allow an actual house purchase along with attracting a significant other to have kids with… and suddenly the recreation quotient starts to decline. You could still go for a trail run at lunch, but you’re so tired from chasing leads and kids the night before that sitting in the sun for 30 minutes before chasing more leads seems a better option.
And, while living in a mountain town takes creativity and hard work, going for a run with the sun lighting up the peaks, a lunch-hour ski or an evening rock-climbing session without ever having to start your car is truly magic—and worth it. Just be creative.