We would walk by, pretending not to look, ignoring the Jimmy Buffett and the screams.
I was barely 21 when I moved to one of the cougar capitals of ski country. My just-out-of-college friends and I scrimped our ticket-scanner salaries, existing on quesadillas and cheap après beers, taking the free bus from employee housing into Vail to party. By January we saw ourselves as true locals, and as we walked down Bridge Street, we’d sneer at the pinnacle of what we considered pathetic: a packed bar called the Red Lion where a guitar player named Phil Long played ’80s hits to a crowd mainly comprised of ladies of a certain age from out of town.
You may recognize the scene. Open-throated covers of “Don’t Stop Believing,” spangles, fur. Sugary shots, such as Kamikazes, lined up like soldiers ready to march into battle. A cougar’s lair.
A cougar is, according to Merriam-Webster, “an older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man.” And the ski-town cougar, if we’re generalizing here—and we most enthusiastically are—is a particular shade of that: glitzed up, probably not acclimated to altitude, and camped out in the epicenter of a Venn diagram of “not my town,” “high income bracket,” and “looking for hot young single dudes.”
The Red Lion, of course, isn’t the only place you can spot them. That loosely scribbled caricature holds in lots of places: Tio Bobs, in Portillo, Chile, for instance, or virtually the entire town of Aspen. I’ve seen cougars buying shots for the New York banker bros in Killington, trying on cowboy hats in Park City, and flashing miles of cleavage and whitened teeth while laughing too loud at a bar in Breckenridge.
Ski towns, especially fancy ones, are a particular kind of fantasy land, propped up on a series of stereotypes that track pretty close to true: The almost-too-stoned-to-bump-chairs liftie; the bartender who probably should have left/stopped drinking/changed careers years ago; the trust-funded self-titled semi-pro. And the cougar, the most reviled by judgy younger girls. My friends and I, in our cute beanies and flannels, new to town but already feeling like we owned it, would rip them apart. What are they doing here? Do they even ski? How do you even turn in those super-tight pants with sparkly stars on the ass?
The Red Lion was the opposite of what I thought ski-town life should be. Watching the crowd cackle through the windows it was easy to assume that they were desperate. That they didn’t get the core of what it meant to be a skier. That they should back off the dudes.
We spent a lot of time looking down our noses at people on vacations, especially ones we thought were stepping on our turf. We didn’t realize that we were our own kind of ski-town cliché, fresh-meat seasonal workers, defensive of our newly found identity.
I spent more years in the mountains. I got older and wiser. I watched the seasonal shift, the cast of characters, the new ticket scanners from Texas, the same randy Australian instructors. I finally started to realize that my idea of skiing wasn’t necessarily everyone’s idea. In the pastiche of ski-town life, I learned to love the theatricality of the cougar hunt.
So yeah, maybe they were trying to take down much younger guys at the bar. Maybe they skied two blues and called it a day. Maybe stilettos aren’t practical in a snowstorm. Whatever. They’re not my ankles.
After almost 30 years, Phil Long moved on to a different Bridge Street bar, and I, thankfully, don’t live in employee housing anymore. But as I head into my mid-30s, I get the appeal of being ridiculous on vacation. I want to go back to Vail and scream Journey lyrics to a packed bar. Sounds like a good time. And who knows, soon I just might be ogling the young dudes and lining up the shots.
Seattle-based writer Heather Hansman, a former Colorado patroller and SKI editor, remains a mountain girl at heart but claims she never was much of a partier.