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By Jeff Burke
From a distance, the dating scene in any ski town looks to be an Elysian playland of frivolity, snow, and sex. Why else move there? Raucous club nights, spilled beer, and throngs of sweaty, fit, attractive people ready to take a stab at life.
Seen under the microscope the view is different; it is a surreal and terrifying landscape of ill-advised hookups and awkward chairlift rides. Though the girl-to-guy ratio has improved in the last 20 years, the realities of ski-town dating are still rough. “You don’t lose your girlfriend,” goes an old ski-town proverb. “You just lose your place in line.”
Ski towns are generally small, so those around you study everything you do. Unbeknownst to Ishmael and his shipmates on the Pequod, Captain Ahab kept a secret whaling crew belowdecks, who waited for months in secret and darkness, only to burst from the ship’s hold when the timing was right, drop the dinghy, man the oars, and row to oblivion—all for a chance to slay that beautiful white devil. If you think there aren’t 10 dudes waiting in the shadows of a ski-town barroom armed with their own emotional harpoons, ready to hurl their most desperate pleas at the heart of your beloved, then you’ve already lost that place in line forever.
Ski towns may well be above average in athleticism, health, and good looks, but they’re also brimming with quasi-accountable adult children who would rather commit to the potentially backbreaking abyss of, say, Jackson’s Corbet’s Couloir than a casual Saturday-afternoon barbecue. The FOMO (fear of missing out) dictates social life in these communities, and locals wait until the last minute before promising to do anything just in case another affair pops up that might yield a better chance at a date or dinner plan. Don’t believe me? Host your own ski-town Halloween party or Thanksgiving dinner.
Social circles are small, too. Urban Dictionary terms like “Eskimo twins” and “sled sisters” exist for a reason. Many friends of mine have hooked up with the same people because it’s simply hard not to, given the current we all swim in. “The longer you live in a ski town,” says a female friend who does PR, “the harder it is to date.” One thing to remember about breaking up with someone in a ski town is that there’s more than a good possibility you’ll know the person soon to be swapping spit with your ex. And you have to be cool with it. After all, you might work with—or for—your replacement next season.
Being 23 in a mountain playground is a dream come true: five days of skiing a week, a relatively fresh liver, and a low-status resort gig that puts you into the crucible of commingling revelry. “We don’t go on dates with boys,” says a younger woman I asked. “We all go out in a group, then we go home with one of them.”
But that system falls far short of guaranteeing hookups for all. My own best failure played out when a group of friends attended a late-night soirée. This interaction took place not minutes after a woman asked me what we’d do to each other if we left together:
“Why don’t we get out of here?” I said.
“Nah,” she said. “I’m sort of seeing someone, you know.”
“Is he here now?”
“Then it’s on!”
And just like that, she uncrossed her legs, rose from her chair, and fell in line with her friends as they exited the party. The beautiful devil…
Getting dogged is one thing. But breaking up for real is different, especially in a ski town. Everyone finds out in minutes, including all the details—who broke up with whom, why he/she couldn’t commit, and the prickly innards of your relationship that wake you in the wee hours, nauseated with existential dread.
Even if you’re the one to end it, the ramifications aren’t easy. Just knowing she or he is potentially nearby is itself a crippling thought. “Oh, you missed Veronica,” someone will invariably say. “They just took off.”
In almost 20 years of living in a ski town, I’ve had my heart broken a couple times. I still attribute one breakup to the fact that my girlfriend was a fan of bluegrass music. (And I also continue to blame my brother’s ex-girlfriend for the death of our dog.) But after all of it, I’ve also found the love of my life.
Jeff Burke is a Jackson-based writer and ski patroller at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. He’s totally taken.