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A Bum's Life


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I worry about the vanishing ski bum. Resort housing is scarce, rents are high, the cost of living is off the charts. Bums, by definition, have to live on the cheap, on the borders of the economy. America’s college-age youth, focused on careers and security, largely spurn the chance to dance on the edge of daily insolvency and embrace the life of a ski bum, however temporarily.

Why should anyone but a mountain resort ethnologist care if the ski bum is an endangered species? Is skiing that much worse off if there are fewer in its ranks who cling to marginal employment just to have the chance to ski every day? Surely the damage is minimal: Others, more willing to work the entry-level tasks that define a bum’s employment horizon, will take up the slack in the job market. There will be a little more erosion of skiing’s roots, a subtle slide in passion, like a relationship gone flat, but the experience of the destination resort visitor won’t be drastically affected.

I would contend that while any subtraction of energy at skiing’s core is a loss the sport can ill afford, the biggest loser in the vanishing-ski-bum syndrome is the ski bum himself (or herself). Stepping off the express train to Careerville has its privations, but the compensations are, as they say in the credit card ads, priceless. When it comes to measuring Life’s High Points, what is worth more, the first merger or first tracks? The ski bum trades security for face shots, the future for the moment. Considering how hollow the promise of a corporate career has become, who can say the ski bum is not the wiser investor in his or her youth?

One seemingly compelling deterrent to the ski-bum lifestyle is that basic expenses constantly threaten to overwhelm earnings. This is not a new development. While ski bumming in Breckenridge, Colo., in the early 1970s, I often had four (or more) roommates, most of them high risk in the rent-paying department. My buddy C.J. Mueller, who later briefly set the world speedskiing record, worked all summer and ate peanut butter and jelly all winter so he could ski virtually every day. I got by as a laborer, pizza cook, dishwasher, ski salesman-whatever it took to ski as much as possible. My high water mark on the income stream was barely more than $2,000. A year. Some college grads today expect to start out making that sum in a week. So the ski bum serves a lot more champagne than he drinks. But after the tourists leave town on a snowy Sunday, who gets the goods on Monday morning?

My values on this point were recently tested when my eldest son asked if I would mind his taking off the winter semester of his senior year of college to teach skiing and hang out in Whistler, B.C. My knee-jerk reaction was to tell him to finish college first, then head to the resort. But I quickly caved. Completing college could wait a few months, if need be. A winter at Whistler in the full bloom of youth is an experience that will linger longer in the soul than another bout with independent study of authors never to be read again.

I don’t mean to suggest that a sojourn as a ski bum must, of necessity, interrupt a college education. It can just as easily come on the heels of an undergraduate diploma and still won’t derail an otherwise bright future. The risk of the end-of-college program is that it’s easier to go back to college after a semester off than it is to go back to real life after a few years off. There is always the danger that the allure of resort living will prove so intoxicating that the ski bum never breaks its gravitational pull and will live out his or her days in its thrall. There are worse fates.

I realize that this column has probably killed any potential future I had as a career counselor, but isn’t the purpose of youth to prepare one for the life that follows? If you want your children to have a life experience that is both wide and deep, shouldn’t you encourage them to start shoveling while they still have their youth? A winterr in Whistler is a variation on the theme of taking a semester’s study abroad, without the college credits but with its own sets of challenges and rewards.

At the end of life’s journey, those who indulged their passion for sport and adventure by going the ski bum route will realize that this choice did not define or confine their future, but did illuminate it. Those who follow a more conventional career path risk spending their entire lives trying to get back to what was left behind.

The author can be reached at